Tegan and Sara on the 10th Anniversary of "So Jealous" - Altering the Trajectory | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Tegan and Sara on the 10th Anniversary of “So Jealous”

Altering the Trajectory

Dec 23, 2014 Web Exclusive Photography by Wendy Lynch Redfern Bookmark and Share

Looking back on the half decade prior to the release of Tegan and Sara‘s 2004 breakthrough album, So Jealous, Sara Quin likens those years to being underwater. She and her sister, Tegan, had enjoyed a substantial wave of press when they signed to Neil Young’s Vapor Records in 1999, but after three albums and five years of building a small, devoted fanbase through touring, things weren’t progressing the way that they wanted. In order to rise back to the figurative surface, and for their music endeavor to become a financially viable career choice, something needed to change.

“I felt like I knew where we were and where I wanted to be,” Sara explains, “and I thought that So Jealous would be the record to take us there, and be recognized amongst the people I thought were our peers and who were making music on the level that we were making music. I remember that the anticipation of when we put So Jealous out was totally different, because it really felt for me like, ‘If it doesn’t do it. I don’t know why we would continue.’”

As an artistic response to this self-inflicted pressure, So Jealous delivered in every way. Chock-full of undeniable hooks and colored by new wave synth sounds, the album is an insistent display of the sisters’ songwriting talents and burgeoning studio proficiency. The sparsely arranged single “Walking With a Ghost” was picked up by radio and subsequently covered by The White Stripes. Late-night TV appearances ensued along with tours supporting The Killers, Weezer and Ryan Adams. The Quins’ music finally caught on in ways that even they hadn’t imagined.

Tegan and Sara are commemorating the 10-year anniversary of So Jealous with So Jealous X, a three-disc collection housed in a 110-page book that chronicles the So Jealous period through photos and essays. Accompanying the original album is Tegan and Sara’s 2006 DVD It’s Not Fun, Don’t Do It! as well as a bonus audio disc of demos, remixes, and covers performed by other artists, including The White Stripes. In advance of So Jealous X‘s release today, Sara Quin spoke with Under the Radar from Los Angeles.

Chris Tinkham (Under the Radar): Something that I think is interesting about this anniversary release is that it comes on the heels of about two years of touring for Heartthrob. It’s pretty rare for a band to release an anniversary edition of an album while they’re still becoming more popular.

Sara Quin: The idea that we wouldn’t release something to commemorate this record feels like not celebrating the birth of a child. I’ve been saying this a bit in press, but it is important to make note that there is such an important connection, in terms of career trajectory, to be made between these two records. It felt so appropriate to be recognizing So Jealous during this album cycle for Heartthrob, because these two albums are very similar in the sense that they were real game-changers, and there was a lot of discussion about the difference between the previous records and these records. In very different ways, of course, they both changed our careers. So Jealous totally changed what kind of career we had, on every level, in terms of the opportunities and the shows, the size of our audiences, the money that we were making. Part of wanting to change our career was straight up survival. The year before we made So Jealous, I think I made $21,000. I was living fairly artistically and under the radar, but I also was a grownup. I was thinking, at some point I’m probably going to have to be realistic; either I’m going to do this on the side and have a job, or I’m going to have this job. So there was a real thrust forward, and I think Heartthrob was the same. It wasn’t motivated by the same financial or artistic desires—we weren’t necessarily trying to prove ourselves in the way that we were with So Jealous—but we certainly were doing this for survival. We recognized that we could make another record that people would expect from us, and that could potentially be a career killer. That sounds dramatic, but we’ve seen it with so many bands, and we didn’t want anyone to think that we were comfortable and happy with flatlining. We said, “No, we’re gonna fuckin’ do something that people are going to be surprised by, and they’re either going to love it or they’re going to hate it, but it’s going to change things.” So I feel like it’s appropriate to talk about So Jealous and Heartthrob together.

You weren’t bringing in income by any other means, like a part-time job? At the time, you were a full-time musician?

Oh yeah. Just to give some perspective, I wasn’t aware of how broke I was. I think that the other important context is that all my friends had student loans and were finishing school and were paying off debt. And I had no debt. I finished high school, I’d got a job, and then I started playing music. A huge point of pride for both Tegan and I was that we didn’t have any debt, and we had managed to run a very tight fiscal ship. Even though we were making very little money, we were still able to tour and make merchandise. We had gone to Europe, we had gone to Australia. If there was a grant or money from somebody We were hustling huge to make our career successful. There was also the reality of being 24 and all my friends were finishing school, and they were talking about five-year plans, buying a house, having kids. And I was like, “I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Montréal and ride a bike. I don’t have any debt but I don’t have any money either.” It wasn’t rock bottom is all I mean. I don’t mean it to sound like I was just eating tuna fish, although I still really love tuna fish. It was just more a reality check; is there is going to be a point in our career where we could make music with that being our only job?

Going back to what you were saying about your deliberate mindset heading into So Jealous, I imagine that most bands want to take their career to a new level with each album, but it’s easier said than done. What were your specific ideas about how to do that with the record?

It’s not fair to say that it was only with Heartthrob and So Jealous, ‘cause I do think that there is some of that motivation with every record we make, but I know very specifically with So Jealous, we talked about almost approaching the band like a different band, and I know that we did that with Heartthrob as well. Don’t feel afraid to do things that make you feel uncomfortable. Don’t be afraid to try a totally different approach or instrumentation. Don’t be afraid to try using a totally different narrative. Those don’t seem like significant things, but I think when you’re really rooted in what works, it can be scary to try something different, because there’s always the risk of it not working, or it turning people off. You’re right, it’s not so easy to just say, “You know what? Let’s throw caution to the wind and totally change our career.” I don’t think it’s as simple as that. If it were, then we probably would have done it earlier and more bands would have success at doing that. But, for us, to be really intuitive and to trust the instinct to change things and to take risks, to be paying attention and know the right time to do it, it was deliberate. There was a series of choices that we made where we knew that we were gambling a bit. We knew we were gonna make a record that we were going to be proud of, but we knew that it might not be a record that would have the results that we were going to tell everybody we wanted. It’s so funny with the press. You say a bunch of words and they repeat all those words, and then your next press repeats all those words. It’s amazing, the power of repetition. The Internet has made it so possible to spread keywords. We went out and made a record that, to us, was fusing together all of the interests that we had in pop music and indie rock at that time. And when we first put the record out, we said straight up that we wanted to have a different sound, more synth-based, we wanted it to be a bit of an evolution. At first it was like, “Can you believe these fellas? They made a synth record.” And then by halfway through the record cycle, it was, “So they made a synth record in my opinion, and I feel like…” I was like, “Fuck, man! We said that!”

Something that struck me when I first started talking to you in 2006 was how you always referred to yourselves as a “band.” That’s not the first word I would have used as a descriptor for Tegan and Sara. Was that something you always referred to yourselves as, or was that a case of you wanting to instill the word when talking to press?

It was two things when we first started. One, it was part of the culture that we came from. Growing up in the ‘90s, we were in bands, but we would have an ever-changing cast of characters. I’d be dating some guy, and he’d be the drummer, and Tegan would be dating some guy, and he’d be the drummer. We always thought of ourselves as a band, just because, to us, that meant people who play in a group. It didn’t matter that we were sometimes playing alone, and it didn’t matter that sometimes it was just us writing the songs and these other people playing them. If you were more than one, you were a band.

The other thing I remember actively recognizing pretty much as soon as we started playing was that all of these words that really bothered us, that people were using to describe us, to me felt very coded. So “folk” meant girl and lesbian. And “songwriter” meant girl and lesbian. It didn’t mean the same thing when people called Neil Young a songwriter. It didn’t mean the same thing when people called Conor Oberst a songwriter. To me, songwriter meant, “You know, music for people like them,” which is lesbians and women. So I started thinking, “We’ve got to get away from these words.” Not because I don’t believe in them or like them or think they’re accurate, but because used in the context at that time, I felt they were coded words to put us in a different category than I wanted to be in. Especially back then, it felt like we were only compared to things that were “like us.” So we would never get compared to the people I thought were our peers. When So Jealous came out, I wanted to be compared to the bands that I thought we were coming up on the scene with, like Arcade Fire and The Stills and Feist and Metric. We were very rarely compared to those people or talked about in the scene with those people. So I think we constantly used words to reinforce where we imagined that we belonged. Eventually, slowly, it felt like people begrudgingly put us in there. And it still happens all the time. Maybe it is because we aren’t really a bandI don’t knowbut I still feel very strongly that it’s important for us to define ourselves the way we want to be defined, especially when it feels like the words that other people use to define us have always made me feel aggravated. [Laughs]

Cover of Under the Radar fall 2005 issue.

Around the time that you were making So Jealous, not only had you experienced a breakup, but there was also some separation anxiety between you and Tegan, wasn’t there?

We were still touring If It Was You, but we had started to slow down, and I had made this impulsive decision to move to Montréal from Vancouver. Now it seems so silly. We live all over the world; I’m always moving. Sometimes I’m in Montréal, sometimes I’m in Vancouver, sometimes I’m in the States. I never think about where I live or the proximity to where Tegan is as being a deterrent or an obstacle for this band. But back then, I didn’t have the Internet. When I moved to Montréal, I remember Tegan saying, “We need to get a fax machine, so that we can communicate.” I was like, “Oh my God, I feel so old-fashioned.” We really were worried that we were not going to be able to function across the country. That’s just how, at that time, it felt like: yeah, we can call each other on the phone, but what about other stuff? What if we needed to see documents? How do we send them to each other? We started getting into this ritual of recording songs and then burning them to cd and then FedEx-ing them to each other. We probably never would have FedEx-ed. We would have done something cheaper, like Xpresspost or something where we’d get it in four days. And I’d take the cd out, and that’s how I’d hear Tegan’s song. So there were some growing pains of “Can this actually work? Does me living in a different city mean that we can’t still have a band? ” And on an even broader level, “What does it mean for our sibling relationship?” At 22, 23 years old, this was the first time we’d ever been separated. And there was not just anxiety between us. I remember my managers were really stressed, my mom was super stressed, and it took a couple years for that to really feel like, “This can totally happen and be OK.”

“Speak Slow” is an interesting song because there are parts where Tegan is singing sounds as opposed to singing words. Do you remember discussing that with her?

We definitely didn’t discuss it, but it’s funny that you bring that up. Before we learned how to effectively harmonize with each otherwe were always trying toone of the things that naturally would happen was that we would sing melodic ideas for other instruments. Often we were onstage solo back those days, so Tegan would be playing some kind of rhythm guitar and maybe I’d be playing a couple of melodic lines on the guitar here and there, but we weren’t super skilled guitar players. So, a lot of times, the vocal ideas that we came up with were just straight octaves, if that was possible. And then, probably just borne out of incompetence from guitar, we started doing other melodic ideas using our voices. I think that that totally happened without us knowing we were doing it. I think it was just like, “Oh, if I had a keyboard player, maybe I would do some weird call-back riffs, like this,” and then I would try them with my vocals. Now I think it’s such a signature of what we do. In fact, I try to make myself not do it all the time. I feel like it’s my go-to, even when I’m songwriting with other people. I’m just like, “Don’t do that thing all the time.” [Laughs]

Are there any songs from So Jealous that you haven’t performed live?

I believe we have done them all at some point. “I Can’t Take It” and “We Didn’t Do It,” I feel like we maybe did those one tour cycle on So Jealous and then dropped them pretty quick. The ones that really translated well, especially during that album cycle, were “Fix You Up,” “I Bet It Stung,” “Speak Slow,” “Ghost” obviously. My songs, especially during So Jealous and The Con, I felt like they were so crazythere would be so many tracks, so many ideasand at that time, I don’t think we had the skill to pull down what was really necessary and translate them. So, a lot of times we would do one of my songs three shows in a row, and then I would be like, “It’s out! Take it off the setlist. I’m not doing it.” That has also changed my songwriting. At some point, I realized, “Fuck, I don’t want to not have to play my song.” So it forced me to a) be better and b) think more about how I would effectively play them live. Sometimes I listen back to the songs I wrote on earlier records, and to me they sound like a disaster. I appreciate that they have their own little idiosyncrasies and they can be special in their own way, but to me it just sounds like I didn’t take any time to think about removing a few ideas.

Was there a moment or specific period where you realized that So Jealous indeed had become a game-changer for you two?

I definitely remember thinking, “It’s happening.” We were getting offers to do late-night TV. We were getting offers for festivals, and The White Stripes thing. But, for me, the two things that really were game-changers [occurred with] The Killers tour. We had gone back and forth about whether we were going to take that or not, and the moment we took it, we could feel a change. The audience response to the band was really big, and we were selling a lot of records. During that tour, we went over the 50,000 sales mark, and that was massive to us. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, 50,000 is like a million to me.” Up to that point, it felt like we had to sell every cd ourselves. It was like, one…two…three. To me, 50,000 signaled, “OK, it’s out of our hands. We’re not in charge of all of this now.” That was a big marker for me.

Did you have any contact with Jack White when The White Stripes covered “Walking With a Ghost”?

We write about this in the book. We heard about it, and quite quickly after that, we were going to be in Detroit—

He did it without you knowing about it?

Yeah, he did it without us knowing. We heard that they were playing it live. Quite soon after that, we heard that they were recording it, and that they were going to put it out on a 12-inch or something. Right after that, we were playing in Detroit, and so we thought, “Oh, maybe they’re going to come down.” Meg came down, actually, and came backstage after the show and played their version for us. She had a cd burned copy. And then we went bowling with her. We had a very interesting night, and that was the last time we ever talked to them. It’s important for me, again, to give the context. It’s not like today where something happens, and it’s like real time; someone would play it, and we’d see a Tweet, and we could be like, “Hi! You guys played our song. That’s so cool! Hey everybody, look at the YouTube clip!” It was like the fuckin’ stone ages. It probably took about a week for us to hear about it, and then we had to travel in a covered wagon to the show. We couldn’t Google it. We didn’t have the Internet on the road. I didn’t have a laptop. It was different back then. We were just kinda like, “Cool, they’re covering our song.” And I remember we played Coachella, and The Raconteurs I think were playing that year, and we met Jack in person, and we really didn’t talk a lot about it. We were so shy. We were the most self-deprecating, shy, freaked-out people. I’m sure I’m making it up now, but there’s a part of me that vaguely remembers my first reaction to hearing that they were covering the song was, “Is it like how everyone is covering Britney Spears ironically?” I remember thinking, “Are they making fun of us?” That’s how pathetic my self-esteem was, that I actually thought that they might be making fun of us by covering “Walking With a Ghost.”

Tegan and Sara at Coachella 2005.

You’ve just finished up a massive tour. Is it time for a long break, or is it back to work soon?

Well, as I’m doing this interview, I’m in my office that I just set up and have all my recording stuff out and am fully in the process of starting to write. So, I guess it’s a break, but for me, a break just means a break from touring. It just means, “OK, now I get to be creative and write new songs and go into that zone.” I mean, it’s almost noon, and I’m in my pajamas, and I’m making songs. That’s kind of like what a break is to me. I don’t know what other people do on a break, but for me it’s the time where I get to access the other part of what I do.

At a time such as this, do you return to unfinished or discarded ideas from earlier albums or do you need to start fresh?

I’ll probably be starting completely fresh. Right now, I’ve just been building tracks. Sometimes I think that my brain has atrophied or something. It’s like I have to relearn my skills. It takes me a while to get back into the swing of recording, ‘cause I don’t do a lot of recording on the road. So right now, it’s just mostly goofing off and building tracks and songs, and working on ideas just to get back into the groove. Often, it just takes a few months. Also, it’s so nice not to have the pressure of a deadline, the idea that I would have the next year to sculpt ideas and songs. And not just for our band either; Tegan and I have been writing a ton with other people. That is a really good exercise for both of us.




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