Thursday, November 19, 2009

Lives of the saints

Canadian duo Tegan and Sara find better loving through artistry

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is known for its high incidence of poverty, drug use and crime. Often referred to as “Canada’s poorest postal code,” it’s not the first place you would associate with romance. Yet the neighbourhood provides the backdrop for Hell, the lead single off Tegan and Sara’s new album, Sainthood.

An arresting power pop anthem, Hell uses the themes of addiction and struggle as metaphors for unrequited love.

“Four ways to remove all the bad that we do from the heart and soul of the city, sad and cold,” sings Tegan Quin, “Four ways to collect what we say and what we save, to discard and find a brand new way.”

This material gives you a sense of the overarching mood of Sainthood, the sixth studio album by the Calgary-bred twins. The title is a nod to Leonard Cohen’s 1979 song Came So Far for Beauty, itself an ode to the pursuit of love. The songs on Sainthood, the Quins claim, examine the ways in which we compromise ourselves when we’re blinded by infatuation.

"I was writing about the pursuit of someone, but I was also pursuing someone who was in a relationship,” Sara Quin explains, casting a quick look at her sister, who sits across the table from her during a recent interview in Toronto. “It gave me this strange perspective on my parents’ divorce, on my own relationship breakups over the past few years, relationships that Tegan has been in, that friends have been in, my grandparents’ relationship.

"As different as they all are, and as individual as we all are, there’s something universal about rejection and impotence and redemption.”

Sara realized it was the same old story of searching for salvation in someone else’s arms. That heightened awareness, she says, led to a newfound distance in her songwriting. Flinty resolve runs throughout Sainthood. “I deserve this anguish on my house,” Sara yelps on Night Watch, a sharp look at the sense of failure that accompanies a divorce. Her own actions receive a similarly critical treatment in Alligator, which finds Sara pining for a girl who’s pulling away from her (both Quins are gay). “Relentless, it’s true,” she sings, “My motor mouth runs over you.”

At 29, the Quin sisters have been performing professionally for over a decade. Their early career was riddled with charmed encounters – at 18, they won a battle of the bands contest, and signed a Canadian deal with Neil Young’s Vapor Records label not long after that.

By the time they released their fourth album, So Jealous (2004), the two had completely reworked their aesthetic, replacing raggedy folk-rock ballads with streamlined songs that combined angular electric guitar and synth-pop. Not coincidentally, So Jealous provided Tegan and Sara with their first major radio hit, Walking with a Ghost, a catchy single that was later covered by the White Stripes.

Their last album, The Con (2007), marked their first time working with producer Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie), who also produced Sainthood. It earned them a Juno nomination for Alternative Album of the Year.

“Standing there with Sainthood in my hand and looking back at the five last records we did, I’m not totally sure sometimes what I was trying to say,” says Tegan. “And I was so sure when [we put those records] out. You lose touch with what you were.”

The Quin sisters don’t typically write songs together, a fact that baffles those who assume that, as twins, they share some psychic connection.

“A guy interviewed me from some southern radio station the other day and asked, ‘So, like, does Sara ever bring you a song and you’re like, “Oh my god, I had that same idea”? ‘Cause you guys, like, share DNA, so you have the same brain,’” Tegan groans, rolling her eyes. “I wanted to shoot back, ‘No, we don’t have the same brain, you moron!’”

For Sainthood, the Quin sisters holed up in a spooky joint in New Orleans and willed themselves to work as a team. Only one of the co-written ventures (the mantra-like Paperback Head ) made the cut, but they documented the process for In, one of three impressive-looking coffee table books offered as part of a deluxe run of Sainthood. Priced at a hefty $80, a limited-edition presale version was out of stock by early October, which speaks volumes about the ardent nature of Tegan and Sara fans.

The Quins work very hard to maintain a direct pipeline between themselves and their listeners. The Con was packaged with a behind-the-scenes DVD, and they’ve spun that intimate approach into an ongoing series of anecdotal video blogs. On stage, the two mine sibling rivalry for humorous effect.

Though they seem eager to yammer on about the minutiae of their daily lives on camera, the Quins say the trick is that they’re constantly playing the part of antic performers.

“I remember getting our website built in 1998 and writing back to fan mail on dial-up,” says Tegan. “It took days to write back to, like, 20 emails. And people would ask questions about us, and our relationships and our sexuality. We’d get these emails from all over the world.

"At the beginning, it didn’t feel too intense. And then all of a sudden one day, it was really big and busy and crazy. We’ve definitely learned where the line is, and how much of ourselves we give.”

Says Sara: “We sort of present ourselves as these charismatic and comfortable people: We’re fun! Look at how we’re going with the flow! Here are all my thoughts and opinions!”

“But we aren’t like that in our regular lives,” adds Tegan. “A lot of our friends talk about how weird it is to see us play. Not only because of the screaming fans and the whole rock star vibe, with lights and tickets and people and seats. But they’re like, ‘It’s so strange, because you guys really aren’t like that until attention is put on you.’”

It’s tricky to find that balance between transparency and protecting your privacy. “We were reflecting what the audience wanted to see,” says Tegan, as she tries to explain how the two developed their performance personas.

It’s not so different, the Quin sisters acknowledge, from that process of contorting yourself to match some saintly ideal in the hopes of winning over a potential sweetheart. Try too hard, and you’ll lose yourself and the girl.