Tegan and Sara: Portrait of the Artist as a Young Business Woman

by Elyse Thorpe

Barely twenty, Canadian twins Tegan and Sara Quin have found for themselves a position in the music world that is both fortunate and precarious, or at least they seem to think it’s so. On the one hand, their new album, This Business of Art was released this summer on Neil Young’s Vapor Records (also home to Jonathon Richman and Cake Like, among others), which is distributed by Warner Brothers. The duo has toured with Paula Cole, Juliana Hatfield, and the Lilith Fair. This summer they toured with Neil Young and the Pretenders, a tour that came to the Idaho Center in Nampa in early September. It’s an exciting life, so full that they refer to the paltry two weeks they spent recording their recent album as refreshingly “stable.”

On the other hand, they know that the recording industry eats its young alive, at least those it doesn’t enshrine in pop stardom. The likes of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera set the stakes high for young performers, and foment a hunger for young, photogenic talent, while at the same time suggesting that young performers are soulless yet sexy automatons. Though Tegan and Sara’s album is radio-ready (the vocals are high high high in the mix and there is nary an instrumental break to be found; on more than one of the songs the vocals begin on the first downbeat), their songwriting skills and riveting, Indigo Girls-style delivery puts them in a position to defend young musicians “who have brains … and can write,” as Tegan puts it. Much of This Business of Art self-consciously explores the conflux of these two young artists and the music industry, and features lyrics like “review the press and tell it like it is/ your life is hype your love is hype” (“Hype”) and “green is the color of my envy/ it’s the color of fame … you’re gonna be a star/ do you wanna be a star?” (“Superstar”). Yet overall the album is buoyant, driving … the effect is not so much one of cynicism but of wary power.

I spoke to Tegan by phone shortly before the recent tour came through Boise. She was quick, anticipating questions (sometimes incorrectly, but that’s often a pleasantly revealing addition to an exchange) and at length. (When I was arranging the interview, their publicist asked how long I would need. I said no more than ten minutes; she said, “I’ll schedule twenty.”) Early in the interview I asked Tegan to address the title of their album. She cut me off before I could even begin to recite it.

“It’s a positive title, first off,” she says abruptly. This is something, obviously, that she has grown tired of discussing. “We love the business side. But at the same time, we’ve had lots of friends who’ve had terrible experiences (having to change to please labels) … But we get what we want. Both records we’ve handed to the record company finished product, and they’ve been like, ‘Okay.’”

So would you say your wariness is preventative, rather than based on personal experience?

“We were very cautious when we came into the business, but I’m not here to be cautious any longer. If people are making money off of me I want to make sure I get what I want.”

In order to get what they want, the two manage themselves, dealing with their publicists, labels, and other support directly. It’s a move that comes with potentially burdenous amounts of work and responsibility. Tegan finds it simply more efficient. “When we were doing the cover of our CD it took our management two months to get something they’d even look at, and I went down there and spent fifteen minutes with (the designer) and we had a cover done. We just know what we want.”

Did you consider having even more control—going the Ani DiFranco route?

“No, ‘cause I don’t want to work that hard!” she says, laughing, but notes that she found Ani DiFranco’s pioneering independence inspiring. I ask her if any of the many veterans of the music world with whom they had toured had given her advice. (Good lord, the stories Chrissie Hynde could tell. And surely the long-virginal Juliana Hatfield would have some sweet words to allay parental fears of setting their dear daughters upon the rock ‘n’ roll life?) The advice from everyone, Tegan says, was, “Don’t worry about Canada.”

I laugh—I thought it was a joke: “Don’t worry, making fun of Canadians is soooo passé.” But it wasn’t a joke; it’s a marketing strategy: “Don’t worry about Canada, conquer America and the north will follow.”

“It’ll come,” she says the veterans advised of Canadian success. “You’re Canadian, but that doesn’t mean you have to live up there and only work that market. There’s a whole world out there. That was a really good piece of advice, because I still worry about keeping to my Canadian roots. But my focus isn’t even North America. We’re going to Europe and Australia and Japan this year. It’s a really hard market here in North America. You don’t need to burn yourself out on it.”

It is perhaps most appropriate that when I asked her if they, as a band, had a mascot, some totem of importance she said, “No. I don’t think so,” but then thought of one. “Us.” With this business of art, it seems the only thing to rely on is yourself. And maybe, of course, your sister.