How ProTools and Neil Young helped put Tegan and Sara over in the year 2000
Before they were everyone’s favorite gay twins and Canadian indie stars, Sara and Tegan Quin were two grimacing teenagers trying to turn their hometown hero success into something sustainable enough to avoid University.
A demo deal with Polygram didn’t do much to propel their careers, but it led to the sisters meeting equally young-and-dewy-eyed producer Jared Kuemper, who told them they could cut the bullshit from the equation by renting a Pro Tools rig and making their own record.
“We convinced Grampa to lend us the money to make the record,” Tegan writes in their memoir High School, “after we passionately explained, while Mom and Gramma looked on, we weren’t just going to be artists; we were going to be business owners.”
Reading this with the knowledge that the two would go on to be wildly successful is a reminder that it’s not always about luck or talent or having the privilege of a loan from Grampa (although those things don’t hurt); the difference maker is often entrepreneurialism.
They called their first album Under Feet Like Ours, a title representative of their desire to forge their own path by retaining full ownership and control over the album, its recording, and its distribution. Their intentions paid off within a year; sure, a year of relentless fighting, playing shows almost non-stop, and stuffing envelopes addressed to labels, but it paid off. They were signed to Neil Young’s Vapor Records and hit the studio.
AUDIO: Tegan and Sara Under Feet Like Ours (full album)
If Tegan and Sara’s debut can be taken as evidence of their tireless work ethic, then their second effort is evidence of their perpetual dissatisfaction at whatever others might view as the end goal or success. This doesn’t feel like an arrival for them; instead, the album is more like an answer to the question “What are you going to keep doing to get to the next place you want to be?”
The aptly titled This Business of Art was a solid 50/50 split between new material and re-recorded, reimagined tracks from Under Feet Like Ours. It’s 35 minutes of defiance, determination, and punk ethos. The carryover tracks from Under Feet Like Ours help maintain the twins’ image of scrappy teens who are irritated at the system they’re being forced to work in, but the fact that they were able to re-record the songs into something with greater oomph is a clear nod to the success they’ve already managed to achieve.
This Business of Art laid the foundation for Sara and Tegan to begin showing the world exactly who they were and what their souls looked like–something that, to their credit, has stayed true over the course of the last two decades, even when their sound was evolving from grunge-tinged guitars to indie-pop electronica. So much of this record feels strategic, from the songs that were selected to be re-recorded to the order in which the tracks flow through the album. Most (keyword: most) of the record contains “old school” Tegan & Sara: bombastic and anthemic songs, dripping with wry observations and fierce callouts against a culture that is failing to serve the twins and their peers. In 2000 this might have been their way of introducing themselves–this is who we are, this is what we stand for, if you don’t like it then you should probably leave now because it’s not changing–but in the present-day we know what changes and what stays. The trade-off/backup vocals and acoustic guitar are present but a little understated, and it feels strange and beautiful to see Tegan & Sara tiptoe around things that would become the most obvious flags in their sound.
It’s only in the context of their entire career that we can see the sense of self-consciousness that permeates the record. Mellow love ballad “My Number” and high-on-how-you-make-me-feel “All You Got” come after a wash of fuck-you-I-won’t-do-what-you-tell-me, as if they’re saying “Well you’ve stayed for this long. Maybe we can trust you to listen to this.” Like most teenagers, they’re hyperfocused on the constructions of their identities, and, like most savvy capitalists, they’re honing in on what it is about those identities that will make consumers want to spend money. They’re not being dishonest, just careful with their hearts. Hell, they’re being teenagers, saying “Will you still like me if you knew this part of me?”
Of course, we, the listeners of the future, know that this vulnerability was what ran all the way through the record that would propel Tegan & Sara to breakout stardom: 2004’s So Jealous. I want to reach back 20 years and tell them to stop being afraid to show people who they are, that everything is going to be fine, that they will be loved and find success.
You know, all the things I wish I could say to myself 20 years ago too.
Speaking of, there’s some serendipity happening in the timing of doing a retrospective on This Business of Art a year after Tegan & Sara released Hey, I’m Just Like You, a collection of unreleased songs and demos originally written when they were in high school. These are, presumably, the songs that were left on the cutting room floor when the sisters were first stretching their fingers towards an ever-retreating waif of success. The main difference is that Hey, I’m Just Like You carries the fingerprints of success all over it; being able to release an album of songs that have been collecting dust for almost two decades basically requires pre-existing success, otherwise it’s just an embarrassing and disappointing investment. There is an unspoken confidence that comes with releasing the songs you didn’t think were good enough when you were first trying to make a name for yourself.
VIDEO: Tegan and Sara perform “The First” at SXSW 2000
But how sad it is to view success as something that begets confidence, instead of the other way around. This Business of Art is almost old enough to drink, but its teenaged earnestness stays timeless–especially now that we know just how much was pared down for the sake of getting ahead. Part of what made Hey, I’m Just Like You a good record is the fact that we got to watch Sara and Tegan talk to their This Business of Art selves, buoying the lyrics from that era with their present-day indie pop electronica. Hugging their younger, less confident selves back into existence.
I see things in old yearbook photos today that I had no idea were in my face when I was sitting on the stool, being told to smile. Listening to This Business of Art feels a lot like that; and to know where Tegan & Sara go from there makes a great record age masterfully.