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Tegan and Sara: "It's Always About What Can We Do That's New, That's a Risk"

The sibling duo talk to VICE about their new memoir and album, and the sometimes uncomfortable experience of mining high school memories in order to make them.

by Avery Stone
30 September 2019, 6:43am

Photo by Trevor Brady

This article originally appeared on VICE US

When the musicians Tegan and Sara Quin started combing through their own personal archives while writing their first memoir, High School, out this week via MCD, they expected to be embarrassed by their former selves. Instead, the relics from their teenage years in Calgary, Alberta—home VHS tapes, shared journals with song lyrics, the cassette tapes that got them their first record deal at 18 and launched their 20-year career as Tegan & Sara—yielded another reaction: They realized they hadn't given their young selves enough credit.

"We just bought into this idea that when you're young, everything you make is stupid and throwaway and should be left in the past where it belongs," says Tegan, sitting alongside her twin sister in the green room at BUILD Series NYC, where they'd just wrapped an on-camera interview. "Going back to the past, it was like, our songs weren't all stupid and throwaway—they were good enough to get us a record deal. Why didn't we believe in ourselves? Why didn't we hold onto those songs? Why didn't we think they were good? A lot of what we do as Tegan & Sara [...] was there right from the beginning."

Over the last two decades, as Tegan & Sara, the Quins have released nine albums, toured the world, and played every music festival from Newport Folk to Bonnaroo and Coachella. More than a decade into their career, they also made a deft transition from indie rock to radio-friendly synth-pop, landing two Billboard Hot 100 hits; their last two albums, Heartthrob and Love You To Death, peaked at No. 3 and 16 on the Billboard Hot 200, respectively. Especially as outwardly queer artists from the start, this steady, decades-long climb is nearly unprecedented and has paved the way for pop stars like Halsey, Hayley Kiyoko, and King Princess to be able to sing about female desire on Top 40 Radio.

However, after the Quins finished touring after 2016's Love You to Death, they wanted their next project to be different yet again. "I think I was really amped up about trying to find other creative outlets," says Tegan, "I love music, don't get me wrong, but I don't want to put out records just to put out records. For me, it's always about what can we do that's new, that's a risk, that'll make us uncomfortable, that'll contribute maybe a story or a tone that hasn't been set yet."

That story, originally, was High School alone. The two had been waiting for the right time to write a memoir, and in early 2018, they realized the moment had finally arrived. "We were intrigued to write about our childhood," says Sara. "Especially given the current state of affairs, to talk about body and identity and sexuality, [and] the idea of the creative path and how one discovers that."

The book follows a tight structure, with chapters dedicated to each school year: "We start [during] grade 10," Sara says. "We come to school, we're kind of lost academically, we're sort of trying to scramble socially, figure ourselves out, we're taking drugs, we're experimenting with girls secretly—and then we discover guitar and figure out, quite intuitively and right away, that we can write songs. We start recording ourselves. And by the end of grade 12, we are well on our way to our career, and we've been offered a record deal."

Initially, the songs that spawned the record deal weren't supposed to be a big part of the project—at most, they were meant to be excerpted in the audiobook to give it texture. But when the Quins got their hands on the tapes—it took them months to track down and digitize the physical copies, as many of their friends and family hadn't saved them—she realized a companion album was important to the story they wanted to tell.

And so, on Friday, the Quins will release that album: Hey, I'm Just Like You, a 12-track record comprised entirely of updated versions of the original demos. Initially, says Tegan, they thought they'd have to do a lot more creative work, cherry-picking choruses and writing around them, but many of songs stood on their own.

One thing that surprised the sisters was how their songwriting became more direct as they explored their identities. At first, they wrote in the third person or from the perspectives of fictional characters. (For example, the album's lead single, "I'll Be Back Someday," was originally about a made-up character and titled "Johnny, My Friend.")

"There was an instinct when we first started writing songs, to be a bit more opaque about it," Sara says. "Sort of like, ‘I don't know, it's a song! What's it about? Who knows! It's just words, I wrote them down!' It sounds so simple now, but it was significant to me to be able to [write and sing lyrics like], ‘You go away and I don't mind / You go away and I'll be fine.' That felt scary. Who's you? That means that someone's going to say, who's the ‘you' in the song? And in that moment I would have to say, like, 'Who, my girlfriend?'" This shift was powerful for the sisters: "Once we discovered that we could write in a direct way, that was very exciting and intoxicating," says Sara. "There was bravery required, I think, to say to ourselves, ‘Okay, I'm going to sing to you.'"

Some of the material they uncovered made them uncomfortable, too. Sara points to a particular video in which two of their friends who are also in the book—Naomi, who Sara is dating in secret, and Alex, who Tegan will eventually start dating—interview the sisters about "homosexuality" for a school project. "The first time I watched [this footage], it was agonizing to get through it," says Sara. "I am so physically uncomfortable. There are times in the video where I look almost like I might cry. There are times where I'm being really obnoxious and sort of indifferent. I'm sort of antagonizing [Alex and Naomi] because I'm finding the questions upsetting—because I'm gay and I'm being interviewed as if I'm not gay for a homosexuality project by the person I'm sleeping with. The sort of cognitive dissonance of the scene is remarkable."

This particular video, in addition to several other clips, plays a big part in their live tour supporting the book and the album. The show includes acoustic songs—from Hey, I'm Just Like You plus highlights from other records—as well as readings. In most of these readings, the sisters switch off reciting passages from their own points of view, dividing up the work just as they do in their larger creative process. Generally, if there's a task one sister doesn't want to do, the other does it with enthusiasm. For example, Tegan jumped to write the book proposal; Sara was content spending hours sifting through the archival video footage.

"This [type of symbiosis] is why I think we can still manage to do this after 25 years and still make it seem like we're enjoying ourselves," says Tegan with a laugh. "Which, I guess, in a way, we are."

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high school
indie rock
tegan and sara
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