“Can you hear that?” Sara Quin asked. “It sounds like they are trying to break through bathroom tiles or something.” A sound that could only be described as Godzilla learning how to play the drums came across the phone line. “I’m standing in the bathroom right now with a towel over my head,” she said. “I have a horrible headache, so I just need coffee and like nine Tylenol and I’ll be fine.”
After a couple of hours, some coffee, and an undisclosed amount of over-the-counter painkillers, Sara and her sister Tegan were at a mall in Winnipeg searching for food. It, apparently, had not been her morning, with a radio spot that went long and technical difficulties during a sound check at the venue where they would perform that evening. But on the bright side, Winnipeg was “the least Winnipeg-y it could be right now; it’s so beautiful and sunny,” and their tour was otherwise going well.
Tegan and Sara, the Canadian twins who exploded onto the scene with 2004’s So Jealous and have maintained their place in the limelight with spots on Grey’s Anatomy and Showtime’s The L Word, will be performing in Santa Barbara on Halloween at the Lobero Theatre in support of their latest release, The Con. A brilliant collection of brutally honest songs, the album showcases the sisters’ innate songwriting ability while also highlighting their relationships with some of rock’s heaviest hitters. Death Cab for Cutie’s Jason McGerr lends his talents on the drums, Tegan’s friend Hunter Burgan (of AFI) plays bass, and Chris Walla (of Death Cab and The Decemberists) produces. The result is a tight, more rock-infused album that has its fair share of driving guitar riffs, synth-infused bridges, and pop-punk beats.
“You need someone like Chris to mediate : someone who can be a translator,” Sara explained of the collaborative process. “It was kind of like Chris being able to take the ideas he and Tegan and I had spoken about a million times and translate that to Jason : and a couple hours later, you’d have this great drum part.”
An incredibly friendly and fastpaced conversationalist, Sara displayed a sort of self-consciousness not often witnessed in the music business. In a self-deprecating tone, she described nervousness about recording “We’re So Beyond This,” a duet with Canada’s The Reason on their latest album, Things Couldn’t Be Better. “It’s so intimidating when you’re not in control, when you’re not the leader,” Sara said. “It actually gave me confidence that I actually have skills : like I can sing; I can go in and sing on a band’s record.” When it was suggested that few people probably doubt she has skills, Sara countered, “But it’s always important that you don’t feel like you don’t have skills. : I sound terrible when I sing other people’s music or when I sing karaoke, and I’m like, ‘Am I actually a good singer?’ And then you go into a situation like that and you’re like, ‘Yeah, I can sing other people’s stuff.'”
Still, Sara seems aware that the earnestness with which she and Tegan write songs is unique. “We take it so seriously when people don’t like us or when they say they can’t relate to us,” Sara said of her honest lyrics. “I’m like, ‘How can you not relate to us? We’re like hearts on a sleeve. How can you not relate to the human condition, you fucking asshole?'”
“I think what we do is very universal, and I think we’re proud of that universality,” Sara continued. “I don’t mind putting myself out on the line because the reciprocation from the audience is so great that if you put yourself out there, then they’re going to put themselves out there.”
But putting herself out there is not just a musical construction-it also comes naturally in conversation. When discussing Emy Storey-the band’s artistic director and Sara’s girlfriend of five years, with whom she had declared a common-law relationship-Sara was candid about the dissolution of their romance. “[Emy] is a tremendously huge part of what Tegan and I do in terms of the artwork and the Web site and the vision,” she said. “In kind of a weird way, she was like my Yoko Ono for five years. : It’s really difficult when the romantic part of your relationship kind of seems like it’s over, but you can’t just dissolve the rest of it-that would be awful. We’re obviously really involved and we want to continue to work together, but it’s really tough.”
Ironically enough, The Con’s opening track, “I Was Married,” was penned by Sara the day she and Emy had declared their relationship. Although rarely overtly political in her songwriting, “I Was Married” is a polemic against those who oppose gay marriage: “They seem so very scared of us / I look into the mirror, for evil that just does not exist / I don’t see what they see.”
Although Sara is usually the more settled of the two, Tegan is providing much-needed support in this highly emotional time. “The thing I think Tegan and I do really well together is we balance each other out. Any time I have any extreme thing going on in my life, it feels like Tegan really seesaws to the other side,” Sara said. “In terms of our music, I think we do it there, too. Tegan can be so consistent and kind of linear to her approach to songwriting, and so it’s okay if I come with my weird sound.”
The twins do more than just balance each other out-rather, they bring out the best in each other. So Jealous was produced with a companion DVD that documented their time in the studio, showcasing the unglamorous side of the recording process, including the spats and frustrations everyone knows exist between band mates. In a similar, although not as confrontational, attempt to provide insight into their collaborative process, Tegan and Sara created video “chapters” that accompany each track of The Con. In each of the segments, the sisters alternate between slinging sarcastic witticisms and showing a tenacious dedication to their craft.
These are compelling women, without question. While Tegan and Sara’s music has an immediate, of-the-moment feel, it also explores messages that are timeless and relatable. Their lyrics and performance almost dare the listener to look away, to ignore the passionate way in which they describe their music’s subject matter. “Me and Tegan are always in intense, complicated relationships with people and with each other,” Sara said. “We always say that being in any kind of relationship with us is very intense; there’s no casual place to be :” And while this intensity may exist primarily in their more intimate relationships, it also exists in these musicians’ relationship with their listeners.
Tegan and Sara play with Northern State on Wednesday, October 31, at 8 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.). Visit lobero.com for more information.