Date: September 23rd, 2004
Author: Tabassum Siddiqui
Publication: The Varsity
Headline: Twin Talents, Tegan and Sara Polish Their Pop and Banish the Folk
It's hard not to be just a wee bit envious of Tegan and Sara. The 23-year-old Quin sisters are cute, funny, whip-smart and know their way around a good tune. And there's that whole twin thing to boot. So it's always a bit surprising to put on a new Tegan and Sara record and hear all that angst come tumbling out of the speakers.
Though they've had nothing but success since starting out as teenage folkies at home in Calgary, there's always been something a bit rueful about the duo's songs eyes cast downward, heart in hand. While the lyrics may be tentative, the music is anything but.
Their latest, So Jealous, is hooky, brash, and supremely confident-not unlike the sisters themselves. While So Jealous continues their association with Vancouver uber-producers John Collins and David Carswell (The New Pornographers), those who figured that 2002's If It Was You bore the indelible JC/DC indie-rawk stamp clearly discounted the wonder twins' musical progression.
"Tegan and I were really confident that we were going to be able to finally give ourselves the sound that we really wanted," Sara explains on the phone from Vancouver, her words tumbling out fast and furious over the line. "John and Dave are kind of almost like big brothers or something. Every time we would want to wimp out and give up, they would always be like, 'You guys can do this.'"
Tegan and Sara had been experimenting with home recording, and their cheering squad suggested their demos were so good that they might want to produce the new album themselves. So that's what they did. With Collins, Carswell, and engineer Howard Redekopp acting as backup support, the gals put the band through their paces and then spent a month in the studio.
"Tegan and I are really anal, so this time we had really concrete ideas about drum parts and bass parts and we pretty much had already written all the guitars and vocals, so we basically put our drummer and bass player through boot camp. Especially our drummer-we made him play to a boom box, like a stereo or whatever, because we wanted him to play like the demos. He would rock through everything, and we'd be like, 'Dynamics, Rob, dynamics!' So there was a lot of crying and screaming and stuff like that, but it was awesome. It worked out really well for us," deadpans Sara.
So Jealous expands naturally on the rockier template of If It Was You. The Ani DiFranco comparisons may well give way to Joan Jett ones as the twins leave strumming behind for something a little more in tune with their early punk-rock roots.
"It's interesting, we talked a lot before this record about 'What do we do? What are we?' I really honestly believe that we could put out a hardcore record and people would still be like, 'Folk-acoustic duo Tegan and Sara!' If people are surprised, then I think they're going to be happily surprised. We get lots of 'Can't you just play acoustically and talk?' and we're like, 'Oh, god, can't we not do that anymore?' I think people like (the new stuff) and understand it. I could be wrong and delusional, I don't know."
Not so delusional, judging by their effusive press. Though being signed to Neil Young's small Vapour Records imprint in the U.S. meant criss-crossing the country endlessly in a beat-up car over the years, Tegan and Sara managed to carve out a sizable fanbase on their own before the likes of Seventeen Magazine and Teen Vogue came calling. A recent New York Times feature fixated on their supposed lesbian cachet, but still managed to declare that "the timing is right for this kind of girl-rock manifesto."
"I believe I just saw what is going to be printed in SPIN this week, and they referenced our last records as being 'folk-Wiccan nightmares', snickers Sara. "So apparently now we're cool enough to be dissed in SPIN magazine. I guess people just like this record more, so we see more mainstream press, or see more offers to do this or that."
Lest anyone think that being written up in the august pages of the Times means that Tegan and Sara are well on their way to conquering that great market to the south, well, it's not quite that simple. They may have the good looks and angular haircuts for MTV, but they prefer to maintain a grassroots approach to the business of art.
"It's so hard when you're in the press-no press makes me feel comfortable. Going to radio stations, TV... It's like this whole other universe that really is an industry built on top of art," Sara muses. "I'll never really get over that. I like to play guitar, and write songs, and sing, and this industry that I am a part of is really secondary.
"But it's cool because I still know that the people who are coming out to see our shows, we built that audience by playing and opening for people and going to college radio stations and basically trying to get people to listen to what we do."
What they do has changed not only musically, but personally and logistically as well-the girls who were once rarely apart now live in different cities, with Tegan staying put in their recording base of Vancouver and Sara uprooted to Montreal. It means more crappy early-morning flights for Sara, but she says the twins' unspoken connection helps to bridge the gap.
"It's like seeing pictures of me and Tegan-I just feel I'm like Jay Leno and Tegan's like David Letterman. I see us looking completely different, and people will be like, 'Omigod, I cannot tell the difference!' And I'm like, 'How can you not? I'm way cuter!'
"I hear our songs, and it's like two different bands to me. We had talked about splitting it up this time where Tegan would do her songs and I would do my songs. We play with the same people and we kind of sound the same, but the songs were written by two different people. And I can hear that in the record-Tegan is happy and in a very long-term relationship and she's rooted here now. I was in a very transitional stage-I was moving to a city where I didn't know anybody and I was trying to start a new life and make new friends and do new things.
"I like that I live somewhere else and I have different friends and a different life," Sara explains. "So it's kind of like we get to do what normal people do, but we also get to do what Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen do. So that's hot, too. Sans coke-no cocaine or eating disorder, but basically pretty much what they do. Just to set the record straight."