By embracing the most uncomfortable situation imaginable,
Tegan and Sara found the spark needed to weld together their
latest album, Sainthood.
For the punk-popping twin sisters, this meant sitting down face-to-face and writing – together. (It was something the 29-year-olds hadn’t done before.)
"It was not so bad actually," Tegan Quin says, pouring herself a glass of water during an interview at a downtown Vancouver hotel.
She raises an eyebrow framed by choppy brown hair and smiles.
"There was, like, a few moments, a few outbursts – but I think that was more just general frustration with the process than with each other."
They survived the five days spent writing in New Orleans last November, and ended up creating a mix of songs together – including the album’s so-called title track.
While none of the songs they wrote on that trip, including Sainthood, made it on to the album, they used the song’s theme – particularly as it relates to relationships and love – to narrow down the list of songs to include.
No small feat considering they had 50 demos to choose from, says Tegan, adding they wanted to include Sainthood, but weren’t allowed.
"(The song had) Leonard Cohen lyrics in it and so we couldn’t get it approved," Tegan explains.
(The song and title were inspired by Cohen’s song, Came So Far For Beauty. "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 Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and I loved the idea ‘I practised all my sainthood,’ ” says Sara Quin, seated in a separate hotel room – identically furnished but oriented in the exact reverse to Tegan’s suite.
"I loved the idea you would, almost as a martyr, would behave in such a way that would prove your devotion to somebody."
Sara, who had recently ended a five-year relationship, says the words resonated.
"Because I was in a period of time that I was not in contact with the person I was pursuing and because I couldn’t win their affections with gifts or words or charm, I really felt like the only power I had was to be devoted in my mind, " she says, her face serious but calm as she recalls her feelings at that time: "How can I be so devoted and it not move her?"
As an album, Sainthood comes packed with intense tunes, moving from punk swaggers to poppy hymns. It brims with poetically in-your-face lyrics, all lifted up by catchy melodies and the twins’ surprising vocal twists.
The 13-track release – produced by Death Cab For Cutie’s Chris Walla and Vancouver’s Howard Redekopp – begins with the electro-thumping rant, Arrow, ("Would you take a straight and narrow critical look at me?") and moves through the slightly grinding Don’t Rush.
Things pick up with the pretty but dark single, Hell, inspired by Tegan’s time living in an apartment in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. ("Four blocks, run and hide, don’t walk alone at night/Cityscape, city change before they die. ")
There’s nothing dull about Sainthood, including plenty of standouts like Alligator (a "slow burner," says Tegan,) the vocally rich The Cure or the hooky tune, The Ocean.
"This is the first record we’ve done in years where we’ve recorded as a band, " Tegan says, of Sainthood, recorded in May at Sound City Studios in Van Nuys, Calif. "It’s also light production compared to maybe what we’ve attempted in the past."
A good thing, Tegan says. "To draw an analogy, when people put a lot of makeup on Sara and I, I think it makes us look older and I don’t think it looks good on us," she says. "We don’t hold makeup well."
Not much blush, eyeliner or gloss needed on their tunes either, she says.
"If you overdo it with us, if you overproduce us, if we overproduce ourselves, if we overlayer, it doesn’t allow the natural kind of beauty of what we do to come out."
The pair are candid about their sometimes scrappy sister dynamic and their intense bond.
"I always describe it as a valve being unscrewed," Vancouver-based Tegan says of her relationship to Sara, who lives in Montreal.
"When a situation gets to a point where it’s, like, super uncomfortable and intense, one of us has to almost lash out; and then it’s like ten minutes later, we can be laughing about something. And it’s less dramatic than it used to be."
The sisters, who grew up in Calgary, signed their first record deal at 19.
"I really feel that my life is enriched because of Sara’s presence in it," Tegan says. "I think there’s like this interesting dynamic between us where we challenge ourselves to be better."
It isn’t always easy, adds Sara.
"I often feel extremely dysfunctional, or like I’m not good at it," she says. "There’s no one who I have a relationship with, who remotely resembles the relationship I have with Tegan, and it’s definitely fraught with periods of horrible, you know, communication and saying unkind things.
"And yet there’s so much we’ve accomplished together."
With the release of Sainthood, the Quin sisters are sharing more than just their music: they’re releasing a box-set of three books, ON/IN/AT.
"Each book covers a different experience we’ve had this year or last year," Tegan explains.
For instance, the second book, In Experiment, documents their writing trip to New Orleans.
"The photos look like stills from an Alfred Hitchcock movie. It was just super spooky," says Tegan. "There was this feeling like we were there to analyze each other. Even though we were there to write."
Uncomfortable but good.