As far as kiss-offs go, Tegan and Sara’s Sainthood is a whopper. Not so much 13 tunes of “How you like me now?” but rather 36 minutes of emotionally resonant, hard-won truths and “light bulbs.” The sisters Quin took the title for their exceptional sixth record from a Leonard Cohen song – “Came So Far for Beauty” – that, in the end, held 2007’s The Con in stark, stultifying light. With the song as a thematic template, Tegan and Sara found positions and founts of strength and wisdom they didn’t count on by looking inward to change what was happening in front of them, learning from their past romantic mistakes.

I spoke with Tegan before the pair’s late-October shows at New York City’s venerable Town Hall about her emotional journey from The Con to Sainthood, and how identifying with the physiological response that heroin addicts have when speaking about their drug abuse greatly influenced and healed her own want to be absolved of heartbreak and guilt.

Writing songs together for the first time, was there anything you were surprised to learn about the other’s process or personal lives?
Not really. We’ve talked about our writing processes for so long in front of each other …so I felt very familiar, and really understood what Sara’s process was before I even sat in a room and witnessed it. She didn’t lie. She really does take a really fucking long time!

What’s your approach like?
It’s slow! No, just kidding, it’s not! It’s really fast. I just like to sit down, and as soon as I have a chord progression or a structure to a song, guitar or keyboard-wise, then I almost immediately start writing lyrics so I can get to the melody. Sara will hammer out guitar ideas for hours and then work on structure, then melody, and then lyrics, and that sometimes takes her days. Basically it’s like watching paint dry. I’m really glad we did it, and I definitely think we will write together on future stuff, but not in the same room.

Do you feel Sainthood is one of the most personal records you and Sara have put out, or perhaps one of your most personally and artistically satisfying?
The Con goes down in history as the most personal record for me. Even now, playing songs from Sainthood and The Con next to each other, I still feel more attached emotionally to The Con, because it was such an unrequited record for me. I was writing these songs about a relationship that I felt so possessed [by]. I feel more calm and happy about songs that I wrote for Sainthood than I do about The Con, but definitely the most satisfying, artistically. Sainthood was just such a challenge, and so fun and I feel like we pushed ourselves as artists, and also as players. We played the songs 100 times before we recorded them, so the melodies were hammered in. I felt like we were making a live record, like we had already toured it. I felt like I became a better musician as the record went on and more confident naturally.

One thing that’s been particularly amazing to discern is how strong, mature and hopeful the lyrics are. Both of you seem to be coming from a place of strength, albeit a battle-weary one. Do you feel that’s true, especially in contrast to The Con?
Definitely. The thing about The Con, which I think still haunts me, is that we were writing in the present tense, which is not something I do. It was really vulnerable and weak and heartbreaking, and at times kind of whiny. When I’m on stage playing those songs even now, and I’m in a completely different place, I still feel those buttons being pushed inside of me.

You’re still close to it.
Yeah. Sainthood definitely comes from a place of strength because, and I think for both of us, Sara was writing from a single’s perspective, and [although] I started dating somebody, I was writing about not being a freak. Not going to that very vulnerable place, not being totally insane, because it’s not necessarily good to go that far, or to be that extreme, or that intense. I also felt for songs like ‘The Cure’ and how, specifically, I had moved to the downtowny side of Vancouver, which is a really rough neighborhood, with drugs and problems, and being gentrified. But, it’s a great neighborhood, it’s beautiful, and it’s got a sense of community like no other part of Vancouver.

I wrote the songs [after] seeing this piece on how they studied [the] brain activity of heroin addicts. Not being high on heroin, but talking about the abuse. And then somebody’s brain activity when talking about being in an unrequited relationship or being passionate and obsessed and in love with someone, and [it was] the same parts of the brain! It’s actually brought me a lot of comfort, because I felt out of control, like I didn’t have any sense of myself. So, ‘Hell’ and ‘The Cure’ were songs about my neighborhood. I was using this sort of drug-addicted, crazy neighborhood as a metaphor for my own issues, and drawing the parallels between love addiction and drug addiction, and it inspired me to get back on the horse and try to find something else to write about.

When I’m on stage I definitely feel empowered because all the songs I wrote on this record are like light bulbs. They were all like epiphanies, like, ‘Oh! Okay! So this is what I did wrong!’ ‘Northshore’ is a laundry list of don’ts, and it’s kind of sad, because it’s like, Oh God, did I really do all of those things before? But instead of feeling bad, I’m just not going to do [that]. I’m aware of my problem, I’m aware of what I’m doing.

And then you say, “My misery’s so addictive,”…because it is an addiction.
Yeah! [laughs] I’m acknowledging it! And that’s good, and I feel comfort in that. I always tell people, fans, that I meet, or friends, who’ll be telling me how sad they feel and what they’ve dealt with, and how we’ve helped them work something or whatever, and I take a moment to reflect with them that that’s something we all have in common. I mean, deep down inside, we all think that our loss, our love, is most intense and special, and people can get close to it, but never truly understand it, because we’re all individually narcissistic. But, at the same time, we do feel comforted by each other’s experiences.

I love that you and Sara took Leonard Cohen’s “Came So Far for Beauty,” as an inspiration on Sainthood. Who brought this song to the table and what about it touched you in relation to your own experience?
teganandsara2Sara brought it to the table, and it’s interesting because I dated someone who was a total Lenny fanatic who bought me all of his books. I mean, I’m Canadian; I grew up with Leonard Cohen. I knew who he was. But, she used to send me his music all the time when I was on the road. So there I am in New Orleans a year ago, and Sara had been working on this guitar part for a couple hours, and I was like, ‘Okay, let’s lay down some other things! Why don’t you take the vocals, and I’ll do some drums.’ So Sara’s like, ‘I don’t have anything written, but I’ll lay down an idea I have so that I don’t lose it.’ I’m sitting there silently as she’s recording her vocal, and she’s singing ‘Came So Far for Beauty,’ and I had no idea it was Leonard Cohen. I was like, ‘This is the most amazing piece of music Sara’s ever written; the lyrics are incredible. Sara should leave our band [and] join another band. She’ll never get her due justice here.’ She finished, and I’m in awe, like, ‘I don’t understand! You said you don’t have any lyrics. Did you just pull that out of your ass?’ [She says], ‘No, it’s Leonard Cohen! It’s kind of secret. Whenever I don’t have any lyrics written, I’ll just sing Leonard Cohen as a placeholder.’ But unfortunately, the song fit so well with the piece of music Sara had written, we just were never able to get the rights, and weren’t able to secure permission to use them. The song summed up exactly where we were at, and we decided that even though we couldn’t get the rights to use the song, we titled it Sainthood instead of ‘Came So Far for Beauty.’

I think “Someday” is one of the greatest things you and Sara have ever done. It reminded somewhat of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” and I don’t know why, saying, “Mark my words, I might be something, someday.” What a gut punch.
Well, thank you! The short answer to that is… well, there is no short answer! My parents got divorced when we were five. Then my mom met someone else when we were six or seven, and they fell in love in front of us. It was incredibly influential on Sara and I. Love was super important, and love was wrapped up with music. Our stepdad was obsessed with music. We had Bruce Springsteen posters in our house; framed, mind you, but still our household was a rock and roll household.

When it came time to pick what we were going to do with our lives, it was Grade 12, we were 17 years old. We had no aspirations to go university. We wanted to travel and play music. We didn’t want to sign record deals or any of that stuff. And here we are, 10 years later, and we’re still doing that, and I think that both of us have struggled over the past 11 years with the idea that [it] is our career path. It’s somewhat unstable at times, and unless you achieve a certain level of success, you’re going to have to either, A: get a job eventually, or B: you’re going to struggle for a long time, and potentially your whole life. We’ve been so lucky and extremely business savvy and aggressive about our business because we’re taking care of ourselves and looking out for our future.

I think that ‘Someday’ in part is about this idea that I’m speaking in part to myself; that I made a good decision, and I’m gonna be okay, and I am proving myself. At the same time, I had just started dating this girl that I had chased for three years… that I wrote The Con about, and it was a complicated situation. I had just gotten out of a five-year relationship, and was having a difficult time figuring out how to get what I wanted, and I took all the wrong interstates, basically, and sort of floundered for a year. And then it was over. It just didn’t work out. We never got to date. I felt horrible, and wrote all the songs on The Con about it, and then spent a year out on the road playing them, feeling vindicated and powerful and sad all at the same time. And then we started talking again because she wanted to be friends, so I said, ‘OK, we’ll see what happens.’ Six or seven months went by, and she was like, ‘Fuck, I’m totally into you, and I keep denying myself. Let’s just try dating.’ So I wrote ‘Someday’ two or three months into that, when I was like that weird kid trying not to explode in class. Just really trying to contain myself. I didn’t want to go off the path. I did not want to become that weird creep from The Con.

So, ‘Someday’ was sort of a combination of me saying, ‘You have purpose, you are good, you are going to make it, you are going to say something. Maybe you already have said it, but you’re going to say something important.’ And at the same time, it was my way of pushing this button on this person, to basically say, ‘Get it together, decide!’ Everyone can say something important, which is why I said, ‘paint…write…and say,’ because not all of us are writers and not all of us are artists or painters, but all of us will eventually say something. We’ll all get there, whether it’s at 75 or 15, we do get to a place where we figure out what our purpose is. And for The Con, the girl that I was chasing, for her, it was that moment, I think, when she finally took a step forward and realized that she was going to have to challenge herself and her life, and what she thought of herself at that point.

I love that song. When I recorded it, it was madness, like 8,000 keyboards and vocals. Someone compared it to MGMT the other day.

Where did the idea to release ON, IN, AT come from? Granted, we know how passionate your fans are, but was this more a document with them in mind as much as you and Sara wanted to scrapbook such a busy, productive time in your lives?
It’s a combo of that. The idea came up about a year and a half ago, because we had been discussing our 10-year and how to celebrate that, whether it’s a DVD that includes everything we’ve done thus far in video form, or a magazine, or a book. We weren’t really sure, and I really pushed for the book. I was like, ‘We’re lacking in tangible items at this point, besides t-shirts and sweaters.’ I was late to the game. I didn’t even know Flickr existed until recently. I don’t have a Facebook account, [or] a MySpace account. I’m a little behind the times. All of the sudden, I was inundated with all of this talk, we can do this, we can do that, look at this Flickr site, look here at the YouTube.

So we were going to do a 10-year book, and then I was like, ‘That’s too hard. I don’t want to do that. Too complicated, too much work. There’s not enough time.’ So it was like, why don’t we just take a photographer out on the road and capture a snippet, a moment, a month of our lives from behind the scenes, and then reach out to all the different artists we toured with on the record, and other artists we toured with in our lives, and some of the crew and band. You know, write a book about touring; the loneliness and the fun and the fans and the whole thing. Just write a big book on how you live on the road. And then, as we started putting it together, it was so amazing and it looked so beautiful and it really came together, so it was like, fuck, let’s do a couple more! We started strategizing the New Orleans book, and I called the photographer to come hang out with us two weeks beforehand. That one started to look so good that we decided to do another one! We were in Australia, and we always joke that when we go to Australia it’s like going on vacation because you have to fly everywhere. You can’t really drive between the cities. There’s no tour bus or anything like that, so you have all these days off because you have to fly all the time. So you end up going to Australia and playing six or seven shows, and you go for two weeks. There was a lot of beach time. We gave everyone a camera and a journal, and everybody saved everything that they got, like a vacation log. It was more work than making a record, and I would never do it again! If we do a 10-year book, someone else is gonna have to do that. I was very emotionally invested and it was a little difficult. I had a copy FedEx-ed to me yesterday because I’d only seen a very preliminary version of it a month ago. My best friend and another friend came to the hotel and we looked through the book for an hour, and everybody’s just like, ‘Holy shit!’ because I think people think, ‘Oh it’s gonna be like a ‘zine!’ and I’m like, ‘No, it’s a fuckin’ coffee table book!’

–Carrie Alison

  1. Excellent article and interview. Thanks. Great insight on their latest album


  2. Amazing interview, all the details about Someday especially. Thanks!