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Over a decade of making music together, twins Tegan and Sara Quin have quietly and relentlessly become a big deal. Well, perhaps not too quietly. The two are as notorious for their rapid-fire on-stage banter and often painfully frank manner with the press as they are for their ability to pen compact, decisively blunt songs.
Sainthood, their sixth studio album, is also far from quiet. Produced by Death Cab for Cutie guitarist Chris Walla and Howard Redekopp (co-producer 2004’s So Jealous), it’s a tight set of three-minute burners tied together by Tegan and Sara’s obsession with romantic ideals and the idea of achieving practised perfection — sainthood — in the eyes of a lover in return for adoration and devotion. “There’s this selflessness that happens at the beginning of a relationship,” Tegan says. “You’ll get up and go for coffee even if you don’t drink coffee. You’ll promise to be with someone forever when you’ve only known them five weeks. It’s this really intense passion, but it’s delusional, too.”
Even so, says Sara, “It was a real thinking record.” For a start, the process was not as driven by emotional considerations. “I think we’re more efficient about saying more while saying less,” Tegan says. “We’re much more precise about projecting the intention behind each song.” Still, even after multiple listens, Sainthood plays like a discussion between the sisters, the kind of intimate dialogue that’s a hallmark of their live shows and their songwriting, a point of fascination for their audiences and a habit that continually strengthens their collaboration. Their songwriting has never been more to the point, their instincts for lyrical and musical hooks never sharper.
The ongoing search for perfection also figures heavily in how the sisters interact. “The second my relationship with what I do breaks down, I start to take it out on Sara,” Tegan says. “At the beginning we were very hard on each another, and we had to figure out a healthier way to deal with each other. That took a lot of practice.”
“Honestly,” says Sara, “the longer we go, I think it gets easier. We’ve managed to find a balance. Tegan takes the lead when it comes to the business side of things and I try to take a handle on the creative side. We’re there for each other, to support and filter, but because we’re focused on different things, it distracts us from fighting and arguing.”
Choosing songs for the records is also far easier than anyone might believe, she adds. “Seriously, often we’re fighting for each other’s songs. It really is about how an album plays from beginning to end — what makes sense.”
Their songwriting process is, famously, two solitary pursuits. Part of that is geography; Sara is based in Montreal and Tegan in Vancouver. Even after exploring more collaborative songwriting, the instinct for solitude was hard to shake, says Sara, referring to “Intervention,” a song she and Tegan recently co-wrote with comedian Margaret Cho for her upcoming record. “I think we use each other in more of an editor’s role. That just became our pattern. It feels really awkward having anybody involved in the early, building-block stage.”
That said, for Sainthood both sisters wanted to push themselves forwards by pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone. “I was like, ‘What would make me uncomfortable?’” Sara says. “Well, writing with anyone, but with Tegan specifically. That would make me very uncomfortable.”
With that in mind, they hunkered down to write together in New Orleans, generating seven additional songs to add to the 40-some-odd contenders already up for consideration for the CD. “It was amazing,” says Sara, “but difficult. The songs we wrote were completely different.” Too different, it was decided, to make the album. “It almost felt like a different project. So we decided to keep them and explore that, maybe as a side project or for an EP that would feel cohesive because all the songs were written from the same place.”
Still, there are co-writes by Tegan and Sara, as well as with AFI’s Hunter Burgan, on Sainthood, songs written together, if remotely: “Three thousand miles apart, using computers,” Sara says. But although the New Orleans sessions may have to stand alone, the process is going to stick. “As the project gets older, there’s this desire to do things differently, if only to keep it fresh for ourselves. I think a big part of that is going to be songwriting together.”
In the spirit of keeping things fresh, T&S have also taken their first steps in book publishing, releasing, alongside Sainthood, a three-book set titled ON, IN, AT that starts with their 2008 U.S. national tour, includes the New Orleans writing sessions and ends with their headlining Australian tour in 2009, offering an intimate view of their lives that includes their writing process and on-the-road journal entries.
An appropriate offering considering Sainthood’s preoccupation with the endless give and take of relationships. “We wanted to give something to people that was more than they could get off the Internet,” Sara says. The books also include writing from Chris Walla, Dallas Green, Northern State and current tour mates An Horse. “It became a collective art project between our friends and family,” Sara says.
It also took the sisters back to a time when they were less of a big deal, before their multiple appearances on big late-night U.S. talk shows with Letterman and Leno, before their sold-out Canadian tours and increasingly enthusiastic global acclaim. “We’ve got a great team now, and I would never want to be shrink-wrapping our CDs in our living room,” says Sara, “but there was something really rewarding [when we did the books] about going back to doing everything on our own.”
While Tegan and Sara still maintain an impressive web presence and blog, vlog and Twitter more prolifically than many artists, they see the books as a means to provide fans with a more personal experience. “It’s the idea that there could be something tangible,” Tegan says. “People don’t buy records, race home and sit with the artwork any more. I felt the books could create that kind of vibe.”
The books are also an extension of the idea of Sainthood, and the sisters’ unique way of letting listeners in on their conversations: practising perfection but allowing room for error. “The whole point of being a performer,” Tegan says, “is to connect. When I’m writing, it’s about me. When they’re listening, I want it to be about them.”
“There’s a tendency in the music business to focus on what someone looks like or how many records they’ve sold or what kind of clothes they’re wearing,” Sara says. Which is exactly the opposite of what Tegan and Sara are getting at with Sainthood. “Being the best person you can be is actually something you have to work at,” she says. “There’s something very human and instinctual about not always being good.”