Tegan and SaraWhen we congratulate Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara on the creation and release of eight albums, she laughs. “Well, to be fair, I only did half of it.”

OK, so even if the younger of the twin sister duo was only responsible for half of their creative output, it would still merit an extended round of applause. Over one million albums sold; JUNO Awards, the Polaris short list, and Grammy nominations; recording with dance music heavyweights Tiësto and David Guetta; touring with Neil Young and sharing the stage with Taylor Swift; performing at the Academy Awards; and writing songs like “Walking with A Ghost” (covered by The White Stripes), the double-platinum download, “Closer,” and the shiny new hit “Boyfriend,” from the duo’s new album Love You to Death.

Back when Tegan and Sara first emerged from Calgary, signing to Neil Young’s Vapor Label for their 2000 debut This Business of Art, this country’s music landscape was as full of rock as the Canadian Shield, with the Our Lady Peaces and Tea Parties about to give way to the reign of Nickelback. So the duo’s acoustic guitar-based music was dubbed indie, then later, alternative. But from the beginning, Tegan and Sara were making pop music. It’s just easier to hear it as such now.

Love you to Death continues in the trajectory they set upon in 2007 with The Con, which kicked into overdrive with 2013’s mainstream breakout Heartthrob – completing the group’s transformation into a full-on, Top 40, dancefloor synth-pop act. One without guitars, even.

“I’ve always struggled with describing us,” Sara Quin explains. “We identified with indie rock for a long time. I think that just meant we were sort of in the underground and we play guitar. On our early records, I hear a lot of our punk influences. We were writing in this really choppy, truncated way: two minutes, boom-boom. Very aggressive. Then by [2004’s] So Jealous, we were exploring arrangements, and the textures of what our music and voices could do. The Con was an extension of that.

Heartthrob was not as big a transition for us as it was for some of our fans.”

“We’re not trapped in thinking we can’t add things because it won’t sound like us. We have the benefit of having very specific voices, and the rhythms of our voices, that’s our signature. So Heartthrob was not as big a transition for us as it was for some of our fans.”

As it turns out, it’s great timing. Canada is now in a great era of pop music, from Justin Bieber and the Weeknd to Carly Rae Jepsen and Alessia Cara dominating the charts, both here and beyond. But a key difference between Tegan and Sara and their pop-minded compatriots is that when it comes to songwriting, they don’t work with a rotating team of writers, but almost exclusively with each other. [Notable exception: “Everything is Awesome,” theme song for The Lego Movie, on which they were brought in to sing.]

Over the years, that intense creative relationship has proven very successful, but also sometimes strained. In the new single “100x,” the lyrics “I told you that I needed out/ And I couldn’t stay / Couldn’t stay here one more day” will play as a straight-up relationship song, but it’s also about the times the pair almost split over wanting to go in different musical directions.

Of their unique writing partnership (and no, the twins do not possess telepathic superpowers), Sara explains how technology has allowed them to work more closely with less danger of interfering in their personal relationship.

“The process has definitely gotten easier,” she says. “Technology like Logic allows us to hone our craft without being dependent on studios. That process really hit its groove [for us] in the past eight or nine years – writing and recording ourselves before going into the studio.

“Also, computers actually allow us an intimacy. It’s never really worked for us to sit in a room and write together. [Now] I can write my songs, work on them alone, send Tegan the files, and then she can go in and add her own things, or even just take a crack at re-arranging or editing a part. It’s a much more effective collaboration.

“I think of it as fiddling with each other’s brains. I can see what’s she thinking – what parts she put in first, for example. And then I can tinker with it without hurting her feelings in person. When we first started out and we had to tell each other what we were thinking, it would often end in conflict. I think computer programs allow us to use our language, which is music.”

There’s one outsider who’s always invited into their creative process: the producer. In selecting this important member of the team, Tegan and Sara have consistently chosen producers who are also musicians. The debut was handled by Toronto singer-songwriter Hawksley Workman; Jon Collins (New Pornographers, Destroyer) and David Carswell (The Evaporators, The Smugglers) co-produced 2002’s If It was You and So Jealous; for The Con and 2009’s Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted Sainthood they enlisted Chris Walla (Death Cab for Cutie). Heartthrob’s team of heavyweights, including producers Rob Cavallo (Green Day, My Chemical Romance) and Greg Kurstin (Kelly Clarkston, P!nk, Sia) also used bassists Justin Meldal-Johnsen (Beck, Nine Inch Nails) and Mike Elizondo (Dr. Dre, Eminem). But it was Kurstin, a graduate of the jazz conservatory, and co-founder of the ‘90s alt-rock group Geggy Tah, who became Tegan and Sara’s sole producer on Love You to Death.

“Greg, he’s a genius,” says Sara. “He’s out of this world, a phenomenal musician.”

He’s also the man behind Adele’s mega-hit single “Hello,” which he also co-wrote. We joke to Sara that it was nice of him to still take their calls. “We were in the studio with him, working in blocks of time, and I knew he was in London working with Adele,” says Sara. “When ‘Hello’ came out, I was like, ‘How are you staying focused on our record when you were working on this massive, amazing song?’ But he’s so good at that. He’s very disciplined.”

It was Kurstin, along with Tegan, who convinced Sara that she had something special in the song “Boyfriend.” The first single from Love You to Death is a perfect piece of bouncy, summer pop perfection, about being in love with someone who isn’t ready to come out and commit.  “Kiss me like your boyfriend/And trust me me like a very best friend,” she sings, “But I don’t want to be your secret anymore.”

“I listened to the demo the other day,” she says. “I was so horrified! It’s not one of my best instrumentals. When Tegan and Greg heard it, they said this is absolutely a pop song and a single. I didn’t even know it would make the record. I was also worried that lyrically it was too obvious; silly, or something.  I knew I wanted to touch on gender identity, but also the roles we play in relationships regardless of sexuality. So there’s that bridge about The Crying Game and spinning the bottle, and things people may pick up on, or not. I really like that some people are going to go deep with it and others will just think it’s a fun jam.”

Fifteen years into her music career, Sara, 35, feels pretty rock-solid about the state of affairs for Tegan and Sara, both as artists and as businesswomen. And about her own abilities to translate what’s in her head and heart onto a record and out into the world.

“I look back and I feel bad that there were so many years I felt so insecure,” she says. “So bad about what I was doing. In a way, I guess it allowed me to have a certain vulnerability. But I wasted my twenties, oh man! Now, I declare what I want, who I am, and what I need, all the time. I know exactly how to get what I need.”

Jean-Michel Blais Some people create chamber music, but Montréal-based pianist Jean-Michel Blais does apartment music. His living room is actually where he recorded Il, an album he sold online before it was picked up by Toronto’s Arts & Crafts imprint, last April.

“There was talk of recording that album in a chapel using a grand piano, but in the end I figured that music was best recorded in the exact conditions it was born in,” says Blais, an artist who loves to talk about daily-life sounds. Baby cries, birdsongs and other random sounds are scattered throughout this surprising album. Two of the album’s tracks bear the title “Hasselblad,” the brand of camera his photographer friend used to shoot the album’s artwork and, when listening closely, one can hear the camera’s shutter clicking distantly between the notes on the piano. The music is ethereal, uncomplicated, alive, a reflection of the 32-year-old composer and improv player who borrows as much from Romanticism and minimalism as he does from pop music, attracting, as his label has put it, fans of Radiohead as well as of Debussy.

Over the past few months, Jean-Michel Blais’ music has travelled well beyond the confines of his Mile End apartment in Montréal. For the Toronto launch of the album, he undertook a residency in the atrium of the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he proceeded to charm his eclectic and enthusiastic audience. Since its launch, the album has accumulated consistent rave reviews and a few major concerts – including one at the Montréal Jazz Fest – have begun appearing in his calendar.

If, at first glance, his presence in the catalogue of the Arts & Crafts label — a champion of indie bands – might seem awkward, he’s not the first iconoclastic ivory tickler to call the label home. The infamous Chilly Gonzales has long been a mainstay of the label, and the Montréal-born pianist also bridges the divide between the pop and classical traditions.

“I make no bones about it, he is totally an influence of mine,” says Blais. “But that one trait we mostly have in common is our communicator side. Just like he does, I love talking to the audience. I love to explain what I’m doing, because I feel it democratizes the experience and gives meaning to the music.”

“Except for the sound engineer’s salary, the record basically cost nothing to record, so I almost felt guilty for selling it, initially. Now that I’ve been signed, I can tell you that my label doesn’t share that feeling!”

Jean-Michel Blais And to think that until not very long ago, Jean-Michel Blais had given up on a career in music. “I got to where I am thanks to a series of happy coincidences,” explains the artist. “When Cameron Reed (Arts & Crafts’ boss) got in touch with me to tell me he stumbled upon my Bandcamp page and wanted to release my record, I thought it was a joke. I was a teacher in CÉGEP and I never thought I’d have a career in music. Except for the sound engineer’s salary, the record basically cost nothing to record, so I almost felt guilty for selling it, initially. Now that I’ve been signed, I can tell you that my label doesn’t share that feeling!” he says, laughing. |

Earning a living with music is a topic that will come up often throughout our conversation. Ever since graduating from the Trois-Rivières Conservatory, he’s had a surprising view of the classical music trade. “When I came out of the conservatory, I knew I wasn’t cut out for the academic worl,” says Blais. “I felt like piano and concert music were bourgeois entertainment, so I left to work in a Guatemalan orphanage.” Over the years, the young man travelled the world on humanitarian endeavours and took up studying psychology, leaving music behind for many months at a time.

“Sometimes, one needs to know when it’s time to leave one’s field fallow for a while,” he says. “That’s a rule of thumb in agriculture, but it applies to music, too.” The analogy is not a coincidence: between two explanations of his love of improv, he launches in a tirade about his aversion to boundless capitalism and our artificial and insatiable needs that drive us to produce, produce, produce… So when he starts talking about his desire for minimalism, one starts wondering if he’s talking about music or a broader state of voluntary simplicity.

“My music is by far more poetic than political,” he says immediately. “I like for people to make it their own and use the images they wish. But simply playing is an act of communion. When I travelled South America, I saw first-hand how much music can rally people. I understood the social role it can have, and felt I, too, could contribute.”

Plants and AnimalsJust a few weeks after the release of Waltzed in from the Rumbling, we caught up with Plants and Animals in between concerts, somewhere on the American Eastern seaboard. The trio’s new album, their first after a four-year hiatus, sees the Montréalers take a new, more subtle, pop-rock direction full of captivating grooves. Theirs is a serene and calm musical road – the antithesis of their current road trip.

Life on the road isn’t always a cakewalk. As Nicolas Basque tells us from his cellphone, lost somewhere on the highway, yesterday was quite hellish. “One of our vans has a lot of problems and we had to stop several times,” he says. “We got to the hotel at four in the morning and had to cancel our show. This morning we had to rent a new one so we could get to our next concert.” The trio, currently touring with a backing singer, a bass player and a sound man, should probably also take a car mechanic along with them. “Well, actually,” says Basque, “it’s our drummer [Matthew Woodley] who kinda is, because he’s always the one that goes to the garage. We joke around that all of us should take a course in auto mechanics.”

It’s a long and winding road, but “the reward comes every night when we go on stage”, says the singer and guitarist. Especially after four years away from said stage, but that was a well-considered choice. After the tour backing their third album, The End of That (2012), “we needed a break, and it just happened. We also all had kids during that hiatus. Today we’ve found our stride again. It sure won’t be four years until our next album.”

“The trick was to find a way to combine our desire to be more exploratory with our compositions, while creating songs that can be played live.” – Nicolas Basque of Plants and Animals

While some fans were wondering if Plants and Animals had decided to close up shop, Basque and his acolytes were actually reflecting on their careers, which began in 2003 with their eponymous debut EP. “We really thought about what we wanted to accomplish with our songs,” he says. “We asked ourselves, ‘How do we want to work in the studio? How do we give ourselves the time to explore?’ The trick was to find a way to combine our desire to be more exploratory with our compositions, while creating songs that can be played live.”

Plants and Animals have found that balance on Waltzed in from the Rumbling, a gorgeous, meticulous album in which they re-discover their love for folk songs, first evident on their debut album Parc Avenue (short-listed for the 2008 Polaris Prize) – while doing away with that album’s psychedelic flourishes and replacing them with stripped-down grooves.

“All we’re trying to do is create music that expresses who we are today,” Basque explains. It’s a carefully crafted album in the sense that each song has a twist to it, but without showing off or being theatrical; a reflection of musical maturity. “Now, we try to transition emotionally rather than using tempo or structural changes, the kinds of things that impress people,” says Basque. The album includes subtle string arrangements, as well as two backing vocalists (Katie Moore and Adèle Trottier-Rivard) who bring a new feminine touch to the repertoire.

The songs – including the lyrics, written by singer and guitarist Warren Spicer – were written on the fly, in the studio, and have that classic rock je ne sais quoi reminiscent of the warm, rallying sound of 10cc or Blood, Sweat & Tears of yesteryear. But not really that of Radiohead, which several music journalists and critics have evoked.

“We don’t really know what that comparison is all about,” says Basque, a little surprised. “Honestly, it’s the first time this comparison has been made. We’ve often been told that we sound like our influences, but nobody has ever been able to name a single one! That said, we take it with a grain of salt. Radiohead is such a major band, that has influenced a whole era of rock. I guess, in the end, everybody ends up being compared to them. I can understand a certain resemblance on certain songs, but overall, not really. But at the end of the day, if you’re going to be compared to a band, might as well be that one, no?”