Tegan and Sara Quin actually look like twins on the cover of Sainthood.
''For years we rejected this twin image, people always trying to twin us,'' says Tegan, laughing. ''So just when people got over it we decided to really run with it.''
Tegan & Sara
Inspired by a nearly century-old photo of two brothers, the sisters wear horizontal-striped black-and-white pullover shirts on the album's cover and fashioned their black hair in similar bobs.
''I think we always resisted this image as sisters who were best friends and shared clothes,'' adds Sara. ''When we first started out in the [music] industry, people would try to define our relationship or talk about our relationship. It was almost like people would tell the story about how we should have been.''
The Canadian band Tegan & Sara -- fronted by lesbian identical twins but also including other non-related supporting musicians -- are not, as Tegan puts it, an ''overly twin-y band.'' The band's 29-year-old leaders have worked hard to keep the focus on the music, characterized by tight vocal harmonies, clever lyrics, cute melodies and generally playful pop sensibilities, with the occasional spark of punk heat. The band has released six studio albums in more than a decade.
In recent years Tegan & Sara has garnered more attention through work with Death Cab for Cutie, dance music giant Tiesto, and Cyndi Lauper. Among other festivals over the years, from Lilith Fair to Coachella, the band performed on the 2008 True Colors Tour, which stopped at DAR Constitution Hall. Next Wednesday, Feb. 17, they'll return to D.C., performing at the Warner Theatre. The band has a new lighting director, giving the show what Tegan calls ''a more theatrical feel to it," and will play selections from its past few albums. As per custom, the twins will amusingly banter and humorously bicker onstage.
''Yes, lots of chatting," says Tegan. "It's compulsive at this point."
Though they share ''a very intense bond,'' the twins weren't inseparable growing up in Calgary, just as they aren't inseparable now.
''We were definitely in each other's social circle, but we didn't completely rely on each other,'' says Sara. The youngest – eight minutes behind Tegan – Sara was the first to own up to her sexuality. But it went unspoken until after high school.
''I was involved with a girl all through high school, and Tegan knew that," says Sara. "We just never really talked about it. It didn't seem weird as a teenager to not talk about it. But as soon as I got out of high school, all of a sudden it was important for me to define that and use that language. And so I was the first one to start saying, 'I'm gay. I'm dating a woman.' Tegan didn't come out right away -- she was still dating a guy.''
''I never really thought about it,'' Tegan says. ''But then I thought, 'Well, Sara's gay, so I must be.' I felt like because our family was so progressive and our friends were so progressive, it was really easy not to have to say one way or the other. I knew that I liked girls but I also had boyfriends and felt okay about that.
''I had to test a few models first,'' she laughs. Once she fell in love with a girl after high school, Tegan knew for sure where her proclivities fell.
Both are convinced being gay is genetic. ''I think that we can control our impulses,'' says Sara, ''but what we're attracted to in human beings, whatever the gender, whatever the sexuality, I think that that's all science. Tegan and I: identical twins, same egg splits. It makes complete sense that we would both be gay.''
''We only have relationships with a few immediate cousins," adds Tegan. "But I definitely have heard that there are more gay people [in the family]. Lots of twins and lots of gay people apparently.''
The Quin twins were closer before their teenage years, says Tegan. Their parents divorced when the two were 5. ''We were really nervous kids, so we really banded together [after the divorce] and we really loved each other and looked out for one another until we got to our teens. That's when we really started to become autonomous from one another.''
Pre-teen, the girls were enamored with being grown-up, spending all their time with adults, especially their parents and grandparents. ''I think we've always had this instinct," explains Tegan. "We've always been able to associate with people older than us.''
''Our parents were really young and didn't have a lot of money,'' explains Sara. ''We didn't have babysitters very often, and my parents would bring us to functions. … We were the most well-behaved, quiet kids because we wanted to play cards with my grandparents. We wanted to be included when they would have parties in the basement, with bands playing. We didn't want anyone to notice us in a way like, 'Oh, the kids are still up, send them to bed.'''
It was learned behavior that aided them on their first tour right out of high school, opening for Neil Young and The Pretenders. ''We were able to hang around backstage and chat with the crew and management and all these people because we weren't drunk and being crazy, being little rock stars. We were nerds. We were like, 'Oh, we're here kind of on a school project. Can we ask you about the infrastructure of your business?''' She laughs at the memory.
When not consumed with music, the girls channeled their nervous, youthful energy into playing sports. There was no doll-play, no makeup, no gossip. ''Tegan and I were tomboys,'' Sara explains. ''We learned karate and took swim lessons and beat each other up. There was a real masculinity about our behavior. I think we became amazing collaborators because of that. It's less about sharing and more about constructively building things together.''
Until Sainthood, the group's sixth studio album, the sisters never sat down and wrote songs from scratch together. They would each simply bring songs, mostly complete, into their recording sessions.
''When we were growing up my mom really encouraged us to live very individual lives,'' says Tegan. ''So I think in a way we're like the opposite of what everyone thinks we're like, and writing together perpetuates that stereotype.'' But this time around, ''Sara was like, 'Maybe we should collaborate together. I wonder what a Tegan & Sara song really would sound like?'''
Sainthood only features one song written jointly -- "Paperback Head.'' The outtakes were a bit more mellow than the final product. ''By the end we just figured that the record was going more in a rock direction,'' says Tegan.
And Sainthood definitely rocks. It's a lean, punchy contrast to 2007's dense, somber The Con.
Tegan & Sara
''With The Con, we were both grieving the end of five-year relationships, and my grandmother [Rita Clement] had passed away,'' says Tegan. ''She was like a second mom to us. We'd never had anyone that close to us die. So The Con was very dark. It was very much about reflecting on getting older and long-term relationships and the end of things.
''Sainthood is trying to capture that feeling of when you meet somebody and you have all this hope and all this excitement," she continues. "You're kind of delusional. You become that weird zombie that only talks about love and relationships and that person that you just met.'' Tegan is still in the relationship that was developing when making Sainthood last year. ''I'm still delusional,'' she says. Sara, however, is single again. ''I'm not in love now, no,'' she says, adding only, ''sadly, things change.''
''I feel like that anxiety is what comes out of Sara's songs right now, because of where she's at,'' says Tegan. ''And I feel like my songs are coming off still very hopeful.''
Nine years ago, Sara moved to her current home of Montreal, leaving Tegan in Vancouver. ''It was a really impulsive, 22-year-old decision,'' says Sara. ''I think it helped me feel spatially I had something going on that didn't have anything to do with Tegan and music.'' In addition to the obvious personal growth, ''I think it was an important turning point stylistically with our band.''
Tegan seems to have the more dominant personality; she's more extroverted, and seems less shy about sharing her feelings. At concerts, Sara talks about the separation anxiety she felt growing up – specifically, Tegan's early teen declaration that she wanted to become a veterinarian, working with polar bears at the South Pole. Sara resigned herself to the job. ''I guess I'll just go with Tegan,'' she said, according to Tegan's retelling of the story. Tegan sighs in response: ''Oh god, so sad! I was like the alpha male, dominating Sara's world, telling her where she had to go.''
Thankfully, the South Pole notion was fleeting and the two decided on making music together. Tegan recalls listening to their stepfather's music blasting through the stereo in the basement, set up as a gym with workout equipment. ''[The home gym] was so '80s, now that I think about it,'' Tegan laughs. ''[Sara and I] would listen to all his mixtapes – U2 and Bruce Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper, the Police, all this stuff. We would just lay on the floor in front of these giant speakers listening to his music while he worked out.''
The twins, who had taken piano lessons as children, started writing songs at age 15. ''Punk rock was huge in Calgary, and we used to go to gigs on the weekend,'' says Tegan. ''A lot of our friends were [in bands], so we were like, we want to be in a band, too.''
Their mother didn't take too kindly when they first discussed the possibility of a recording career. ''That devastated my mom especially because she had gone back as a young single parent to university and got her master's," recalls Tegan. "'Just go to university, get a degree,' [their mother pleaded.] 'At least then you can fall back on it. Don't do it when you're 30.' [But] we just really didn't know what else to do.'' Once the girls started getting gigs and record companies expressing interest in signing them, their mother relented – as long as they promised to go back to school if they didn't succeed after a year. They succeeded, of course, recording a debut album and signing to Neil Young's Vapor Records. It's their label home to this day, an imprint of Warner Bros.
Now that the twins are almost 30, they still haven't gone to university. But Mom's sold on their careers, as are their father and stepfather. ''They come out on the road a lot,'' according to Tegan. ''I think our family sees it as a really awesome opportunity to travel, an excuse to get out of Canada.''
The twins say Sainthood takes its name and principal theme from a Leonard Cohen song, ''I Came So Far For Beauty.'' ''It's about practicing sainthood and being good, trying to win somebody's affections and appearing devoted,'' explains Sara. (Naturally, the grumpy Cohen fails at wooing his chosen beauty in the song.) Neither twin is religious, but they both appreciate the parallels between love and religion.
''There's this intangible thing that everybody is after,'' Tegan says.
''Love and religion are these things that people become so devoted to,'' adds Sara. ''And also the practice of being good for something, whether you're being good for your religion or God or family or girlfriend or whatever it is.
''I think that we, at least in our career, have always been borderline obsessed with what people think about us,'' she continues. ''Did we seem like we were smart or good role models or talented? We always want to be seen in a positive way. It's almost like this religious guilt or something. We want to be good people, want to do as much as we could do to be kind and gracious and thankful for what we were getting. We didn't grow up with any sort of religion in our lives. But there was this act, just sort of this born behavior, that we obviously picked up as kids and we carry it to this day.''
Tegan & Sara perform Wednesday, Feb. 17, at 8 p.m. at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. Tickets are $33. Call 202-783-4000 or visit livenation.com.