Tegan and Sara: The High School Years
The 5th avenue flagship of the New York Public Library contains all kinds of literary wonders: a Gutenberg Bible, Virginia Woolf's walking stick, the original scruff-eared muse for Winnie the Pooh. And somewhere today, between the iconic pair of stone lions that guard the entrance and the map archives, sisters Tegan and Sara Quin.
They're here, like almost every book lover in the building, to soak up the grand archways and ineffable moth-wing smell of the stacks — and to talk about the upcoming release of their own first book, a joint memoir called High School. If the patrons sneaking glances recognize them, though, it's not as freshly minted authors but as the Canadian indie-rock juggernaut known as Tegan and Sara, whose skillful pairing of serrated lyrics and pop-sweetened harmonies have made them festival-circuit stars for over two decades.
The fact that at 38 they've been famous for more than half their lives is not lost on the Calgary-born twins, whose small frames and fine-boned faces are approximately identical but easy to find the small differences in once you spend a little time around them. "The concept of writing about making our records or getting signed seemed so boring to us," Tegan says, of School, which aims instead to tell a frankly intimate story of teen angst and the pair's long, often bumpy road to self-acceptance. "Our story is only interesting because of the ground level, the foundation that drove us to be musicians.
"Like for Sara and I, we replaced drugs and alcohol with music," she continues, "and found common ground to connect with one another and make something. It was [actually] the only time we spoke to each other! This is our attempt to say that we didn't always have it together. We were liars, we were homophobic, we hated ourselves, we struggled just like everybody else. It took years and years and years of development to get to a place where we were even a relevant band that anyone would write a review about… So the difficult arcs and the trauma of that is the part that I want people to relate and connect to, because I didn't have anyone to connect to about what I was facing when I was 15 or 16."
"I'll see myself in the audience at our shows," Sara says. "I see acne, body shame, awkwardness. I love those kids, and I want them to read a book not about how we became famous or how glamorous going to the Oscars was or whatever people always ask us to talk about. I want them to know that us back then was just like they are now."
It was looking back, fortuitously, that also led them to the book's companion piece: an album culled entirely from demos created in high school — dusty cassettes and homemade CDs found amidst the old notes, photos, and other ephemera dug up in the discovery process. Reworked and repurposed, the 12 songs on Hey I'm Just Like You are a vibrant testimony to both the duo's raw adolescent talent and a direct line to the polished, eclectic sound of their present.
"Some songs we knew 100 percent were strong enough that we could record them as is," says Sara. "Other ones were a bit Frankensteined — only a verse and a chorus here, 'Let's take the chorus from this song and make it the bridge,' that sort of thing."
They're both grateful, they say that they were able to hold on to that material as long as they did, and get the chance to make the best of it after more than two decades. "We've always embraced technology. We embraced Myspace, the digital movement, and moving music into streaming," says Tegan. "Why wouldn't we? But I'm terrified to imagine the kind of garbage we would have put online that would have lived forever, with how much drinking and drugs we were doing back then — how much messy, sloppy, embarrassing s–t would be out there."
As one of the last generations to straddle the era of smartphones and ubiquitous connectivity, the pair is glad, too, for the quieter advantages of growing up in a more analog world. "It's good to be bored!" Tegan says. "It's good to be on time because you can't text and say 'I'm going to be 15 minutes late.' But also going deeper, I'm glad that there was no immediate gratification, no immediate stardom. We had to tour on a Greyhound bus because we didn't have drivers' licenses; we had the privacy to come out, to learn how to be out in the public eye. We had time to develop."
Even that process, though, came with its own caveats. As one of the few openly queer acts signed to a major label in the late '90s and early 2000s, the duo found themselves subject to endless sand traps and obligations; not only to package and present their sexuality to the world at a bruisingly early age, but to represent the LGBTQ community at large — a heavy mantle for anyone, let alone two young women barely out of their teens, to bear.
"We used to say the most political act we can do is to step on stage and be ourselves," says Tegan. "When we started, people used to be like, 'How come you don't talk about being gay onstage?' And we were like 'Lord, everyone there knows we're gay! We talk about it in every interview.' There were so many things we had to navigate with the press. And we had no peers, really, for the early part of our career. Every article about us always starts with our sexuality and how 'weird' that is — all that coded sexual twin-sister stuff. And so when we were young, I think we were mostly just embarrassed, and we didn't talk about it [between] the two of us."
"Some of these new queer artists," Sara adds, "I reached out to them just like 'Hi, welcome to the industry," and they're like "Holy s—, I listened to you when I was young!' And others have no idea who we are. I'm not as interested in like, 'Did I inspire another artist to come out or to be honest in the press about their sexuality?' Because I think what's more important to me is that we offer a safe place and a community for someone to feel comfortable with who they are, meet other people like them. And see a good role model — a role model with flaws."
What they don't want, she says, is to be "just an 'It Gets Better' story of hope and luck" — some glossy, oversimplified ideal that fails to acknowledge the messier realities of being a person in the world. "Some days I wake up and feel really good about who I am in my life, and other days I don't. Some days I am proud to talk about my sexuality and some days I feel like I've done so much emotional labor that I want to just pack up and move to an island and give up. It sounds old-timey, but I don't want to deny how long we've been around! Or that maybe we've had a legacy and influenced a generation of women who are queer or fluid or whatever. I just want to celebrate it."
The pair keep bantering — about opening for 90,000 Lady Gaga fans in Quebec City ("absolutely f—ing thrilling"), the tribulations of road life ("like, a decade of diarrhea and ear infections"), and their recent meeting with Canada's perennially sharp-dressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ("We gave him some nice socks."). But their publicist is signaling; there's a lot more to get to today. So Sara jumps in on one of her sister's soliloquies mid-thought: "Save that for the second book," she says with a laugh as they stand up and walk back through the lions, their two heads together but separate, and disappear into the crowds on 5th Avenue.