The Anniversary

If It Was You Turns 20

Vapor / Sanctuary
Vapor / Sanctuary

Tegan and Sara Quin were only 21 when If It Was You was released, and they were already used to change. The Quins started out making music in their bedrooms — an origin story recounted in their memoir High School, soon to be a television series — but they were quickly thrust into the spotlight. An outsized portion of that attention came about because of their young age and, certainly, because of the novelty of them being twin sisters who both happened to be gay. By the time If It Was You hit shelves in 2002, Tegan And Sara had already been lumped in with the era’s folky, singer-songwriter zeitgeist — spoken about as the next evolution of artists like Ani DiFranco and Melissa Etheridge — and they were determined to break away from the connotations those associations implied.

“The thing I remember actively recognizing, pretty much as soon as we started playing, was that all of these words that really bothered us, that people were using to describe us, to me felt very coded,” Sara recounted in a 2014 interview. “So ‘folk’ meant girl and lesbian. And ‘songwriter’ meant girl and lesbian. It didn’t mean the same thing when people called Neil Young a songwriter. It didn’t mean the same thing when people called Conor Oberst a songwriter. To me, songwriter meant, ‘You know, music for people like them,’ which is lesbians and women. So I started thinking, ‘We’ve got to get away from these words.'”

That’s the spirit in which If It Was You was made. Their third full-length album — which came out 20 years ago this Saturday — is the first essential Tegan And Sara album, and it arrived as the duo started to experience the tempestuousness of early adulthood. Tegan And Sara have spoken fondly if reservedly about their first two albums, 2000’s Under Feet Like Ours and 2001’s This Business Of Art. Both albums throw a lot of sounds at the wall, many of them grounded by scratchy acoustic guitars — hence the folk designation — and not all of them work. “We were so young for both those records … that they feel more like demos, really,” Tegan reminisced when I talked to the pair back in 2016. “Good, higher-end demos because we actually did them with producers and proper engineers in a studio, but I think we were still discovering ourselves.” Talking about “Superstar,” a nervy song about the notion of selling out that would go through three permutations during their early career, Tegan said: “We’re exploring, even within the song, what kind of songwriters we are, what kind of singers we are, what we wanted to talk about.”

But despite their shakiness, those albums showed a lot of promise and attracted attention within the insular Canadian music scene. Under Feet Like Ours, which they self-released under the name Sara And Tegan, drew in Neil Young’s manager Elliott Roberts, who signed them to Young’s label Vapor Records. “We always joked that after school, our friends went off to college and we went off to tour with Neil Young,” Sara said in a 2019 interview. The sisters have spoken about how alienating those early days sometimes felt, and also about the pressure they felt from their label and the producers they worked with to sound a certain way. “We were proud of what we created together, but every choice we made during that time felt like an odd pairing,” Sara continued. “When I look back on that time, in particular, I realize that, yes, we were a part of it and we got to weigh in, but I was left with the unsettling feeling that we weren’t quite allowed to steer.”

Spurred on by learning how to use ProTools, Tegan And Sara were able to record demos in a way that more accurately reflected what they wanted their finished songs to sound like. “I can remember feeling really excited to be able to record our songs in that way and hear them and add production and record ideas,” Tegan told me. “We’d done that very primitively with our high school demos on tape recorders and stuff, but we obviously weren’t able to overdub and that sort of thing.”

They brought those demos to John Collins and Dave Carswell, who were fresh off working together on the New Pornographers’ 2000 debut Mass Romantic. Collins and Carswell were excited about what they heard and agreed to produce the album. They pushed the duo to make music that echoed what the sisters were actually listening to: alt-rock like Hole and Smashing Pumpkins, newer indie-rock like the New Pornographers. “That’s when I had this burst of confidence where I felt like we were doing something really cool, because I thought they were cool,” Tegan explained. “That’s when I remember thinking we were moving in the right direction.”

The twins sound invigorated from the jump on If It Was You, which opens with the puckish, punchy “Time Running,” a song about feeling like everything’s getting away from you faster than you can keep up. They channel their uncertainty into a searing chorus that strikes a balance between aspirational and desperate: “I’ve got more for the world than this/ I’ve got love that I need to give.” Tegan’s words on the next track, “You Went Away,” mimic the form that the band takes through much of the album: “My loud guitar comes in and my thumping drums come through.” Tegan And Sara utilize relatively rudimentary rock sounds on If It Was You, but their sticky hooks shine and they’re not afraid to paint outside the lines. The driving “Living Room,” an enduring fan favorite, adds a plucky banjo into the mix and crackles with chaos, a voyeuristic tale of all the thoughts you can think while staring through someone else’s window.

Even at this early stage of their career, Tegan And Sara exhibited a tendency to lodge hooks in unconventional places, stretching out syllables and enunciating in weird ways. Take “Monday Monday Monday,” which glides along with gloomy melodicism but is elevated by the way Sara emphasizes “well, daaamn your mood swings.” Or “Underwater,” another Sara cut where she swallows words and delivers odd turns of phrase like “I’m a silly love song, a twisted elbow crush song.” They’d get even better at building out their songs with these snags of melody and language, but they’re pretty adept at it here already. And they could pull off simple just as well: “And Darling,” retained here as the original demo that Tegan recorded in her bedroom, is a sweet and cloying song about persevering heartbreak that clocks in at under two minutes.

Tegan And Sara have always written honestly, hoping that by exposing their own messiness they can reflect their listeners’ internal struggles. With “I Hear Noises,” Tegan seeks out that same sort of recognition in the small screen: “My health is failing me so I flip on the television/ And watch sad movies and look for sad, sick people like me.” On “City Girl,” she sings about losing her cool, leaning into the extremes of her emotions — how she “screamed so loud you called the police on me,” how she “got so crazy I didn’t know what to do.” If It Was You feels real and raw, and though the twins lived on opposite coasts of Canada when they wrote the songs that would end up on the album, both of them sing about similar problems: how you can throw yourself into relationships to run away from your own problems, how an outward confidence can belie deeper insecurities.

“We’ve always wanted people to understand us,” Tegan said in a more recent interview. “As artists, that’s the biggest thing that I’m trying to satisfy: I want to be known. Not famous — I want you to listen to my song and feel like you understand me, because whatever I wrote makes you feel seen … Sara and I said this at the beginning of our career: We don’t feel like musicians, we felt like storytellers. And ultimately what makes somebody tell a story is a desire to connect with people.”

If It Was You established Tegan And Sara as a singular talent — or, rather, a symbiotic pair that works best when they’re together. Their songs are relatable and heartening, and If It Was You remains the sole Tegan And Sara album where they really, truly rock out. They’d soften up their sound for followup So Jealous in 2004, lean into studio quirks on their 2007 masterpiece The Con, and soon after turn their sights onto razor-sharp pop songs. But it marked a major transformation for the group, who at a young age had already been through a number of transformations already, and they would eventually come to define themselves by their ability to constantly change while still staying true to themselves.

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