"I don't write songs purely for myself," says Tegan Quinn, one half of indie-rock lesbian twin duo Tegan and Sara. "I write songs because I want someone to hear them and be like 'Wow, what's she about? Ooh, she's mysterious, I want to get to know her!'"
New single Hell is their latest slice of mystery, a taut pop song inspired by feelings of unrequited love, both for a girl and for Tegan's adopted home in Vancouver's downtown Eastside, a troubled area whose bohemian glories have faded since its 1960s heyday, leaving an area undergoing gentrification, but also stricken with social problems.
Having moved into Vancouver's downtown Eastside three years ago, Tegan soon become fascinated with its diverse population. Her attention was initially piqued by a front-page newspaper report describing the area as 'Hell' and explaining how city sanitary workers refused to work there without police escorts.
"A lot of the people that live down there are mentally ill, or users of drugs, or are living with HIV and other diseases," Tegan says. "So, it's a really harsh neighborhood in a lot of ways, but there's also an amazing sense of community life and a lot of really incredible people.
"I got into that argument of: 'What is the right answer for these people? What is the solution?' and in a weird way it tied into what I was writing about on this record, this idea that when you start a new relationship, you practice being good. You devote yourself to somebody, and you figure it can be so wonderful and you have all these aspirations to improve on where you left off your last relationship, and then it all goes to shit."
Inspired by her mother, a gregarious social worker (and occasional fixture on the Tegan and Sara tour bus), Quinn initially felt determined to bring about change in the area. "I was to going to volunteer, and help clean up the neighborhood, and make a difference. I thought I was going to come up with some solution, but by the end I was almost as apathetic as everybody else. It's just a part of you that you let go and you don't really actually improve anything. You pretend to be better but you end up saying, 'Hey, what do you do?'"
While such politicised subject matter may seem like something of a left-turn for the always upbeat and talkative Tegan, she explains it was borne out of a need to get away from purely personal writing. "I'd just finished writing and recording The Con and was feeling a bit empty and unsure… I didn't really want to write any more songs about relationships, but then I realised I did still want to, so I had to figure out ways to write about my relationship without being so obvious. I started drawing parallels between love addiction and drug addiction."
Linking the troubles of her new neighborhood to her own experiences proved fertile ground, and she'd soon penned songs like Don't Rush, and The Cure, which appear on new record Sainthood alongside first single Hell.
Sainthood is very much a new frontier for the sisters, as it marks the first time they have written together. It was a challenging experience for Tegan, who has preferred to write alone in the past. Never one to miss an opportunity to playfully snipe at Sara (who she mischievously blames for leaking the new album on the internet), Tegan was both impressed and challenged by her sister's meticulous approach to writing.
Sara would often pore over a single line for an hour, toying with new perspectives and different words, a daunting prospect for the more spontaneous Tegan. "It was quite monotonous. I don't know if I'd work with her again, but I'd love to collaborate on songs again, like sending songs back and forth. Sitting in a room [working together] was a bit much."
Equally challenging was the approach of producer and bass player Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie fame), who Tegan describes as "one of the most intense, devoted, hard-working perfectionists I've ever seen", often demanding thirty takes of a part and pushing the twins to think outside the square. The hard work and 'boot camp' approach reduced Tegan to tears more than once. In the end, though, the hard work paid dividends and they produced a record they were truly satisfied with.
Ah, there's nothing like a happy ending. And for all Tegan's attraction to the universal theme of unrequited love, there is a silver lining to this story. "I think for me, ultimately, the most intense and unrequited situations I've had, I've won in the end; like they've come back to me. I think I've almost used my music and my songwriting in a way to work with them and explore those feelings."