It's a very hot early evening in June, and about 100 people have gathered in the dark interior of the Salvador Dali gallery on the south bank of the Thames. There is champagne and hors d'oeuvres, and lots of gossip about the music industry - this being what's known in music circles as a "showcase gig," whose bald aim is to generate buzz before an album's public launch. So no one is here to see Dali's Snail and the Angel or Profile of Time. Instead, they're here to witness something slightly less surreal, but only just: two young Canadian singers, identical twins, whose untrained voices twine in pure harmony and whose idol is Mario Lanza.
Take that, Dali.
Ryan and Dan Kowarsky - who, operating from their beachhead in England, have since that June evening become known to a legion of teenage girls (and their moms) across Europe by their nom de chanson, RyanDan - take the stage. One of them begins to sing, but it would take a member of the family, several of whom have flown in from Toronto for this show, to tell which one: "I tried to hide from you, but I failed/ I tried to lie to you, but I failed ..."
The song is Like the Sun, the single from their self-titled debut album, which hit stores on this side of the Atlantic on Sept. 27, and will be released in Canada in early November. The music is lush, overcooked, the kind of thing you might hear while browsing in a shop devoted to scented candles. But their voices are lovely, and the brothers are as cute as two buttons on a cashmere cardigan.
Universal Music is giving them an almighty push - they've appeared on no end of radio programs and celebrity and cooking shows, and in newspapers across Britain, a media blitz possible only in media-saturated England, and part of the reason the duo chose this country, rather than Canada, as their launching pad. And it becomes clear at the Dali gathering, as their voices soar together, why the record company is backing them so heartily: You can just hear that song playing in the background of a thousand Christmas or Hanukkah dinners, drowning out festive family fights.
Three months later, on a wet September afternoon, the twins walk into a bistro (no, this is not the first line of a joke) for this interview. The bistro's in Chelsea, and, coincidentally, will be the scene a few days later of an altercation between Chelsea Football Club players and paparazzi. I say coincidentally because, in an odd twist, one British newspaper has noted the resemblance between Ryan and Dan and a Chelsea star named Frank Lampard: square jaw, chiselled features, lightly tousled dark hair. Clearly, the British tabloids have latched onto the photogenic Canadian twins.
It's a good thing they're wearing different-coloured shirts (Ryan's in white; Dan's in black). Otherwise, they'd be indistinguishable, right down to their attitudes (friendly, earnest). Apparently, when they were toddlers in Toronto's Forest Hill neighbourhood, their mother used to paint Ryan's toenails red to tell them apart. Or was it Dan's?
The Kowarskys are in a particularly bouncy mood at our meeting: They have just found out that their album has debuted on the British charts at No. 7, which causes Dan to say, with barely contained glee, "We're beating 50 Cent!" They are 27, after all, and beating down a rapper must count for some street cred, even in the classical-pop world.
It's an odd musical world that RyanDan inhabit: They're signed to the classical/jazz arm of Universal, but they're not classically trained, and they don't sing classical music. They don't strictly sing pop, either, but instead exist in the same melodious, orchestra-accompanied, in-between world that's proved such a lucrative home for artists as different as Celine Dion and Il Divo.
"It's very different from a lot of the music out there," says Dan. "A lot of people compare us to Il Divo, but it's different from that, too ..." Before his brother's even finished, Ryan adds, "It's a mix of pop and classical. We have beautiful orchestration under pop melodies, but with two-way harmony."
Whatever you want to call it, the RyanDan juggernaut is steaming on, thanks to the commitment of the twins (one of whom says, with pleasing earnestness, "We're very goal-oriented"), their pull-out-all-the-stops record company, and a management team that also handles Shania Twain and Jamie Cullum. That management team organized a showcase for the twins last year at retro London nightclub, the Pigalle, which led to offers from three record companies. Their album was recorded under the auspices of producer Steve Anderson, who has also worked with Kylie Minogue and Paul McCartney.
Since landing in London a year ago, RyanDan has barely paused for breath. Along with that rigorous, ongoing tour of British radio and TV stations, there have been trips abroad - including to Australia (a showcase gig at the Sydney Opera House) and Hong Kong (the Peninsula Hotel). They'll be in Canada at the beginning of next month to launch the record there.
Back in Canada, where it all started. If this were a 1940s movie - and the twins' retro sensibility suggests they might like that - the wind would rip the pages off a calendar to reveal our heroes' beginnings in Toronto: a father who is a cantor by day and an opera singer by night; an uncomfortable year living apart when their parents split up; childhood years spent singing together, everything from Queen to the Bee Gees to Mario Lanza.
Mario Lanza? The mid-century American opera singer derided by purists for his schmaltzy tone? The man brought down in his prime by his attraction to excess? It seems an unlikely choice for such squeaky-clean youngsters.
"To me, he's just one of the greatest vocalists who ever lived," says Ryan.
"There's just something about his voice - the power, the emotion," says Dan.
I told you they were retro. They also are in awe of the microphone they were able to use to record RyanDan - it was originally Frank Sinatra's - and the same studio's mixing board, which was once used by the Rolling Stones. The Lanza connection is important, though: The one thing he could never be accused of was under-emoting, and emotion is central to the RyanDan ethos. When they recorded the song Tears of an Angel for their terminally ill niece, Tal, who has since died, they made sure the studio was dark and filled with candles.
"I think a lot of artists out there -" Ryan begins.
"I was just going to say the same thing," Dan interrupts.
"- get caught up in the technical aspect," Ryan continues, "trying to make their voice sound a certain way, and they lose the emotion."
Whoa, back up. Dan agreed with Ryan before Ryan even spoke. Does that happen often?
"All the time," they say, in unison.
This connection also helps their singing, they agree, allowing them to anticipate each others' vocal shifts before they happen. And, let's face it, the good-looking identical-twin thing doesn't hurt as a marketing tool, as their chosen name attests.
Still, it is not without some hesitation that they go down that path, perhaps because they've only just escaped boy-band purgatory. (They were in a pop trio called b4-4 that was nominated for a best-newcomer Juno in 2001 - Nickelback won - and which disbanded five years later.) "We didn't want people to say, 'This is the next gimmicky thing - identical twins,' " Ryan says.
Dan adds, "At the same time, we're never going to get away from that, and some people are fascinated by it, but we don't want it to get in the way. We want it to be about the music."
Still, their admittedly beautiful voices might not have carried them this far had they looked like Shrek and Fiona. As a marketing executive from their record company, Mark Wilkinson, told Music Week magazine, "The type of person we're targeting is the factory girl on Coronation Street, but also the woman that owns the factory. It is mass market for people who enjoy uncomplicated adult pop music, who enjoy melodies, who like their music emotional, and who like their artists to be good looking and fanciable."
The wild-eyed housewives appear to be circling already. Recently, as the twins were leaving the recording studio, they heard a scream, turned around, and found two middle-aged women getting out of a car, shrieking their names. The women had just bought the RyanDan CD, which the twins duly signed for them.
"That was weird," recalls Ryan, who might want to give Tom Jones a call.
It is the fate they've asked for - nay, worked for like beasts of burden, like donkeys with golden voices. "We've wanted this our entire lives," says Ryan. "Nothing's going to get in the way of that."
When the twins were 17, they walked into the headquarters of Sony Music in Toronto to drop off a demo CD. As they were pestering the receptionist to show it to someone, anyone, in power, two of the label's top executives walked by. Ryan and Dan sang for them on the spot - Show Me the Way to Go Home, hardly a showstopper. It was enough, though, and they were signed, and their boy-band career launched: Along with nabbing that Juno nomination, the b4-4 trio, which included the twins' friend, Ohad Einbinder, recorded such singles as Get Down and Go Go.
But ultimately they wanted something more meaningful, a fan base that actually listened to the music as well as swooning. So they struck out on their own, made the switch to a more adult sound, moved to London a year ago, found an apartment, and embarked on what they hope will be their program of world domination.
The twins will return to Canada early next month to launch the album, which will involve performing small showcase gigs in Montreal and Toronto. It will also mean a much-needed visit with family and friends in Toronto, a city they still consider home - and where they own a house together. They might also drop in on one of their new famous friends: After hearing them sing at a charity concert, Goldie Hawn invited Ryan and Dan to visit her at her Ontario cottage in Muskoka.
In the meantime, the swooning's not likely to die down. For the record, Dan has a girlfriend and Ryan doesn't. Or perhaps it's the other way around?
Brothers in rock
The Jackson 5: They were so adorable at the beginning, weren't they? Especially the youngest. A troubled and driven childhood allegedly to blame for what allegedly followed.
The Kinks: When Ray and Dave Davies weren't punching each other onstage, they were fashioning a vision of modern England in such pop gems as Waterloo Sunset and Lola.
Oasis: Liam and Noel Gallagher, perhaps the inheritors of the Davies's songcraft, but even more liable to engage in dustups, physical and verbal, if that's possible. Famously confrontational with other musicians, too.
The Beach Boys: They couldn't surf, but Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson and their cousin Mike Love could sing and write songs. Dennis Wilson drowned off the California coast in 1983.
The Bee Gees: What would disco have been without three hirsute, lady-voiced Australians? The future of the Bee Gees was thrown into question when Maurice Gibb died in 2003, leaving behind brothers Barry and Robin.
Van Halen: Another band with a troubled history, in part due to Eddie Van Halen's former substance-abuse problems. Brother Alex remains on drums in their reunion tour, and now they're joined by Eddie's son Wolfgang on guitar.
The Proclaimers: Jug-eared identical twins Charlie and Craig Reid, self-described "Caledonian clowns," charmed the world when they asked for a letter from America. Such proud Scots, they put even Sean Connery to shame.