ON THE COVER: Life After Folk: Local twins Tegan & Sara go alt-pop
By Randy Gaudreau
August 22, 2002
Sara Quin rips home from school, and runs upstairs to her room. She opens the windows, straps on her electric guitar and turns it up to give the neighbours an earful of her latest song, bouncing up and down on her bed.
That’s pretty much what playing music was like for twin sisters Tegan and Sara at age 15. And it’s that edge and intensity that the now 21-year-olds have on their new album, If It Was You, and not the acoustic-driven sound they’re known for. But it’s a switch they’re thrilled to make.
Their earlier punk beginnings would sound pretty far-fetched to someone reading reviews of their previous album, This Business of Art, which is frequently compared with Ani Difranco and regarded as folk— a genre that Sara says is too easily tagged to girls with acoustics.
“There’s some kind of stigma attached to girls playing acoustic guitars that makes them these barefooted nymphs running through the forest,” says Sara by phone while putting off a little mid-week cleaning of her Vancouver apartment. “If we had both been playing electric guitars, and touring alone, nobody would have called us folk.”
But the folk branding won’t last much longer. With If It Was You (released on Aug. 20) they’re returning to their roots of the good ol’ band days, and no longer limit themselves to the boundaries of an acoustic show. They’re going to full-on alt pop-rock, backed by—yes—a band.
“What was cool about doing this record, it feels like the old days,” says Sara. “All of a sudden, I can’t wait to go to band rehearsals and strap on my guitar and play. Tegan and I used to love that, and I never really noticed how much I missed it.”
As a duo, the twins won Calgary’s Garage Warz in ’98 with their charismatic stage antics, and released Under Feet Like Ours independently in ’99. Word spread fast, and even Neil Young soon heard of their potential. He signed them on to his Vapor Records label and they opened for him and The Pretenders. Soon they were opening for big name acts like Hayden, Juliana Hatfield and Kinnie Starr. But Sara says something seemed held back while touring for This Business Of Art.
“I felt like we were trying to be a rock band, except that all we were playing with were guitars. There were 600 drunk university students loving it and singing every word, but I was like, ‘Whoa, I want to be fuckin’ rocking.’”
They didn’t set up a band, and went their way of letting things happen, and while getting ready to record the new album, Rob Chursinoff, whom they knew from playing with Kinnie Starr, approached the band.
“He started harassing us, and calling us all the time, and being like, ‘Lemme play lemme play, let’s jam,’” laughs Sara. “And me and Tegan were like, ‘Eeeew, jamming, what?’ And finally we went to his rehearsal space, and it was just so much fun, and it reminded me when we were in high school.”
Chursinoff wasn’t the only one to want on board. Gabe Cipes joined to record with them on Galiano Island, and Tegan and Sara were back in a band, eager to record with John Collins and Dave Carswell, who produced notables like the New Pornographers and the Smugglers. The talented producers even managed to squeak in a few extra guitar and keyboard tracks of their own.
Along with the addition of a band, Tegan and Sara wrote their songs separately, and took time with the process—eight months—rather than the nine-day rush job that was This Business of Art.
“This time we felt like we really thought about what we wanted to do. It wasn’t like, ‘We have all the songs written, and we’ll hire these players, and we’ll find a producer,’ and nine days later we have a finished product.’ This was something that took time and needed to breathe.”
And the twins discovered their own breathing space in the process.
“It’s less about me and Tegan singing together on this record, because we weren’t really singing together. Before it was less about the music, and more about the rhythm and singing together. This time, we were like, ‘I don’t want you to sing on my stupid song anyways, get out of here,’” Sara jokes.
Their efforts result in new sound for Tegan and Sara. The album is a powerhouse line-up of hook-ridden pop songs that resonate in the head for days. Sounding like a mix of indy rock, pop, bluegrass and punk, these are intelligently laid-down tracks meant to be played by a band, not a duo. Their vocals complement each other perfectly (they are twins) and there isn’t a sleeper track on the edgy-yet-sentimental disc. With their still-emotional lyrics on a new bed of happy music, it sounds like they’ve found middle ground between their punking teen days and their acoustic debut, and they call it pop.
“There was always these hooky melodies in our songs, and me and Tegan went out of our way to write pop songs. ‘Don’t think of making a statement of being emotional,’” says Sara. “It was like, ‘Be emotional later. Write pop.’”
So from punk to pseudo-folk, to pop, is it an all new Tegan and Sara?
“It’s kind of like a re-invention, but it’s more like a re-visitation of what we used to be like,” says Sara. “Nobody can deny it now. We’re touring with a band and ready to get out there. And if people want two girls with guitars, maybe they won’t like what we’re doing now. But does it really matter?”