Two sisters, two guitars. On-stage banter about diarrhea, the ever-present possibility that friendly bickering may suddenly erupt into bloodshed, and rockin' pop songs that will blindside you as surely as a soccer Mom in an SUV yakking on her cell phone. Ladies and germs, please welcome Tegan and Sara.
All joking aside, Tegan and Sara - who finally came of legal drinking age last year - were very serious when it came to making If It Was You, the follow-up to their 2000 U.S. debut This Business of Art. "It feels like the first thing we've done that we were ready to do, whereas before it was like, 'We've got ten days to make an album!,'" says Sara. "In the past, there's been some apprehension about recording. This time it was fun."
The hard-edged yet hook-laden If It Was You is as different from This Business of Art as, well, Tegan is from Sara; the two are obviously related, yet distinct in character. "We went back to our roots: Punkier, poppier, and louder," says Tegan. It wasn't a huge stylistic leap, since the Vancouver residents, who started playing guitar at 15, cut their teeth in a high school punk band, and only became an acoustic duo after they tired of losing drummers and blowing amps.
"There's definitely more punch to this album," says Sara. In other words, do not look for If It Was You in the Folk section. "I wanted to be more powerful and in-your-face this time around," declares Tegan. "We held back a little last time, because that's where women are supposed to go in the music business: Just be shy, sexy, singer-songwriters. And we are all of those things, but we're also obnoxious and sarcastic, and intelligent, and, at times, downright overbearing." A volatile combination of traits, but a compelling and charismatic one, too.
The twelve tracks range from the bluegrass-tinged "Living Room," which Tegan wrote after realizing the windows of her new apartment were too close to the neighbors' for comfort, to the rollicking "Under Water," born from Sara's stab at writing a children's book, only to conclude her rhymes were a little too tortured for tots. The acoustic "And Darling (The Thing That Breaks My Heart)" was an eleventh-hour composition by Tegan, amended to the album in virtually its original demo form. And Sara insists that the hard-hitting opener, "Time Running," sounds an awful lot like Soft Cell's '80s hit "Tainted Love."
One of the big difference between the two sisters is their approach to their craft. "Tegan writes songs like a fish lays eggs," says Sara. "She comes up with three hundred of them, and some of them die, and others grow up. She's so prolific that it totally freaks me out if she doesn't tell me she wrote a new song every day, because then I think, 'She must have written a really good one, and she's holding on to it for her solo project.'" Sara, meanwhile, tends to work more methodically and meticulously. "She writes five songs a year, but they're the five that automatically get on the record, without question," says Tegan. "There's never any debate over Sara's songs."
Work on If It Was You began in March of this year, when Tegan and Sara retreated to Galliano Island, forty-five minutes away from Vancouver by ferry. Tegan's voice turns wistful at the memory: "We were isolated in a cabin, on the ocean, with just eagles and whales..." and If I Was You producers John Collins and Dave Carswell. Having previously shared their favors with such notables as the New Porngraphers, the Smugglers, and the Evaporators, John and Dave were delighted to whore themselves out once more ("when they said yes, we almost peed our pants," admits Tegan) and help Tegan and Sara turn the demos they had hashed out in their home studio and rehearsal space into finished tracks.
"John and Dave did everything," admits Sara. "That's actually them singing on the album. We sped up their voices to sound more feminine. Tegan and I just did a lot of blow and hung out with hookers in the lounge."
Well, not quite. But unlike so many superstar producers, John and Dave didn't try to put their own sonic stamp all over Tegan and Sara's rough-hewn singing style and slash-and-burn guitar technique. "They came in with absolutely no expectations, and we just rocked out," says Tegan. "They were referencing bands we'd never heard, like T. Rex and The Shins, and then bringing in the records, so we could listen to them." If It Was You was finished at the Factory and Greenhouse studios in Vancouver, and mastered in April in Los Angeles. "So it still has the charm of being recorded in a stinky basement with some lo-fi, high-cred producer, but also has that Britney Spears appeal," Tegan concludes.
Tegan and Sara were born in Calgary, Alberta, on Sept. 19, 1980, which makes them Virgos. Since making their first splash on the Canadian national scene in 1998, when they walked away with the highest score ever in Calgary's "Garage Warz" battle-of-the-bands, the Lilith Fair vets have toured extensively, sharing bills with artists as disparate as Neil Young, Rufus Wainwright, Ryan Adams, Ben Folds, Hot Hot Heat, and the Pretenders, in addition to countless headlining gigs. (Tegan and Sara also traveled throughout Germany warming up arena crowds for Bryan Adams; ask them about his turtleneck collection).
But while Tegan and Sara promise their new live show, complete with full band, will be different from their dates as a duo, one important aspect of the gigs will remain the same. "We'll still rip each other apart," laughs Sara. "We've pretty much based our entire career on fighting in front of people. But it's working for us, as sisters, as musicians, and as people."