Sisterly Generosity: Tegan and Sara
By Gregg Shapiro
Windy City Times
September 18, 2002
Tegan and Sara
Two years after the release of their acclaimed acoustic debut disc, This Business of Art, queer Canadian twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quinn have kicked the sophomore slump in the ass, returning with the remarkable and rocking If It Was You (Vapor). With their songwriting skills sharpened by age (they're 22!), a relentless tour schedule, and independence, the dynamic duo has recorded one of the best albums of the year, expanding generously on the immense promise of their debut disc.
Gregg Shapiro: What was the experience like of touring with Rufus Wainwright during the month of May 2001?
Sara: We did clubs in the States and it was a really good opportunity. Opening for people is the best for the States, right now, because we don't really have much of a following. He had a really great audience. Every night the clubs were packed or sold out. Certainly a lot of guys, but kind of mixed, lots of girls, too. Obviously people that are into really cool music. We didn't really bond or become phone buddies with anyone, but it was a good tour.
Tegan: It was an amazing opportunity. At the back end of that we got to do David Lettermen. I think that we didn't really get to fully participate in that endeavor based on the fact that we were so tired (after) 16 months of touring straight. What I do remember of it, when I wasn't in tears or lying in the back of the car hoping to die, I really enjoyed it. We had done big tours in the U.S., but we had never done a club tour. It was nice to be in front of a full audience, an audience of people that really wanted hear the music, too.
GS: You were playing more intimate venues, as opposed to previous tours with the Pretenders and Neil Young. Do you have a preference?
T: I definitely have a preference. I would rather play clubs, any day, just because we are so much more interactive, we like to talk. Being in an arena and those big, open amphitheaters we pretty much just played and then we got off the stage and we were like, "That was weird," and now we're done. It wasn't a lot of fun, other than being on tour with those people. When it came to playing, it was pretty dry.
S: In Canada we can do our own tours, doing smaller clubs with 300 to 400 people to bigger clubs with upwards of 800 to 900 people. If we're going to have to do opening stuff I really like doing the clubs, because I think there's more impact when you're six inches away from someone's face. Whereas with the amphitheaters that we did with the Pretenders and Neil Young it was like you're trying to create noise over the top of the people looking for their seats and buying pizza and stuff. I wouldn't turn my face away from another amphitheater tour.
GS: Sara, when we spoke last year, you said that you and Tegan had tried to get on the bill at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival and hadn't had any luck. Has that changed since then?
S: We didn't apply this year. We were sort of focused on the new record. We were rehearsing for a lot of June, once the record was done with the band and getting everything up and running. We did a few fests up here in Canada and a couple of club shows. We didn't really focus on doing anything too extravagant with too much traveling. Now that we're playing with the band we're sort of trying to keep it feasible so that we can travel with them as well.
GS: Did you play any Gay Pride festivals in Canada?
S: We did a street festival that was during Pride in Ottawa. It was more of a street festival. We don't really do a lot of the Pride events. We'll do events that we think are cool, but not necessarily go out of our way to do all those festivals or whatever. Ottawa is a good city for us, and a lot of people. The ladies that were running the stage on that street festival are really great. It was just a really cool festival. A lot of people can see you. Not necessarily tied to the Pride event, but just in general, a high traffic area.
GS: The songs on If It Was You have a bigger, more plugged-in sound than the songs on This Business Of Art.
S: Initially, Tegan and I just demoed everything ourselves. We were writing and we had bought a ProTools system so we were recording them at home and listening to them. There was definitely a quirkier feel to them. We weren't really sure what direction it was going to go in. Then we put it back together and had a drummer and bass player in a rehearsal space. Then we got these two producer guys involved. It just was sort of lending itself toward a bigger band sound. Our main goal was to sort of do a record that pulled from our influences more obviously. The last time we were a little put off by how we were sort of put into this whole folk duo thing, this Ani DiFranco thing. It wasn't bad, but we just felt that it was a little suffocating. We knew that we were going to eventually want to branch out more, so it was a goal to focus more on doing something bigger.
T: When we first started playing music, Sara and I played in a punk band. We totally wanted to rock out and be loud. We played through crappy, old speakers and blew amps and knocked the hell out of my mom I'm sure, and drove her nuts and probably scared the neighborhood. We kind of did the acoustic thing because that was easier for everybody and less expensive. When we signed a record deal people were like, "Introduce yourselves on acoustic guitars," which was their way of saying, "it's too expensive to take a band." We were like, "OK," because we were young and 19. It got us comparisons to people that we didn't listen to or people that we didn't think we sounded like. It got us in lots of doors though, because we would have never been able to do the Neil Young tour with a band, same with the Rufus Wainwright tour. He had so much stuff on stage we would've had to play on top of his piano. There would've been no room for Tegan and Sara. This time around we're going to try to expand a bit and I think that just happened naturally on our record. We just want to take up more space and we want to take up a little more memory in people's mind. It just came naturally and the producers we picked were like, "Um, we listened to your record. It was good and stuff, but could we play louder," and we were like, "Of course." It's been awesome. We've done a month of touring and it's been fantastic.
GS: How did you hook up with John Collins of New Pornographers and Dave Carzwell of the Smugglers?
S: The Pornographers record was one of my favorite records of last year. I mentioned to our publicists in the States that I was really interested in hooking up with whoever produced their record. Then I noticed on the CD that it was John. We tracked him down and I just called him and was like, "Hi, you want to do our record?" (laughs). He and Dave are like, "Yeah, OK, whatever, we'll come meet you." So then they just came over to our house and we talked to them for 900 hours. We talked and talked and talked and talked. I was totally sure that they were going to hate us. Then they just kept coming around and then they did it. They're really cool. It was like working with our heroes. They're so hardcore, they have such a great catalog of music in their brains. They're awesome.
GS: A couple of songs on the album, "Monday Monday Monday" and "City Girl," make reference to the "city." Are you for or against the city?
S: One song is mine and one song is Tegan's. For me, for "Monday Monday Monday," was not (about) the city I was living in. I love the city I live in.
GS: What city is that?
S: I live in Vancouver. It was more of not really a particular city in mind, but no reference to my own city.
T: This is the first record since we moved from Calgary, which is about half the size of Vancouver. Now we're living downtown, West End, "big city." I guess it was natural to start referencing that city, but I know that "City Girl" was more of a joke. There was such a big deal from family and friends about us moving here and then when we got here, I was like, "It's pretty much the same." We live in the West End, which is a fraction of the size of Vancouver and sometimes you don't even leave that for months. We also got to tour through a lot of cities so my perception of what a city is changed.
GS: Swimming is a metaphor that appeared in the songs "My Number" (from This Business Of Art) and surfaces again on the new album in the song "Under Water."
S: "My Number" is Tegan's song and "Under Water" is mine. The song "Under Water," lyrically, is probably my least favorite song on the album. When we stopped doing this last album, I was brain blocked and I couldn't write very much. So I started trying to write a kid's book, but just as a joke. I had written all of these strange lyrics and a lot of rhyming stuff, which I'm not usually into, rhyming and whatever. I just sort of tweaked it so it would fit more into the song. Not to say that the song doesn't have some sort of meaning, but swimming...no connection. Me and Tegan were on the University swim team when we were little kids.
T: I think, because I wrote "My Number," it was a good metaphor for how I felt. It's a really good way of depicting feeling a little out of control. You got all this stuff underneath you and you can't see the bottom. You could float, but you are still going to have waves crashing over top of you. It's kind of like you're kind of stuck in the middle. It's not really bad, but it's not really good either. I'm not really good at analysis, (but) I don't like the ocean, so living by the ocean so sometimes I use it as a way to explain things that freak me out.
GS: "Living Room" has some wonderful, exotic, almost Polynesian instrumentation, Mike Ledwidge on slide guitar and Ezra Sikes on banjo. What kind of mood were you trying to set with that song?
S: "Living Room" is Tegan's song, but she hated it. She was like, "Fuck the song, we're not fucking doing the song." John insisted that we keep doing it, he really liked it. We had recorded it full band, kind of a rock song and we just didn't like it. I remember one night Tegan leaving and I was there to do some background vocals. We weren't arguing, but John and I were having a difference of opinion in what the vibe of the song should be. I was like, I think it's a really kind of dark song and I see it, not as a stalker, but definitely a dark mood. They thought I was crazy. We were doing all these harmonies. I swear it sounded like the Dixie Chicks and I hated it. I did some background vocals that I thought were cool and I left, just sort of left the song. Then a week after we had gotten out of the studio, John and Dave had been working in their own studio, doing last mixing, overdub stuff. We went over and Dave said, "Listen to 'Living Room,' we changed it a little bit." They had taken out the drums and the guitars (laughs). There's a banjo part that we had recorded a couple of weeks earlier cranked up and the slide guitar. We were like, "We love it. It's awesome." It just sort of became this moody, darker song. When we play it live, it's way more rock. It really suits the record and it's a real nice break in the record.
T: I wrote that song for my neighbors whose windows were really close to mine. I was like, "Whoa, this is going to be weird," the first day. They had Christmas decorations up in summertime. They never came out at night. I didn't see them until one time I was really sick and I was up at three in the morning. I looked out my blinds and they were standing there, staring out. The first time I saw them, the woman was just crying, crying, crying. The next day I was leaving for Calgary. I wrote the song about them because it was such a weird vibe. I was sick and kind of discombobulated and a little bit drugged up on cold medication. I stare out my window and there's this weird woman crying, just staring into my window, but my blinds were closed. I wrote the song about her and months afterward I saw the guy that she lives with and he's this huge hairy guy and he never has clothes on, I mean he might have pants on, but he never has a shirt on. When it came to recording it, I wanted to go for really moody. At first, when people heard it they said (sings) "Stand all night." "Do it poppy. This is a pop song, it's an anthem." I was like, "No, this is a creepy ass song about my creepy ass neighbors." We totally wanted to go for a moody thing.
GS: Love is the prominent theme throughout If It Was You. Are you in love or still looking for it?
S: I think that we're both content with love. It's easy to write sad love songs or angry love songs. I'm not going to get too specific, but a couple of the songs that are on the album I know specifically aren't even about me and Tegan. That was one of the first times that we wrote about other people's love. I always thought of that as something that other people do. It's like, "Oh, I'm too self-absorbed to write about other people." There was a lot of influence, not just from our own situations, but other people in our lives going through these traumatic experiences. I think that we're both in pretty good places. It's easy, though, when you're in a good place to write about the bad stuff.
T: Sometimes I think that's the thing about love or that's the thing about life. I never was really good with feelings. My mom would always sit me down and say, "You need to talk about your feelings." My mom's a therapist and I think they drove my feelings even farther inside. Now that I'm a musician and I write so openly in music, it's made it easier to talk about my feelings on the outside. I think that love is something, you can have love for everything. My cat died this year, that I got when I was seven. We had done the record already, but I wish I could've written a song about it, because I really feel like that was the first thing that I can remember loving and talking to her, being really little and being like, "I love you," and her just staring at me, me being, "Stay in the bed, stay in the bed. Don't run away. (laughs) I want to dress you up in my outfit." I think that we feel love for so much. Sara and I are really obsessive. I think being kids of divorce we feel a lot of anxiety and stress and control issues and being a twin. I think on this album love is so confusing and all over the place and that is best way to describe us as people. So, have I found love or am I looking for love? I think, unfortunately or fortunately enough, I'll be looking for it my whole life.
GS: I hope you find it. What are the biggest changes in Tegan and Sara as a band in the same two years?
S: I'm really excited to get out and be playing the new songs and playing with the band. When Tegan and I started out in high school, we were all about rock and we were really in a punk rock phase. That's the music we started writing. That kind Business Of Art acoustic thing sort of happened in between. We're excited to get out there and let people know that we are still into the songwriting and we're obviously songwriters. This is just the way that we wanted to decorate the music. It feels right. Initially people are a little put back. A couple of people who have heard the record have been like, "It's so different." I think it's natural. Once people see us doing it live and see that we are the same thing, we're just a little louder, a little bit more focused. I think people are going to like it.
T: We're just way damn cuter when we stand next to each other than we were a few years ago. We're a little more mature, we're listening a little more. When we recorded the record, we had just gotten rid of our management and we were very stubborn. It took a lot of therapy to get to that point, to admit that we were really stubborn and really controlling. We really wanted, not to do it ourselves, but we were really tired of people telling us what to do. I think the biggest change over the last two and a half years for Sara and I, is that we are really open to suggestions and we are really open to letting people help us. I think we are ready to take this next step. I think the biggest change is that we are prepared to do anything and everything that we are able to do.
GS: What would you say are the biggest changes in you as an individual in the two years between the release of your debut disc This Business of Art and If It Was You?
S: When Business of Art came out, our lives were so dramatically different, that we didn't really feel like a lot of stuff on Business Of Art was relevant anymore to us, which I know a lot of bands feel. It really was different for us. We had written those songs when we had just gotten out of high school. We were living with my mom still and we were getting into the industry. There was just such an atmosphere around what we were doing. Writing If It Was You...we've lived on our own for a couple of years, we're living in a different city, me and Tegan don't live together, we have our own lives, we've traveled and we do our own things. I just feel like we've grown a lot because we are independent and have a different outlook. This album feels like it'll take less time for us to grow out of. The album feels more relevant because we are in a period that isn't changing so dramatically so fast. When you get out of high school, it's like, "Oh my god, change your hair change your clothes change your friends change your house change that." Whereas now I feel like we're in a lull. It feels like we're a little more confident about what we're doing.
T: I've become a little more passive. I'm not so anxiety ridden about the music business and perception and image and all those things. I think I realized at that ripe old age of 21, turning 22, that every year you change and every year you grow and you're learning all the time. I've picked up a lot over the last two years and probably in about five years I'll be able to reflect on what it really is, but right now it just feels like confidence. And a little more idea of where it is that we are going as a band and as a person, I feel like I'm getting it together.