“We’re more traditional siblings than people imagine”: Tegan and Sara on their revealing new memoir ‘High School’

The Quin twins have released a new memoir and accompanying album, 'Hey, I'm Just Like You', for which they reworked demos they recoded as teenagers

After a career spanning 20 years, nine studio albums, Grammy nominations and multiple world tours, Tegan and Sara needed a break.

The Canadian twin sisters have become icons for the LGBTQIA+ movement, and have poured themselves into their Tegan and Sara Foundation since its inception in 2016. It has steadily grown to become an important voice and platform upon which the community has their voice heard. In the midst of this, their creative urge itched.

Originally from Calgary, Alberta in Canada, the identical twins decided to look back at the roots that formed the basis for their successful musical duo. What came of it was a highly engrossing co-authored memoir, High School, which takes a trip down memory lane, relaying what it’s like to grow up in the ‘90s – with their abundant use of LSD at the time – all the while touching on topics that resonate to this day. They also listened back to their debut album, the demos they created when they were in high school and re-worked them for an official new release, this year’s ‘Hey, I’m just like You’.

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NME caught up Tegan and Sara while they were in London to discuss their book and latest album.

What was it like listening back to that old music and hearing that teenage angst?

Sara: “Honestly, what I heard listening back was more the mechanics of the songwriting. I thought it would be more incoherent. I was struck that on the early demos we were writing pre-choruses or we were writing bridges. Our background – in piano theory and lessons and listening to music so much and being fans of musicians – was really obviously. We were really mimicking those structures. Now I would be able to say to you, well, most of the songs take on an A, B, A, B, C, or whatever.

And how did you re-work that into a present-day context?

Sara: “It was later that I put the songs with the lyrics and it gives more dimension to the characters in the book. Once I was through the awkwardness of hearing the tune and wondering what does that lyric mean, there were these little observational moments. I felt so touched by my younger self. It gave me this very human feeling about this younger me that I had been scrutinising through the memoir process. All of a sudden, there’s a distance needed or required by the time you arrive at your final piece. You need to take the emotion out of it.”

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Did you channel your inner teenage self? 

Sara: “I felt like we didn’t. I thought we were adult. We had to constantly pull back. We were doing justice to our songs and not messing too much and having respect for these young artists and giving these songs a second chance.”

What was it like reading each other’s experiences within the book?

Tegan: “It was reading fiction. Like, ‘I’m sorry, none of that happened.’”

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Sara: “It was illuminating to see which parts of Tegan’s stories she focused on. I don’t think there was anything that was a shock to me. I was well-versed to what happened to Tegan in her high-school experiences. In some ways, I was more surprised by what she didn’t write about. I had these artefacts and journals — the lyric books I’d write in with my secret girlfriend — I had a lot of contemplation about, ‘How much is too much to talk about?’”

Did you struggle with revealing intimate personal details?

Sara: “This is very me: I had saved these sex notes that my girlfriend and I had written to each other. I remember having this long debate with myself. ‘Is it appropriate to talk about my sexuality? Am I exploiting myself as a teenager to share these intricate and tender fantasies at that age?’ I was having a lot of conversations with myself wanting to push it. I don’t talk about those things in my music. What are the positive / negative things about that? When I got Tegan’s part of the book, I was looking for that stuff. ‘Where has she pushed herself? Where has she exposed herself?’

What was it like viewing your own and each others’ coming out stories through the lens of the past? 

Tegan: “I think it was enlightening and eye-opening for both of us. There’s a huge part of our interior life that we don’t share now and we didn’t share then. I think the misconception has been that we’re best friends that tell each other everything. There’s this trope of siblings – specifically girls, and on top of that being identical twin girls – ofd people imagining us whispering secrets into each other’s ears.

In reality, you were fighting…

Sara: “We were acting like siblings.”

Tegan: “I think we’re more traditional siblings than people imagine. Because of us hiding with and grappling with our sexuality, there was a self-consciousness that prevented us from opening up even more. My sexual awakening happened two years later. I was older, more mature and there was less trauma attached to it. I have a different set of interior emotions about it. For both of us, it was really interesting to read it. In a way, it was certainly cathartic.”

Why, at this particular juncture of your life, did you decide to revisit your adolescence and publish this book and release the album? 

Sara: “We decided to try something outside the music medium. We’re storytellers, first and foremost. There’s something innate about deciding that we want to work on a project together. We’ve been making music for 20 years. We know how to make an album and get there fast and complete something. The idea of working in a different medium just raised the stakes. It made me feel like I was like really present. Not competitive with other people but competitive with myself. I want to give myself this goal, I want to tell this story and I want to get this message across to people and can I do it within a year-and-a-half?”

It sounds like an exciting challenge…

Sara: “It felt really exciting to give ourselves that challenge. And then specifically the material to focus on high school and adolescence, it very specifically lines up with our origin stories. That’s when we started Tegan & Sara. It’s when we both figured out we were queer and artists and songwriters. Those [were] seminal experiences because they all happened within those three years. It’s a vibrant amount of material to pull from.”

Were you very conscious of wanting this to be a proper in-depth memoir, rather than a typical music autobiography?

Tegan: “I wanted to stay off the road for as long as possible but I wanted to be creative. I’m very sensitive about just writing to write. I don’t want to write songs and put a record out just because, ‘It’s that time, again’. I know us and we’re workaholics. We didn’t want to write about the origin of our band. If we’re going to talk about the origin story of the band then we had to start in high school, our youth. We went home, spent a few months writing a pitch and then had to write a book.”

You’ve really you’ve laid yourselves bare for your fans…

Tegan: “Working on the book, we met with publishers and we were quick to point out that it wasn’t just a nostalgic run down memory lane. It was going to be touchstones for any number of people to resonate deeply with. I think most of those issues that happen to us in the book happen to us now to some degree. I think we hoped that – no matter who reads the book – they would find something that spoke to them and that they would see a bit of themselves in us. Culturally, where everyone is going up on a pedestal, everything is curated and perfect, it felt like the perfect time for us to step down off of the pedestal and remind everybody that we were quite like them.

“A lot of our fans came from similar backgrounds. Success and money have not changed the fact that we suffer from anxiety and depression and have gone through heartbreak, that we have made mistakes, that we are humans. I hope people take away from the story that we’re so similar. I think you need confidence in yourself to face the world.”

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