Tegan and Sara perform tonight at 8 p.m. at the Rozsa Centre, University of Calgary. Tickets: Sold Out.
Tegan and Sara Quin got a major reality check when they toured with Neil Young as his opening act. Up until the summer tour with the legendary Young (and co-openers The Pretenders), the 19-year-old twins from Calgary had been cruising through their shows, relying more on banter and charisma than musical chops.
They found out early that banter and charisma don't cut it on the big stage.
"We got the reality check before we even went on the road," explains Tegan, hanging out in Hamilton before the first date of a Canadian club tour with her sister.
"Neil's managers were, like, 'You're going to play to 1,000 people. They're going to be sitting on the grass. About 4,000 more are going to be walking in so nobody's really going to be paying much attention. You're not going to be selling any CDs but by the end of the tour, you're going to be playing an amazing set.' "
They were right on most counts. Although Tegan and Sara actually sold a few CDs -- up to 40 on a good night, just three when it was slow -- they learned to give a consistent performance.
"Before, we used to do a lot of talking and that used to carry a lot of the weight of the fact that we never practised with each other so we were a little rough around the edges," Tegan says. "But people got over it because we were funny. Now I feel like our music will stand up."
Their new album, This Business of Art, produced by Hawksley Workman, is the first of a long-term deal with Neil Young's Vapor Records label, released in Canada by major-label Universal Music.
Like a growing number of Canadian acts, the young women signed directly with an American label. This means that instead of slogging it out in Canada for years, they will be able to work all of North America at once.
"We're having a lot of attention on us in the U.S. and that's what you need," says Tegan. "A lot of Canadian bands wear themselves out before their American affiliate looks at them. American companies wait for Canadian bands to do well in Canada before they pick them up in America. We didn't want that to happen."
Fact is, what they want is the world -- Japan, Australia and Europe as well as North America.
"We want to be everywhere," Tegan says. "We didn't just want to play music, we want to travel and see the world and experience everything."
Vapor seems willing to guide the twins' career in that direction. A European release for This Business of Art is slated for 2001 and there's already talk of lining things up in Japan and Australia.
The girls hooked up with the label through their old management company, which was trying to spark Vapor's interest in another client. That deal fell through, but the company was interested in Tegan and Sara.
"I think they are ready to put in the long wait. They're OK with the fact that it might take us three or four records to get the exposure that we would start selling hundreds of thousands of records," says Tegan. "I think that's what they liked -- a challenge that they could start from the ground with us and build up. And we love that."
Their Vapor debut is a solid starting point. On This Business of Art, the Quins reworked six old songs from their independent album and wrote five new ones.
With Toronto musician Hawksley Workman in the producer's booth and playing almost all the instruments (drums, bass, guitar, piano, guitar, keys and harmonica), they have created a beat-laden folk-rock workout that sounds like a younger, fresher version of the Indigo Girls with Ani Di Franco-style phrasing in the vocals.
They say the music comes across well on stage, even though they've been performing as a duo, without a band.
"We're very rhythmic on stage and we always pound our little feet and I think it's so raw you get to use your imagination and I think that's what makes people like (the live show) a little more," says Tegan.
The sisters grew up in Calgary, soaking up the music their parents listened to.
"We listened to everything that was big in the '70s and '80s, from Led Zeppelin to Luba," Tegan says, mentioning U2 and Bruce Springsteen as favourites.
They started playing piano at age eight then went through a punk phase in high school. When their band broke up, they entered a battle-of-the-bands contest and won, earning the highest score in the history of the contest and paving the way for club gigs. That was just two years ago. Since then, Tegan and Sara have played Lilith Fair and opened shows for Juliana Hatfield, Kinnie Star and Paula Cole.
The deal with Vapor came through about five months ago, followed by the new album and the Young tour.
They've even moved from their mother's house in Calgary to separate apartments in Vancouver.
Their story lends credibility to the old superstition that a golden year happens on the date of one's birthday. Tegan and Sara had a remarkable 19th year -- and turned 20 Sept. 19.