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Tegan and Sara: Together Apart

By Tristan Staddon on August 10, 2007


The closer Canadian twins Tegan and Sara come into focus, the clearer it becomes how different they've always been.

Twins, you know, share many things. Mannerisms, dispositions, occasionally facial features. The list goes on like a genetic grocery tally, fascinating and unpredictable for reasons that charm as much as they confound. The similarities shared by Calgary-born siblings Tegan and Sara Quin stretch to the fullest extent, sharing as they do, a lifetime of memories, a vocation, a catalogue of creativity, and most would suspect a single musical identity in addition to their dark coifs and divine cheekbones.

With a dedicated following and an impressive resume of achievements (signing to Neil Young's Vapor Records fresh out of high school; playing Letterman as 20-year olds; receiving Juno nominations this year and last), Tegan and Sara seemed likely to carve out a career as pop jewellers capable of impressing in any number of genres or formats. But when 2004's charmingly disarming So Jealous secured them tours with everyone from the Killers to Ryan Adams, the expectations and interest surrounding the sisters fifth album reached an all-time high. To recover from their time on the road, the Quins took a year all of 2006 to write their follow-up. But when they returned home, Tegan and Sara the same sisters who've shared everything from a basement bedroom in their parents house to a maturing mèlange of musical talentsfound themselves writing from dramatically different headspaces. Reconciling the results would not be easy.

Fresh from the trappings of a five-year romancethe end of which roughly coincided with the completion of So Jealous' touring cycleTegan settled into her Vancouver home, writing early and often, buoyed by the excitement, restlessness, liberty and dread ("And that was just during the commercial breaks,"she laughs) that came with her new personal status. Sara, meanwhile, returned to Montreal worried about her sister, yes, but also ruminating on lost family members, her own anxiety issues (about everything from her admittedly stable relationship to their label's imminent dissolution) and her struggles with life and death.

After months of file-sharing and online collaboration, several things were clear. For one, the divides they'd noticed in each others' approaches hadn't narrowed. And the record would be, for all intents and purposes, bi-polar. But beneath the forces driving the songs apart there also existed an inextricable constant: the pursuit of meaning despite the devastation guaranteed by inevitable loss. Raw. Sweet. Frightening. Deceptive. Solitary. Together. Apart. A con? Once the idea burrowed into the Quins, it couldn't be shaken, serving as both a muse and a menace to their new songs. And though it too will invariably gain new meanings as these songs age, that sentiment remains rooted at the center of their new album, The Con.

"The idea of having this very full life of buying property and getting married and having a job... do these things really ensure any sort of peace in your life?" asks Tegan. "Or is it that ultimately we're just going to die and it's a con that we create all of these things around us because we don't really have a say in how it all works out?"

"So much of this record stems from me thinking about life and death," says Sara, "that I was able to apply Tegan's definition of The Con to my own experience. I was especially thinking about my grandpa. He spent 60 years with my grandma and he was devastated when she died. It wasn't a happy thing; there was no joyous celebration of their life together. So when Tegan started explaining the record, I started thinking that these unions we make are basically a con. You're alone when you die. You're alone when you come into this worldunless you're me and Tegan. I wrote a lot of these songs during the day, but a lot of the ideas were hatched at night."

Before entering producer Chris Walla's Hall Of Justice studio in January, the duo demo-ed extensively, delving deeper into soulful subject matter and arranging their complex compositions during pre-production sessions at SaraÕs Montreal loft. By the time they'd recruited Death Cab For Cutie drummer Jason McGerr, former tourmate and Weezer/Rentals member Matt Sharp, guitarist Ted Gowans and AFI bassist Hunter Burgan to play Sara and Tegan's songs, respectively, the music bore an intensity none of their previous work had even approached. So whether it's the longing recollections of "Nineteen", the weary lyrical rounds and erratic pulse of "Are You Ten Years Ago," or the title track's chilling soul search, each element of The Con offers an almost uncomfortable insight into its creators' mind. And while there's still room for buoyant pop gems like "Back In Your Head" to sprout from The Con's scorched emotional earth, even those songs scream out, however exuberantly, with struggles over the value of intimacy and purpose.

"My songs horrified me, because they suddenly seemed so much more relevant to me," remembers Sara. "And Tegan's songs fucking depressed me. The record was almost unlistenable at that point because everything was so raw. It almost didn't seem like us. It was like I was listening to a band that knew exactly what I was feeling and I was like, 'Shut up!'"

The more time one spends lost in The Con, the less surprising it becomes that Walla's console actually burst into flame while the disc was being mixed. ("He was really calm about that, even though everything was on fire," remembers Sara.) And though the album remains unquestionably bi-polar, the way it both frames and accents the development of two tender, flawed musical identities makes the albumnot to mention Tegan and Sara, the musical entitythat much stronger. And while The Con serves to illustrate how different they are from each other, Sara and Tegan nonetheless remain each others' best creative foils, councils and ultimately, friends. Those bonds will never be mistaken for cons. 

"I think when you're around someone enough it transcends any descriptor," says Sara. "You just know that you have a deep connection and that you'll always have that no matter where you go. Most people need eight-to-10 hours a day to not be monitored by the person who knows them better than anybody. But Tegan and I have found a way to do it without burning each other out.

"There are times when I feel like we've come so far and there are times where I'm literally imagining myself pushing her out of a moving car. When you're really committed to someone through thick or thinall joking asidethat's probably why I go to the extreme. I'm not like, 'Maybe we need to think about side projects.' I'm like, 'She has to die.' It's like in the olden days when they didn't have divorce. There's almost the mentality between Tegan and I that the only way we're going to be alone is if we die. Which would be awful. So we're just together.

Together. But perhaps more than ever, apart.   F

This article is from FILTER Issue 26