Date: January 18, 2005
Author: Jed Gottlieb
Publication: San Diego CityBEAT
Tegan & Sara’s music finally overcomes their sociological trifecta
According to legend, this is exactly how it went down:

Once upon a clear Calgary day in 1998, a set of scrawny-but-cute, whiney-but-pretty-voiced teenage twin sisters swept the city’s epic music contest, called “Garage Warz.” With just two voices and two acoustic guitars, they humbled some of the city’s top artists, a few of whom had a good decade of experience on the girls. Like Bob Dylan discovering electricity at the Newport Folk Festival, the show catapulted the twins to inevitable fame.

Neil Young signed them to his own Vapor Records. The Killers brought them along to open up their massive U.S. tour. Then The White Stripes recorded a cover of their song, “Walking with a Ghost.”

And the two lived happily ever after with the sun eternally shining on their identical Canadian faces.

Tegan & Sara’s legend is a little, well, legendary. Which, of course, doesn’t stop the press from embellishing the story ad nauseam. As is usually the case, the truth is much less glamorous and far more interesting.

“Garage Warz was just one of those horrible university things where, if you win, you get five hours in a recording studio,” explains Sara Quin, one-half of Tegan & Sara. “People think it was this American Idol thing, but, really, all the indie kids at [the] university were probably so disgusted that we won because we were high-school kids. It mostly alienated us from the Calgary scene.”

“But it did solidify things for us,” interjects Tegan, Sara’s sister. “We were pretty confident about what we were doing, but for all the people around us—our friends and family—it made them take us more seriously. It showed people that what we were doing was credible and good.”

So it wasn’t exactly Dylan at Newport. More like hometown kids at the state fair—a gee golly, this is kinda nice sort of milestone. But the victory did draw the attention of a high-profile Canadian manager, who would help secure Tegan & Sara the contract with Vapor Records a year later.

Fresh out of high school, the duo spent their final teenage years doing what most young bands do—they wrote songs, which were, at that stage, heartfelt, bitter folk tunes that sounded too much like Ani DiFranco. They traveled back and forth across Canada in a big bus—albeit one with the word “Greyhound” on the side. They played coffee houses that were half-full of semi-attentive patrons. Jack White would have to have gotten a caffeine jones at the right moment in time, at the right place in the universe, in order to know who they were.

“I was kind of bitter about it all,” Sara admits. “People would come up to me and shout, ‘Congratulations, you won the Garage Warz!’’ And I would say, ‘Look, I’ve got tuberculosis. I just got off a Greyhound bus. I want to kill myself.’”

The endless miles and shows paid off. They evolved past “talented but derivative” into something uniquely their own. It was dangerously close to pop music, and dangerously good. Impressed, Neil Young took them out on tour. After that, the ever-elusive “overnight success” actually was almost a night away.

They began a prolific stretch of studio work, releasing four albums in six years, including 2004’s So Jealous—an insanely catchy blend of bittersweet indie, new wave and punk that proved they’d ditched the bitter folk somewhere on America’s highways. Critics loved the album, as did other musicians—everyone from Hot Hot Heat and Ryan Adams to The Killers and Rufus Wainwright asked Tegan & Sara to tour with them.

Killers bassist Mark Stoermer told CityBeat, “Rock seems to be in a bad place right now, and Tegan & Sara are one of the few good bands.”

The girls’ latest big fan is Cake lead singer John McCrea, who booked them for his current “Unlimited Sunshine” tour. McCrea says he was won over by their ability to tell a story.

“Their analogies are concise and emotional,” he says. “They’re just uncharacteristically smart musicians.”

Initially, the press responded to Tegan & Sara’s arrival with rave reviews. But then another problem sprung up amid all the praise—the trifecta of their personal lives began to overshadow their music.

The Washington Post began a review with: “Tegan & Sara are almost certainly the only Canadian twin-sister lesbian singer-songwriters recording today....”

The Chicago Innerview similarly started with: “Never mind the fact that Canadian power-pop duo Tegan & Sara are irresistible, gay and identical twins....”

The Sydney Star Observer began: “Everyone’s favourite identical twin lesbian pop stars Tegan & Sara will make their Australian fans happy in 2006....”

The press found their personal characteristics so fascinating that those reading the typical story might rightfully think: Oh, it’s a piece about human sexuality. No, it’s about identical twins…. Wait—holy shit—gay Canadian twins!

Further into the story, readers would learn that Tegan & Sara play music. And that it’s really good.

“The labels got old four years ago,” says Tegan. “Now it’s just funny. I get to read a new person’s suggestion that they were the first person to realize all this. And… ooooooohhhh… you can even put a quirky twin-themed headline on the top!”

“And writers always want to tell me that they didn’t want to include all the stuff about us being gay, but that their editors added it,” Sara says.

It’s annoying, of course. But they understand. As they should.

The bright side is that their music has made people want to know more about the women behind it. And in today’s bite-sized media spaces, there are often only a few sentences to try to capture as much of their essence as you can. “Gay Canadian twins” provides a bit more insight than “jean-wearing brunettes of petite build.”

The girls also realize this is why they get a lot of requests for in-person interviews by male journalists.

“We’re like the fantasy,” says Tegan. “People think weird, porn, long-fingernail ladies or really butch women, but that’s fine. We’re not going to do Canadian twin lesbian things on stage. So, if those are the three things that bring you to our shows, they aren’t going to keep you there.”

What does really get to them is when people ignore their music because they assume it’ll sound like the other group fronted by two lesbians: The Indigo Girls.

“We’ve gotten years of press, and I know people—[actual friends]—who still haven’t heard our band,” says Tegan. “If you ask them why, they’ll say, ‘Well, I’m into alternative.’

“I can’t believe it sometimes. I just want to say, ‘Wait, let me get out my big-idiot stamp.’”

That problem began to solve itself when So Jealous started to get national airplay in 2005 (mostly for the songs “Walking with a Ghost” and “Speak Now”). The two have thrived in the ensuing media spotlight; they are alarmingly candid, sweet and quotable.

“Beside the fact that they are great singers and songwriters, they are two of the youngest artists to every really blow me away in an interview situation,” says 94/9 deejay Mike Halloran, who had them on his show in early 2005. “Most young artists have no idea how to do an interview and make it work to their advantage. They handled themselves with true professionalism.”

Now, Tegan & Sara have a massive cult following to go with their sizable and growing mainstream profile. The duo considers 2005 the year they stopped being stereotyped and started being understood. At a recent concert in Alberta, a “very straight” sellout crowd was there for the songs, not the hype.

“A hundred people back, all I could see were these normal, typical-looking young people and it was so cool to know that these people knew we were gay and still loved it,” says Tegan. “It said a lot for this year and this world.”

It sounds like Tegan & Sara are finally making us realize that the most important thing, as far as music fans are concerned, is that Neil Young is a pretty decent judge of talent.

Tegan & Sara play with Cake, Gogol Bordello and Eugene Mirman at House of Blues on Jan. 30. Doors open at 7 p.m. $39-$44. 619-299-BLUE. 1/18/06

© 2003-2005 Southland Publishing, All Rights Reserved