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Tegan And Sara Find Pain — And Unexpected Joy — In 'High School'

Identical twins Sara (left) and Tegan Quin began making music together as teenagers.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux
Identical twins Sara (left) and Tegan Quin began making music together as teenagers.

High school was a tumultuous time for Canadian identical twins Tegan and Sara Quin. They both, separately, were coming to terms with their sexuality — and they were also beginning to write and record songs together.

"Almost right away, we started to weave our voices together. That was something that we had an instinct to do," Tegan says.

The music Tegan and Sara made in those early years helped jump-start their career. In 1998, when were 18, they signed a contract with PolyGram Records, which eventually led to a tour with Neil Young. They've since won awards for their music, including three Juno Awards, the Canadian equivalent of the Grammy.

Now, the sisters revisit their early years with the memoir High School, along with the companion record, Hey, I'm Just Like You. The new record features songs they wrote as teenagers — but re-recorded as adults.

Sara was initially reluctant to listen to the songs they recorded in high school. "I was afraid that I would hear something that I would be embarrassed by or ashamed of," she says.

But, she adds, "When I finally did listen, I was struck by the joy in our voices in our early recordings. ... We were great, and we were writing these really sophisticated, adventurous songs as teenagers. And that was why we ended up signing a record deal as teenagers and starting our career."

Tegan likens finding the balance between their teenage and present identities to mixing a cocktail: "We threw in a lot of different things from the last 20-some years, and hoped that if Tegan and Sara from 1997 could get in a time machine and hear it, that they wouldn't be embarrassed by how we changed it."

Interview Highlights

On revisiting their past selves for the memoir High School and its companion album, Hey, I'm Just Like You

Sara: When we were writing the memoir, Tegan was the initiator in finding some of our archival materials — like the audio recordings, the VHS tapes that we had from high school of ourselves hanging out with friends. I was more reluctant. My takeaway from both the memoir and the album and that general time period is that I have a lot more self-loathing, insecurity and shame than Tegan does.

Tegan: A lot more.

Sara: And I have the therapy bills to prove it. ... Tegan stole all our self-confidence in the womb.

Tegan: Yes, I siphoned it. She got all the food and I got all the confidence.

On figuring out their identity as twins

Tegan: I think that's one of the most significant through-lines for us in our life, not just in high school, but the experience of being twins. ... Our whole experience from birth until today has always been, OK, we are sisters and we share a face and we share a birthday. We share a common interest or common place in the world, and in some ways there was power in being twins. It was also, in some cases, like a terrible inconvenience.

I know for myself — more so than Tegan — I've talked about [being a twin] as almost like a burden, and in some ways the origin of my insecurity. I never knew if people really liked me. I always thought, 'Oh God, do they only like me because I'm part of this thing?'

Sara: I know for myself — more so than Tegan — I've talked about it as almost like a burden, and in some ways the origin of my insecurity. I never knew if people really liked me. I always thought, "Oh god, do they only like me because I'm part of this thing?"

Tegan: [And] I was, like, grabbing Sara and shoving her out in front of new people and being like, "I'm a twin!"

Sara: I did feel Tegan exploited us sometimes. But in some ways it really made us uniquely qualified to be musicians, and to be public people.

On Sara questioning her sexuality before Tegan did

Sara: My questioning of my identity and sexuality started in elementary school. I never shared this with Tegan or spoke about it with her. I was really ashamed. I was really scared about what I started to understand about myself. And I remember in high school, that was the breaking point. I had started to have romantic, sexual relationships with girls in secret, and Tegan scared me, because I knew she understood what was probably happening with me. And I was afraid because I think I knew that that was going to happen to her too, that she was going to be gay, and then there was no way for me to control — like, I couldn't protect myself, because it wasn't just me who was gay, it was Tegan who was gay also. And I remember feeling a sort of resentment and fear about the fact that there was two gay people to protect, not just one.

On not talking to each other about being gay

Tegan: What this book and this record has done is made us have to talk about our sexuality in a way that we pretty much never had.

Sara: I came out before Tegan. I mean, I was sort of dragged out by my mom when I was 18. I was having another fairly significant relationship with another girl, and my mom — I think she just was at the end of her rope — she was like, OK, OK, how long is this is this going to go on?

And I didn't have one single conversation with Tegan. Even after I had the conversation with my mother — and then had the conversation with my dad and my stepdad and other relatives, friends, whatever — Tegan and I, there was just always such a discomfort for me in discussing it. And I think in some ways, that was those unresolved issues around experiencing Tegan's invasion of my privacy when I first began dating girls as her maybe shaming me or making me feel like I was doing something bad. I think I had sort of protected myself from her, because I was afraid of her in some ways. ... I felt betrayed by her.

My coming out was very challenging with my mom. She had been such a cool parent, very open-minded. She was a really advanced, forward-thinking, feminist woman. And yet when I came out, we struggled. She didn't handle it the way that I would have imagined: She was really mad, she was really disappointed that I hadn't told her. We had a very difficult time, and I felt mad at Tegan for not supporting me.

What this book and this record has done has made us have to talk about our sexuality in a way that we pretty much never had.

Tegan: I do agree that I had it easier of my coming out. ... I just showed up with what was obviously my girlfriend and everyone in my life was like, "OK, so you're also gay." Three months after dating this woman I said I was going to move to Vancouver and move in with her, and my mom flew to Vancouver and bought me a couch and a pot set. I felt Sara's very, very, very palpable resentment at the way that that went down. Sara took the initial blast, for sure.

On using gendered pronouns in their music before they were out as gay

Tegan: Sara and I were so candid and raw and uncovered in our early music, which is why I was so struck by it when I listened to the demos 20 years later.[For] all of the hiding that we were doing in our real lives, we were completely exposed in our music.

Sara: We actually did use pronouns!

Tegan: So it feels so obvious, which is so strange, because once we actually signed a record deal and became professional musicians, [on] the first six records that we put out into the world, we didn't use pronouns. We did see pop music as a universal medium, and so we tried to keep our music less specific. But yes, as teenagers, for all that lying and hiding, we were really exposed.

On coming out publicly

Sara: We never did. We just really looked gay. ... I can remember very distinctly thinking, "OK, I can't do this — I can't lie. I can't pretend that these songs I'm writing, that are obviously love songs, are about boys." But when we when we got out of high school, someone from the record label called and said, "We have a couple of big pieces of news for you. One, Neil Young is going to take you on tour" — we were 20 years old — "and you're going to tour all across the U.S. with him, opening his show. And we are also going to get you guys a publicist, and you're going to start doing press." And I remember, one of the first rounds of press we did was with gay press.

Tegan: It was a magazine called Lesbian News, and they put us on the cover.

Sara: We had a conference call with the label, and I remember being really nervous. I said, "Is it OK if we do this gay press?" And they were like, "Of course." And we were like, "Is it OK that we're gay? Is it okay if we talk about our sexuality?" And I remember Elliot [Roberts, Neil Young's then-manager] saying, "Are you gay?" And we were like, "Yes." And he was like, "Then you can talk about it."

We were like, "What if it hurts our career?" And he was like, "What career? You don't have a career yet. There's nothing to hurt." And I remember feeling such tremendous relief that they were accepting us as we were.

On why they switched the order of their names from "Sara and Tegan" to "Tegan and Sara"

Tegan: We changed the name only because we had a manager [who] gave us one good piece of advice during that time. He said, "When people say 'Sara and Tegan,' it all blends together into one word and they don't know what you're saying. But if you say 'Tegan and Sara,' you have to enunciate. So I think you should switch your names around." So we did.

On the homophobic, misogynistic press and bullying they got early in their career

Tegan: I don't think that we had homophobic people who targeted us. What we had was an entire music industry that was predominantly populated by men — and straight men, it seemed. And there was this incredibly specific language used about us, so that even when we were being given praise, it was first, "Hey, this band is only for women or queer people. You're not going to be interested in this if you're a dude." Every headline was full of words that just felt like language for men to not listen to us or like us.

The next layer down from that was men who were like, "I can't believe I like this because I'm a guy. But the whole time I was at the show I just wanted to have sex with them!" Like, really blatant sexual language. And then there was kind of the hipster critical journalists, who would go in and analyze why we could possibly be successful, why someone like Neil Young would like us. Was it about our sexuality? Was it just this odd freak show of identical twins who are gay that's drawing people in? That first handful of years, the analysis felt like people trying to wrap their minds around why on earth we would be worth listening to.

Sara: Tegan is being diplomatic — she she can spin anything. I mean, people would ask us if we were incestuous. Like, on the radio.

Tegan: Or share girlfriends, or, "Do you get your period at the same time?" I mean, questions I just felt were very below where we were at.

It was the wild, Wild West of music journalism for us back then, and because we were out, we were easy targets.

Sara: Yeah, let's not sugarcoat it: It was horrible, and if it wasn't homophobia then it was misogyny. It was the wild, Wild West of music journalism for us back then, and because we were out, we were easy targets. There wasn't this allyship that we see now. It wasn't like we had this great queer community who we could fold back into. We didn't have this strong fanbase who could say, "Excuse me, this is inappropriate." And we didn't have social media where we could police our own. I can remember writing letters, old-school style, to the editors of certain magazines and online publications and saying, "This is sexual harassment. If we were in any other industry this person could be fired. ... This is bullying. This is abusive language. This is homophobia. This is misogyny."

Tegan: Sara's right that it was a difficult time. Mostly what it did was it shouldered us with shame, because we were supposed to just take it. I think we were always really good at taking criticism when it felt fair, but when it was personal, about our sexuality, or it was about the way we looked, or us about us being twins, or being girls, it did feel unfair.

Sara: In the first 10 years of our career, that was really difficult to deal with, because it did feel like we had two options: ignore it or argue with the people in power. And at the time we didn't have power, so it often felt like we were out of our weight class.

I am really grateful that we are now in a place where not only do we have power and can address these things systemically and institutionally in the music industry, but we're also able to support and and encourage the young artists that are coming up now to do the same. We have your back. If you feel that something is going on in this industry that is inappropriate or is bullying or racist, sexist, homophobic, whatever it is, now we do have a community that can come together to say, "You're not doing this on your own." When we first started out, Tegan and I didn't have that. And so we're trying to pay that forward now, and build and support the community that we longed for when we were young.

Therese Madden and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Daoud Tyler-Ameen adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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