Tegan and Sara are the most unlikely pop stars on the planet.
The twin sisters from Calgary were picked up by Neil Young's record label right out of high school. In the mid-'00s, they found critical success with great oddball singles like "Walking With a Ghost" and "Back in Your Head." Then last year, they blew up on mainstream radio when their seventh album, Heartthrob, debuted at number three on the Billboard 200 chart, making them an overnight-success story 15 years in the making.
Now, about to embark on another tour, Sara Quin spoke with New Times about embracing new audiences, handling society's fascination with twins, and currently being every 8-year-old kid's favorite singer, even if he or she doesn't know it.
New Times: A few months ago during your concert at Art Basel Miami Beach, you and your sister made comments about being genuinely grateful for your success. Did you ever imagine this level of commercial recognition?
Sara Quin: When we started out as teenagers, we were excited just to play shows and make records. It was a very shortsighted career. We never projected the career we have now. I don't know if it was possible to imagine it. It humbles me. I turn 33 this year, and I never thought this was where we would end up. It's happened in very wonderful segments. There was part of our career where we were just a traveling, touring, underground indie-rock band, and that was very satisfying. It's been satisfying and challenging to cross over to a mainstream career. It's kept us fresher and made us stronger musicians and personalities. I love it, but I don't know if I ever imagined it... The truth is, this is dating myself, but I graduated high school in 1997. There was no internet. I liked music so much, but I had no idea how the industry worked. We had the tenacity and ambition, but we didn't know how to direct it. It was, "Let's play shows and record a demo tape and go from there." It wasn't until we put out So Jealous in 2004 that I remember sitting down and asking what most people at 25 ask post-college: What do we want to do with our career? Not just surviving, but what do we want to achieve?
So you never thought you'd have a song in a cartoon, as you do with "Everything Is Awesome" in The Lego Movie.
[laughs] It's been very cool, this whole Lego thing. We knew it would be a popular movie; we just didn't know the song would be so popular. The song was already written. They already had portions of the movie done where we saw the song was going to be used. They wanted something different at the end, and they wanted a human band to do it, and we thought it was a cool opportunity. Mark Mothersbaugh [of Devo] was doing the soundtrack, and we're big fans of his, and we thought the movie was so clever and funny.
Your candor, not just in interviews, but also onstage, seems to have contributed to your success. Is being candid something you aim for in your live shows?
I think since we were little kids, we've always been personable. We were always comfortable in front of people, being drama students. We've always been affable and easygoing. I think, because so many artists aren't that way, we stand out. We're not as introverted, so what you see onstage is what you're going to get offstage. I always think of us as the camp counselors at our concerts: We're there to make sure everyone has a good time. We want everyone to enjoy themselves and to feel welcome.
Since you mentioned being a drama student, has getting into acting ever crossed your mind?
This is going to sound kind of schizophrenic, considering my last answer. But in a weird way, doing what we do is acting. As much as I think it is us, there is an element of acting to the whole thing, because you're embellishing a certain part of who you are. There is a narrative each record has, and you kind of play this part. I don't know that I'd ever want to act in theater, but I recognize there is an ease with which we get in front of people or a camera. In a strange way, we get to be actors as well as musicians.
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This is going to be an annoying question that you've been asked variations of since you were born, probably. But as a twin, the stereotype is you and your sister have a supernatural or psychic connection. Does your closeness make it difficult to collaborate with people besides Tegan?
Being twins has been very interesting. Not because of how I feel as a twin, but for much of my life, I have been experiencing what other people feel or their curiosity of being a twin. That really shapes my identity. Because we naturally fit together and understand each other, it was very natural to turn this into a career. It's not just the writing and touring parts but also the tolerance you have to have with so much time with the other person. You have so many variables each day. I think the reason most bands only stay together for a couple of albums is there's just something really challenging. It's a platonic marriage. People get divorced all the time because they can't stand each other or one of them cheats; being in a band is something similar. There's something so easy about being in our band, because even when it's not easy, there's something that naturally fixes things between us. This is a long way of saying we don't have supernatural powers, but we do have an uncanny ability that when we do fight to forgive one another. We can put up with each other in a way I don't think a lot of people can.
The only other twins that come to mind as playing in a band together are the Deal sisters of the Breeders. Have you and Tegan ever met them and compared notes?
We actually have met. They're fantastic and very, very cool. We grew up listening to the Breeders, and we actually got to perform on the same stage at Coachella right before and after each other. We did not necessarily compare twin notes. Over the years, we did get to meet other bands with twins. We just toured with a band called Waxahatchee with Katie Crutchfield, who is a twin with a sister in another band, and they've been in bands together. Katie engaged with my mother, who was on tour with us, in much twin talk. There is something fascinating about twins who stay together and work and make art.