“My face was wet with tears. Nothing had ever sounded more important to me,” Tegan Quin wrote of her experience listening to Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness as a 10th grader.
Little did this angsty high schooler know, she’d later instill those same feelings in her own fans—becoming one-half of an internationally successful indie-pop duo with her identical twin sister, Sara. Before achieving indie rock and radio pop stardom as Tegan and Sara, the Quin sisters were typical, moody teenagers from Calgary. They fought over their landline phone, took acid at raves, struggled to comprehend their sexuality, slammed their bedroom doors and endured repeated questions from parents about their college plans.
Now, in a more inclusive environment that craves relatable stories, it was the perfect time for Tegan and Sara, both openly gay, to share their personal coming-of-age journeys in a book titled High School. Instead of the conventional musician memoir that tracks the rise to fame, the Quin sisters decided to write about their formative high school experience—grades 10, 11 and 12, to be exact—and release an album of reimagined and re-recorded demos from that same time period.
They’ve flickered between folk, pop, punk, indie and New Wave throughout their career, but Tegan and Sara’s appeal has always been rooted in fearless sentimentality. Their songs don’t shy away from lines that might sound mushy on paper, but tear at your insides when sung confidently. Their title of their new album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, is what they’ve been trying to convey to their listeners all along. These songs, which have been previously unheard for 20 years, are a time capsule of burning crushes and heartbreak. That doesn’t mean the album is full of sappy teenage dramatics. More broadly, it’s about being on the brink, yet still fighting for meaningful connections with people.
Lyrically, it falls more in line with the angst of albums like 2002’s If It Was You and 2004’s So Jealous, but musically, it reflects their recent venture into the gleaming pop of 2013’s Heartthrob and 2016’s Love You to Death. You’ll still find glimmers of two teenagers who worshipped Hole and played their guitars for friends at parties. “I’ll Be Back Someday” would’ve blared repeatedly in Hot Topic, had it been released during the pop-punk craze of the 2000s, and it’s one of the catchiest songs they’ve ever released. Lines from wordy songs like “Don’t Believe The Things They Tell You (They Lie)” and “Keep Them Close Cause They Will Fuck You Too” would’ve been religiously scrolled in notebooks and permanently etched onto arms via stick and poke tattoos, and they likely will be today.
“As the first attempts at original melody snuck out of my throat, I felt high,” Tegan writes in High School. “After that, time flew.” Tegan and Sara sprang into action after they first started plucking their dad’s acoustic guitar, but they freeze time on this new book and album. Both contemplate the struggle for self-discovery and the desire for companionship, reflecting the lives of two sisters who eagerly dove headfirst into young adulthood, even though they had no idea what it would bring.
Paste spoke with Tegan Quin about this journey into their past, how they’ve changed and how they’re still the same. Read the Q&A below, which has been edited for length.
Paste: How much did you remember from that time period?
Tegan Quin: When we sold the book proposal, I reached out to a wide variety of people and started a WhatsApp group and told everybody just to pile on and send anything they had. There were friends that had saved every note Sara and I had ever written them and we all wrote constantly to each other. From one friend alone, I got 50 notes that outlined October of grade 10 to June. It’s so funny because I’d written two songs and I’m writing to this friend being like, “We’re so good. Our songs are so good.” We just had no chill at all. After reading these firsthand accounts of our lives from that time, seeing the video, seeing the photos, it was really easy to piece together the story.
Was it emotional revisiting some of these memories when you were writing the book?
For us, there was no point in doing the book if we weren’t going to be honest. We talk about drug use, talk about how we were homophobic and closeted and hard on each other about it and really struggle to figure out who we were and the conflict with each other, the conflict of our family, all of our shitty behavior. It was emotional to write it, but it was even more emotional to project to right now and imagine talking about it and sharing it and I wanted to make sure that it was purposeful, that we were doing this for good reason. And I think we did. I hope that this story brings comfort to people, but it also shows that even people like us who are held to a higher standard and are role models, had to learn how to be good people. We had to learn how to be ourselves and it took time.
The book delves into the fights between you and Sara. Was music an escape from all that?
The first year that we were writing and playing music, we had to share the guitar we had. It caused just as much fighting as the phone did. Both music and drugs are used as a device in the book to showcase that there were very few things that we got along about. When we did drugs, only one of us would do it and the other would take care of the other. And with music, we needed the other one. I needed Sara to collaborate with me. I needed her to run the tape recorder and record my song. I needed her to sing along to add parts. In both cases, we use those as ways to show that while there was an enormous amount of conflict and strife between us, there were things we both loved and needed the other for.
One thing that’s apparent from this book is that you were both very strong-willed. You always stuck up for yourselves if anybody stepped out of line. Was that something you realized back then?
Like most young people, we were in conflict with authority and adults and bullies and people who weren’t like us. Some people are internally at war with people, but we were definitely externalizing it. We were very lucky because we had each other, but we also had a huge group of friends who were very strange, freaky and alternative like us. I think growing up in the mid to late nineties, it created a bubble in terms of the music and the fashion. It lent itself to the weirdness that we felt we campaigned in ourselves. So we were definitely strong-willed and headstrong and we were definitely confident considering how much we stuck out. I think people, maybe rightly, associated that sort of weirdness and that blatant disregard for what was normal as a sign that we were special or we were cool and I think we just drank the Kool-Aid. Sara and I really struggled internally with anxiety and depression and fear around our sexuality. But I think when you see the footage of us, there’s an awkwardness to us, but we’re loud. We’re gregarious. We’re very funny. We really like to hold the spotlight. We’re constantly joking around. We’re constantly filming our friends. Those are the people we are now.
The book and the album contain this struggle between freedom and fear. Do you think you were good at navigating those forces?
After having watched all the footage, read all the notes, and interviewed family and friends for almost 26 hours of audio, what I learned about us from looking at all that is we are more alike than we think to those younger selves. I think back then, just like now, we have an ability to balance the different parts of ourselves. All people have their good and bad sides and their private and public sides. As young people, we had a very private interior world, emotions, feelings, thoughts, cravings. And then we had this very extroverted, public side too. I think that we were good at manipulating in every situation to get what we wanted. That’s probably still the same, although our intentions are better now because we’re older and smarter. Manipulated is such a negative word, but I think we were always really good at getting and holding people’s attention.
What did you think when you first listened back to your demos from high school?
The more I listened, the more I got over that initial cringe and I started to hear the songs and there were a dozen of them, in my opinion, right off the bat that, though the recording was a bit rough, I felt very surprised at how good they were. Like “I Don’t Owe You,” “Hello, I’m Right Here,” “All I’ll Have to Give the World is Me,” “Keep Them Close Cause They Will Fuck You Too,” these songs, the melodies were there. They were so strong and right away, I became obsessed with the idea that we should try to make it into a new record. And Sara had a similar reaction, but it took her time to listen to it. She resisted because she thought she would hate it and she had the same reaction and the label bought in right away. There was no way we were just going to release the demos as is because they were so rough.
I didn’t want this to just be a companion piece to the book. To me, the songs were so good that, like any record we’ve made, they were demos and we needed to refine them and bring them to the studio and get a producer involved. But it seemed so clear that the songs were destined to come out now. The things we’re singing about, I was so moved. I couldn’t believe how much I related to the music. It’s become a joke between Sara and I that we’ve done 20 years of growing, living, traveling, expanding our repertoire, development as people, so much therapy, so many relationships. And I’m quite literally writing, feeling, thinking the same fucking things I thought 20 years ago. I haven’t changed at all. It’s like you get older and you refine it and you overcomplicate it and you stretch it and you try different configurations, but ultimately the pillars of what we were creating, the song structure, the melody, the way that we use and weave our voices, none of it has changed.
Is it crazy realizing that all the things you struggled with back then were going to be things that so many people connected with all these years later?
It is crazy, but we had no idea. We always say that we’ve always been out, but that didn’t mean people talked to us about it. When we started our career, there just was no vernacular. There was no comfort around how to talk about sexuality on either side, but especially not on the journalist or radio side. As culture has caught up and as gay culture has become mainstream and as we’ve gotten more comfortable, it’s fascinating to see just how much people still are challenged and are struggling to figure out how to talk about it. But also to find out that it brought so much comfort to people and it was so meaningful to people that we were out, looking back, that makes me feel less sad about how hard that was sometimes for us.
It was very difficult to feel marginalized at times, to feel limited in the industry, to be told by one journalist after another, male or female, we really didn’t matter because we were for girls and queer people. It just felt so unfair because I loved Bruce Springsteen. And based on that same rule, I shouldn’t love him or connect with him. I didn’t understand why as a queer woman, I was only being marketed to people like me and looking back, there’s a whole community of artists that we know now who grew up listening to us and were so grateful we were there and obviously we meet hundreds of fans every day on tour who tell us the same story. But also, it’s bigger than that. It’s bigger than the LGBTQ community.
It’s young people who felt on the outside or moms and dads who just fell in love listening to us and then come to the shows with their little eight year old. It makes me feel happy that we’ve always been ourselves, that we’ve never tried to hide who we are, that we’ve never created a character, that we’ve never sold a story that isn’t true. And while that was sometimes hard and took away some of our privacy and even our dignity at times, I’m really glad that all of that ended up being so valuable to other people.
High School is out now. Hey, I’m Just Like You is out Sept. 27 via Warner Records.