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On 'Sainthood' and mortal aspirations

On 'Sainthood' and mortal aspirations One-half of Tegan and Sara talks about their latest CD, the awkwardness of collaboration and the obsession with being authentic

Patrick Caldwell

Identical twins Tegan and Sara Quin were a tender 17 years old when they recorded their first demo in the studio of their Calgary, Alberta, high school in 1997. They've ventured a long way since then, with multiple world tours under their belts, several appearances on late-night television and six full-length albums. But they've never sacrificed the spiky pop-rock rhythms and intimate, confessional lyrics that make them a go-to standard for head-banging fun, a dependable duo with equal appeal for music nerds and teenage girls just learning how to rock.

Their latest, last year's 'Sainthood,' furthered the development begun on 2007's well-received 'The Con,' incorporating dashes of new wave pop with the sisters' trademark relationship-examining lyricism. It's also their first to feature a song, 'Paperback Head,' co-written by both musicians, who usually write their songs individually. Ahead of performing Friday night at Bass Concert Hall, Sara spoke with the American-Statesman by phone to discuss the trials of the siblings' early tours, their 'awkward' co-writing process and the thematic link behind their past two albums.

American-Statesman: You're smack-dab in the middle of a lengthy tour. Do you find that lifestyle exhausting?

Sara Quin: No, I think because everything is in moderation. We live a pretty functional, civilized kind of lifestyle now. Back in the day, a day off usually meant 'Get in the van and drive 16 hours,' and that was exhausting.

You started off touring in 2000. How's the process changed since those halcyon days?

It's changed in all the ways that it possibly could. When we first started out — people sometimes think we're exaggerating here but we're really not — we were literally touring Canada on a bus. We'd play a show, pack up our gear and the promoter would drop us off at the Greyhound station and we'd bus to the next place. We played every level of coffee shop, bar, theater and club in every city in Canada. We did bus tours and car tours and van tours; we've seen things completely change. And I kind of love that. I have a soft spot for some of the harder times in our careers, because our best stories or bits of accomplishment came out of it.

One of my favorite things about seeing you and Tegan live is your comedic stage banter. Do you plan that out at all? Is it like stand-up comedy where you do the same routine in every city?

No, and there's been many times where the stage banter has gone into train-wreck territory, and I've thought, 'Hey, you know, we should really choreograph this in advance.' But no, we're always so spontaneous and impulsive about what we talk about that I've never really thought about whether it would be more effective to have a plan. I mean, we're sisters, so we always kind of have something to talk about. We can riff and banter because the conversation between the two of us is very natural. We're always talking to one another. There's a little bit of feedback loop element to us, and I think that's funny.

'Sainthood' is your second album to be produced by Chris Walla, of Death Cab for Cutie. What about working with Walla appeals to you?

We're just very similar, even in the hours we keep. 'The Con' felt like it was just me and Tegan and Chris making a record in a basement for a couple of months. It was sort of insular. There was a real cohesive feeling about what we were trying to do and the way we were trying to execute it. So when we finished it, I had in the back of the mind a real sense of melancholy that it was all said and done. I was sad it was over. So I was really happy to have him back on board. And there's something very OCD and science-y and uptight about him. He really appeals to that person in me that says, 'Everything must be clean and organized and we must know exactly what we're going to be doing in six minutes, one hour, one week and one month!'

It's also the first album to feature a song co-written by both of you. I've read interviews that suggest you tend to take a more instrumental approach to writing while Tegan is more lyrical. Was it awkward to combine your styles?

There were definite moments of awkwardness. I don't know if it was so much about how we write as it was about how little we've worked together. If we'd had more experience, it would have been less awkward. I'd never sat in a room with someone and attempted to write something before. It's funny because, when you're sitting down and writing with someone, you become microscopically aware of their habits and breathing and twitching. That made the process a little bit more complicated than either of us had imagined. And we do have such different approaches. I love to start writing with instrumentals, building things from the bottom up, and being able to chop things up and mess around before I even start working on the words. Now, once I do finally get to lyrics I labor over them a lot, almost more than anything else, but I do them last. And Tegan really does do it exactly the opposite way. She starts writing lyrics right away. She was like a secretary in the '50s — she'd just sit down at the keys and start banging away like she was transcribing something and she'd just have so many lyrics. It was almost like a movie or something. I'd played with her and lived with her all this time and still couldn't believe it.

You've mentioned that the title of the album, and one of its themes, is inspired by the Leonard Cohen song 'Came So Far For Beauty,' and the notion that, in relationships, we present ourselves in a way that's something of a facade. That theme was very present on 'The Con,' too. What do you find compelling about that idea?

Well, 'The Con' was really Tegan's concept and her title, but I felt like it really worked for me. I was writing from within a really long-term relationship, and I had recently lost my grandmother who was like a mom to me. And I was settled into this comfortable relationship and had a will and all this, and I was 25, 26 and I just felt really old. Like I was presenting this image of myself during the day and laying awake at night just dying inside thinking it was so dishonest. With 'Sainthood' we both agreed it was sort of a spin-off on this idea of being something different from what you are, or different versions of yourself. 'Sainthood' is a kind of response to 'The Con.'

Is there a particular reason that idea resonated with both of you?

It really worked for us because we are the kind of people who really want to be human, and we're obsessed with being authentic and transparent, and it bothers us when we're not. I don't have to be Lady Gaga. And I love Lady Gaga, but I also love that I don't have to be a character. I don't have to stand beside some falsehood and work at being Sara Quin. I don't need a persona.

Do you and Tegan usually try to come to your albums with a theme?

Not in the past, no, we haven't usually had a theme. We've always just sort of written songs and multiple ideas and themes into something that could be one topic for both of us. But with this one, we decided really early on that we were going to call it 'Sainthood,' and a lot of the material came way after we'd decided that title. So it was a decision we made early on. And it was actually really nice to be able to know all this going into the recording process, to have ideas about what we wanted to say. I felt like we were thinking in terms of creating a Broadway play or something, like, 'Here we are day 16 on "Sainthood," rather than being in Chris' basement and not knowing what we were doing.'