Though they are, by unanimous consensus, extremely nice people—generous with fans, chatty onstage, active in social-justice causes—Tegan and Sara Quin are also seriously intense. Accelerating quickly from the loping folk-funk of their 1999 debut Under Feet Like Ours, with 2004’s So Jealous the Canadian twin-sister singer-songwriters created a searing, surging statement on love, hurt, and longing that I put at the top of my list of the decade’s best albums. Their 2007 follow-up The Con, more musically complex, upped the ante and earned them an even larger audience. As they recuperated between legs of the world tour supporting their new album Sainthood—a tour that comes to the Orpheum Theatre on March 24—I spoke by phone with Sara about music, relationships, Minneapolis, Twitter, Bruce Springsteen, and her only t-shirt.
Spin reported that you and Tegan sometimes switch places for interviews. If I were to ask you a question to prove that you’re actually Sara, what question would I ask?
Actually, we’ve never knowingly done that. Sometimes people have mixed it up and only at the end of an interview they realize that they were actually talking with me when they thought they were talking with Tegan, or vice-versa, and we laugh it off out of politeness, but we’ve never deliberately deceived anyone. It’s this interesting thing—from the outside, people assume we’re so interchangable, but when I look at Tegan’s face, I think, how could anyone mistake me for her? She’s such a totally different person; to me, if I tried to pretend I was her, it would be as obviously wrong as if I were pretending to be you. So I’m not sure what the right question would even be. Even the way she speaks to people—it’s so different. I’m always surprised when people confuse us.
The Minneapolis show will be the first show of this leg of the tour. Are you making any significant changes?
No, I feel like things are getting really good. We fool around with the set list, but this is the best show we’ve ever toured. It feels really great to be pulling from different albums; it’s a fun challenge for us to form a cohesive show where it’s not too strange for us to be playing a song from four albums ago and then play a new one. We’ve got a great show.
You’ve played here many times. Do you have any favorite Minneapolis memories?
Minneapolis is so close to Winnipeg that even when we first started we could always drop down there and find an audience. There was a college radio station there that would play us, and for us to cross the border to play to people was a big deal for us. We’ve been playing there for like ten years; we’ve done dozens of shows, our own and opening for other people. They’re all great memories. Even the skyline feels like Calgary’s, so in Minneapolis there’s something very reminiscent of home for us.
On stage, on your Web site, and now even on Twitter you and Tegan really open yourselves up to your fans, but without oversharing.
That’s a fine line that we’re always challenging ourselves to define. I really struggle with the idea of Twitter. Tegan has a Twitter account and posts on behalf of herself and the band—but I struggle with it, though it’s hard to articulate why. We’ve always had a great dialogue with our audience through video blogs and the news page on our Web site, we talk on stage, we do meet-and-greets—we do a lot of things to open dialogue, but there’s something about Twitter that I find different. But all those things have strengthened the connection that people feel to our band. We’ve always felt people have been really invested in this project [our musical career], and not in a fleeting way. There are differing degrees, but people don’t seem to come to our shows and half-ass it. They sing along to every song, and they don’t just become fans of some material, they become fans of the whole catalog. We really try to be likable and approachable and connectable, because that’s something that’s made being in a band really easy. We’ve always felt like we’ve had a community, that we weren’t a buzz band. We’ve always had a community, and that’s been comforting. So we try to be as authentic and transparent and available as humanly possible, while still having private lives.
Bruce Springsteen has been referred to as “rock ‘n’ roll’s last true believer,” and I wasn’t surprised to discover that you’re fans of his. Though it doesn’t sound like his, it seems to me that your music has the same anthemic quality, the same sense of sincerity and hope.
There’s nothing like standing in front of an audience and having them sing along when you know they’re not singing for you, they’re singing for themselves. There’s this group mentality that happens when everybody is connecting, and Springsteen is really good at that—he can make a hundred thousand people feel like they’re singing around a campfire. Connecting is a big deal for us. I want to write music that will connect me to an audience, and connect the audience to themselves. There may be a message that I want to deliver, but when you perform to an audience, if there’s something too vague or cryptic, you realize that. You can feel if something is falling on deaf ears. It’s not that you want to become too mainstream or watered-down—then the message becomes too wide, and that doesn’t feel right to me—but you want to write music for both yourself and the audience. It’s not easy. Growing up, we listened to a lot of Springsteen and U2. I like it when you get the sense that the person writing the song has almost a gang mentality, like “Here’s the message, let’s sing it to the sky.”
One of the things I really like about your music is that it expresses both genuine hurt and sincere compassion. Your songs about relationships never demonize the person you’re singing to, or about; there’s always a sense of care even in the wake of something painful.
I think that’s very accurate as a summation of our music, and how we are as people too. Probably to a fault in my own personal relationships I’ve struggled with this overpowering compassion. Just last night I was talking with a friend about an ex-partner who I was with for five years, and then when we broke up I spent two years trying to make it work as a friendship. People told me to let it go, that it was too painful, it wasn’t normal—but to me it felt so profoundly sad that I would completely detach from this person who I had this intense, wonderful relationship with, who knew me so well and who I shared such compassion with even if there were things about our relationship that became wrong or difficult. I witnessed that with my parents’ friendship: when they broke up they had to overcome terrible things between them, but they put those things aside to raise us—at least, they put those things aside in a way that made those things not our responsibility. I grew up with that forgiving compassion around me, and for me, that’s the real struggle, however passionate or hurt we feel. There’s this panic to make it okay, to make the person happy, to be forgiven.
Right now I’m staying with friends, and I asked their 17-year-old daughter what question she’d ask you if she had the chance. She said she’d ask what your favorite t-shirt is that you own.
[Laughs] That’s such a 17-year-old question! That’s totally what I would have asked when I was 17. Actually, I have no t-shirts. It was a proactive decision I made a couple of years ago, a way of growing up, to stop wearing t-shirts and hoodies. I do actually have one t-shirt, my pajama t-shirt, that I love. It’s a white t-shirt, but it’s so worn through that it’s almost transparent. It’s disgusting. I mean, it’s clean—I wash it—but really it’s a rag. I should be drying dishes with it, but I just absolutely love it.