After 15 years and seven albums, Tegan and Sara are nominated for four Juno Awards in the categories of Pop Album of the Year, Single of the Year, Group of the Year and Songwriter of the Year.
When Tegan Quin’s phone started receiving an inordinate volume of messages one day at the beginning of February, it didn’t send her mind racing toward thoughts of the Junos. She didn’t assume that after 15 years in the music business, US radio hits, primetime TV song placements, countless talk show appearances, festivals around the globe, a Grammy nod and a cover by The White Stripes, that the seventh Tegan and Sara album, Heartthrob, would suddenly spark high praise from the powers that be within the Canadian music industry. She didn’t take for granted that a pop breakthrough and a No. 3 debut on the Billboard 200 chart would transform Feb. 4 into anything other than a regular rehearsal day in Brooklyn for her and her identical twin Sara, who have been largely overlooked by the awards in the past.
Quin had forgotten the Juno announcements were in progress. She went online to the live feed and learned of four Tegan and Sara nominations – recognition that may lead to awards emblazoned with their names this month, but already signifies a major triumph for all those behind them.
“To have my dad emailing and saying, I believe the quote was, he felt his heart was going to burst – I could cry right now,” Quin says on the phone from Vancouver. “I feel so happy for (our parents). I would make music even if we didn’t get Juno nominations, but I feel proud for my family and my friends and most of all for our fans, especially the ones who have been with us for the last decade. … It validates their passion for us.”
The Calgary-born duo will perform at the March 30 event in Winnipeg, where they could walk away with hardware for pop album, single, group and songwriter of the year. The road to mainstream success has been dotted with sexism, homophobia, bias and moments of joy and opportunity so surreal – when Neil Young signs them to his record label and books them as his opener or Taylor Swift pulls them on stage for a duet – that Quin can’t help but pause and ask herself: “How fucking lucky are we?”
“It’s this funny thing, where our whole career has been full of these moments where it’s like: ‘How is this happening? How cool is this?’ It feels just as good now as it did then.”
The first show Tegan and Sara played outside of Calgary was for a cast of industry insiders at New Music West in Vancouver. It was the second show for the Grade 12 students, who were only just beginning to find the musical vehicle for their emotionally-charged harmonies. They packed up their guitars, flew home and went to school the next day.
“We were regular kids,” Quin says. “When we got home from school, our voicemail was full of messages from A&R record company people saying: ‘We want to talk to you about a record deal.’”
That deal was signed in 1999 with Vapor Records, Neil Young’s L.A.-based label. While it’s an undeniably proud moment for the sisters, it’s also a detail that seems to overshadow the fact they had already produced a full-length album completely on their own by that point. Under Feet Like Ours, released earlier in ‘99, caught the attention of Young’s manager and largely formed the blueprint for The Business of Art, their first record with Vapor.
The result was anything but instant stardom.
“I’m sure people on the outside thought ‘what is wrong with them? Why are they toiling away in this weird sports bar scene? Why do they think they’re going to be successful?’ We just did.”
The two 19 year olds behind the first record, were naive and open to the point where Quin doesn’t regret their early choices, but certainly wouldn’t make the same ones again.
“There’s absolutely no doubt in my mind that this did hurt us, especially in the late-’90s, where it was like: ‘Oh, they’re a Lilith Fair band, reading from their dairies.’ It pigeon holed us as a band only for women – and only women of a certain age.”
The upside of laying down no-holds-barred naiveté, of being empowered and unafraid: it threw the doors to their emotional content wide open and let fans to connect on a deep level.
“Our music has gotten a bit smoother and a bit more professional and the production has increased, but that emotional feeling is still there. It hasn’t been buffed out of us and I think that’s because we were so bold in the beginning. Had we been even a little less open about who we were, maybe we wouldn’t be the band that we are today.”
Their outspoken voice as LGBT advocates is a part of the context to everything they do. With the support of that community, Quin feels a responsibility to remain open. And when those near to her question the public’s fascination with their orientation, she doesn’t.
“That was such a big statement to come out of high school and (say): ‘We are empowered and we are strong and we are feminists. We write our songs and produce our records and self-finance everything and we’re gay.’ Looking back, we took on a lot.”
Tegan and Sara have continued a simple collaboration process, unaffected by their decisions to live on opposite side of the country. Tegan in Vancouver and Sara in Montreal, write individually and share their work electronically. The initial writing is always done solo, in a solitary and independent process, Quin says.
When their penultimate release, 2009’s Sainthood was nearing the end of its record cycle, Tegan and Sara reflected on what they loved about their careers and took stock of what they had left to accomplish. It was a short list. What happened next wasn’t a deliberate pop reinvention, but once it began, they ran with it.
“I just wrote a bunch of guitar-driven things and it didn’t inspire Sara,” says Quin, who felt the risk of becoming bored was greater than the risk of going after a mainstream audience. “I had been listening to a bunch of ‘80s and ‘90s dance music, thinking, I want to write a song like Ace of Base wrote. That’s how I wrote Closer and that really inspired everybody.”
On first listen, it feels pop, Quin says, “but the kind of pop we sort of love from the ‘80s and ‘90s, where the intense, dark themes are under that sheen of peppy-sounding awesomeness.”
Capital city connections
By the time Tegan and Sara released their second album, they had moved to Vancouver and made contact with Victoria’s Nick Blasko, co-founder/director of Atomique Productions Ltd. Blasko, along with his business partner Piers Henwood, offered to manage the band and in 2002, formed Amelia Artists Inc., through which Tegan and Sara remain represented. The early connection led Tegan and Sara to hire three Victoria musicians for their band, rehearse here and grace the Lucky Bar stage more than a handful of times. Add to that friends at the University of Victoria and family in Nanaimo – Tegan and Sara have long been mistaken for locals and don’t mind the mix up.
“We thought that was quite sweet. Because Sara’s in Montreal, we’re from Calgary, I live in Vancouver and we have all these people in Victoria, we have this funny thing where we feel like all of Canada think that we’re theirs – and we are. We encourage it.”
Baby onesie merch and bonus tracks
Screenwriting, acting, scoring musicals, producing television, fashion consulting, jingle-writing: Tegan and Sara have been offered plenty of opportunities to take a side step away from honing their craft as songwriters and performers.
“A few years ago when people started asking us about children and marriage and retiring, I remember thinking: ‘That’s sexism. Do they ask men that?’ Then I hit 30 and thought, ‘Oh God, I don’t want to do this forever.’”
As Quin ages and the audience grows younger, she finds teenagers, people the age she was when she entered the industry, increasingly interesting. A complete departure from music isn’t likely, but a stronger focus on youth empowerment is. Fueled by a desire not to spend their lives away from friends and family, they’ve begun to imagine a life not lived exclusively on a tour bus. Both logophiles can be found holed up with an episode of a storytelling podcast – think, This American Life, Soundlab – an interest that echoes her openness to funneling experiences through a new format. Until then, it’s Soduko and songwriting for Quin, who oozes delight and ownership over every one of her 33 years.
Tegan and Sara may have finally arrived at a cosmic moment in their career when the self-assuredness of their 30s collided with super-charged synths and their tortured, brooding reflection to deliver the kind of tightly-sewn, guilt-free power pop critics have been hungry for – one that is more infectious and undeniably more interesting than any preconceptions held about the duo.
“We spent our 20s hacking it out and toiling away in the indie rock world, playing clubs and feeling pretty content with that. It was like our education. In a strange way, it was like we graduated with our PhDs and now we really wanted to put it to the test.”
Tegan and Sara bring their musical education to the silver screen this month with Everything is Awesome on the soundtrack to The Lego Movie, to shows in Nanaimo and Victoria March 3-4, and eventually back to the studio after they tour out the rest of 2014 with Katy Perry. How exactly they’ll put it to the test next time, is something Quin says isn’t planned.
“We set a goal and we don’t meet it, but it’s still so much more than we ever thought possible. We literally were this kinda funny acoustic sister duo from Calgary who just thought it would be cool to be able to pay our bills. That’s what we have accomplished in a strange way, even though it’s so much more than that. All the accolades and the rest of it is just icing on the cake. Our definition of success is pretty much the same as it was in 1998.”