Tegan and Sara: In the Movies

Music Features Tegan and Sara
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For most bands, merchandise is a pain in the ass, a necessary evil to keep the machine running. For Tegan and Sara, however, merchandise is an opportunity; it’s a chance to be creative in ways other than making music. It’s a way to pursue fashion, film, video, books and web design.

“Merchandising used to be something I was embarrassed about,” Sara Quin admits, “because it can be so cheesy. But if you approach it in the right way, it can be so much more than just slapping a logo on a T-shirt; it can be a creative activity not so different from writing songs. And unlike songwriting, which is such a solitary process, merchandise can be more collaborative, a chance to work as a team. We think of Emy Storey, our art director, as an unofficial third member of the band. We work with her on things as broad as album artwork, our website, all our T-shirts, that three-book collection we put out and now these little movies.”

Those three “little movies” are the core of the twin sisters’ new release, Get Along. Danny O’Malley directed States, a 31-minute documentary about Tegan and Sara’s 2010 U.S. tour with lots of interviews and between-song banter. Elinor Svoboda directed India, a 25-minute travelogue about the duo’s 2010 trip to Mumbai, India. And Salazar directed For the Most Part, a 70-minute concert film shot before a 75-person audience at the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver in November 2010.

All three are on a single DVD, and 15 songs from the last film are on a separate audio CD. While watching the DVD, it’s easy to distinguish Sara from her twin sister; Sara is the slimmer one with the higher voice, the one more likely to pause before speaking. Tegan (older by eight minutes) is the one with more tattoos and the lower-lip piercing, the one more likely to blurt out a joke or comment.

These movies, Sara says, are like merchandise in that they are aimed at devoted fans of the band. If studio albums are a way to reach out through radio and websites to attract new fans, live albums and documentary films are a way to keep longtime fans happy. To use a political analogy (mine, not hers), it’s the difference between reaching out to the center and playing to the party’s base.

But something unexpected happened. The audio CD, added as an afterthought to the DVD, is probably the best possible introduction to Tegan and Sara. It’s not exactly an “unplugged” session, for there are electric keyboards, electric guitars, electric bass and drums on most of the songs, but the music is very stripped-down, far more transparent than the studio albums. This approach plays to their strengths—melodic hooks and emotional vocals—by deemphasizing their moderate skills as soloists and producers.

The song “Back in Your Head,” for example, sounded very much like 2007 when it appeared on that year’s album, The Con. The indie-rock-dance arrangement encouraged Sara to deliver the key couplet, “I’m not unfaithful but I’ll stray; when I get a little scared, I run, run, run,” not as if she were really scared but as an impudent threat to her backing-away lover.

But on the unaccompanied duo version from the Warehouse Studio, the song sounds unbounded by any particular year. With Sara, in a brown-leather jacket, singing lead and playing acoustic guitar, while Tegan, in a gray-wool jacket, plays acoustic piano and sings harmony, the line, “I just want back in your head,” fills with the ache of fear and longing. Unobscured by layered keyboards and brittle beats, the chiming chorus forms a bridge between one woman’s personal pain and any listener’s romantic anxiety.

The live album includes at least one number from each of the six albums Tegan and Sara have released since 1999. In almost every case, the reductionist arrangements improve the tune, scrubbing off unnecessary production to reveal the emotional core of these songs about troubled relationships—romances that never seem quite settled and yet never seem quite over either.

Acoustic guitars play a large role in these arrangements, but there is little trace of folk music in the results. There are no echoes of Appalachian ballads, string-band jigs or Piedmont blues. These are pop-rock songs with pulsing rhythms, minor-to-major-chord movement and big chorus payoffs. Tegan and Sara were saddled with the folk label because they began their career sitting on barstools and strumming acoustic guitars, but that was misleading.

“Why did we travel around with acoustic guitars?” Sara asks. “Because we couldn’t afford big guitars and big amps. I had no idea what folk music was and I had no interest in it. To me acoustic guitars were the Violent Femmes and Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska. To me it was always part of a larger pop world. I think it was only because we’re women that we were labeled folk; Sufjan Stevens never got labeled folk. As a result, we avoided acoustic guitars for a long time—which was good because it led us to other instruments—but the truth is I love acoustic pop music. That’s why it felt so good to do this album.”

The For the Most Part film ends by interviewing fans who explain why they came from as far away as Texas and Wisconsin to claim one of the 75 seats at the Warehouse Studio. The States film includes examples of Tegan and Sara bantering with each other on stage or engaging their audience in question-and-answer sessions. What comes through in both films (and on the unofficial teganandsarabanter.com website) is the unusually intense connection between the two singers and their following.

“To be honest,” Sara says, “in the beginning stages of our career, we didn’t have a lot of material, so we talked a lot between songs. There was something about talking to each other that calmed us down and also added a second way to connect to people. We realized that very quickly. There’s a vulnerability in the songs and a vulnerability in the talking. Once it became a habit, it became a hard habit to break. It has become a part of what we do. Sometimes I go to hear a band and the way they’re talking to the audience is so endearing, and I realize, ‘Gee, that’s how people must respond to us.’”

There’s an inherent danger in vulnerability, however. If you give away too much personal information, the details can distract from the music. If you give away too much of yourself, what do you have left when the audience goes home? Tegan and Sara have experienced both kinds of fallout. They’ve seen their music eclipsed by all the attention to their label as “cute, lesbian twins from Canada.” And they’ve experienced the loneliness of the road.

“For a long time, I wondered what we’re doing wrong to be caught up in these adjectives,” Sara says. “How come our friends who are straight guys in bands don’t have to put up with this and get respect for their music? I didn’t choose any of those adjectives; I was born with all of them. But longevity speaks volumes; the longer Tegan and I are around, the more credibility we have and you can start to unpack some of the baggage. Some of these things that seemed so important to the press aren’t so important to us. At the end of the day, we’re a pop band.”

If longevity has assuaged one problem, it has exacerbated the other. When the making of the three films was finally over and Sara had time to sit down and watch the finished product, she was struck by the solitude of life on the road.

“It is lonely to be out there 250 days a year, often just with Tegan,” Sara says. “You’re at a Holiday Inn Express and you’re driving 10 hours to play for 35 people and you go, ‘What am I doing? Am I out to lunch?’

“You lose touch with friends and family. The fans become a surrogate family, but it’s also important to realize they’re not an actual family. At the end of the day, you have to have real relationships with someone with whom you eat dinner and do laundry. The audience can’t be there when you really need them; they can’t be there when you’re alone and sad. To rely too heavily on that body of people can be dangerous, because when the chips are down, it’s your buddy from high school that you need.”

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