The mighty Quins Tegan and Sara bring their twin talents to the acoustic pop scene

Friday, January 19, 2001

Scott Mervis, Weekend Editor, Post-Gazette

Tegan and Sara are the type of grrl-power folk-punk singer-songwriters for which honesty really counts. So they're not going to kid us on the subject of what it's like being 20-year-old twin sisters writing, performing and traveling together.

"It's hard," says Tegan, talking a mile a minute. "Girl twins are really competitive in this emotional way. We're just hard on one another. After the interview, our tour manager is going to get on the phone and tell you how much he's spent in therapy so far."

Therapy bills, somehow it works. They might fight on stage and get sick of having to share beds in hotel rooms, but Tegan Quin -- the one with the chin piercing and bursting song notebook -- has every intention of sticking with her twin. She realizes that they're stronger together than apart.

"We're really different," Tegan says, "but I couldn't imagine playing with anyone else. And I would never put myself on stage alone. I love playing with Sara, but we are definitely hard to be around." Tegan and Sara, who are still better known in their native Canada, started playing together in punk bands when they were in their mid-teens. Having grown out of their loud angst phase, they began to play acoustically in 1998 and, after capturing a local talent contest in Calgary, were invited to the Lilith Fair.

That bit of recognition, plus a strong indie release, got them signed to Neil Young's label, Vapor, and won them a slot on last summer's tour with Young and the Pretenders. Despite Young's gentle guidance -- "he's very dad-oriented when he's around us" -- it was actually a tough way to be introduced in the States.

"We learned how to keep your eyes closed and pretend that the whole audience is really there," Tegan says, laughing. "It was people listening for the first time, so they were a lot more reserved and quiet. It was challenging artistically, you only get to play five songs and they're the same ones every night. If we could have just had five minutes more," she gushes, "we could have sold them all!"

Perhaps a better selling point is Tegan and Sara's forceful and funky debut record, "The Business of Art," which comes out swinging against fashionable despair. "Wasting time in the fast food line/ I decide to walk the fine line/ and celebrate life, celebrate death/ I choose to celebrate the first," they sing in the opening cut.

The record was produced by Hawksley Workman, a Toronto multi-instrumentalist who fleshes out their acoustic attack with his own beat-happy background. Sara calls the music "a little spastic." And yes, Ani DiFranco fans might feel like they're hearing (and seeing) double.

As for the DiFranco factor, Tegan says they've done a "complete 360" in their reaction to her name appearing in virtually every Tegan and Sara review. "When we started out we'd never really heard of her," Tegan says. "Then we heard her and thought, 'We don't sound like her at all.' Then we did this, 'She's a strong woman, that's OK, blah, blah, blah, and we hope we can be as strong in the music industry.' Now we're like, 'She does an amazing job and she's got balls of steel.' And she's out there in this industry keeping herself strong against the likes of Britney Spears and 'N Sync and Top 40 radio. And I really relate to the last three or four records and I've seen her live and even though we sing differently, we've got passion. So now we're around to 'You know what, Ani's really cool and we're glad to be mentioned in the same sentence.'"

About their influences, Tegan says they grew up with a lot of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell being played in their house (though, surprisingly, not much Neil Young). The sisters then developed a taste for the likes of U2, Bruce Springsteen, Led Zeppelin and Phil Collins. When Sara recently suggested they add some cover songs to their set, they came up with Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" and Prince's "Little Red Corvette."

Tegan's still a little skeptical.

"We're not amazing guitar players or amazing singers or amazing songwriters. It's all the passion holding it together. I find it hard to sing it with the same passion if it's not my music. But Sara thinks it's funny."

Tegan doesn't know what chance they have of breaking in in the States, but she is hoping to see a wide variety of fans in the audience.

"We have people with Korn T-shirts and Slipknot T-shirts coming to our shows, then we get 12-year-old girls and Neil Young fans," she says.

"If you're looking for something to listen to and you want real passion and real music, we happen to be some of that. I don't know if we're relevant to what's going on in Top 40, with stripping on stage and that theatrical part of it, but 'N Sync puts a lot of hours in and we put in the same amount."