By Chris Lamb Sep 15/00 1:00p

If you listen to pop radio, you’ve undoubtedly heard of songwriting contests where the winners get thousands of dollars worth of recording time, and, in some cases, even a record deal. This is what happened to twin sisters Tegan & Sara Quin, from Calgary, Canada, when they entered a local songwriting contest and won. Life hasn’t been the same since. To put this writer’s descriptive capabilities to the test, Tegan & Sara’s music is punchy, aggressive, yet melodic acoustic rock. It’s an interesting combination that conjures up comparisons to Ani Defranco and others of the grrl genre.

I think people jumped on that right away because Ani De Franco is a strong songwriter,” says Tegan. “She’s very aggressive and I think our album is very aggressive too. So they compare us that way.”

In a pop world where you’re nothing unless you’re a comparison to someone else, Tegan & Sara have learned a lot in the past year about their growing fame and the unwanted associations that come along with it. “We used to fight being girls, being cute and young, or being folk. We used to fight it all. Now we’re just, this is the album, come see the show and make your own comparisons. People have to compare you to something to explain what you’re like,” says Tegan. Like any fledgling group, their first couple years in the spotlight has been an exciting one, touring, promoting, recording. But this level of excitement and anticipation rises just a little when you’re the opening act for legendary rocker, Neil Young. Such is the charmed life of Tegan & Sara. They spent all of August touring the States with the granddaddy of grunge, by all accounts an enjoyable experience.

“It’s really fun,” says Tegan. “(Neil’s) been touring for so long that he’s got this warm family of a crew. It’s a huge production, it’s really fun, and everybody is really nice. It’s good for us, it’s giving us a lot of experience. We have to be really professional.”

The force behind this sister act is based on their album “This Business of Art” which features their debut single, “The First.” To hear “The First” is to hear echoes of folk running headlong into the minds of dissociated youth, rap-singing to acoustic rock sounds. A liberated cry towards positivism, what’s interesting about “The First” is that it was born out of pessimism.

“There’s a lot of things in life that were really starting to affect me,” says Tegan. “One night I was just reflecting on it all and I thought, “You know, I’m just tired of focusing on that negative part, I just seemed to be obsessed. I had no faith that anything was going to be good anymore. I was so sad for kids, so sad for the future. One day I just thought, I have to stop this, things are good. If you think good then you give out good energy, it was a reminder to myself to stay positive.”

Staying positive is key for Tegan & Sara, who, despite being a creative team, are taking on the responsibilities of music business.

“Well, when we’re on stage it’s about art, and when we’re not it’s about business,” says Tegan. “We do both. We’re not just artists, we’re business people as well.”

Historically, the business aspect of music has been overwhelming for many artists entering the music industry, but it’s something that has to be overcome if a musician wants to be successful.

“The business side of the music business can be a little hard, a little schmoozy, a little too slimy for some people,” says Tegan. “Sara and I, we just kind of fight it with our niceness. The other side of the music business is the entertainment side, and they tend to be very friendly people. We’re having a good time meeting people who are reviewing or playing our record on the radio. It’s been very positive.”

Obviously, Tegan & Sara are a wildcard in pop today. They don’t adhere to flashy dance moves and they don’t search the clothing racks for the latest tank top to show off their navel, because, frankly, these girls don’t really care about all that. According to Tegan, the Britney’s of the world are playing in a completely different show.

“I don’t compare myself to Britney Spears,” she says. “I don’t compare myself to how her career is unfolding, and I certainly don’t put myself into competition with her because it’s a show, it’s a production. When you go and see an act like Neil Young or Tegan & Sara, you’re going to see a band you like playing music. Radio is pretty hard to get on right now because of these pop acts. But at the same time, that puts pop acts at a pretty vital position because people are getting tired of it.”

And if people are getting tired of the pop phenomenon, there’s plenty of other music out there waiting its turn, and that’s something Tegan & Sara are anticipating.

“It takes two or three records to build a fan base and legitimize yourself,” says Tegan. “We’re not in any rush, we just want to have fun. We want to grow up, we’re only 19 years old.”

Tegan goes on to explain that there are several options open to a new music group beyond selling a million albums in North America.

“The best advice Neil Young ever gave us was not to worry about Canada, focus on the world. There are so many bands in North America no one has ever heard of who sell a million albums in Europe. To me, that’s okay, it would be great to be big somewhere else and then go home and be normal.”

As Tegan & Sara come off their American tour with Neil Young into a fall headlining Canadian tour, “This Business of Art” is selling well and gaining fans. And as “The First” strikes a literal chord with young ears across the country, Europe may have to wait, because this business of art takes time, and Tegan & Sara are giving it all they have.