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The Sainthood of Tegan & Sara

Written by Willie Newland on March 17, 2010

Sara Quin talks about touring down under, evolving as a musician, and working with some of the biggest names in the business.

What are the first two things that come to mind when you hear Tegan & Sara? Twins? Lesbians? That’s pretty much the only thing I knew about them when I took on the interview, and to be honest I was very surprised to find out that not only do they have so much more to them, but that the other stuff is actually more interesting and exciting than them being lesbian twins. I know, shocking isn’t it?

Having been signed by Neil Young’s manager Elliot Roberts to his and Young’s record label Vapor over twelve years ago, the Canadian sisters have worked hard over that time to build a career based on earnest lyrics and a deep personal connection with their music, and by extension their fans. Their latest album Sainthood (the title taken from a Leonard Cohen song, ‘Came So Far For Beauty’) explores the complex relationship between how we portray ourselves and how we wish to be portrayed by those we love and shows a more open and less personal side of the sisters for the first time.

With the band’s Australian tour fast approaching and a weighty handful of shows already sold out, I caught up with sister Sara to discuss the new album, working with Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla and their relationship with their record label.

Music Feeds: So you guys are heading down our way again soon. Australian fans seem to love you guys, I mean on this tour so far you’ve sold out a bunch of shows, are you excited to come back?

Sara Quin: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely one of our favourite countries to tour, like when we’re in North America I always feel very… like I love our audience and the shows but it’s kind of like, we’ve done it so much, so when we go to Australia it’s still really exciting. You know, you have to travel so far, and it feels like an adventure so we always look forward to it, and it feels like the audience is so enthusiastic and genuinely excited when we come, so we’re really looking forward to the tour.

MF: Yeah touring as much as you do it must be nice to be able to tour somewhere out of the way like Australia…

SQ: Compared to when we tour in North America or even Europe, it’s just a really different type of touring than we do anywhere else. We fly a lot and we do more festivals and we always joke that it feels like we’re on vacation when we come to Australia.

MF: So are the shows going to be very different this time around, obviously with Sainthood out you’re going to want to play some of the new material, what can we expect?

SQ: We’re trying to do a healthy mix of all of our albums, it feels like the fans want more than just the new album, obviously (laughs). I mean it’s important for us to play new music to keep ourselves excited and to promote the album and all that, but we’re doing close to a two hour show and we’re covering a lot of ground, we’re covering a good healthy majority of what we’ve put out on six different albums and it feels like everything is working well together and it feels like we’re giving the audience a good mix of the hits if you will, although none of them have been hits. The fan favourites. If there was a fan radio station these would be the hits (laughs).

MF: Let’s talk about the new album Sainthood. I really like the idea behind the album, this idea that when we’re obsessed with someone we try to be on our best behaviour, to put up this image of sainthood in order to impress them I suppose. What made you want to explore that theme on the album?

SQ: I think it was sort of being explored before, just without a succinct kind of concept. At the time though, Tegan and I were both in different stages of pursuit of people and relationships, not just in romantic pursuits, just the way we operate in our day to day lives and we were both talking a lot about how we both have this tendency to sometimes put our own needs aside for others. We’re both very patient and devoted and loyal people, and I think probably a lot of that was born out of the fact that Tegan and I are these siblings who have been together now for almost thirty years and we’ve made this career together and we’ve always had this sort of wolf pack mentality where we protect one and other, and I think that carries over to our romantic pursuits.

Once I decide I like someone and that I care about someone, I pursue them and cherish them and am devoted to them and am always sort of aware of trying to make myself the best version of me, you know, for them, or something (laughs), and I sort of landed on this Leonard Cohen song, ‘Came So Far For Beauty’, and the lyrics just really resonated and especially this idea of practicing sainthood, and it just so closely matched my feelings at the time about how I was with a certain person, and Tegan and I felt that we really really needed to stick with that idea.

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MF: How has the response been for the fans to the new material?

SQ: I feel like it’s been great. The Con to date felt like it was our most popular record, but I still felt like it needed time to sit with people and to grow on people, but Sainthood has felt more immediate. I feel like the enthusiasm for the album and the support at the shows for the songs we’ve been playing in the set has just been great.

We’re always really aware of not alienating people, it sort of seems absurd to do this because it seems like being a musician is one of the only occupations in the world where people become obsessed with not traumatising their fans by becoming too popular. It’s like you’re almost apologising for being liked by people and I think Tegan and I are always really aware that our popularity is growing but we don’t want people to feel like we’ve changed too much. We want fans to still feel excited by the output and the songs and who we are because we really still feel the same, you know, however big the audiences may get, we still feel like we’re the same band we were five years ago and so I was really really nervous that people might think that Sainthood was too hi-fi, that it was too slick, that it wouldn’t be as penetrable, that people wouldn’t feel immediately connected to it, but I think it’s almost been the opposite.

I feel like it’s been easier for people to connect to It’s not as personal on the outside, it sort of allows for people to get inside and make it their own. I guess for some people who really really loved how personal The Con felt maybe Sainthood doesn’t feel as intense for them, but I feel we were trying to make space for the listener on this album, something that they could kind of climb into and get obsessed with over time, and I feel like that was accomplished.

MF: You mentioned The Con before, you worked with an amazing list of collaborators on that such as Kaki King and Jason McGerr (Death Cab) would you ever think of doing an album like that again?

SQ: You know the nature of that record was… we were kind of recording it the way we record our demos, so much of it was just Tegan and I, and so it was really fun to bring in friends and other collaborators to put their mark on it. With Sainthood we wanted to close the circle a little bit, and have it be the same players to give it a real cohesive feel, almost like a live album, but in the future I would love to work like that again I really enjoy working with other people.

I feel like I’m good at it and I feel like being collaborative with Tegan, both as a sibling and as a co band leader, I feel like that has made me really easy to work with because I’ve experienced so much collaboration, the give and take, the sacrifice and… I don’t know, there’s just that thing that happens when you’re sharing everything, when you’re not the leader, you become really good at like working with other people and listening to other people so I really get excited to collaborate with other artists because it continues to sharpen those skills, and also it just gives me a whole different way of thinking about things. I think it gets more comfortable to do that when you discover, or at least cement the kind of artist you think you are. I’m pretty confident about who I am now, and what I do and what my strong points are, and so it makes it easier to go into a room and still come out thinking I was able to showcase what I do really well.

I think that’s what the early years of a career are for, to sort of really work out what you do and make is so that no matter what it’s mixed with it keeps it’s sense of identity. For example we did this collaboration with the dance DJ Tiesto, and you know you couldn’t get more different to what we normally do, and yet writing with him was very similar to the way we write our own music, and the thing that happened, the song that came out of that writing session, somehow it’s still true to what what he does and to what we do, and it doesn’t feel like a complete departure. The songwriting is still the same thing, the melodies are still reminiscent of what we do in our own band, our voices are still very much our voices and so it makes it easier to go into these writing sessions knowing that your signature, whatever it is, is still going to be there.

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MF: Speaking of working with other people I wanted to ask you about Chris Walla (Death Cab For Cutie), who you brought over from working on The Con to Sainthood, you guys seems to have a really good relationship, how is working with Chris different from working with other producers?

SQ: You know, to be fair to the other producers we worked with, I think Chris came into our lives at a time when Tegan and I were really visionary you know, like we had strong vision. On previous albums and in previous times in our lives I think we were a little bit more unfocused and sometimes making albums was a challenge, sometimes there were days where we felt really adrift and Chris just came into our lives at a time where Tegan and I really knew what we wanted and he had a great approach to helping make that happen.

Chris is a really organised guy, he’s a big picture guy, like when we first started working on The Con I remember he told us not only did he want to pick the songs we were going to record he also wanted to sequence them, so we knew exactly what the album sequence was going to be, and on top of that he wanted to work in sequence. So we started the first day and we started with the first song on the album and it really gave the experience a sense that we were always working towards a very real goal, it didn’t feel like we were just blindly walking through the studio everyday going like ‘I don’t know how this is going to end up.’ In some weird way we knew exactly what The Con was going to sound like and what needed to happen to accomplish that. I think because we were in the right place for that kind of vision, Chris, Tegan and I just bonded immediately, like he really brought this structure that we had never had with other people, and I don’t think that’s because the other people didn’t have the vision or whatever, I just really think it was the right place and the right time.

Working with him on Sainthood though, we took it in a completely different way but still with that sense of structure. We didn’t know how the album was going to be sequenced, we didn’t have as much vision, but we knew it was going to be called Sainthood and we knew that we wanted it to be very performance based and we immediately had this structure for how we worked day to day, where the first six hours of the day were about getting sound and playing the song over and over again like fifty times and we’d do the same thing everyday, like we’d eat at the same time every day, and I just love that about Chris, how he’s almost like OCD or something.

I think people, I mean quote unquote normal people who have normal jobs and stuff are very used to structure and when they imagine musicians they imagine these kind of flaky like ‘I’m just living the dream man, rock n roll’ type people, but I think in reality most of us would blow up if we didn’t have structure in our lives, so we find nerdy ways to try and give ourselves structure, like I’m going to work today, I’m making a sandwich, it’s just that my office is the studio.

MF: Before we finish I really wanted to talk to you about being signed to Vapor, it seems like you have the sort of ideal label/artist relationship?

SQ: It was so ideal, and I will forever be grateful that they found Tegan and I and offered us what really truly ended up being such an important deal and support network. We are the artists we are today because of the freedom they gave us. They didn’t give us tons of money or make empty promises you know, they didn’t put us on a bus and drum up a bunch of pretend buzz or something like that, they were basically like ‘well you have a record deal, good luck,’ and then they kicked us out the door. They gave us so much support emotionally and obviously we had tremendous career advice from someone who had obviously given tremendous career advice to Neil for the last thirty years.

We knew it was going to take a lot longer than most people would be prepared to work, I mean it’s been twelve years since we started working with them you know, it’s a long career, most bands don’t even last ten years so the fact that we’re still working step by step to build this career, I mean it shows it was about a vision. It’s so interesting ’cause Elliot Roberts said to Tegan and I when he singed us, we were nineteen or something, he told us ‘you’re going to write your best songs when you’re in your thirties, your goal should be a career, think about it in terms of longevity and sustainability and think about making music for the rest of your life, don’t rush, don’t rush thinking you need to do everything tomorrow’ and it was such great advice because it meant that Tegan and I really have set our own pace for our career, and it’s manageable, it’s meant that we’ve been able to make music for six albums and twelve years.

Tegan and Sara are touring nationally in May. Click here for the dates.

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