If you haven’t relistened in a minute, The Con still slaps. Since the release of their 2007 album, Tegan and Sara Quin have put out five more records and launched a foundation for LGBTQ girls and women. They’ve come a long way from the quiet curlicues of synth that buoy The Con; dance beats and power pop are more their style now. And even before their early-aughts breakout, it was just their twinned voices and guitars that launched the sisters into fame. Anyway, that’s the real gem at the core of Tegan and Sara’s music: No matter the production, the sisters invoke heartache, yearning for connection, and betrayal with the fevered earnestness of a late-night conversation. As they describe in their newest release, a memoir called High School, that’s the kind of feeling—the stuff of teenage parties and sleepovers—that got them making music in the first place.
High School documents the three years of their lives as teens at Crescent Heights High School in Calgary, Canada. Accompanied by I’m Just Like You, an album of updated versions of songs they wrote during that time, the book-album combination guides you through the charged and fraught period of adolescence when, desperate to understand themselves and others, they were also discovering that they could make music. High School chronicles the two artists’ burgeoning queerness, their experiments with drugs and complicated plans to acquire them, and fights over the house landline. Like their music, the book captures what is at once sweet and abject about growing up.
I spoke to Tegan Quin about adolescence, finding creative sparks, and taking young women seriously. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Samantha Schuyler: Whom did you write this book for? Can you describe the person that you hope will pick this up or the person you were writing to?
Tegan Quin: From the beginning, it was incredibly important to Sara and me that this book reach a wider audience than the Tegan and Sara audience—not that there’s anything wrong with our audience, but we didn’t see this exclusively as a music memoir. We wanted to make sure that it was a coming of age story, it was about adolescence, it was about queer and sexual identity. We wanted to debunk lots of myths about identical twin girls, that we were best friends with each other. It was basically a long list of people in our minds that would be interested in all of those things, but a much shorter list of people who would be interested in a memoir about a band. We sort of used the origin story of Tegan and Sara as our log line, if you will, but that in itself contains so much more than being a band. It’s about identity and sisterhood.
SS: I know it’s kind of silly to conjure up this image, but in my head I envisioned this being particularly resonant for a young, queer girl who maybe is interested in music or just interested in creating things, feeling so many emotions because you’re a teenager.
TQ: I think when we were writing the book, we just weren’t thinking so narrowly. You know, I think, similar to our music career, there’s an automatic assumption that because I’m a queer woman, that only queer women will understand what I went through. But in fact, I share so many key touchstone points with men. I was a young woman who was insecure about my feelings around women—and, well, men relate to that deeply, when they’re adolescents. So it’s been really kind of cool to see how men have experienced it. So I guess succinctly, when I imagined who would enjoy this book, I imagine anyone who was a teenager will enjoy this book, because it will feel reminiscent.
SS: What was it like to rerecord the songs on I’m Just Like You?
TQ: I think it was very liberating to be able to take those songs from back then and dissect them and splice off the bad parts and stitch together a new record. Because it shows the 20-plus years of experience and ability that we have now that we didn’t then. But it also allowed me to really come to terms with how much we had then. I think the narrative around, especially, young women is that we are kind of silly and sweet, and we don’t assign a lot of value to young people. I think we were seen as so niche and alternative for the early part of our career that even we had sort of adopted that narrative. Going back to those songs, we realized how good they were. They were raw, they were organic, they needed to be worked, but they were a lot better than we gave ourselves credit for. To bring that music to now—I think that people could hear this new record and not know the story and feel, “Yeah, this is the new Tegan and Sara record.” And there was something very, very exciting about that to me. That we would be sort of doing justice to those young girls.
We had been told this story, you know—“You’ll be better later.” Which I don’t think people meant as a mean thing. But our most-used anecdote is about the guy who signed us, Elliot Roberts, who’s an incredible human being, who signed Neil Young and Joni Mitchell and managed all of these artists throughout their careers. He signed Sara and me when we were 19. And he said, the first 10 years of your career is about development and living life so you have something to write about, and in your 30s you’re going to write your best records. And I believe that’s true. We tell that story all the time. But I also think those songs that we were performing then was some of the best music we ever have written. There was something so real about who we were then. We hadn’t learned any of the rules yet, so we were breaking rules, and that’s what makes the music so interesting. And I just don’t think I could sit down and write without those rules now.
SS: How do you think the time you’re recounting will resonate with the youngest people in your audience—the people who are the same age you were in the book, though now in a totally different political, economic, and cultural world?
TQ: There are so many things about being an adolescent that are the same or universal. I do think there are things about this time that even young people are starting to realize, like there’s a loneliness and a disconnect because of cell phones, because of the immediacy of the Internet and social media and the way that everyone connects and the way we listen to music. I think it was lonely then for different reasons but that loneliness still permeates that part of your life when you’re surrounded by people but you still feel, like, detached and you’re still figuring out how to give voice to the things that you’re feeling. Your interior life is still so fraught and new. And I think, or hope, we were able to showcase that in the book and that will carry through the parts even though they might not be familiar. None of these kids may have fought over a home phone, but they’ll relate to what it represents—this struggle for autonomy, the struggle for space that’s your own.
SS: How did writing this book change your relationship to music?
TQ: We ended up feeling this was an opportunity for us to cover new ground. There are songs on the record that I sing that are Sara’s. There are some songs on the record she sings that are mine. We both had creative license to pick the lyrics we liked and to explore the arrangement and production on our own. And that’s really new for us. And I think that it’s going to afford us a lot more creative license and exploration and more paths in the future, too.
So in a way, it’s kind of been a rebirth of Tegan and Sara. It’s a return to the way we used to do things, but also it’s uncharted territory. I just think the book has inspired this whole new way of thinking about music.
SS: Was writing a book quite different from writing music and lyrics?
TQ: I think I was struck by how similar writing music and writing the book were. Some of that was structural. Sara and I work Monday through Friday, 9 to 5. That’s always how we’ve made music. And that’s how we wrote the book, for 10 months. We also write independent of each other, and we only share once we have 80 percent done. And that was very similar to the book.
Obviously, the big differences were that when we write a record, we just write songs. We don’t necessarily work within any sort of structure. Like the architecture to making a record is very, very different from the architecture a book requires. Very quickly we realized, “Oh, we need to have a timeline. We should write chronologically. We need to identify themes.” These are things we definitely don’t do while we’re writing a record. But again, what a crazy thing, because now I’m like, “Oh, next time we sit down to write our next record, maybe we should give ourselves themes and we should identify where the narratives should go. We should carve that out.”
SS: I feel it’s humbling to go back through that period in your life and honestly talk about who you were and what your passions were, your creative instincts. They’re sometimes so embarrassing. How did it feel to get back into that headspace?
TQ: We were very lucky because I’d been joking that it seemed like we just knew that one day we were going to write a book or something because of the way we documented our young lives. A lot of the dialogue in the book, I think, feels sincere and genuine, in part because a lot of it is lifted directly from our journals and notes from that era. And because there was a lot of video from that time, and we’re still friends with a lot of the people we write about in the book. I did almost 20 hours of interviews with those people. I really was able to find the real voices of those young people, which was a gift, because I don’t know that I could have written those moments to feel as sincere as they do without that documentation.
But also, I was really struck how, though everything we write about is so serious and so intense, watching the video and reading the notes, we realized we were very funny. We were interesting kids! There was a lot of dimension and depth to us that I assumed, like most people do, that when you’re young, you’re stupid, you’re vapid, you don’t have a personality yet. And Sara and I have been joking that the saddest part of going back and spending a year and a half in that world is actually how little we’ve changed. It’s like, 20 years of therapy and self-work out the fucking window! Because we’re basically exactly the same people.
SS: We never escape our embarrassing teenage selves! How do you feel about that?
TQ: Yes, it’s awesome and disappointing. But it’s great! It’s further proof, in my opinion, we don’t give young women enough credit. And that we just don’t take them as seriously as we probably should. And we don’t encourage them, don’t make space for them. I hope our book makes space for that acknowledgment that women are interesting and funny and self-motivated. We really had a vision and went after it. We accomplished a lot.