Tegan and Sara Quin, better known as just Tegan and Sara, have spent the last two decades treating fans to epic harmonies, personal lyrics that make listeners feel like they’re taking part in intimate conversations, and the occasional dance anthem.
In their new memoir, “High School,” the singing sisters take turns narrating chapters about the formative musical and emotional moments of their teen years, long before they released beloved albums like “The Con,” saw their songs become staples on “Grey’s Anatomy” or sold out venues around the world.
The book details the twins’ (at times) tumultuous relationship, experimentation with drugs and participation in the 1990s rave scene in Canada. “High School” also documents how Tegan and Sara, who both identify as lesbians, came to understand and navigate their burgeoning sexuality.
Next week, three days after the memoir hits stores, Tegan and Sara will release a new album, “Hey, I’m Just Like You,” which is composed of songs the duo wrote and demoed in high school, have recently rerecorded and are now releasing to the public for the first time.
HuffPost chatted with Tegan and Sara late last month about why they wanted to take a step back in time, what it’s like being queer artists in the Trump era and why this is their most political album yet.
I cringe when I think about the art I made in high school ― anything I did in high school, really. What on earth made you want to go back there and share those experiences and those songs with the world?
Tegan Quin: I just want to note that I don’t watch myself now. I don’t read anything I’ve said in an interview. We were on the Oscars ― I’ve never watched it. I don’t think that goes away when you get older for some of us. But I think we were finally far enough away from it that I didn’t cringe as much as I used to.
I mean, there are moments, but then I think like, wow, we found this really interesting story. And as a band who started right on the cusp of when the internet exploded, I was like, well, if we’re gonna mine something, why not go back to a time when no one was covering us that just also happened to be the start of our career and developing our sexuality. It’s the same with the music ― I don’t want to listen to it, but diving in and exploring it for the good parts and using it as a template to build from, I felt ready for that.
I found it fascinating how much specific information you each were even able to remember from when you were teenagers.
Sara Quin: Obviously there’s some creative license in terms of filling in gaps and generally trying to capture a scene. I totally get when people say to me, “I don’t remember anything about high school. I like, played games and jerked off.” I get that, but what I always say to people who don’t remember anything from high school is that it’s probably because a lot of significant things did not happen to you yet.
TQ: Or they did and you repressed them.
SQ: My thing is most of my big, seminal moments that shaped me [occurred in high school]: trauma, love, sex, I learned how to be an artist. I made a massive choice ... my entire trajectory went from “I’m going to college, I’m going to college” to “I’m an artist? Holy shit, I’m an artist.” The way I explain it is the way Americans obsessively focus on and think about college is kind of how we feel about high school. We had so much freedom, all these new friends, heard electronic music, went to raves, all these first moments that kept happening but I’ll never forget the first time.
You write a lot about the freedom you were given as teens by your parents and how easygoing your mom was. So when I read about the tense conversation you had with your mom about coming out, Sara, it sort of surprised me.
SQ: Yeah, it was a shock to me too. [Laughs] She had been probing ― she more than once came to me and asked if I was gay, if I had feelings for my friends, and I straight to her face told her, “No, no, no.” It didn’t matter to me that she was saying, “Don’t worry, I’m an ally, I’ll love you no matter what.” The truth is I couldn’t even say those words to myself, I couldn’t say them to Tegan. Even with my first girlfriend, we never called ourselves gay, we didn’t talk about ourselves with descriptions like that. So for her to ask ― I wasn’t there yet, I wasn’t at gay yet. I was at, like, “I’m having sex with a girl” stage.
I also think for me ― I don’t think I capture this really in the book ― but I was experiencing the duality of “nothing is wrong with being gay” and then also feeling homophobia. These two things existed in us and within the people around us. For example, we would say things like, “There’s nothing wrong with being homosexual” (we’d never say gay) and then five minutes later we’re on a videotape saying, “Jeremy, you’re gay” or “Tegan, you’re gay” and being homophobic. So I think my mom can exist in both of those planes. She can be like “Feel free to tell me you’re gay” and then I come out and she’s like “You’re a liar! I can’t believe you’re gay!” And you’re like “I thought you just said six chapters ago you were fine!” I know there’s a disconnect but I think it was that complicated.
What is your relationship with your mom like now?
SQ: The adult relationship Tegan and I have with my mom is profoundly different. She is an amazing ally. She felt a significant regret that there wasn’t something she could have done to make my experience in high school different, but I kept telling her it wasn’t just her ― it was the world, it was radio, it was TV, it was politics, it was the fact that gay people didn’t have the same laws. It was a different time.
A much different time! And there seems to have been a shift in the way you, as a band, have talked about being gay.
TQ: I think when we started, we were always out ― there was nothing in existence of “Oh, I have a boyfriend.” But even though we were out ― if people asked we would say we’re gay and we had short spiky hair and girls flocking to our shows ― the fact is writers didn’t ask us about it. It became this tug of war in the first half a dozen years, I’m thinking up until “The Con” in 2007. Up until that point, it was rare anyone asked us about our sexuality because I think there was an awkwardness on the other side. And when people did ask us, especially early on, it was just kind of a weirdness because it was like guys in their late 20s, early 30s asking teenage girls about their sexuality.
I also think we were still finding the language as a society, but also Sara and I, to talk about ourselves, to figure out how to identify and take back words like “gay” and “queer.” That took time. When we really started to talk about being queer, there was this feeling somewhat in the music community, in the gay music community and media like, “Hey, that doesn’t have to be the whole story.”
How did that evolve into your passion for advocacy work in the LGBTQ community and the creation of your foundation, The Tegan and Sara Foundation?
TQ: When we launched the foundation, that’s where we finally found the comfortable point where it’s like, we’re advocates, we’re allies, we’re fighting for the most marginalized people in our community who don’t have the support of people who have power and privilege, who certainly don’t have the funding and research behind them, and we’re just trying to push stuff toward that. We advocate really only for LGBTQ artists, artists of color, women ― we just started forcing that down everyone’s throats. But musically we’ve come to a place where there’s not a ton to talk about us being queer unless we’re talking about the beginning. I remember getting such shit from the gay community for a while because they were like “You guys never talk about being gay!” And I was like “Do you think I’m the editor of these magazines? They ask 45 minutes of questions and then decide to put what goes in there.”
Like you said, it’s a different time now. Lil Nas X, who is queer, recently broke the record for the longest number one song on the Billboard charts. What’s it like being a queer artist today?
TQ: I just did a Billboard event where someone asked about Lil Nas X and was like “This is huge, right? This has changed everything.” And we were all laughing. Our obsession is looking at how it trickles down ― it doesn’t get very far.
SQ: I think that’s the problem with scarcity is that when there is an obvious absence of diversity, when we see something that is not just the status quo, we get really excited and want it to have a significant meaning ― and it does. But does that mean queer artists are suddenly going to take over the charts? I don’t necessarily make the correlation. Slowly we chip away at these preconceived ideas, these biases, the racism, homophobia, the sexism. I always get excited when I see someone crash into the mainstream and I’m like they don’t sound like or represent the same kind of thing that always is there.
TQ: During the “Heartthrob” era, we all of a sudden saw mainstream people coming to our shows, so many more queer people started coming too. There’s this misconception that queer people like us ― it was like straight rock dudes who liked us. Then suddenly with “Heartthrob,” we were pop and one after the next people were telling us how hard it was, how things had to change, how they felt bullied, hate crimes were up, that the media is full of negative stuff about LGBTQ people. When we started to really unpack that, [we saw] it’s really bad for people outside of the major cities, for women, for trans people. We thought it had changed and it was like, “Oh, duh.” So I think that’s similar to what’s happening right now, like this amazing social media mainstream going “Come on, everyone, get in here!” But so many people are suffering.
I think you can apply that experience to what it means to be an artist during the Trump era.
SQ: I keep saying I don’t necessarily feel like I’m an artist in the Trump era, I feel like a human being in the Trump era. I moved to the U.S. the year Obama got elected and I also got caught up in the idea that things were better. It was extremely hopeful and exciting. I sort of accepted this idea without examining it and turning it over and probing it for inaccuracies. I think that what happened during the Obama/Trump transition revealed to me that things didn’t change that much. It’s very hard to change things institutionally, especially when we have the prison-industrial complex or capitalism and the way it’s acting and institutionalized racism. It doesn’t matter if the guy at the top of the pyramid is President Obama ― we need to look at the rest of the places and stay alert. It’s the same thing with the queer community.
I can say as someone in this community, when the marriage equality movement happened I was super annoyed because what it did was overshadow the hundreds, maybe thousands, of other ways queers are not represented and protected and not legislated for and often against in myriad other ways. I was like “Let’s all stop obsessing over the marriage thing for one second and remember there’s all this other stuff.” That’s how I feel about Trump.
We pick one thing to obsess over and lose sight of everything else.
SQ: Right. As artists right now, we see the wave of people responding through their medium of art about what’s happening in the world. I’m not necessarily thinking in that context, but I am thinking about it as a human. We’re about to go and have this big public platform again and I fully have a required obligation to be educated, to stand up for something.
TQ: This also, I think, is our most political record.
TQ: It’s all about identity and sexuality and being afraid to talk about it. There’s a number of songs on the record where we’re going back and forth without actually saying it but trying to encourage each other to feel good about yourself and not change who you are, and it’s not by accident that we’re releasing it right now amidst a time where it feels like there’s some sort of psychological attack on LGBTQ people.
Putting out a book and record about women pulling back the many layers of how intelligent, articulate, strong, vulnerable, damaged and inspiring young women are feels like a strategic decision, because the only other fucking stories that get told about us are traumatizing or like, about makeup and hair and eating disorders. Those all exist but we’re also incredibly strong, smart, funny. These are the ideas that need to be talked about. We’ve sustained so much, we were flawed and homophobic, and we managed with so little to build so much so I hope to just inspire political action through that. I hope to inspire other people to say, “Well, fuck that guy, fuck that institution.”
“High School” will be released on Sept. 24 and “Hey, I’m Just Like You” comes out Sept. 27. For more from Tegan and Sara, including tour dates, visit their official website and follow them on Twitter and Instagram.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.