From High School to Crybaby, Tegan and Sara Are Ageless

Music Features Tegan and Sara
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From <i>High School</i> to <i>Crybaby</I>, Tegan and Sara Are Ageless

In classic literature, meeting one’s doppelganger is never easy. In Mark Twain’s 1547-set fable The Prince and the Pauper, for instance, impoverished ragamuffin Tom Canty happens upon his uncanny lookalike Edward Tudor, the Prince of Wales, at the London palace gates, and is nearly beaten to death in the process before they decide to trade places. These days, there are far easier methods, swears Tegan Quin, of Tegan and Sara renown. You can just use TikTok instead. The cornucopia of varied videos overflowing from the red-hot online posting service practically guarantee you’ll find a face similar to your own in no time flat.

When High School, the 2018 adolescent-years memoir authored by Tegan and Sara, was recently green-lit as a Clea DuVall-produced FreeVee streaming series through Amazon Studios, the role call went out via two different casting directors throughout showbiz, and musical siblings of every stripe eagerly formed a queue. None of them proved a perfect match for either her or sister Sara, sighs Quin, who stumbled upon the Fresno-based Gilliland twins, Railey and Seazynn, who had been quietly posting curious clips. “Mid-pandemic, Sara convinced me to get on TikTok, along with 80 billion other people, and I think probably our phones are listening to us—it just started to deliver me a lot of twins online,” she says. “And one day Railey, who plays me on the show, her account came up, and I found her quite hilarious—she was always talking to the camera, giving tours of her car, and talking on her lunch break, like, ‘Let me show you my sushi rolls!’ And by this time, I’d explored her page, so I knew she was a twin, so I sent a bunch of her videos to Sara and asked her, ‘Isn’t this uncanny? It’s like me when I was 16!’ She was the same kind of goofy person, and there was just this dynamic between her and Seazynn that was very similar to Sara and mine—I was obsessed, instantly.”

Since such a wide international net had been cast for potential actors, the Quins had to slowly, carefully maneuver DuVall and company into the basically unknown Gillilands’ corner. Once the Cali kids were offered the parts from their Canadian benefactors, then came the tough part—actually convincing them to audition. “Then we did the hard sell to Amazon, and they said sure, okay, and then we went over to tell them, and they didn’t even seem excited,” chortles Quin, who also just issued an adventurous but pop-savvy new Tegan and Sara set, Crybaby, the duo’s tenth. “They were like, ‘What?’ They were working at a pizza joint, and their parents called us on FaceTime, and they were shell-shocked—you could just see they were like, ‘What’s happening? Is this real?’ And we were like, ‘Yeah—they’re going to be the stars of a TV show based on our life.’ And the rest is history.”

It was a match made in heaven. The Gillilands are a true find, insinuating themselves into their high school-aged Tegan and Sara personas with understated aplomb, as they navigate—both separately and together—such rites of passage as discovering the crucial importance of music, meeting their first girlfriends and courageously coming out in small-town Canada, and sifting through the record collections of both friends and family to eventually find their own songwriting style(s) as the act Tegan and Sara. Along the way, the Quin characters deal with bullies, occasional drugs and drinking, all held in check by a watchful mom who has them phone in twice from any sketchy teen soiree where they might end up. It’s a great little show, and a telling insight into where the duo would end up on the John Congleton-produced Crybaby, a buoyant, inspired album that opens, quite ironically, on a symphonic, bass-heavy thumper called “I Can’t Grow Up,” then bounces into a breezy “All I Wanted,” a drums/vocal minimal “Yellow,” the galloping, self-recriminating “Smoking Weed Alone,” two clear-eyed pandemic-composed appraisals (“This Ain’t Going Well” and “Pretty Shitty Time”) and a surreal closing perambulator, “Whatever That Was,” with the revealing line, “I guess I don’t really know me at me at all.” It all puts Tegan and Sara in a rather unique position, two decades into their storied career at age 42—fans can enjoy them in Before and After snapshot mode, simultaneously, by watching High School, then listening to just how incredibly far they’ve come on Crybaby. Tegan Quin even took the time to explain it all to Paste.

Paste: Were there deja vu moments filming the show, watching the twins with your old long-haired look, wearing flannel?

Tegan Quin: Honestly? Yeah—there are a lot of parallels between the way they are and the way Sara and I are. There’s a really deep love and appreciation for each other, but then a lot of friction and tension, which is like Sara and I. They were 20 years old when we discovered them, which is when we signed to Neil Young’s record label, and they had the weight of the world on their shoulders, and I can remember feeling that way, like you feel when you’re in your twenties. I didn’t know what we were doing. We were in an “out” world, and it was so scary. So I would see Railey and Seazynn on set, on this massive TV show, playing these rock stars, and it must have been totally overwhelming for them. But they did great, they really did.

Paste: With art imitating real life, after imitating art, have the girls formed their own group by now?

Quin: No. I don’t think they care about music that much, to be perfectly honest. I mean, they do the thing that young people do on TikTok, always singing and listening to songs and stuff. But Railey, who plays me, has never even been to a concert. She’s gonna come see us in L.A. in November, and that’ll be the first time she’s ever been to a concert, which shocks me. They’re just not really music people, but they’re very musical—they dance, and they obviously do things that not everybody can do. But yeah—they’re just not music people.

Paste: And as depicted by Railey, Tegan is the scrappy one, the instigator, like Woody Woodpecker.

Quin: Yeah! And it was so funny, because we put it in their hands. It was up to them who they wanted to play, and they just naturally chose perfectly. But it’s actually really interesting, because the more time I spent with them, the more I thought that actually Seazynn and I are really similar—she really does kind of like her own thing. But it was really cool. And this is a very old person thing to say, but it was very inspiring to be around that energy that was encapsulated by all of those young and talented people who were invested in making things. And they grew up in such a different time than we did. I mean, we’re so analog, comparatively—we think everything through and we understand our business, and the nuance of everything. And when we were there, we managed ourselves for three years so we could learn everything. But that was kind of inspiring, to be around them and to be around that energy, and just be in a different industry and learning so much new stuff. So I hope we get another season, just because I find it really inspiring to be working in a different industry.

Paste: There are some interesting Easter eggs hidden in various episodes, like the importance of Smashing Pumpkins on your formative years, and when your stepfather forces you to listen to Springsteen on the way to school and you grimace, while years later, you’ll understand just how important a songwriter he was and is.

Quin: Ha! You know, it’s so funny, because we lived with music as such a huge part of our upbringing—not just in our house but everywhere, in our car. As teenagers, we were obsessed with our own music, but as young people, we were the ones running the stereo in the car. We loved classical music, and in the show, the twins are horrible at piano, but we were actually very good piano players—we took classical piano for 12 years. But music was such a huge deal, and we had such a deep respect for our parents’ music. And we had a whole LP collection when we were teenagers, so we learned how to use a record player, and Bruce, our stepdad, was always making us tapes for school. So it’s weird—I think we were strange, and probably a lot of kids our age didn’t understand why we liked Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman and Sinead O’Connor. I think a lot of people thought that was weird. But we really did like those artists. And it was also really cool, at that age, when you’re a teenager, to also be influenced by stuff that your parents listened to, while telling them about riot grrls and Nirvana and Smashing Pumpkins. And they understood how powerful it was, and they appreciated that music and they used it like a currency, and they bonded with us. So while a lot of our friends weren’t talking to their parents, we would—we would talk to our parents because we had this bond about music. So it made me very, very happy to have so much music in the show.

And when we were actually developing the show, that was one of the things that Clea [DuVall] wanted to bring to the table—she said that every character in the show should have a song list, with every character in the show, you should know what they like, you should know what music mattered to them. Because you know, our parents were 36 when we started high school—they were young, younger than we are now. So it was really important to us that they were properly developed characters, that they’re not just one-dimensional, as it often is when we see teenager shows, and the adults in the show? They’re not real. And our parents were real. They’re cool, and they influenced us. Like, that’s the point of the show—the show is like, “Well, what inspired Tegan and Sara to be Tegan and Sara?” Well, the people around us—the girls we fell in love with, our parents, the music. You have to understand all of that to understand us. And that, to me, is like everyone. That’s not just Tegan and Sara—it’s every person. Like, when you meet someone new, you tell them what you were like when you were young, you tell them what music you liked and what your interests were, and that’s how we get to know each other. So to me, you can’t have a show about a band and not show what inspired them.

Paste: I particularly enjoyed the urgent-upcoming-concert analogy your character makes to your mom in the show, with, “Mom—you remember when you saved up for Supertramp tickets? Well, Green Day is coming in 43 days … ”

Quin: Ha! That’s a true story! It’s funny, because my mom saw the show for the first time in Calgary last weekend, a premiere there, and afterwards, she was like, “It wasn’t mushrooms! We took LSD!” And I was like, “Okay … but they just made a [script change] choice.”

Paste: Having talked to you both so much over the years, there’s one new word, or concept, coursing through this record, and that’s the word “plans.”

Quin: Hmmm. Interesting. I think you’re dead on. You’re 100% right. I hadn’t thought about that, but the way I’ve been articulating the meaning of this album, and just this time in our lives is, we had time to actually think about what we want, what we want to do, what we want in our lives, what kind of art we want to make. Like, I don’t think we realized how tired and fatigued and just exhausted we were from 19 years of touring and making stuff, right? And then to all of a sudden to not just be off the road, but be off the road with absolutely no pressure to ever go back on the road, we were able to decompress finally, and like you said, make plans, to talk about what we wanted next in our lives. In the best-case scenario, I am nearing the halfway point of my life, and in the worst-case scenario , I have passed the halfway point of my life. And that means it’s kind of precious. As my physiotherapist said to me yesterday when he was trying to unlock my jaw— he said, “You have, best-case scenario, 20 years of good mobility left. After that, your body deteriorates, no matter what you do to it, so you have to maintain it now to even start at a good place then so it doesn’t deteriorate.” And I was like, “Holy shit, man!” And I just thought to myself, in a weird way, with our career and the music we make? There is absolutely no reason for Sara and I to go in the studio and just play it safe, or phone it in. There’s no reason for it. If we’re gonna go in the studio, then we need to make something that’s bold and brilliant and difficult and risky and weird, and we need to push, and our career needs to look different. We cannot play the same game, we cannot do the same thing—I have absolutely no aspirations to repeat the work we’ve done, I have no aspirations to repeat the kind of career we’ve had. It’s time for something totally different. And it’s cliche, and I know it’s inspired by age, but it doesn’t mean that we’re slowing down. In fact, we’re doing more than ever before. But it does mean that when we are making things now, we have to make exceptional art, and we have to really push ourselves, and we have to really uncover new ground. So it’s interesting that you use the words “plans,” because we have just always done what comes next—just like, “Oh, then this happened! And then that happened!” Like, we’ve always been reactionary—we’ve never had to try and actually lay out a plan. And I don’t feel like this album is reactionary. I feel like it’s a very premeditated album, from the sounds, the songs we chose, the way we’re gonna tour it, all of it. It’s just very, very, very premeditated.

Paste: In your own personal songs, like “Fucking Up What Matters,” “Smoking Weed Alone” and “Pretty Shitty Time,” you’re more beat poet-direct than your sister, it seems.

Quin: Yeah! I’m gonna tell Sara you said that. She calls me the rapper of the band—she always says, “You’re the rapper.” I don’t know—I am very direct. And I am so envious of Sara, in the best way, because I find her lyrics so beautiful, and there’s so much meaning. You can read into so much with her, right? When she sent me “Yellow”—with “This bruise ain’t black, it’s yellow”? I just was like, “Wow.” And it sounds so much like, of course I’m gonna say that because I’m in a band with her, but I mean it most sincerely—I love the way she writes. And I’ve just always been more direct, and I find it very difficult to mask my meaning. Not that Sara’s intentionally doing it—I just feel like she’s more poetic in the way that she writes, and I am absolutely more direct. And as I get older, I get more direct. Sara came back to me when I was writing this record like I was being indirect, and I was blocking—basically, she was like, “Your lyrics are boring me—try harder!” And I was like, “Okay … ” But one of the first songs that came out of me after that was “Fucking Up What Matters,” because I was like, “Okay. You want direct? How about this?”

Paste: You take all sorts of chances on Crybaby, like “I Can’t Grow Up,” which is like brash, symphonic pop with a New Order bass line. It’s like nothing you’ve ever done before.

Quin: Yeah. Once Sara sent it to me, I liked it. But then she went out and bought a bass and she split out the sampling on the album and sent it back to me with all the samples off the top of her singing “I Can’t Grow Up,” and I was like, “Okay—now I fucking get it.” And the bass line is a big part of it, and yeah, I think it’s risky. I’ve said that it’s like, when you’re young, you want to be taken really seriously and you want to be really mature, and you act almost older than you are. But as you get older, you realize how dumb that is, and that you should just embrace the age you are. And Sara and I constantly tease each other, because we’re always like, “You’re so old!” “I’m so old!” “We’re old now—nobody cares about us!” And I’m like, “Wait. Hold on. Shut up. We’re not old. We’re very youthful, and we’re lucky—we may not have won the genetic lottery, but let’s just be the age we are inside.” And inside? I’m 18. So I think that this record reflects a lot of the energy that we have, and we’re not gonna shy away from it. Look, my mom is a babe. My mom is super-hip, my mom works with teenagers and she seems 15 years younger than what she is. But it’s not just because of how she looks—it’s because she dresses cool, she loves music, she loves to read, she loves young people. And she doesn’t undervalue young people—she really understands how precious and how curious young people are, and it’s contagious. Because my mom is curious and captivated by the world. And I remember when she was in her mid-forties, she said to me, “Can I still wear Doc Martens?” And I was in my mid-twenties, and I was like, “What? Yeah, of course!” But now I understand what my mom was saying. What my mom was saying was, “Am I dressing too young? Am I gonna be that person that looks … unusual?” And I’m like, “Yeah, you are. But who cares?” Age is just that, and you should do whatever you want. And it’s so funny, because to me Crybaby sounds like a record that a 25-year old could make, and that’s why I love it. Like, it’s got all that depth and maturity that only people of our ripe old age of 42 could make, but the record sounds like 22-year-olds in a jam session, just fucking rocking out. And that’s who we are! So I’m like, “Why are we pretending to be something different when that’s who we are?”

Paste: What exactly are you discussing in “Fucking Up What Matters”? There’s a tattoo in there, some almost spoken-word verses …

Quin: Yeah! I think for a lot of my songs—especially “Smoking Weed Alone” and “Fucking Up What Matters”—I was in a pretty introspective place, and, like I said, Sara had been beating up on me a bit about my lyrics, and about treading ground that I’d already covered before. So I was really trying to push myself to do something different and explore, not just different words, but different melodies and different syncopations, and rather than a traditional bridge, I just threw in a completely different melody in the second bridge. That “Trying to cut you out” part is just random, and that’s not something I would have done when I was 18. So I dunno—I was just actively exploring and taking risks, and the song itself was inspired by a couple of conversations I’d had with friends in new breakups, who were sort of newly on their own, and having that moment of, “What the fuck? What the fuck did I do with my life?” And it made me think about how here I am, sitting in this moment of time where I really like my life, but it’s really intoxicating to think about destroying it. And Crybaby is sort of that, and that’s why that ice cream cone with the razor blade makes so much sense for the cover—it’s like every song is saying, “I’ve got this kind of awesome thing, but buried just below the surface is something that could destroy it.” And we’ve got this amazing career, but we’re constantly teetering on the edge of shutting it all down. Do you know what I mean? Like, I’ve got this amazing relationship, and it’s like at any point, I could just fuck it up. And there’s something really intoxicating in about being honest about that.

Paste: Just so I get my facts straight, where you both living now? And are you happily in a relationship, post pandemic?

Quin: Yeah—we’re both happy. Sara and I both live full-time in Vancouver, and we both moved up right before the pandemic. Although mostly, these days, I am on an island called Pender, which is off the coast of Vancouver, sort of in between Vancouver Island and [the] Vancouver coastline, in a cluster called the Southern Gulf Islands. But I do have a place in the city, and Sara and I work a lot in Vancouver. But yeah—Sara and I are both happy. Sara’s been with her partner of 12 years, I think? And they just had a baby three months ago, so that’s gonna be interesting, touring with a kid! And a lot of her side of the record is about that—it’s about, “Holy shit! Am I gonna be a grownup?” She sent me “All I wanted” and said, “This is a story about my fertility journey,” because the partner carried, but they spent three years trying. So it’s sort of about that journey, of like every day going, “Do we want this? Is this what we want? Are we doing this with our lives?” And I’ve been with my partner for seven years, and we don’t have a kid, but we have a dog.

Paste: The two things your show etches into your mind are, “Acid—ick,” and “High school really did suck.”

Quin: Those things are true. But what’s weird is, high school was a formative and important time for Sara and I. Unlike a lot of young people, who find themselves in college and university, or after they leave home, we figured out who we were, we figured out our sexuality, we figured out what our life would be with music. We figured all of that out in high school. And we just kind of lucked out—we met a lot of really cool people who we’re still best friends [with], a crew of eight of eight of us. So it is a formative and important time, but is a nightmare, an absolute nightmare, and a terror to be a teenager. But when it comes to acid, it’s also complicated. It is an absolutely horrific drug that I would never do again, but we were very curled in ourselves as teenagers, and acid just released us. It just made us wild. And I think now people are doing it the right way [in psilocybin micro-doses], so I am a big fan of the use of the drugs in smaller doses, for the purpose of removing some of the anxiety and depression some people feel. But yeah, we just did it in big doses, and it was vile and icky and yucky, but we did it three times a week for two years. But I just feel like we used it in a way that was very therapeutic for us at that age, and it made Sara and I like each other again. It helped us be creative again, it released us from the prison of our bodies, which is what being a teenager is. And I feel really grateful that we had those experiences, but it’s hard to depict that on a television screen. So I totally get it—acid is so nasty. When our book came out, I was asking all my friends, “Should I do acid again? It seems like it would be really cool.” And they were all like, “Absolutely not! Do not do any more acid!”

Paste: One key High School question: Why didn’t anyone just beat the crap out of your teenage Tyler antagonist back then? He’s insufferable!

Quin: It’s so funny, because that actor is the nicest guy. It was his first job, and every time he was on the set he was walking around, giving everyone feedback, talking to us, and he’d even read the book the second he got booked. He was just so nice, but he played the Tyler character so well. I really love him. But the real guy’s name was … fuck, I forget now. But he was a real piece of shit.

Paste: One final thing the show makes clear—at one point, one of your characters turns to the other and snaps, “I don’t wanna share everything!” A sentiment only twins can probably best understand, right?

Quin: Yeah. And it’s not something that goes away. I mean, I’m 42 and I still feel that way. I have to share friends with her, we have to make every business decision together—it’s a lot, it’s really intense. We hired new management this year, and a big part of our onboarding was saying, “Look—we’re not a normal band. We are siblings, and we share everything. And when we’re not working, we still share that dynamic, because our family runs our affairs together.” And being adolescents and sharing everything and going through everything at the same time was hard, and it was definitely sometimes alienating. Like, people have this misconception of, “Oh—you had each other! When you were coming out, it must have been so hard for you, but at least you had the other one!” And it’s like no, it was awful, it was exposing—you want to keep it a secret, and you know the other one’s doing it, but then you think that everyone’s gonna find out because you’re not hiding it well enough. It was very hard. So I’m very proud of the depiction by the siblings. Not that twins are some sort of repressed people who need some correction in the media, but often when you see twins [depicted], it’s doing stupid shit, like trading places! Or sharing a boyfriend, with people being confused! We’re just turned into circus freaks. And we spent 20 years navigating the world of, “Do you feel each other’s pain?” In the press! In the media! Everyone makes us out to be this two-headed monster, like “The Twins”! But it’s nice on the show, because you really see that tension from not being able to be your own person, and the scene that really stands out to me is the one where Sara is trying to go over to her girlfriend’s ex-best friend Phoebe’s house, and she’s like, [to Tegan] “Hey—you can just go home! I know you don’t really want to come and hang out!” But the way that Railey plays that scene, going, “Yeah! I don’t want to come anyway!”—you can just see how devastated she is. And that’s exactly what it was like! You want to be your own person, but then you also feel so left out when people don’t want you around. Aargh! It was such a misery!


Crybaby is out now on Mom + Pop Music.