The Quin sisters learned the hard way that they’re probably better off when each writes material on her own
As bandmates and former wombmates, Tegan and Sara Quin have such an unwavering psychic bond that writing songs together is as natural as sharing placenta, right? Wrong. It’s actually the great Quin-twin myth. For the most part, these indie-pop sisters prefer working in solitary confinement and doing any and all collaboration via e-mail. And it’s not only because they live on opposite sides of the country (Vancouver and Montreal, respectively). It’s just their style. So when they made the decision to hole up in New Orleans for several days to hammer out some tunes for their latest album, Sainthood, it was kind of a big deal (well, for fans and music journalists, anyway).
“I had never done that with anyone.”¦like ever, and I’m not totally sure that I even like doing it,” admits Sara, who recently sat down with the Straight at the Sutton Place Hotel to talk about the making of Sainthood.
“It was a good challenge,” says Tegan, interviewed on the same day but in a separate room. “I didn’t feel uncomfortable being in a room with her, so much as I just felt like, ”˜Wow, we really don’t need to be in a room together to do this. I could just write this instrumental and send it to you—instead of you sitting there staring at me, just looking really bored.’ ”
By the end of the weeklong writing experiment, they had cranked out seven songs—seven songs that didn’t make the cut for Sainthood.
“We wrote 51 songs,” explains Sara, “so those seven songs had a lot of competition. They were less developed than some of the demos we had tons of time to work on. I still think there’s some really great ideas there. And I fooled around with the idea [of]—and talked to Tegan about—potentially releasing it as an EP.”
One of the songs that fell by the wayside was the title track, a song that sums up the album’s theme of pursuing love, romance, and devotion. Ergo, this number didn’t get passed over because it didn’t mesh thematically; the decision had more to do with publishing red tape. The song used some of the lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s “Came So Far for Beauty”, and Tegan and Sara couldn’t get the rights to use any of the words (even over top of their own music).
It’s safe to say it was a bit disappointing for Sara, who discovered the original song—but perhaps not as disappointing as it was for Tegan, who thought Sara had actually written the words herself. She remembers the first time she heard Sara read them out loud to music. “I was like, ”˜Jesus, she’s really talented. That is incredible! She just pulled that out of her ass right there. Wow, no wonder all the singles are always hers. She’s amazing! So lucky to be in this band’—all those thoughts are going on in my head,” jokes Tegan, who’s a little more off-the-cuff than her sister, who chooses her words very carefully. “When she stopped, I was like, ”˜That was really amazing, Sara. Did you write that today?’ And she was like, ”˜Ah, that was Leonard Cohen.’ I was like, ”˜Oh”¦ Okay, so we still aren’t that good.’ ”
But they were good enough to write some pretty sweet indie-pop ditties of their own, including “Don’t Rush”, an insanely catchy and urgent synth-pop warning to slow down. As well, there’s “Red Belt”, an awesomely emotive ’80s pop song that’s worthy of any John Hughes soundtrack.
And then there’s our very own “Hell”, a slightly punked-up headbopper that was partly inspired by Tegan’s East Van ’hood.
“When I wrote it, I had just moved into Gastown and I was living near Pigeon Park,” says Tegan, who at the time had just finished recording Tegan and Sara’s 2007 release, The Con, an album on which she explored the pangs of a very specific unrequited love. “I wanted to write desperately, but all I wanted to write about was this girl that I chased and everybody was like, ”˜There’s been enough songs about that. Do you have anything else to write about?’ I was like, ”˜No.’ So I was super sad and bummed out, and I kind of hit this wall, where I was like, ”˜I have no life. I have no personality. Everything’s been sucked out of me.’ ”
Happily, after some rather unorthodox therapy to deal with her love addiction, she was reinvigorated, not only to get more involved in her community, but to write some new material. And with that, Tegan found her “Hell”.
Incidentally, the woman who inspired The Con, and whom Tegan now lovingly refers to as “the Con”, caved.
“Yeah, I got the girl,” says Tegan. “Two years later, I got the girl. She came back. She wanted me—I know, right? I hardly tell people because they get mad at me—they’re like, ”˜Whah? But that never happens!’ But I got ”˜the Con’ because I stopped expecting anything.”¦and yeah, well, I pretended I was letting go.”
In addition to writing together in the same room, they recorded Sainthood with a full band—another difference between this album and their previous one, and something that wasn’t easy for Sara to adjust to.
“When you’re in the director’s chair for so long, it is very hard to get into a room where you are not telling everybody what to do,” she says. “There was a lot of ”˜We’ll see what happens—let’s see what sounds good.’ And I would be like, ”˜I don’t like that at all.’ I’m a very prepared, list-making, controlling person, and so this was jamming, and I was like, ”˜I don’t like this.’ But I grew into it. And I liked it.”
Tegan and Sara play the Orpheum Theatre on Tuesday and Wednesday (January 5 and 6).