Sara Quin enters the swanky hotel lobby, late for her interview. Ah, so has the rising pop star finally gone all diva, playing by her own rules, taking her sweet time, making the press wait?
Actually, it was the bus. Not the decked-out tour bus. Public transit. Sara - of the pop/punk/rock duo Tegan and Sara - has just emerged from one of those hellish transit experiences, where people, oblivious to the fact that you're late, insist on getting on and off at every stop, as the clock ticks down to your appointment time. It makes you wonder: How many pop stars would willingly expose themselves to an endless bus ride when they could easily afford a cab? Or, at this stage, even a limo.
Tegan and Sara may be riding beyond a cult following with their sixth studio release Sainthood (out on Tuesday), but they're not willing to part with their bus passes just yet. In fact, it's hard to imagine a more grounded, down-to-earth pair than these thoughtful, chatty 29-year-old twins who separately describe themselves as geeky and who can get as excited about public radio (Sara) or the history of Vancouver's Gastown (Tegan) as they do about their music, their escalating career, and their iconic musical influences - Neil Young and Leonard Cohen to name a couple of the big ones. And, yes, they both took public transit to their interviews.
(Although they live in different cities - Tegan in Vancouver, Sara in Montreal - even when they are in the same place they prefer to be interviewed separately so they don't have to listen to each other's stories again and again.)
While much attention has been paid to their personal lives (They're twins! And lesbians! Both of them!), it's their music that has earned the pair growing respect as they've slowly risen through the pop music ranks over the last decade or so. Their last four albums have sold a total of about 750,000 copies worldwide; the most recent two have gone gold in Canada.
"Success is making six records, you know?" says Tegan. "Success is: We are gay females who are still making records and still climbing and still getting bigger after 10 years in this industry."
Success came early to Tegan and Sara when, as teenagers in 1998 in Calgary, they won a Battle of the Bands contest.
Then, the big time: Elliot Roberts, Neil Young's manager, received a demo of the young duo from a friend. He was captivated by it, he says, and called the phone number attached to it.
"It was their mom," Roberts remembers. She gave him the date of an upcoming club gig, and, considering signing them to the record label he had started with Young, he flew up to Calgary from Los Angeles.
That signing back in 2000 led to a tour that year opening for Young himself. "They went from stage-struck and starry-eyed to getting their music across," says Roberts, whose L.A. label still represents them.
Roberts's hunch paid off. In 2004, Rolling Stone named Tegan and Sara's So Jealous one of the top 50 albums of the year. In 2007, they delivered The Con - another critical success.
But it's Cohen to whom the duo owes the name and inspiration for Sainthood.
Sara likes to use his lyrics and poetry as placeholders; inserting them while she composes, until she gets around to writing her own words. But the message in his song Came So Far for Beauty struck her deeply, and she created a derivative song with his lyrics (changed ever so slightly) and a different composition. She called it Sainthood after this line: "I practised all my sainthood / I gave to one and all / But the rumours of my virtue / They moved her not at all."
"I loved the idea that you could do that, you could practise at something like that, that it was work, that it doesn't come naturally," says Sara.
The song blew Tegan away when they got together in New Orleans for a rare joint writing session (they usually write separately).
But Sainthood the song didn't make it to Sainthood the album. Cohen turned down their request to use his words in their song.
"I'm totally glad in a weird way that he rejected the song," says Tegan, "because I [love] the story and just the experience itself of having that moment, that profound recognition of ... knowing that some other artist has already summed up your record before you, like decades before you. You are not covering new ground. ...And I'm really glad that [Cohen's] out touring again. It would be really sad if we didn't have him. But I'm still a little annoyed knowing that he rejected our request. Jerk." (She's joking.)
The theme of love is a big one on Sainthood; as it is in all their music. But the twins came at it from very different places: Tegan was (and is) happily with the woman whose pursuit was documented in many of her songs on The Con; Sara had just ended a five-year-long relationship and was single for the first time since she was a teenager.
In what marked a turning point in her writing, Tegan found inspiration in a city - Vancouver, where she has lived for nine years - rather than a person. Two of her songs on this release - Hell and The Cure - use the drug-addled Downtown Eastside as a metaphor for relationships. "I [thought] love is kind of like drugs. There is something extremely hopeful initially when you fall madly in love and you're kind of in that psychotic state of 'I'm in love, everything's perfect.' And then all of a sudden before you know it, shit hits the fan."
She now lives a few blocks away, in the trendy Main Street area, but says every time she plays those songs it's a reminder of the misery she once encountered daily outside her front door. "I'm not going to just move into some other neighbourhood and forget about what's happening here."
While that sense of Vancouver citizenship might allow them to ride the bus to press interviews, they have a hard time going unnoticed when they're together. And that, says Sara, can be a bummer. "When I'm having an argument with Tegan at H&M on a Friday on Granville Street about what colour pants the band should wear and there's people hovering and watching us and trying to take pictures with their cellphones, in that moment, I'm like: I'd like to stop now. I'd like to pause being recognized by people because I'd like to rip my sister's face off in privacy."
But fame, says the man who discovered them, hasn't gone to their brainy heads. "It's so fulfilling to watch them grow, and grow into what they've become now - which are standard-bearers where so many women, so many people look up to them," says Roberts. "They both remain so incredibly graceful and gracious and that's so rare."
Sainthood will be released on Tuesday. On, In, At, a three-book set chronicling the past year of Tegan and Sara's lives, is available through teganandsara.com.