Sara Quin is struggling to remember the last time she and twin sister, Tegan, played in Toronto. “I feel like the last show was a summer thing,” she says. “It’s been a long time.” Sara is perched on a massive sofa on the 32nd floor of the Sutton Place Hotel. Having once been accustomed to explaining who Tegan and Sara were to non-queer friends, it’s pleasingly strange to be interviewing one half of the duo in a hotel suite so high up that my ears popped in the elevator. But it’s an important reminder that the duo has come a long way. Already more than a decade into their career at only 29 years of age, Tegan and Sara seem far from done.
The new album, Sainthood, is evidence that Tegan and Sara are still evolving with every release. Their initially stripped-down sound has grown into something hard-hitting and big.
Sainthood and 2007’s The Con — both produced by Death Cab for Cutie’s Chris Walla — have secured their place in the pop-rock mainstream.
Tegan and Sara have been making music together since high school, although for the last few years they have been living at opposite ends of the country — Tegan in Vancouver and Sara in Montreal. Their albums are the sum of months of independent work and email communication, and although most of their songs sound like the two are singing together, the effect is an illusion: Both do their own backing vocals.
All this is not to imply that Tegan and Sara don’t get along when they’re together, although the occasional flare-up is probably inevitable. “I would think twice about snapping at my drummer, but I’ll snap at Sara without thinking,” says Tegan, on the phone from Los Angeles. “But the one place we’ve always gotten along is in music. We really admire one another and each other’s writing abilities.”
It’s interesting, then, that Sainthood was originally the title for a song they created together in an experimental joint writing session. “This is our sixth record and we felt like we wanted to change it up a little bit,” says Tegan. “We’d never made a concerted effort to write together; we’d always just collaborated at the end. It was exciting to know there was this process we’d never explored that we have to look forward to in the future.”
The original Sainthood featured lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s “Came So Far for Beauty,” which is about being so devoted to somebody that you transform yourself into a person you believe they could fall for (“I practiced all my sainthood/ I gave to one and all/ But the rumours of my virtue/ They moved her not at all”). Tegan and Sara were ultimately refused permission to use the lyrics but retained the title for the album because it so accurately captured the spirit of the other songs they were writing.
“Tegan was writing while in a relationship about being in a relationship, and I was getting out of one. I was being more introspective about relationships in general,” says Sara. “The ‘Came So Far for Beauty’ lyrics go a little further maybe than we want to, but they talk about what happens when you’ve pursued someone who doesn’t want to be with you — that this practicing of sainthood and being good doesn’t always get you what you desire most.”
The themes that Sainthood represents are ones that Tegan and Sara consistently return to. Their songs have always been about love, loss and relationships, and the two have had plenty of time to perfect their take on these core themes. Their first major release, This Business of Art, came out when the twins were just 19, at which point they had already independently released Under Feet Like Ours.
“Now it seems so young to me,” says Sara of their major-label debut, “but at the time I already felt like, ‘Oh we’ve been doing this forever.’”
Part of the reason for Tegan and Sara’s early success is undoubtedly how hard they have worked. “I had a part-time job when I got out of high school initially, to help pay rent and stuff, but then, I guess, I was 19 and I moved to Vancouver, and I haven’t had to do anything else since,” says Sara, although she points out that the band hasn’t always provided a comfortable living.
“I think there’s this choice when you become an artist, like I could have gone to university and I could have done something different and I wouldn’t have had to struggle as much. But I was so grateful that we could do what we were doing, that those first few years of struggling were sort of worth it.”
Tegan and Sara’s years of struggling seem to be over now. The two have always had a loyal following in the queer community, but with Juno nominations three years in a row and their latest headlining tour selling out fast, it’s fair to say they’ve become a solid mainstream success. Their songs, always an L-Word staple, feature prominently on the first season of Grey’s Anatomy as well as on young-adult drama One Tree Hill. There are even two Tegan and Sara sneakers out this year from Macbeth Footwear, one design for each twin.
The pair will always have a special place in the hearts of their queer female fans, a fact that Tegan readily acknowledges. “It feels like there’s a possessiveness with the part of our audience that is queer, because we’re the role models, and there aren’t a lot of gay artists to go see,” Tegan says. “It’s exciting not only to scream and obsess but to have them be gay as well, and we totally respect that.”
Since they finished recording and mixing the album, Sara has kept a packed schedule of tour organizing and promotion. She says she’s looking forward to hitting the road. “At the end of an album cycle you’re kind of worn out from playing the same songs every night — you can kind of adjust things and augment the songs slightly — but you’re there to play music that people recognize and not jerk off with whatever you think is cool.
“But I really like the beginning of album cycles because there’s all this new material and there’s a whole new show and it feels really exciting.”
Tegan and Sara are in Europe before returning for the Canadian leg of the tour. Touring for Sara means long hours of listening to NPR between cities, reaching out to old fans and hopefully picking up some new ones.
“Not everybody knows who we are or has had the opportunity to experience what we do,” she says, “so the goal is always to continue to grow. It’s almost like being a missionary: You go out and continue to spread what you’re doing and what you’re feeling. I think that’s what keeps it fresh.”