Tegan and Sara by Anna Lazowski
While working on their latest album, Sainthood, Tegan and Sara spent a month at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, California, where Tom Petty, Pat Benatar, Fleetwood Mac and Nirvana have recorded. One day, Sara Quin found herself in the midst of a truly memorable moment.
“There was this amazing grand piano that was all worn down and I was playing with Chris [Walla, producer] and Jason [McGerr, drums], recording the bed tracks for ‘Alligator.’
We would come in each day and play the song 30 to 60 times, so seven or eight hours into the day, I was singing and playing and I just thought, I’m in L.A. and I’m in this amazing studio and playing a piano Fleetwood Mac and Tom Petty used, making an album 10 years in. I had a big moment where the wall goes down and you realize how cool the life is you’re suddenly having. Then you go back to drinking coffee that gives you indigestion, eating cheese puffs and not remembering how cool your life is.”
Tegan and Sara Quin hail from Calgary. Approaching their 30th birthdays in the fall, they have released six studio albums. It’s that ambition they bring to the music business, driven to build and maintain a very strong connection with their fans. To do this, they use twitter, post blogs, release books and maintain a strong Web presence with audio, videos and enough merchandise options for even the most avid fan.
“They’re all just ways of being creative and directly communicating with our audience. We started the band when the Internet started to explode. At first we weren’t getting press, and then we didn’t like the press we were getting, and it allowed us to balance it with our own message,” Sara explains.
Over the years, that message has gotten out, as fans have latched on to the way the sisters explore all different kinds of relationships in their music, tapping directly into a topic everyone can relate to. Sara isn’t one of those writers who need to be in either a happy or a sad place to be prolific. What she usually needs is a bit of distance from her subject matter.
“I rarely am writing about what’s happening currently—it’s usually in a reflective place or this strange kind of foreshadowing.
“On our last record, The Con, I was dealing with the death of my grandmother, who was the centre of our family. I was really looking at the relationship of my grandmother and grandfather, who had been together for 60 years, and how we negotiate love and companionship. We started touring six months later, and my relationship dissolved. I can see now I was getting ready to dismantle things.”
Just a few minutes into a phone interview with Sara from her home in Montreal, it’s easy to understand how her songwriting style has found an audience. She is candid, self-reflective and really seems to understand her own actions and motivations, although that desire to be open and connected does have its limits.
“Tegan and I can dissect lots of things publicly, but there’s a whole other part of me that I don’t talk about. I have a relationship, I feel all the normal things people feel—insecure, tense, excited,” she says.
Sara admits to being fascinated, even obsessed, with intimacy and connections, but says she really isn’t as wrapped up in turmoil as you might expect from listening to her music.
“When I step outside my songs, I always find my situations are less dire than they seem. You can’t tell much about me as a person on a detailed level, but at the core of the music you can tell how sensitive Tegan and I are in our lives.”
Given that, it’s interesting to think about sensitivity as a value when you’re immersed in an industry like the music business. Tegan and Sara played one of the final shows of Lilith Fair about 10 years ago and will be part of the lineup when the tour hits the road again this summer. While Sara acknowledges there has been some evolution since they’ve been in the business, change can be fairly slow.
“Yes, look at Lady Gaga and Beyonce. There are lots of really fantastic women selling records. But a good majority aren’t going to be asked to do festivals like Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza. I mean, we still play festivals with no other women on the bill.”
Sara sees the need to incorporate more women into the business as going beyond the artists who step up onstage to play to the crowds. “[It’s also] the guitar techs, sound engineers, program directors on radio—ninety per cent of the time we’re surrounded by men. And yes, you can actively go out and seek out women, but when I go to look for someone to hire in my company it’s easier to find to men to do it.”
The songwriter thinks a lot about identity, gender politics and what it means to be a feminist at this point in time— something she acknowledges can be complicated.
“One thing I find in general is how little people truly understand what it means to be a feminist—and that it’s still
a necessary movement, not a project that ended. I’m always telling people being a feminist is like being part of any human rights movement—it’s ongoing and should always exist, no matter how much has been accomplished.”
Although Tegan and Sara have been accomplishing their goals as a musical force together, they don’t live in the same city. Both driven to create, they work independently on various side projects, continuing to evolving as artists.
So although she’s not sure when it will happen, Sara acknowledges that there is a desire to start pushing the boundaries of the Tegan and Sara identity.
“What would make me feel uncomfortable—we haven’t dug into yet. I think there’s a fear in tampering with what you know works. For this project, we know what feels good and what our audience feels comfortable with, so we haven’t ripped the tablecloth off the table. I don’t want to put out something too existential and have people wonder what the fuck we’re talking about.”
But she is interested in exploring a more politically driven project and expanding on the medium of her musical message. As Sara starts talking about her childhood, the motivation for that evolution becomes clear. She and twin Tegan were raised by a single, feminist mom who showed them avant-garde films and brought them up in a political environment.
“I remember deciding I wanted to be in a band, and telling my parents at 17 I was gay, and going to live an alternative lifestyle. There was friction and boundary-pushing, but not really. It wasn’t coming out of left field. Our mom practically gave us the manual of how to do it, which I think is a positive result of my mom’s feminism. I wanted to be exactly who I was and didn’t understand why I couldn’t make music for the masses as a queer, alternative woman.”
Despite the changes Sara has seen over the years, there are a few issues that continue to nag her. “It happens all the time—people come backstage and say, I can’t believe how many men, or how many straight people are here. It makes me crazy. It offends me when people say our music is for more than lesbians. Everything I listened to transcended sexuality, and I still have to explain how Bruce Springsteen’s music is for more than just straight, white men.”
This ongoing dialogue about gender and musical politics might explain why Sara says a lot of the music she listens to is pretty far removed from Tegan and Sara’s own style. “I [often] pick really impenetrable music with no vocals. I read, listen to talk radio and get my emotional human contact through things other than music.”
Aware that she does not want to hold herself back as an artist, Sara says working with other people and trying new projects is a great way to explore new possibilities. When you’re a collaborator and not the focal point, you can stop explaining things, just dig into the deep, dark stuff and not have to worry about telling people why you went there.
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