Tegan & Sara Interview:
This Business of Success
By Emira Mears
I recently sat down with Tegan, Sara and a tape recorder in Sara's new apartment in Vancouver, BC to talk about the business of being musicians, what it is like to be famous and where they see the next year taking them.
I first heard Tegan and Sara at a music festival here in Vancouver in 1998, when 'career' was not really a word they associated with music. That evening two 17 year old twins took the stage alongside a group of seasoned female musicians – among them Kinnie Starr, Ember Swift and Veda Hille – and they sent shivers down the backs of an entire theatre of unsuspecting listeners. Like most of the people in that room that night, I became an instant Tegan and Sara fan.
In those days I could only tell them apart by Sara's long hair, they were still in high school, and they used to crash on the living room floor with my roommate and I when they came to town to perform. Only a few years later they have signed a record deal with Vapour Records, have been touring with the likes of The Pretenders and Neil Young.
As a friend of Tegan and Sara, it has been totally amazing to watch as they navigate the switch from 'teenage twins with talent' to professional touring musicians, while trying to balance in the life of an average 20 year old. This interview gave us a great excuse to spend some time catching up on the career side of the spectrum for a while. And as tends to happen in any conversation with Tegan and Sara, what was supposed to be a half hour interview, quickly turned into an hour and half long discussion. Here's the highlights, enjoy!
Emira: So what's it like being famous?
Tegan:[Laughing] We're famous?
E: Well you know, famous in certain circles of people. Small fan sites devoted to you, and fan clubs on yahoo.com etc.
Sara:I don't think that I've really felt weird or anything about it until this past weekend. We were in Victoria, BC (Canada) to do this contest winners event at the radio station – remember I was telling you about that? – And it was really weird to see our fans in a 'normal situation' you know? Like in a bright room with couches and stuff, and our fans just sitting there starring at us.
E: Rather than in a club or at a concert?
T:And you know we've pigeonholed our own audience to a certain extent, so we got there and it wasn't really what we were expecting. There were young guys there, and adult women, and parents with their kids. And just to be there with them, was a new experience for us.
S:Ya, to sit across from these fans on a Saturday afternoon, with them so excited to be there... I don' t know, it's like exciting, validating and it is also a little weird. The thing is that you can't stop thinking that it is just you. It's just you, you know? It's just me and Tegan. And how could we possibly be interesting enough?
T:But at the same time that is the point. And it is really encouraging. It's what we want. We want people to like our music. And I relate. I talk about bands all the time. I can be obsessive
E: You said that you pigeon hole your fans to a certain degree. How do you feel that you've pigeonholed them?
T:I just think that there are certain markets where I know who is going to be there, and I was very surprised this past tour...
E: .... that was the Canadian tour?
T:Yes. Just because when we started most of our fans were girls. And so our Canadian shows and tours for the first two years were mostly women. Now back into the US, where we are starting out new again, it is mostly girls and women, well on this tour it was women and Neil Young fans. So then in Canada we get spun on college radio a bit and our video plays on Much Music a couple of times and the crowd completely changed. Like in Calgary this time it was totally a college crowd. Edmonton is like 90% lesbians. Vancouver is a little more mixed now. Victoria was totally eclectic.
And you know the industry looks at us and sees cute young girls and thinks "ok, well they'll appeal to kids, and guys and lesbians" right. Then we open for Paula Cole, which was a bit of an older more mature audience and we sold tones of records. So you never know. But we also don't get on stage and give the same show every night. We definitely like to interact with our crowd and figure out who they are and what they're about.
E: Having known the two of you for a few years now, and watching your career evolve and all that is that now you talk about y our music a lot in terms of your 'career' and the business side of things, which certainly didn't used to be the focus.
S:People in the industry talk about the business side of things as though it is this awful thing. That business concerns compromise the art or something. But you know what, I still get the same thing out of playing my guitar. Before you got here I was playing my guitar and it still gave me the same release that it gave me two and half years ago before I knew anything about the industry. We talk about the industry because that's what we do now. That 50 minutes on stage is our release.
T:Well and the business part has become more important, because as we allow more people to get involved in our life we lose control of our lives and our art. So to keep our art as true as we possibly can, we have to involve ourselves in it, we have to be educated. And as we get older and we get more involved we can let some of the business part go. But at this point we are way too young, we're way too easily influenced and we need to be in control.
S:People are so quick to jump. Either you are so caught up in the business and you've sold out, or you're too business oriented and you've lost track of your art.
T:But you know what? We're not perfect. Sometimes we do think about the business side of things too much. We let it worry us too much. But, we're learning how to balance now, which is what good artists are doing now. Music has changed. A lot of successful artists out there managing themselves, booking their own shows, pushing their own singles, managing their own websites, etc. Artists are getting more informed and more involved.
S:And Tegan and I are such control freaks and there isn't much to control in this business. Where you are going to play, what hotel you are going to stay in, how much the bus ticket is going to cost, what the guarantee is. those are tangible things that we can control. The one thing that we can't control is those few minutes when we get up on stage and people react. We can't control that.
T:and really that is very hard as an artist and it's a way to get brought down really quickly. because sometimes you get up on stage and it just sucks, and that brings you down. But if you are in control of other stuff then you have other things to focus on.
E: So technically right now what is your management situation?
T:Well we have a record company in the States and they are run by an management company, and they make a lot of decisions because they are a small label so they are really hands on. But they still have to pass everything by us and our agent.
S:We're lucky. Everyone in our lives right now is really good. They are really concerned about us and our career it is great.
T:I remember when you signed with Vapour that one of the things that really attracted you to them was that you didn't feel that they were going to pressure you to break your album. That it may take you like six years. After a year of doing that now, how are you feeling about it?
S:Holy shit. Six years! That is a really long time. [Laughs.]
T:Some days I'm like I don't' want this to go too quickly. I want to chill out. I'm already writing new material. I don't want to continue playing this album for another year. And then on other days I wake up and I'm like "I should be huge!" Then the next day I think "Wow, I am a 20 year old neurotic. An absent minded and lazy teenager."
S:And there are some things that have happened working with Vapour that have put me somewhere kind of in the middle. For one, meeting famous people. And this is my own thing with famous people. I just watch them and I think: Wow, I'm only 20 years old, and I don't think that I'm ready yet to live the rest of my life as a famous person. And all these famous people seem so real and normal, and I think that I could totally be these people. I have just as much charisma, I'm just as interesting. But in the end it really isn't all about being famous to me. Being famous is not what's driving me right now. My success will not be becoming famous.
T:I think that success in a lot of musicians minds, whether or not they're famous, is that they have a job and they sell records and they can play their music. That is what makes them feel successful. And ultimately that is what we want.
But you know it is so hard being twenty years old, in this industry and being bombarded by the media. You know I compare myself to Brittney Spears. Why do I do that? She is the Phantom of the Opera; I am a singer-songwriter. So why do I do that? I am a strong, independent woman, I have good self esteem, I think I'm a great musician, and I think I have a lot of potential. But still, for some reason, I compare myself to Brittney Spears and Christina Aguilera. I don't know why.
S:You can get so messed up thinking about not marketing youself, about avoiding the marketing engine of the industry. you know like Radiohead not marketing themselves. But you know what? That's their marketing. The only way that you don't market yourself is if you are Enya. You know, nobody knows what Enya looks like.
I know what's interesting. What is going to be interesting is going to be me and Tegan getting up on stage and just being more fun, jumping up and down, and getting a band and doing funny things. You know, I've always wanted to crowd surf. Why can't I? I'm going to get a band and I'm going to jump into the crowd. I can be fun if I want to. I just haven't grown into it because someone told me that I couldn't. That we don't play that kind of music, or that I don't have that kind of body.
T:Somebody listened to our songs that we wrote when we were fifteen year old kids and decided that we were Ani Difranco rip offs and that was that. But do you know what? That's not us. We were 15 year old kids, now we are 20 year old adults and we are writing completely different music. And who knows what we'll do next. People should be excited to wait and see what we get up to on our next album, it could be completely different. Everyone should just wait, get excited about waiting.
And really we need to do that with everybody. Because it is really never too late to start again, to try something new. And for some odd reason we just do not give that freedom to people who live their lives in the media. And people have pressured us to do lots of things.
S:I wrote a lot of the songs on our album [This Business of Art] when I was in high school. I was a baby. I look at those pictures and I think "I was a baby, I was so young." And now those are the songs that I am selling to the world. And now I listen to those words and I don't get always get it anymore. I still get the emotion, but the words -- it has been so many years. But now I sing it with my current emotions. 'Proud', for example, was all about being insecure. I wrote it when I was seventeen. Now I get up there and I'm over a lot of that stuff, I am proud.
E: Are you guys writing new stuff right now?
T:Well trying ya. I've written like half an album. And I'm just waiting for Sara to catch up. [laughs]
S:I need a different instrument. I hate the guitar. I think I need an electric guitar or something. I keep thinking about going down to the pawn shop and buying an electric guitar. I just have this feeling that it will totally inspire me to write.
E: How do you chose songs for the album? Is there a divide: half for you, half for me?
T:I think our next album will probably end up being pretty half and half. But it doesn't matter. If I put 8 songs on and Sara puts on 3 it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter because we add so much to each other, and if Sara can only write 3 songs in 8 months then she needs to quit music [laughs]... no seriously, she is contributing in different ways.
S:Ok do you think I'm happy about that? I wrote Proud when I was 17 and now it's just over ok! [laughing] I'm like the Byrds you know? I wrote Turn, Turn, Turn and now it's over.
E: Do you plan to record a new album in the new year?
T:Yes. We can't keep playing this album. We'll probably do something in the fall or something.
E: So what is the next year going to be like for you guys?
T:Touring. Pretty much just touring.
S:Ya, lots of touring. And hopefully something exciting will happen, [laughing] like I can become a regular on Dawson's Creek and I won't have to worry about music anymore.