“People sometimes say that we’re cold, or cagey and hard to get to know,” says Sara Quin of the Canadian singer/songwriter duo Tegan and Sara, “We don’t try to be that way, but because Tegan and I are twins, we kinda live in our own insulated world.” But over the course of our conversation, Quin is anything but cold. She is more than willing to talk about her band, her songwriting, and her musical preferences. Though she answers the questions I ask about her struggles in the music industry and her personal life, she is somewhat more reserved, perhaps subconsciously so, in her responses. Her experiences with journalists have apparently not all been good.
“Someone wrote a review comparing us to Ashlee Simpson once, saying we’re mall punk,” she says from her hotel room on tour with The Killers. “And then the next lame journalist who couldn’t figure out how to classify us used the same reference. That kinda stuff drives me insane.” Indeed, Quin has every right to be upset. Along with her twin sister Tegan, she has been making waves in the underground rock community for years. Signed by Neil Young in 2000 to his label Vapor Records, Tegan and Sara’s brand of intimate folk-imbued pop rock has garnered them a wide and diverse fan base.
But it is their fourth and latest album, “So Jealous,” that has started to bring them the recognition that they deserve. “There seems to be a momentum out of Canada at the moment. I don’t know if what’s going on with us is connected to it, but I look at the bands that are breaking now, and they all have a few records already,” she says. But still, there is something undeniably special about the album. “I definitely think it’s our strongest yet,” Quin admits, “It deals with the spectrum of emotions you feel when you’re looking at your relationships or your lives, whether it’s infatuation, jealousy, or insecurity.” And while these topics might not be the most original (a fact that Quin acknowledges), it is the way in which they are represented that sets Tegan and Sara apart from the rest.
“Someone once said that our songs themselves aren’t original, but who we are makes them unique,” she says. “We’re trying to make pop music in an honest way, and that comes from sitting in your bedroom and writing songs.”
And indeed, that is what is most appealing about Tegan and Sara. They are, in a word, refreshing. Though it may sound clichéd, the Quin twins are doing things on their own terms, and they’re succeeding. “With ‘So Jealous’ we decided we wanted to co-produce, that our strengths weren’t limited to just songwriting anymore, but that we were capable of recording, arranging, and producing ourselves,” says Quin. “Before, we felt shy about getting our names on the record (as producers),” she admits, “but this time we just wanted to do it our way. Whatever criticisms we face, we know that we’re doing it our own way.” While the decision to self-produce often ends in disaster for many bands, it has paid off in a major way for Tegan and Sara.
Their first major American tour was in support of Neil Young and The Pretenders. “It was definitely a strange way to start a career, because you see where people want to get you, and then you start at zero,” Quin says. “But I realized early on that most of us will never be icons or change the face of music.” But, she says, her experiences on tour with Young helped put things in perspective: “I was kinda relieved that I won’t have to be like that. I’m not going to sell 16 million albums, so what’s a good number? 15,000. When you set realistic goals and accomplish them, you feel like you’re succeeding.”
And while Tegan and Sara have also toured with Ben Folds and Hot Hot Heat, Quin says she has benefited the most from playing with Ryan Adams. “I learned so much about the industry, watching someone who was rising struggle. However his day has gone, he gets up onstage and he’s so open and vulnerable. It makes people love him or hate him,” she says, “
The success and visibility Tegan and Sara currently enjoy were not easy to attain. “We haven’t been the cheesecake of projects to work with,” says Quin. “We’ve had lots of doors closed in our faces over the years.” The difficulties of being a woman in a male-dominated field have been exacerbated for the two by the fact that both sisters are lesbians.
“A lot of times journalists write that if we were boys we’d be huge, or we’d be emo, or Hot Hot Heat, but we’re not boys, and we don’t want to be boys!” she says humorously, “I’ve had pressure to be less like ‘this’ and more like ‘that, ‘but most of the time I’m just like, ‘yeah, fuck off.’”
She also cites a lack of unity among female bands. “I have (male) friends in the Canadian hardcore scene, and they always talk about the kinship. But I think there’s just something different about women,” she says, “Occasionally you’ll see them bonding or becoming a clique, but it’s so much less often.”
That isn’t to say, though, that the sisters have been alone in their trek to the top. Surrounding the sisters is a very tightly knit group of supporters. The band’s publicist is one of their best friends, and fan and friend Matt Sharp (Weezer, The Rentals) plays on ‘”So Jealous,” adding character to several songs. “We didn’t have a huge budget (for ‘So Jealous’),” says Quin, “so we told Matt, ‘If we let you sleep on our couch, will you come and work on our record?’”
In the end, it is this kind of loyalty that Tegan and Sara evoke in those who hear their music or talk to them. It is immediately obvious from the first chords on So Jealous’ first track, You Wouldn’t Like Me, that Tegan and Sara are extraordinary songwriters with quite a bit to offer an industry that seems incapable of understanding them. “They say the emo crowd wouldn’t get us,” Quin laughs, “but I’m writing about the same girls they are. I like girls, too.”