/ FACES Magazine May/June 2017
Tegan & Sara
Calgary born Tegan and Sara Quin have been sweeping audiences off their feet since they began their music careers. Although they might say that is an exaggeration, North America fell in love with them over a long and explosive courtship which peaked in early 2007 as they flew up the pop charts. The world had finally caught up with the duo and sped off into the sunset with their mixed bag of genre music in tow. With experience in the music industry for around 20 years, Tegan and Sara have work with various record labels from Vapor Records to Warner Bros. Having been nominated for Best Long Form Music Video at the Grammys in 2013, to winning three Juno awards that very same year, they’ve become a formidable talent that the world won’t soon forget.
As twins in the spotlight of Canadian music, Sara describes their relationship as the ultimate tennis match—a game that has led them to create top-charting hits, to become voices for the LGBTQ community, and soon to perform as a headlining act of this year’s Bluesfest.
FM: Tell us about your life growing up with Tegan, did you have any other siblings?
SQ: I feel like we had a good childhood. My parents both worked, we were in piano lessons and karate – we lived a standard, Canadian, middle class life. I think it shocked everyone, including us, that we ended up in the arts. Even though we had taken lessons and shown an interest in music we didn’t really exude talent (laughs). Our piano teacher was always mad that we weren’t practicing in between lessons. Then all of a sudden, at around 14 or 15 we started writing our own songs which quickly turned into forming a band, then recording ourselves at school, selling demo tapes, booking our own shows at peoples’ parties – it just kind of bloomed out of nowhere. It was just Tegan and I, we didn’t have any other siblings. We were very close growing up and had similar interests so the band was formed organically. We found we really had a knack for business and promoting ourselves too.
FM: Do you feel your close relationship as sisters and twins allowed you to do some things that are unconventional?
SQ: The two of us have always been charismatic, even when we were little. As kids, we loved making up plays, Tegan even went through a weird clown faze. We had a knack for entertainment. But, I wouldn’t say that back then people were thinking we were natural born performers. There was something special, though, about having Tegan because we were so collaborative and creative. Even when we were adolescents and would fight, there was something truly special about entertaining people. We actually were lucky to have a lot of breathing room as we were growing up I think because our parents didn’t try to get us a manager or something. It allowed us to develop our style in an organic way.
FM: Did you ever find that you two, being twins, were competitive at all growing up or did you learn to share the spotlight?
SQ: I think that there’s a negative connotation whenever someone uses the word ‘competition.’ My relationship with Tegan is more like two people playing a tennis match. You can’t succeed and do better if there isn’t someone on the other side of the net who’s comparable to you. It’s not fun to play against someone who you can just slaughter or who is going to beat you every single time. That tension that we have between us and the talent that we both have is what makes the band work. If Tegan is having a particularly good show, that can make me work harder or sometimes back off a little bit and let her have the spotlight. That way I can regenerate and come back with new ideas. So, yes, there is a sense of competition but it’s more so to benefit each other.
FM: You two have a lot of similar interests and often do most things together, but are there specific areas in your life for just being yourself without your twin?
SQ: Oh, yeah. Especially as we get older and we’re able to engage the different parts of ourselves, we’ve become really different. I lived in Montreal for 13 years and Tegan lived in Vancouver, they’re very different cities and art worlds. Although we’ve become different, we still have a lot of similar interests and value systems. Obviously, we have the same history and job so there’s lots of stuff that keeps us connected.
FM: Who would you say has been your biggest influence both lyrically and musically?
SQ: I’ve always been inspired by music but within the last few years I’ve found that consuming other forms of art is important to me. The majority of my inspiration for writing doesn’t necessarily come from music but whatever’s going on in my life or a book or a movie I’ve seen. I’m always putting down ideas. A turn of phrase or a story can get my attention sometimes, I’m always pulling things from art or whatever I’m into at the moment. For the music portion, I’m usually a listener first and try not to see it in the context of my job. But, I’m an avid listener who is easily inspired by any genre—whether it’s pop or hip-hop. Spotify and Apple Music subscriptions allow me to explore new things as well as go back to stuff I loved in the past. I appreciate the ‘rabbit-hole’ nature of those services.
FM: Back in 2000, you toured with Neil Young and the Pretenders. Did you get to spend time with him and did he have any advice for you? Were there any amazing memories from that?
SQ: I have a lot of amazing memories from that for sure! We were young—I think 20 years old—and I think that when we toured with them, it felt like we were kids who were brought to an adult party. There was that mentality of if we stay out of the way and be quiet, maybe we’ll learn something. It was our very first American tour, and we were playing in front of mostly empty amphitheatres. Often, we were going on really early once doors had opened and it was a tough crowd. We were heckled, mostly nicely, which at the time, made it incredibly challenging. In retrospect, it’s probably part of why we are so versatile and were open for lots of different types of people as well as different festivals. We’re good at engaging audiences who don’t necessarily know who we are and have been able to sharpen up a set of skills that have come in handy for 20 years (laughs).
FM: How do you think your music and style has changed from your first album to your most recent album like Love You to Death or Boyfriend?
SQ: I think as far as the production and sound of an album, those are reflections of what we’re listening to and the advancements in our own skillsets. I love making music for myself and a lot of that music doesn’t necessarily get heard by anybody. The band is a very specific type of music and collaboration between Tegan and I so the album is just a reflection of the partnership of those ideas. If I’m listening to weird electronic music and Tegan is listening to some Rock, we have to find a way to make that work together. That has allowed us to come up with things that are original and doesn’t necessarily sound like what other people are doing. Over the years, as our sound was changing, there was a lot of attention paid to the people that would say “Ew, I liked them better when they played guitar” or “I liked them when they were less popular.” There’s always those conversations with bands who have been around for a long time and for me, I would be so board if we were still making the same records we did years ago. I like the challenge of trying to come up with something different every single time. The one thing I think that has connected all those albums and has allowed us to stay connected to our fan base is that the songs are just songs. Even if the production doesn’t work, the lyrics and theme of the songs are in that same ethos of the things we did when we were younger.
FM: What is the dynamic like when you and Tegan are creating?
SQ: We do about 90 percent of our writing independent of one another and other people. We both have little home studios where we will record content that is very textured and full of ideas. Then when we’re done we’ll send the sessions to each other to see what the other thinks. A lot of the work is done by the time we start collaborating with each other. That’s what we’ve always done and we’re good at it. If you’re surrounded by people, there’s voices and opinions so that time before anyone hears the music is very sacred for me. It’s a way to ensure that the music and story of it is deeply personal for us.
FM: You’re coming to Ottawa for Bluesfest this summer as one of the bigger names and, of course, we’re all super excited to have you guys. Have you been to Ottawa often? What are your favourite parts of the city? And, what do you have planned for the show?
SQ: We’ve been to Ottawa quite a lot over the years, and it’s always a place that we look forward to performing at. For me, when I lived in Montreal, I loved playing in Ottawa because it meant that I was close to home (laughs). After the show in Ottawa, I would usually drive back home to my apartment in Montreal. So, I always see it as a sort of sister city. We’ve done small shows in theatres and at events and those are often about the dynamics and moments of intimacy. Inside quote? But, festivals are about coming and blowing the gates off. You have to keep a mass of people entertained, feeling excited, having fun, whatever. Your emotions are exaggerated. With smaller venues, you can do slight gestures but festivals are like playing at the back of the field. It’s fun, it’s athletic and theatrical. Every moment of the show has to be hyperbolic.
FM: You have toured in the US a lot, so what makes you proudest to be Canadian?
SQ: Our biggest market and the place where we spend the majority of our time is the States. Building our career and fan base down here took a decade. As I’ve gotten older I’ve learned to appreciate not only growing up in Canada but to have a continued respect for the country. We have a good reputation and whether or not Tegan and I deserve it(laughs), I’m always proud to tell people I’m Canadian. They assume that we’re all sweet, feminist, socialist, kind, and cute like Justin Trudeau – and I’m happy to roll with that. In all seriousness, the thing we talk about the most, with not only people in the States but internationally, is the tremendous support from the Canadian government. It’s the art grants and the funding, that kind of support that’s ingrained in our society. There are so many times that I’ve stopped and thought “Man if we hadn’t had that one grant or financial support, I don’t know where we’d be.” It’s not about money but really about that feeling of the government letting us know we have value. However, Canada isn’t perfect either. Over the years, I learned we need to be conscious of who is receiving that money and how it breaks down. There’s an immense amount of diversity in Canada but I don’t always think that the support and the funding is getting to those minorities. Whether it’s queer people, trans people, people of colour, people with disabilities, or even people who have unique voices; I don’t think Canada has always done everything it could to amplify them. I worry that there are young people who might not have the experience we did so I hope to help them in talking about it.
FM: Although you’ve mostly answered our second last question, can you talk about the Tegan and Sara Foundation and not only how it came to be but how people can support the mission?
SQ: We’ve always been activists and tried to have a philanthropic approach to what we do whenever we can. Whether it’s raising money for different organisations on tour or have people in political organisations come out. We’ve always been motivated by what’s happening in the LGBTQ community and being gay ourselves, it’s very close to home. As much as it’s been a big part of our lives, I think that, especially right now in the current political climate, formulating the actual foundation would allow us to be proactive and reactive. But, also, just do more. Instead of being ‘mom-and-pop’ about it, we can address some blind spots and some difficulties our community still faces. Specifically right now, after doing research over the course of a year and meeting lots of different people and organizations, one of the things that’s been the most troubling for us is the statistics around women’s health. You heard a lot about it on the news but when you drill down to the statistics of lesbian health, or trans health, or women of colour, they’re a lot more concerning. There’s a lack of response to those issues. That’s not necessarily related to the world that we’ve been in for the last 20 years and it’s definitely a learning curve, but with the foundation rather than raising money at shows, we can gain a substantial amount to address this concern. Moreover, we can do it by partnering with people who aren’t in the music industry. It’s exciting for us and has inspired us in a way that we haven’t felt in many years.
FM: What would be a piece of advice you would give to yourself, that girl who is about to embark on this journey that you have now shared with your sister for so many years?
SQ: I know that there are things I would tell myself but, honestly, I’m happy with the things I’ve gone through and the experiences I’ve had. I do look back on certain points in my life that were painful or whatever and wish I could’ve bypassed them but then I wouldn’t have written a song or met certain people. There have been past relationships that haven’t worked out but now I’ve met someone I really love and have been with them for seven years. You have to be dumped to find that special person and the same can be said for a career. You need to have the difficult years so that when your career is good you can know it is because you remember what it was like when things were bad.