A few years ago, when they were barely out of their teens, identical twin sisters Tegan and Sara were performing concerts as an acoustic duo. Even though the Canadians had recorded with a full group, it was just Tegan, Sara, and their guitars onstage when they opened for artists like Ryan Adams. Now 27 and enjoying the biggest buzz of their career, the gals (surname: Quinn) can finally afford to bring a band on the road with them.
The indie poppers (fronting a quintet) are now on the road in support of The Con, their fourth album and major-label debut. The record took more than eight months to make.
The sibs began writing songs during the year and a half that they spent on tour with 2004's So Jealous. Tegan lives in Vancouver; Sara is in Montreal. Each made her own demos. "They were like blueprints for the record," says Tegan. Those performances were sent to producer Chris Walla (who also plays guitar in Death Cab for Cutie), who ended up incorporating many of the solo tracks into the finished recordings, which were eventually completed in Portland, Oregon. "He was open for ideas," says Tegan. "We had a good interaction with him."
That synergy is evident throughout The Con and in the making-of videos that popped up online during the album's inception. Tegan, Sara, and Walla are joined on the album by drummer Jason McGerr (another Death Cab member), AFI guitarist Hunter Burgen, and former Weezer bassist and current Rentals frontman Matt Sharp. Various YouTube clips show the gang discussing songs, arrangements, and album titles. (Didja know The Con was called Sugar Spell It Out at one point?)
But Tegan and Sara's core bond is the one shared by the Quinns themselves. They were born in Calgary on September 19, 1980, and began recording together in their early teens. By 2000 (when they released their debut CD, This Business of Art), they were Lilith Fair tour vets and Neil Young's tourmates.
And even though they often bitch at one another onstage (usually in jest) and their working relationship can be as territorial as Lennon and McCartney's (most of the time, Tegan sings her songs, and Sara sings hers), the Quinns love and support each other. "We're sisters, and there is no rivalry," says Tegan. "It was always a good collaboration — from the beginning. But we didn't really choose to be a duo. We had initial success in a garage band, and that led to a record deal."
Tegan and Sara like the same things (they're both lesbians and sing in that wispy style favored by indie poppers), but their songs take different paths to reach the same destination. Tegan's compositions are more direct and emo-like; Sara's lean toward more complex settings and arrangements. And Tegan tends to open up more on record — especially on The Con. The mix has paid off. The album is their most commercially successful, and even "Radio has been very positive," notes Tegan.
Still, fans know that Tegan and Sara's live shows (where sing-alongs start with the very first song and don't stop till the very last encore) are where the real Tegan and Sara Experience goes down. The girls acknowledge this too — albeit for different reasons. "I have always held music as a sacred thing," says Tegan. "We work so hard to make and promote a record, but we don't make money from that. We live off our shows and merchandise."
It all comes down to one thing, she says: The industry just can't be trusted. It can't even get its shit together, often undercutting the very artists it's supposed to be promoting. "The labels have a relationship with retailers, and they don't want us to compete with them," sighs Tegan. "So it costs us $10 [apiece] to buy our own records to sell at shows. Because of that, profits become irrelevant."
No surprise then that Tegan and Sara — who recently launched another extensive tour that'll keep them on the road until next summer — have joined a long list of indie-minded artists thinking about what steps to take next. And whether they decide to release records on their own, distribute them through a major label, or just give them away for free, Tegan is certain that she and her sister are in it for the long run. "We spent 10 years making music," she says. "[This is how] we make our living."