Tegan And Sara
Photo: Donald Bowers/Getty Images
Tegan And Sara On The Power Of Music
At the Teragram Ballroom in Los Angeles on their Love You To Death tour, Tegan and Sara, in their usual charming fashion, shared with the sold-out crowd that they’re often praised, however disconcertingly, for their effortlessly funny stage banter as much as they are for their indie-folk-turned-pop songwriting.
With their magnetic ability to connect with audiences, it’s no wonder Sara and Tegan Quin reveal to us that they are drawn to and take queues from artists like Bruce Springsteen, Sinead O’Connor, and the Smashing Pumpkins; for their honest and relatable storytelling, the deep and long-lasting memories evoked by it, and the emotional bonds they’ve formed with audiences as a result.
Over two-decades into their music career together, Tegan and Sara have squarely set themselves in the pop genre. They’re inspired and confident in their evolution and their less acoustic, more synthesized sound. In our interview with the GRAMMY-nominated sisters, Tegan and Sara give homage to the power of music and explain how it’s empowered them to grow and transform as artists.
Are there people you really look to and admire in terms of their stage banter and performance?
Tegan: Throughout our entire career, we’ve referenced Bruce Springsteen as a career that we’ve definitely modeled ours after. And he was highly influential in early years because we grew up in a Springsteen household, so we grew up not just listening to his records, but specifically Live/1975-85, the live record, and the sound of the crowd cheering, the stories, he was drawing you in, even [as we were] just sitting in the minivan driving from Calgary to Vancouver. And as soon as we started performing, first of all, we were getting booked to do coffee shop gigs where you had to entertain for three hours at a time and we had 10 songs. So, we had to play the same songs three times, but we also still had to fill time and it was this natural … well, Bruce Springsteen talks, we were used to that personal nature, so we just shared our stories in the same way. And I think throughout our career, we’ve used him as a reference in terms of our connection to our audience. Like, Bruce Springsteen fans love him. He’s not a character, he’s not playing a character; he’s being himself. He’s telling his stories, his hardships. And yet, when you listen to him, you’re not really thinking about him or his stories. He’s telling you the story, which is getting you to feel and emote, but what it’s really doing is drawing you in so you can relate your own life and own experiences.
Are there songs that, as fans, you feel that way about? You don’t necessarily get why it’s important to you, but it is.
Tegan: Yeah, this is something we talk about a lot in reference to when you make a record like Heartthrob or Love You To Death. “Are you afraid of alienating early fans, young fans, who’ve been with you since the early days?” And the truth is no, because, inevitably, even if we made a record that sounds exactly like The Con or So Jealous or even earlier works we’re never gonna replace that first time we heard us, we’re never gonna undo those memories and that attachment they have to us, especially the fans that have been with us for over 10 years because they are completely different people, just like we are. And I think that’s what’s kind of magical about music, there is no logical reason for us to have connected to Bruce Springsteen the way we did at seven years old, yet we did and we carried it with us for 25 more years. And the other day when I was playing that live record for my girlfriend, I almost wept with joy sharing it with her for the first time, her getting to hear the swell of the crowd when he starts to play the harmonica at the top of “The River.” The reason why I love that music has got nothing to do with Bruce Springsteen, it’s got to do with being seven or eight years old and being in the minivan with my mom with her new boyfriend, Bruce, who loved Bruce Springsteen and who wanted her to love Bruce Springsteen as much as we did and the drives we did every single summer to Vancouver. And there is no rational reason for it, it’s all sensory and that’s why I would never insult our own audience and say, “No, if you love The Con you’ll probably replace it with Love You To Death.” You were a different person, you’re never gonna be that person again.
That’s so funny, because my sister and I grew up listening to Peter, Paul And Mary, Bonnie Raitt, Alanis Morissette, Fleetwood Mac while driving in our mom’s minivan, and whenever you hear it, you just turn around and make eye contact and you’re that age again. Music is one of the biggest transporters.
Sara: Especially the stuff that happens the first 18 years of your life. I’ll never forget exactly where I was and exactly how I felt when I heard the beginning of “Today,” Smashing Pumpkins. It changed my life, I’d never heard music like that before. It was all consuming after that. That was my favorite band. I wanted everything, I wanted to know everything about that music, and I don’t believe that’s ever going to happen to me again. It doesn’t matter how excited I am to hear a new song or hear a new album, I will never feel the way I felt when I discovered what was going to become my first obsession, not my parents’ music, not what other little kids were listening to, but the first thing I discovered that was gonna be for me. The other day I saw that Billy Corgan is doing the acoustic tour and he brought James [Iha] out on stage in L.A and they played “Mayonnaise,” the two of them together, and I immediately started playing it and I was shocked at how emotional it made me feel to hear Billy and James playing the beginning; that wonderful, beautiful harmony, opening riff, cause suddenly I was 14 again.
Tegan: I did it yesterday when that whole Sinead O’Connor thing was happening and she went missing. Everyone was posting all these old videos of her and there was a video of her performing “Troy” at Pinkpop [music festival] and it was crazy. I fell into a crazy Sinead hole, I watched two hours of videos of her on TV shows and singing these songs acoustically. Even still now it made me think there’s something to be said for just going and performing your big song acoustically ‘cause immediately it’s all about the emotion and the performance and how beautiful that is. Which, not to blatantly turn the talk to the live show and the record, became important to us, to try and make this record less dense and compact and have more freedom for vocals and emotions of these songs. And then when we translated them live to leave room for us to perform them and not be bogged down by, “I gotta play a million instruments.” There’s something so powerful about putting Sara and I right next to each other in front of the stage and just making it about the performance.
That was one of the most notable things seeing your show, because you get really used to the guitar and, of course, the acoustic sound. I was kind of surprised you brought out the guitar at all to be honest.
Tegan: It felt so good, we loved it. I was like, “This is great playing acoustic guitar cause then it’s over.”
Sara: I think also too, when something is really expected of you, at least for me, there’s a tendency to not deliver that, I don’t want it to be predictable. And I don’t play guitar at home, I don’t have guitars laying around, I don’t lay on my couch strumming the guitar. I haven’t written songs on the guitar in the traditional way since maybe The Con. Even with Sainthood I was mostly using my guitar as a keyboard, I was running it through so many effects pedals it’s barely recognizable. Sainthood was the first time I wrote songs completely without the guitar, “Alligator” I never had played a guitar on that song.
Tegan: It’s almost like by only playing guitar on 4 of 16 songs, the guitar became more significant. And by standing closer together, we made a bigger statement. There was a point in our career where Sara and I used to have to switch sides of the stage. So, if you were playing electric guitar, you’d move over to Sara’s side and if you were playing acoustic guitar, you’d be on my side, so we used to switch back and forth. Then in 2003, 2004, we hired Ken, this sound guy, and he watched us in sound check. He’s like, “No, no, no, that’s your side of the stage, that’s your side of the stage. You’ve gotta sing in your own mike, get another guitar.” It was this huge movement. It was this moment where we were like, “We’re our own people, we have our own side of the stage, our own guitars and our own guitar techs.”
(Steve Baltin is a music journalist in Southern California. He is a contributor to Rolling Stone, Billboard, Forbes, and many other publications, host of Hulu’s “Riffing With” series, and music journalism instructor at the GRAMMY Museum's GRAMMY Camp.)
(Monica Molinaro is a freelance music journalist and marketing professional in Los Angeles. She has written for Billboard and the Hollywood Reporter.)