Date: December 6, 2007
Publication: Ultimate Guitar
Headline: Tegan & Sara: 'There Is Such A Natural Dynamic And Energy Between Us'
There’s very little that is not intriguing about the duo Tegan And Sara. The fact that the fresh-faced girls are openly gay twins may be what have originally peaked people’s curiosity, and understandably so. But after hearing Tegan and Sara’s music, it soon is apparent that these girls are much more than a novelty act. At 27 years of age, the twins’ melodic offerings have earned respect from the likes of Neil Young, Rentals/ex-Weezer bassist Matt Sharp, and The White Stripes (who covered the girls’ single “Walking With A Ghost” back in 2005).
Although Tegan and Sara have written independently in the past, their latest record The Con took that one step further. Each twin would record as much material as they could before meeting up, and the album even features some of the original demo recordings. When Sara Quin spoke with UG writer Amy Kelly, she revealed that setting up a makeshift studio in her closet was a godsend before meeting up with her sister. For Quin, hearing the rough, on-the-spot “closet sessions” were the most honest moments of the recording process.
UG: How different was the songwriting process for The Con in comparison with your previous records?
Sara: We always write independently, but it’s a totally different level of independence. Because we’ve been living in the same city, we would write songs. I know before we did our 3rd record If It Was You, leading up to the actual studio, we would write songs and a couple times a week we would hang out with our band. We would go to the rehearsal spot and actually work out songs. So when we went into the studio to do the album, we were kind of going in as a band, an actual band.
But with out previous record So Jealous, it was like me and Tegan wrote the songs. She was living in Vancouver; I was living in Montreal. We wrote the songs completely independently, and I moved back to Vancouver for a couple months to work on the album. It was pretty much like we showed up and spent 2 weeks trying to figure out drums and bass, then went in and recorded it.
With this album, we kind of expanded on that idea even more. Tegan and I just tried to record everything ourselves in demos: the ideas, drums, bass parts, guitar, keyboards, vocal. Then we would send the songs to each other. I would send her an MP3 and she would load it into her studio, then she would record over the top of what I had done and add her ideas. We would send it to Chris Walla (producer of The Con and guitarist for Death Cab For Cutie) and he would sort of dig through, sort of highlighting for us what he thought was keepable and what wasn’t.
So when we actually started recording the album, a lot of times we were using elements right from the demo as starting points. That was really exciting for me because I always really like our demos! I love our albums, but I love our demos because I don’t necessarily write a song and then sit and play it for 35 times. I will literally sit down and record as I’m writing. So the demos are actually a record of the song being really written. It’s not like a recreation of something I had playing over and over again.
Which songs on The Con featured those spontaneous moments?
Like “Back In Your Head” for instance, I literally sat and recorded in my closet. I was recording the song and thinking about what I wanted to sing. I just started singing that line, “I just want back in your head.” In my demo version of that song, I can really hear that idea starting to take shape. What was great about Chris was that he heard those ideas taking shape in those demos, and a lot of times he would want to recreate what we had already captured. In almost every song there are elements of our demos actually on the album. There are actually vocal tracks that were demos.
Has it always come that easy for you?
No. We always used to record ourselves. I think we knew what we were doing, but I think there was a point in our lives where we had been for years doing something that was really intuitive and coming really natural for us. That drew the attention of people who were like, “Oh, my God. What you’re doing is really, really cool. Why don’t you come to my studio or why don’t we go into the studio and we’ll make a record? I’ll help shape what you’re doing so that it’s more successful to the public or to a record label.”
So there was a time in our career where I think we maybe weren’t as vocal or aggressive about what we knew we could do naturally. So there are a couple of albums for me, like our first couple of albums, I feel a little bit like it’s the other people’s vision. The songs are ours and the voices are ours, but the production and some of the ideas and arrangements, they don’t fit as well with me.
I’m like, “Why did we do that? Why did we let that happen?” I don’t feel as strong about those albums. But our last 3 albums, we were being more aggressive and confident about what it was we wanted to do. Each record you get stronger. Maybe you couldn’t sit down and mix the album, but I’m pretty aggressive about what I want. I think a lot of that comes from just having so many years of recording myself.
A lot of times it’s just bullshit, too. People will put really expensive mics in front of you, and it sounds like shit. A lot of my demos I recorded with like a $40 microphone that I got in high school so I could play live. The vocals for instance on “I Was Married,” all the vocals and background vocals are vocals that I recorded with my $40 mic in my closet. There are electric guitar parts, all the noodling stuff, and a lot of the melodies on the album. I don’t have like 50,000 pedals. I have an overdrive and a digital delay, and I’ll sit there and spin the knobs tiny, tiny millimeters until I get a sound.
Did you use that approach in choosing equipment for the latest album?
We would sit in Chris’ studio, where he has beautiful, amazing, incredible gear, and we would spend like an hour trying to get a sound that sounded like what I had come up with. He would just be like, “Forget it! We’ll just record your part and we’ll fix it in time with what we’re doing here. But we don’t have time to figure this out and it already sounds great.” That was really frustrating, too, because sometimes when I’m making my crazy demos, I’m thinking, “No one wants to listen to this besides me.” Chris really loved so much of what we had done. He was totally happy just forgoing the process of figuring out what we had done on the demo. If it happened naturally in the studio setting, it was like, “Forget it. Let’s just fucking use what you already did.” I was like, “I love it!”
It seems like you and Tegan have been playing and recording for ages. What was the instrument that inspired you to start it all off?
We took piano lessons, but I don’t ever remember writing anything on the piano. That totally wasn’t my instrument. I didn’t write songs until I was a teenager, but I always loved music. I would listen to the radio. Tegan and I, really early on, we were borrowing our parents’ record players. We would always, always, always be listening to music and lip-syncing! I was passionate about singing music. I love singing. Singing, to me, is my instrument.
I know a lot of people who are great guitar players and stuff, and they have to play guitar everyday. Have to. They’ll just jam for 45 minutes or an hour, and then they’ll feel better. I don’t have that. I don’t need to sit down and play guitar everyday. I don’t. But I need to sing everyday – and I’m not that good of a singer! My voice sounds good within what I do, but you put me in a karaoke bar and no one would ever believe that I was a singer!
I’m not trained. I’m not choir. I’m not any of those things, but I need to get out whatever it is that I’m getting out. Whatever it is that makes my friends sit down and play guitar for 45 minutes, I have to sing. It doesn’t matter if you put me in headphones and I’m singing along to Phil Collins or me, I just need to sing to make myself feel better. It’s like I’m exercising some sort of instrument. When I was 14 was when I realized that I loved singing along to other people’s music, but I also loved singing along to my own music. That was when I started writing my own songs.
You play guitar and keyboards on the album, but does a vocal line usually inspire you before anything else?
It kind of happens all ways. Literally everything sort of comes all at once. Generally I’ll start a guitar riff or a piano part or even a bass part just to get something. Then I’ll start creating melodies right away, and I’ll usually build the rest of the instrumentation around a melody for the vocal part that I come up with. But usually I try to write choruses first, then the bridge. I’ll go back to sort of fit in verses. I always feel like I need the choruses because I want to know where I’m going first. I want to know what’s happening, then I’ll go back to the verses and try to make sense of it all.
When I truly get into the zone or whatever, I get so much more into it and intuitive. Whatever is supposed to happen kind of happens, which is ridiculous because obviously I’m in control of what is happening. A lot of times it’s almost stream of consciousness. The way that some people will write stream of consciousness, I feel like I’m taking a musical stream of consciousness.
Does Tegan take a similar approach to songwriting?
I think she does it more straight and a bit more refined. I think she’ll sit down, she’ll write lyrics, and then she’ll just start trying to write some melodies and chord changes. She’ll really be following a pattern. But it’s still very similar in a lot of ways. It will sort of go off of what I’m doing. I think she’s doing it, but I just think she’s a little bit less free-formed about it.
Who is the more prolific write of the two?
I think that I spend a lot more time. I think I could be more prolific if I didn’t obsess so much over what I was already doing. Tegan can write a song and she’ll never touch it again until we’re recording it. She’ll also write a song and then just play it right away. She’ll play it in soundcheck or play it onstage or whatever. I’ll write a song and I’ll work on it for months. I’ll just go back and noodle on it. I might not even send it to anyone or play it for anyone. You’ve got some impressive guests on the album. How did Chris Walla, Matt Sharp, and Kaki King get involved?
Matt Sharp is a friend. We’ve toured together and he played on So Jealous. When we started working with Chris Walla, we needed someone to play drums. He’s like, “Let’s get Jason McGerr from Death Cab to play.” When it came time to play bass, Chris played bass. I really wanted to involve Matt somehow. He’s always involved in projects, so it really became like, “Hey, what are you doing this week? Do you want to come down and play bass on my songs?” Then it’s like, “Yeah, I’ll come down and play bass.” So it’s kind of like that.
Kaki is a friend and she’s just an absolutely amazing guitar player. She used to make jokes that if we ever needed a lap steel player in our band, she would offer her services! So when it came time to start adding details on some of the songs on the record, I knew that she would be a great asset because she has a whole different approach to melody. She’s really talented. So it was cool to just be able to have people come in and add their little flair to things at the end, and certainly get their perspective about how the song was.
Considering the amount of work you did independently on the latest record, could you ever see yourself going solo?
I think we’ll always sort of be together with what we do, certainly from a performance aspect. Obviously, we have lots of confidence in writing songs alone and that sort of thing. I have confidence in my ability as a solo artist. But the career we built, our fans, how we perform and all of that is very much something that Tegan and I do together. I have no interest in putting that on hold or ending that relationship anytime. Sometimes Tegan has a side project and I write music for other people and I write music for myself. Definitely there are other projects in our future. Right now, doing what we do, there is such a natural dynamic and energy between us that I can’t imagine giving it up.