When describing one's first impressions of Sara Quin, several phrases could apply. Chatting about Tegan and Sara's new album, Sainthood, at a Toronto hotel -- her twin sister, Tegan doing the same in another suite down the hall -- she comes off as friendly, funny (particularly in the self-deprecating sense), a champion of talk radio (her favourite program -- NPR's Fresh Air -- comes up at least twice).
Sara, however, has her own self-diagnosis: "I'm really socially awkward, and I'm super nervous."
Hopefully not in interviews, but certainly around other musicians, she explains. "I'm nervous around people -- my coworkers, essentially, I'm nervous around them. And not because I'm competitive or anything, it's more just not feeling worthy."
For instance, there was the time she ran into Swedish singer-songwriter Jens Lekman at Coachella a few years ago. "I was like epileptic," she says of meeting him, "I was just annoying." Or a more recent instance when she politely ambushed disco-punks the Gossip at L.A.X. "I was like 'Omigod, I love you, I dance to your records and now I'm going to fold myself into a small square and disappear."
An affliction of "super-nervousness" hasn't kept her from working exceedingly well with others, however. In between Tegan and Sara's last album, The Con (2007), and their latest, Sainthood (out this week), she's recorded with artists such as Dragonette and Tiesto; both she and Tegan have produced albums by other acts; they've even gotten into A&R, for Aussie band An Horse.
"It's really weird...I think Tegan and I are both really confident musicians," she explains, "but there's an intimacy about music that I don't think I'm particularly good at. I think that's what's weird with other musicians is music's something I just feel so solitary about."
That includes, it turns out, working with her own twin sister.
Tegan and Sara got their start as teenagers in their hometown of Calgary. From band battles and a folk-leaning self-released LP (Under Feet Like Ours), they found themselves signed to Neil Young's Vapor Records label in 2000, then soon after toured the world with Shakey himself. Several pop-rocking albums (including Rolling Stone's pick for best album of 2004, So Jealous) followed, as did the requisite tours, award nominations (two Juno nods for alternative album of the year) and late-night TV appearances.
"This is our sixth record and we had never written together," says Sara -- the italics not even close to capturing her emphasis. "But we had never written with other people either."
She's referring to Tegan's ongoing songwriting collaboration with AFI's Hunter Burgan. "I was really interested in the results," Sara explains. "I mean, they were very Tegan, but they were something different altogether."
"Tegan and I had collaborated in other ways, you know, we'd always sent music to each other," Sara explains. (When not traversing the continent as they currently are, doing press and performances in support of Sainthood, Sara lives in Montreal and Tegan resides in Vancouver.) "Like, I'd let Tegan write guitar parts or background vocals or something, but I wondered what it would be like to just send her an instrumental. What would she write?"
So, Sara proposed a trip to New Orleans. The sisters went, and there they began hammering out songs on nothing but an electric guitar and a drum kit. The results were different from anything they'd ever written, Sara says, though only one tune, "Paperback Head," made Sainthood's final cut. (She says, however, that she'd love to release the outtakes as an EP.) (More on that here.)
The time spent in New Orleans, however, did help them determine the album's theme: "obsession with romantic ideals."
Love, devotion and the turmoil those things bring have long been Tegan and Sara's (ahem) holy trinity of lyrical inspiration. Their hearts are as firmly pinned to their sleeves as ever on Sainthood. And the power-pop hooks remain, as well. Take lead single, "Hell" with its breathless and jittering rock chorus. Or "The Cure," a reflective, would-be hit, full of '90s college rock nostalgia and which features Tegan smoothing and softening her typically staccato vocals.
Back to the album's subject matter, though: the record is about those classic themes of love and devotion. And during the making of the album, Sara says she took inspiration from artists who write about that sort of stuff better than anyone else -- and you probably already have their ringtones.
"Pretty much the only music I was listening to between The Con and this record was like The Dream, I loved. I loved the T.I. record. I was pretty much listening to hip hop and R&B.
"And I was sort of getting back into the Supremes and Patsy Cline, stuff from my past, older stuff. And I was like, you know: this music right now is like the torch music I used to love when I was listening to super-super heart on your sleeve sort of rock music. Like breakup songs -- like omigod I can't believe you're leaving me for someone else kind of songs. And hip hop and R&B is doing that right now. And they're doing it better than we're doing it because we're so afraid to be labelled 'emo.' Like you're 'too emotional' it's tacky."
One standout on the album, "Alligator," is the closest thing to a tune directly influenced by Sara's R&B O.D. The tune highlights a stripped down R&B keyboard groove, with Sara's vocals occasionally lifting into a wispy trill on the chorus -- more in the vein of a video vixen than one half of Canada's foremost indie-pop duo.
Apart from that one track, though, R&B didn't so much affect what Sara wrote, as how she wrote.
"I like that a lot of the time on those records they're sort of conceptual. It doesn't feel like they're writing about just one experience, they might be writing about their friends or other experiences they had years ago, or sometimes it just feels fictional. Maybe they're just making it up.
"I wasn't in a relationship so I was thinking about past relationships, I was thinking about my parents' divorce, I was thinking about love in general and devotion and so I feel like the theme is still devotion and love and relationships and yet it wasn't all first person all the time."
"When you write music that's emotional or about love or romance or whatever, you do have to intellectualize it, otherwise people will be like 'oh, that's just a love song, or it's just a this song or a that song.' But who the fuck writes about anything else?" she says laughing. "Who - besides the odd political band -- aren't we all writing about relationships and dynamics?"