An unintentional concert double header this week says more than you might think. The duo Tegan and Sara and solo act Sarah Bettens are headlining lesbians with followings beyond the coffeehouse cliche (not that there's anything wrong with that). Their indie folk-rock has propped them right up there with Lang and Etheridge as part of lesbians' substantial contribution to today's music landscape. And both play in Dallas within days of each other.
Not even 30, identical twins Tegan and Sara Quin have amassed an impressive catalog of six full-length albums in the past 11 years. But during that time, the industry itself changed, switching up the same variables they struggled to get past - getting a manager, signing to a label. Now, with the industry so fluid, Tegan and Sara just roll with the flow.
Despite a music business changing before their eyes, T&S keep an independent approach to their career. They've struggled just to get to their sixth album, which is enough for them to have some kind of a musical presence - sans superstar fanfare. In fact, more than a decade later, Sara finds that she and her sister are still confounded by the experience of it all.
"I couldn't be more grateful. We're humbled by this idea we're onstage and even almost apologetic. I've had to train myself to stop thinking that way," she says. "There is something so nice about being over a decade in and feeling this gratitude and trust for all the right reasons. I don't doubt our fans' authentic enthusiasm. It makes us feel like we're on the right track and more ambitious."
Tegan and Sara add to the collective of gay Canadian musicians that offer music with actual substance. Other artists just see it as coincidence but Sara explains how LGBT music's future may lie in the maple leaf country: "Canada is gay."
Well, that was easy. Hardly.
"I would be afraid to even comment from a scientific perspective. It's a small place in terms of population but we have a tremendous government support system for artists. Plus, there does seem to be a level of tolerance and acknowledgement in Canada. This is from a government that recognized same-sex couples before lot of other people did. That's the sort of culture, here."
And it's a good thing they didn't stay in the closet. It troubles her when musicians aren't comfortable coming out. Sara isn't sure that either she or Tegan could pass as hetero. And like their music career, they've lived on their terms. If not, it could have been disastrous.
"It would have been a gayquake for sure," she says. "If we had not been ourselves and not acknowledged that, um, yeah."
Sarah Bettens is much calmer about things but has a similar path to the twins - perhaps not with the same consistency, but she's fashioned a career worth noting. Bettens has matured from a post-grunge '90s girl rocker to an easily overlooked legend-in-the-making.
Bettens came to mid-level fame with her band K's Choice in the mid '90s. "Not an Addict" was their biggest hit throughout their four albums released up until 2000. It holds up well but the band didn't.
While the industry was changing, Bettens changed directions and embarked on a solo career while K's Choice went into limbo. As a solo artist, Bettens found freedom in her music and herself.
"So much has changed and so much has stayed the same. After K's Choice, it felt like I was starting over but the concept stays the same," she says. "But since I came out, there's this whole gay community that started paying attention to my music. It makes up a large portion of my audience. I love that I've actually gained fans."
Her music seemed to get better, and four releases later, Bettens draws in enough of a crowd to make her a big deal. But on this round of touring, she's hitting the smaller venues. And by small, that means the uber-intimate space of the 1727 Gallery and Listening Space - quite a change from her Granada appearance in 2008, but she doesn't mind one bit. Actually, she's digging it.
"There is a luxury of hearing yourself sing when you're stringed down to nothing," Bettens says. "We did these types of shows in Europe. It's a different challenge to create intimacy in a bigger places, 200 empty seats can really add to the atmosphere."
But with that sort of nakedness, Bettens music strives. Even though she writes about her personal experiences, she doesn't give a lot of thought to whom her music is specifically for. Her lyrics are intimate and even with her large lesbian fan base, she recognizes that straights have issues too.
"It's not like I'm a lesbian niche. I have very universal themes in my songs," she says. "I found that even things like coming out are specific to anyone who's different or making a big change. Even heteros have to deal with those kinds of issues. It's kind of funny how that happens."
But after this leg of touring, she reunites with K's Choice for a new album and tour. Bettens keeps this type of schedule because she doesn't know any other way. Years of touring, recording and being a celebrity has made her wonder about the greener grass on the other side.
"On one hand I'm glad I'm not doing the 9-to-5 bit, but on another, I wish I had some regularity in my life," she says. "I would like to do things most normal people do. What would my life look like? I took a class at the local university and for three times a week, I was so happy to have a regular schedule. I've never had that."
And the class?
"It was a Spanish class. I was so interested in it that I was the biggest geek there."
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 19, 2010.