Indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara try writing together for new album, Sainthood

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TORONTO - As the years pass, Tegan and Sara Quin would seem to be moving further and further away from each other.
While the duo once dressed in similarly punked-out threads, during a recent promotional stop they looked like a study in contrasts: Tegan wore a sleeveless striped shirt that showed off the ample tattoo ink running along her arms, while twin sister Sara wore a crisp light blue button-down shirt and dress pants.
They live across the country from one another (Tegan in Vancouver, Sara in Montreal) and have long split the songwriting on their albums practically down the middle.
And yet, "Sainthood," their frequently surprising sixth album, actually found the duo moving closer together, trying to write together for the first time during a trip to New Orleans.
Only one song from the trip actually made it onto the record ("Paperback Head"), but the pair considered the collaboration a success - even if it was, at times, trying.
"It certainly illuminated for me the differences between our writing styles, Tegan and I," Sara told The Canadian Press during interviews at a Toronto hotel.
"But it also really, I was finally able to put into words and articulate-"
"How much better I am at it than you?" Tegan interjected.
"No."
"More efficient?" Tegan replied.
"No," Sara insisted. "I realized how much more of a patient songwriter I am and how I obsess over details."
Obsession is, in fact, one of the major themes of the group's new record, which finds the duo moving further toward the '80s electro-pop they've flirted with in the past.
The title, "Sainthood," comes from a Leonard Cohen lyric that the sisters thought was fitting for a record that explores the relationship between faith and love.
Sara, in fact, struggled through one of the darker periods of her life in the two years following 2007's "The Con."
She was dealing with a difficult break-up ("it was a big relationship for me, I had been with the person for five years, she and I had owned a house," she says) while touring in support of the new album.
"There was something particularly absurd about getting up onstage every night and singing songs about the breakup I was going through, and having all these happy, excited teenagers and people sing at me," she said.
"The woman that I was with, she does all of our artwork and our website and the backdrop and the merch, and she was everywhere. We were trying to be friends, we were dismantling this huge epic life. It felt unbearable. That was the first time I felt like this is true masochism, to be onstage having to sing these songs and entertain people with what is true pain.
"I felt really, really bad."
Tegan, meanwhile, was in a very different place. The unrequited love she wrote about on "The Con" came around.
She got the girl. She was content. Unfortunately.
"I was happy, so it was like what the (hell) am I gonna write about?" she said with a laugh. "This sucks."
But she found inspiration in the environs of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, the drug-plagued zone where she lives. She saw parallels between the behaviour of addicts and her own lovestruck "insanity," and used that metaphor to write three songs: "Don't Rush," "The Cure" and "Hell."
"I wanted to stand on the balcony of my neighbourhood and scream at everybody: 'Stop smoking crack! Stop falling in love!"' Tegan said with a laugh.
Beyond the album's overarching concept - aspiring to perfection for someone else's sake - the Quins' lyrics are typically angsty and relatable. Both say they aimed to convert the personal to the universal here, more so than ever before.
"That's the downfall to our first couple records, was how specific they felt," Tegan said. "(They felt) very linear and very aggressive. It was hard for people to relate to us."
The music, too, carries a concise rhythmic thrust that finds the band charting relatively new territory. From the propulsive "Arrow" to buoyant closer "Someday," the songs feature a clean precision, referencing classic girl-group pop while still sounding entirely of-the-moment.
"We weren't going to spend a ton of time overdubbing and making some big, lush, crazy-sounding record," Tegan said, "and in the end, it ended up sounding bigger and more lush and full than ever before, because everything has its place."
And after years of relentless touring and consistent work, Tegan and Sara have seemingly found theirs. Their last two records - 2004's "So Jealous" and "The Con," have both been certified gold in Canada.
Ten years and six albums into their career, the Quins are optimistic.
"There's definitely been points over the last 10 years where it felt really hard," Tegan said. "I was like: Wow, this is really hard, it's not coming easy, we're working so hard and I don't understand why more isn't happening, or why our label isn't more supportive, or why critics can't see past the fact that we're gay or that we're girls, why can't we just be a pop band?
"And we've just come so far."
Tegan says she figures they'll still be in a band together in the coming years. Sara says she'd like to put out some solo work, mainly so that she could explore various creative avenues without worrying about hurting the band she and her sister have worked so hard to establish.
The future of Tegan and Sara? That brings us back to that New Orleans rehearsal space, where the sisters' conflicting styles were trying each other's patience.
Tegan wanted to write songs, lay tracks and move on. Sara? She was more meticulous.
"It was more and more comments and critiques and by 4 o'clock I was like, laying on the floor and tired, and I was like: 'This is boring, I hate this,"' Tegan said.
And yet, she thinks that Tegan and Sara's future could be in writing more together.
"I think we realized that we really do have this future where we can potentially do a lot more of this," Tegan said.
"It might end up really shaping the future of Tegan and Sara and our sound. It might be the next chapter in our lives."
Tegan and Sara begin a cross-Canada tour on Dec. 21 in Victoria.

Organizations: Canadian Press, Toronto hotel, Cross-Canada

Geographic location: Indie, Vancouver, New Orleans TORONTO Montreal Canada Victoria

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