Their band, Tegan and Sara, is really a five-piece, not just a duo. Being identical twins does not make them one entity. Their sexuality is a nonissue because they write music for everyone. And their nationality isn't all that exotic.
"We always get, 'Oh, you're twins? And you're gay? And you're from Canada? Wow!'" says Quin. "Half the time, I don't know why anyone writes anything about us. They should just write, 'Twin Lesbian Duo From Canada.' ... Too often, it just ends up being about those things and there's no time left to talk about the music."
That's too bad, because their sound is immediately appealing. So Jealous, the 24-year-old sisters' fourth album, has enough delicious guitar hooks and soul-baring, anthemic choruses to lead a full-on power-pop revival. The music can be as poppy as David Bowie's if Bowie handed the mike to Joan Jett, or as quirky as the Shins' if they borrowed the Muffs' Kim Shattuck.
While 2002's If It Was You was mostly midtempo altrock, and 2000's This Business of Art delivered syncopated, soulful indie-folk, So Jealous reveals a new level of songwriting finesse from Tegan and Sara. Though they've always taken an active role in the studio, this time they share production credits with John Collins, David Carswell, and Howard Redekopp (New Pornographers).
Opener "You Wouldn't Like Me" kicks in with clear, unadorned vocals and upbeat acoustic strumming, then adds bright harmonies and electric guitar before blasting into a glorious pop climax with tambourine, keyboards, and drums. "I Bet It Stung" revels in indie-rock grandeur with bold guitars, and catchy synth elements give an early-'80s sheen to "I Was Walking With a Ghost" and "So Jealous."
The album's complexity ties in to Tegan and Sara's upbringing. They grew up in a music-loving family, listening to everything from Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen to Bowie and Duran Duran. As kids, they were fans of the musical cult films Phantom of the Paradise and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. And at age 7, the twins were obsessed with Phil Collins' radio hit "Groovy Kind of Love."
"It's weird, because Sara and I had the exact same story," says Quin. "When we'd lay in bed and listen to 'Groovy Kind of Love,' we didn't picture ourselves there. We actually saw ourselves as Phil. It was never a thing like, 'I want to be famous.' It was, 'I want to be Phil Collins.'"
Tegan and Sara both played classical piano for years, then picked up guitar at age 15. And now, the simple arrangement of two girls with guitars gets them pigeonholed.
"We started playing acoustic guitars not because we wanted to be like Ani DiFranco or Jewel, but because we loved the Violent Femmes and the Pixies, and they play acoustic instruments," Quin says. "We put our first record out at the back end of the whole Jewel/Lilith Fair empire -- which, to me, wasn't a bad thing -- so people thought, 'Oh, here's a band that was inspired by Sarah McLachlan, so they're writing music.' But I barely knew who Sarah McLachlan was! Or Indigo Girls? No offense to the Indigo Girls, but we don't sound anything like them! Do people think that way because we're female and we have harmonies and we're lesbians?"
Sure, Quin says, DiFranco was one of their many influences, but somehow she's the one who gets mentioned most often. "And then people come to see us and we're rocking out with a band, and they're annoyed. Like, 'I thought you were like Ani DiFranco!' But even Ani DiFranco plays with a full band. So sometimes it gives people the illusion we're something we're not, which is unfortunate."
The band is based in Vancouver, but for the past two years, Sara's been living in Montreal, almost 2,300 miles away. As a result, says Quin, So Jealous was basically written like two solo records. A month before going into the studio, all the band members got together to flesh out their ideas -- for 30 days straight, eight hours a day.
"That was a bit exhausting and made me feel a little frazzled, so I don't think I'll do it quite that way again," Quin says. "But we're the type of band where every record kind of changes a bit. I know even the record company says it's a 'departure' from our earlier sound, but we always say it's a 'continuation' of where we started from -- we just had more time, more resources, more people, more confidence to add to the sound. So it's an interesting dynamic, for sure, with the band, especially with Sara and I living so far apart. But right now while we're still so immersed in this record, it's really not causing any issues, because we're always on the road!"
These days, Tegan and Sara's tour schedule puts the sisters in even closer quarters than when they still lived at home as teenagers. They recently toured Canada for a month, came home for two days, and then went to London for a week. Quin conducted this interview during a three-day hiatus before they went back on the road to headline their own tour during March, including making appearances at South by Southwest in Austin. Starting this month, they'll open for the Killers, then wrap it all up with their debut at the Coachella Valley Music Festival in Indio, Calif.
It's all very impressive, but Quin stays realistic. In a mainstream music industry dominated by hundreds of skinny-white-guy rock bands, she wonders how much headway Tegan and Sara will make -- especially with the unshakable "twin lesbian duo" tag.
"One time this interviewer was talking to me about how there were seven women in the MuchMusic [i.e., Canada's MTV] Top 30 Countdown. I asked him how many were in bands, and he said, 'Three?' But zero were in bands. In the moment, I had my little attack in the hotel room, laughed hysterically, felt sad, and then I got up onstage," she says. "There were 1,200 people there. And I realized, 'All the people are here not because they saw my video on MuchMusic, not because they heard me on the radio. They're here because year after year, we get consistently good reviews on our record, and people tell their friends, and they come back. Every time.'"