"I'm not a saint," Sara Quin tells Spinner,
but this half of Tegan and Sara is immensely interested in what
that concept means, thanks to a fellow Canadian, Leonard Cohen.
The twin sister duo releases its sixth album,
'Sainthood,' on Oct. 27. Again produced by Death Cab for
Cutie's Chris Walla, the record takes its title from
Cohen's 'Came So Far for Beauty.'
Inspired by the poet laureate of her native land, Quin delves deeply into what it means to "practice sainthood" on the new album. What does it mean to be a saint? Spinner asked Quin and happily got a lot more than we bargained for as Quin opened up about relationships, her admiration for Beth Ditto and Ani DiFranco, the ways in which she and her sister deal with homophobia as lesbians, and how Tegan and Sara's whole career has emulated Neil Young's after they toured with him at age 19.
What does practicing sainthood mean to you?
The line came from a Leonard Cohen song, actually: "I practiced all my sainthood." And I loved this idea that this behavior of being devout to someone was something you had to practice. And also I loved that it's something you can do to win somebody's affection or forgiveness or whatever. It was really influential and it articulated something, at least for me, in my life that was happening and in turn writing songs about.
You can't really go wrong with being inspired by Leonard Cohen.
He truly is an incredible lyricist. The song that line comes from, 'Came So Far for Beauty,' every lyric resonated so much with me. And there are these moments where you hit on something like that where you just think, "I'm never going to write something as beautiful and so simple, yet that just resonates." It's something to aim for, to be so incredibly poetic and beautiful.
Sainthood is typically seen as this global, Mother Theresa, Gandhi thing. And what you're talking about, though, seems to be on the personal level.
Oh, absolutely. This isn't about thinking you're a saint; it's the behavior of someone who is, I guess, delusional, that you would change everything about yourself in order to win the affections or forgiveness of someone who you were devoted to. You know it doesn't make sense or it's not reciprocated or whatever. Or forget love or romance. It's so easy to be bad or to be dishonest. I think it's so much more work to be saintly, to be good.
Is that something you've personally had to strive for?
When I started really thinking about sainthood and this idea of practicing sainthood, it absolutely resonated with my life. I think we're attracted to what's bad and what's dark and mysterious. And some of the people who are sort of saintly and trustworthy become less attractive somehow [laughs].
Are there other people who are good that have inspired you?
I am forever admiring people who are outspoken. You know what you're getting and they're not hiding behind a view that they think is exciting or cool or because other people think it's exciting and cool. Personally, I'm always amazed at people in the music industry who are doing that. Like I love Beth Ditto —I totally appreciate someone who can just be outspoken like that, or Antony from Antony and the Johnsons. A lot of these people are obviously queer and talking about queer politics and that sort of thing. Whether those people are saints or not I doubt it; I'm not a saint, but you [can] become a role model, a person of substance who has value that people can look up to.
Are these themes that heavily influence the new record?
The songs themselves are primarily love songs. They're not political bombs in an overt kind of way. [But ] I find there is still so much homophobia. I feel like it's one of the things that is still publicly accepted or tolerated, and it's a struggle. I don't want to have to talk about it all the time and I don't want it to have to be the platform of our band. But as a person, it makes me crazy. And I feel like it's so important to be public about our views and the injustices that we see and the homophobia that we deal with but also that so many other people are dealing with.
I find it in myself sometimes, when I meet parents who are like, "Oh, you've been such an incredible role model for my kid." And I can't help it; there's almost this nagging in me sometimes where I'm like, "But I'm bad, I'm living this alternative lifestyle. How could this parent want to entrust their child's development to me or their politics or their thought process to me?" Even I have that reaction sometimes where I think, "Oh, God, maybe I'm not the best person to be influencing teenagers." And then I'm like, "F--- that, I'm an awesome role model for teenagers."
There was the famous Charles Barkley Nike campaign: "I am not a role model." That approach worked because so many public figures go through that doubt. Is that what you're talking about?
I think so, and then that is all just sort of institutionalized homophobia, sexism, whatever, we can't avoid. Just because I'm a woman and I'm gay doesn't mean that I'm impenetrable to these ideas. And I think I realized really early on that I am a role model and I have absolutely no problem being a role model. I live my life in a way that I feel completely comfortable with. I do not struggle with who I am, who I date, who I love, what I say or what I stand for, not just sexuality but everything. I am OK with people knowing who I am and what I do and know that I conduct myself in both a personal and professional way. And that's not to say that everyone has to do that. I admire people who want complete privacy and don't want people looking into their lives or don't want to be a role model. I get it. But Tegan and I are totally comfortable with the fact that a lot of our audience is looking to us as role models, an alternative to what the mainstream is. People like Kathleen Hanna and Ani DiFranco that represented something alternative or different was so impactful to me. It gave me such strength and to know that we might be like that on a certain level to certain people, I have no reservations about that.
But you also say you have those moments of doubt.
I do have those moments, just like one day I can feel like I can strut into the president of a record label's office and tell him what I think, and then I have other days where I go to my corner store to buy a beer, I have to show ID, I'm dressed like I'm 16 and I'm like, "God, this guy would never believe that I own a business and have employees and have made six albums and have traveled the world." I think it's really normal to sort of question how you're being perceived by other people, but art is like that. We're judged not just on our personalities, but we'll forever be judged on what we recorded. We just spent two months making an album and that will go into the public record as our artistic output, and it's terrifying 'cause at least as a human being you can change and you're constantly correcting and updating who you are. It's like your computer being refreshed constantly, whereas with music that's in stone. Maybe that's why we overcompensate so much and want our audience to have such constant, direct up to date with us because we are constantly changing, whereas our albums are so static.
Who are some of the bands you really admire as live musicians?
I definitely feel like Neil Young was obviously really incredible. That was our first US tour, touring with Neil Young, and I had no other experience besides playing in bars and people's basements or whatever. So it was at once exciting and incredible and a learning experience no like other, but it was almost so overwhelming and there was no perspective because we had nothing to compare it to. It was just like, "We're on tour and it's with Neil Young and everyday was kind of like, 'Do not f--- up. Do not light anything on fire or wreck anything or piss anyone off.'" It was so nerve-wracking and impressive. Everything we have done since has been about building an infrastructure that mimics or mirrors what that man has done as an artist, as a person, building an infrastructure of people who tour with you, who respect you and who you respect. Everything about that operation it was just mind-blowing. So that was definitely a highlight. I loved touring with Ryan Adams. I thought he was one of the most genuine, authentic people, and his show changed every night, and he could just be crazy or sit down at the piano and have 3,000 people be absolutely silent. We have toured with so many amazing people: Rufus Wainwright, the Killers; little bands that support us that blow our minds all the time. We've been really lucky.