Metro Weekly

Tegan and Sara: Sister Act

With a new foundation bearing their name, Canadian pop duo Tegan and Sara boost their efforts to become stronger LGBTQ advocates.

Tegan and Sara — Pamela Littky

Tegan and Sara are not who they were 10 years ago.

“I was just totally off-balance,” Sara Quin recalls. “A lot of times when we go out and tour an album, there is quite a disconnect from the original stories or experiences that inspired the songs. But for me, I was actually in the middle of going through substantial changes and experiences. It was a little too real, and it was too hard to watch people singing along and enjoying this performance when I was like, ‘Actually, I really hate this.'”

The Con specifically, 10 years ago, was one of our roughest times,” Tegan Quin adds. “We both were dealing with a lot of personal stuff and anxiety, and Sara dealt with it so differently than I did.”

The 37-year-old Quin sisters have grown in many ways both obvious and subtle since the 2007 release of The Con, their fifth album. It was by far the darkest and most passionate from an indie-pop act known for charming and catchy harmonized hooks and clever, self-aware and self-deprecating lyrics and wordplay.

Since The Con, and particularly in recent years, the identical twins have also stepped up their visibility and advocacy as LGBTQ role models and leaders. Last year, the Quins, both of whom identify as lesbian, established their own charity to aid the LGBTQ cause.

“There was a self-awareness that we could probably do more and be more strategic and formal about the work that we wanted to be doing,” Sara says. “The band’s platform and success over the years has made it even more crucial that we’re not just out there marketing songs and selfies and whatever. I would feel terrible if the only thing that we were putting out into the world were things that people could buy all the time.”

Tegan and Sara — Lindsey Byrnes

We Didn’t Do It (For The Money)

The Quins have been politically engaged from the start of their careers. “We’ve always been social justice-minded,” Tegan says. “We’ve run fundraisers and had donation jars and that kind of thing at pretty much every show since 2004, when we put So Jealous out. Certainly with the political climate being what it was when we started touring 18 months ago, it really just felt like a justifiable time to give back and make sure that this part of the world, this community that’s really been supportive to us, that they feel like we see them and that we’re helping.

“Especially within our community, once marriage equality happened, I think a lot of people thought, ‘Okay, great. We’re done.’ [But] there are hundreds of religious freedom acts on the Senate floor and House floor that will basically take away rights from LGBTQ people — protections that are important. And we want to stand in solidarity with our community to help make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Natives of Canada, the Quins have apartments in Los Angeles as well as in Vancouver, which goes a long way to explaining their interest in U.S. politics. “We’ve both been down here now for 17 years,” Tegan says, noting that they’ve “been to every state, except for Alaska,” as well as to D.C. and Puerto Rico. “We’ve been on work visas since 1998 and we both date Americans and we have a lot of family in the D.C. area as well as the Atlanta area.”

Still, their Tegan and Sara Foundation operates on both sides of the 49th Parallel — and there is work to be done even in our more progressive neighbor to the north.

“I don’t like to kick Canada, because I do love it and I do think there is something inherently different [about it] — there is a sense of community and thoughtfulness and kindness that is woven into Canada and the people there,” Tegan says. “But there’s just as much systemic racism and homophobia and transphobia there. And we also are living on stolen land from our indigenous people.”

That said, at the moment there is more hope up north, where in 2015 citizens voted in a liberal government after 11 years of conservative rule. “Prime Minister Trudeau is definitely trying to change things, and Sara and I are really excited to work with the government to try to improve on some of the issues that we see in the arts and S.T.E.M. industries, because it’s very similar to the States. There just is not the same opportunities for women, which is ludicrous in 2017.”

Tegan and Sara — Pamela Littky

Shock To Your System

The Tegan and Sara Foundation was actually conceived years ago, prior to Trump’s ascent and the general rise of progressive “woke” consciousness. The musicians sensed unmet needs and opportunities in the LGBTQ community from regularly traveling and touring across the country.

“They’re doing good work,” Sara says about existing LGBTQ organizations, yet there are problems with “some of the way that their funding is distributed, or some of the way that certain issues are prioritized over other issues. [These] are difficult conversations to have, because I think ultimately everyone is trying to do good work, and everyone has the best of intentions, but some of these systemic issues just exist, and they exist in this invisible way if you are not one of the people that those systemic issues affects negatively.”

Chief among these is the discrepancy in funding for gay women versus gay men. “A very small portion of the money that’s given via grants and the government every year for LGBTQ orgs across North America goes to women,” Tegan says. “We would really like to do our part to close the gender gap and to make things more balanced. And there are very specific pillars that we’re focused on — healthcare and economics, but also representation…. There’s still a really high percentage of LGBTQ characters that end up getting written into TV shows and movies and they’re very negative often. And we want to do our part to try to make representation positive because we’ve lived a really happy, healthy life, and we feel like there needs to be a balancing of the scales.”

One subtle way they’re striving to bring parity is by helping to mentor and shine a light on the next generation of LGBTQ artists. Last month, they released The Con X: Covers, featuring a diverse array of musicians reimagining their songs. “We really wanted to engineer a ton of diversity,” Tegan says. “A lot of these projects, when artists release them, they’re still pretty predominantly men that hold these positions and we thought, ‘It would be so cool to get a ton of women to do it.'” The end result includes notable covers by Cyndi Lauper, Hayley Williams of Paramore, Chvrches, and Sara Bareilles, but the album goes well beyond merely showcasing established women in the industry.

“We wanted everyone to either be LGBTQ or an open, on-the-record ally of the LGBTQ community, and we just started kind of going down the list,” Tegan says. “We deliberately tried to hold six spots for artists we thought are up and coming, [and] Shamir, Mykki Blanco, Shura, MUNA, Ruth B, and Kelly Lee Owens are all rising stars, in my opinion. Really talented artists, really unique alternative voices.”

The artists represented on The Con X: Covers volunteered their time and efforts, and proceeds from its sale go to the Tegan and Sara Foundation. As such, the album is a fundraising tool, in addition to being a novel way to honor the original set.

“It serves to give new life to the album,” Sara says. “Instead of trying to tinker with the original recordings, we thought that it might be interesting to see what they would sound like 10 years later sung by other people.”

Relief Next To Me

What would it be like to hear Sara sing from The Con? As it turns out, Sara has rarely performed several of the set’s songs she penned with brutally honest lyrics touching on her failings in a prior relationship — from the title track to “Relief Next to Me” to “Floorplan.” “I didn’t play a lot of my music from that album because, quite honestly, it was just depressing,” she says. “It was a little too on-the-nose for what was happening in my life, and I didn’t really enjoy reviewing that every single night. I preferred to play older material [or] support Tegan in performing her material.”

But Sara has agreed to perform them — all of them — for a special tour on which the sisters perform The Con in its entirety, as well as fan favorites from their repertoire. “It’s a nice way to reflect on how much has changed and how far we’ve come,” Sara says. “Certainly the headspace we are in now is quite different than the one we were in then, so it’s a clarifying and interesting experience.”

Reflecting on their relationship, both Tegan and Sara say their bond is as strong as it’s ever been. Says Tegan: “We always say, if you have a sibling, imagine spending 19 years together sharing a career, a t-shirt, a band, a hotel room. There’s been ups and downs for sure…. There has definitely been parts of our career where we’ve been really distant and not necessarily on the same page. But I will say without any hesitation, that the last couple of years have been really wonderful. I think Sara and I really understand one another and we really have worked out a way to be family first, and then business partners second. And I think that by respecting that bond as family, it’s allowed us to be a little more easygoing in our business.”

It helped the sisterhood when Sara moved back to Canada’s West Coast a few years ago, after more than a decade spent across the continent in Montreal. The growing pains that came with her move to Montreal were, says Sara, “really necessary in order to develop our individual personalities and lifestyles, especially given the fact that we’re sisters and we have this band and we spend so much of our life professionally together.”

Even now, when they’re not on tour, they often go weeks without seeing one another. “We are in each other’s lives and really respect each other and have a lot of common interests,” Sara says. “But I think for the preservation of our human selves, we have to not be around each other all the time when we’re not working.”

Tegan and Sara — Lindsey Byrnes

(I Just Want) Back In Your Head

Of course, the times when they’re not working are relatively few and far between. A year after extensively touring their eighth album Love You To Death, the sisters are now on the road again. Yet their current tour is a significant departure from the last — which included a two-night run at the 9:30 Club on election eve. “The last five or six years we’ve been in full rock band or pop band mode,” Tegan says. As a result, fans have been requesting that we “go out and tour acoustically, which we didn’t necessarily want to do. But then when The Con thing came up we thought, ‘What if we don’t just go play the record start to finish the way it was recorded, what if we strip it down, and give the fans kind of both of the things they want?'”

With a D.C. appearance scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 11, Tegan and Sara become one of the first acts to headline the city’s newest concert venue, The Anthem, created by the proprietors of the 9:30 Club. Two musicians — one on guitar, the other on keys — will offer live support to Tegan, mostly on guitar, and Sara, mostly on piano, offering what Tegan calls “very open arrangements” as part of “a pretty intimate show.” And all for what is sure to be an amped-up crowd, which the Quins have long realized is par for the course in D.C.

“I love Washington, D.C.,” Sara says. “I think one of our very first shows was at the 9:30 Club opening for Ryan Adams, and it’s always been to me a really interesting and complex city — great music scene, great art scene, tons of politics obviously. And it’s all the more special now because we also have family there.”

“D.C. has always been a great place for us.” Tegan adds. “We’ve always really had a soft spot.”

Tegan and Sara perform Saturday, Nov. 11, with doors at 6:30 p.m., at The Anthem, 901 Wharf St. SW. Tickets are $50.50 to $76, with a $1 from every ticket sold benefiting the Tegan and Sara Foundation. Call 202-265-0930 or visit theanthemdc.com.

More information about The Con X: Covers and the Tegan and Sara Foundation are available at teganandsara.com.

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Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.