Then and Now: Tegan and Sara Revisit Their “High School” Roots

With a memoir, new album, and a collection of remixes, the indie-pop sisters prove they've come a long way.

For most people, reliving high school sits on a list of atrocities they’d pay money not to think about ever again. For Calgary-born indie-pop twins Tegan and Sara Quin, those memories are the bedrock of their first memoir, appropriately dubbed High School, and ninth studio album, Hey, I’m Just Like You.

While prepping for a near sold-out North American tour, Sara hopped on a call with BeatRoute from her Vancouver home, where she recently planted herself after bouncing between cities, countries, and coasts for the last decade. The artist moved to the west coast metropolis as a broke artist at 20, but couldn’t “eat or drink or live,” and headed east. “Now I’ve come back as an adult! With disposable income!” Sara’s energy at 9 a.m. is enviable.

With most family and industry connections based on the west coast, the move makes for a happier work/life balance. It’s also the first time Sara and Tegan have lived in the same Canadian city since 2002.

Though the twins’ tumultuous relationship is no secret, writing a memoir together has been a long-talked about project. The crux of the book’s narrative crystallized while reminiscing about high school. Not only were those years their most formative, but Sara and Tegan realized it was an opportunity to share their origin story in sufficient detail, picking up where interviews left off.

“We’re forced to give really short answers because we know there’s just not time to dig into that history,” Sara says. “It’s really complicated. We didn’t always feel like there was space or time to share it.”

Why bring up an LSD-laced, emotionally turbulent “boiling point” of being queer teen girls in the nineties? “Those years are seminal,” Sara says with a deep breath. At 15, Tegan and Sara had never touched a guitar, and by 17 they were being offered a record deal. It’s a story of firsts: stepping onto a stage, using a microphone, receiving applause. Such profound moments were burned into their memories. “It’s the same with love,” Sara adds, who is now best friends with the first girl she had a romantic relationship with in Grade 10.

Digging into their past led to the discovery of the first songs the twins ever wrote at 15. “Once I discovered I could write songs, it really replaced a lot of my other bad habits. I was less interested in drugs and drinking,” Sara says. “In a weird way, it was a good addiction.”

When others took notice of their music, Tegan was brazen with confidence, while Sara wanted to weigh the options. “Tegan was like, ‘If they don’t get it, fuck ‘em.’ And I was like, ‘Hm. If they don’t get it, I want to understand why they don’t get it. Are there vulnerabilities and weaknesses in what we’re doing, should we consider that?’” But she admits that it was her sister’s infectious enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit that won her over. “We had grown up in the punk and alternative scene of the 1990s — if you made a dollar, you were a sell-out. And your music sucked. And you were shit.” Her voice is lighthearted. “And Tegan was like, ‘Ehhh, let’s just make some money. We gotta pay the bills.’ She wasn’t taken by those ideas. She sort of recognized the privilege of even being able to decide that your art shouldn’t have value.”

The twins wrote more than 40 songs in those three years, 12 of which made the cut for their 2019 album — a time capsule of true teen angst, emotion, and defiance. Hey, I’m Just Like You is a real-life soundtrack to their High School memoir. Lies, love, and broken hearts run the course with satisfying melodrama and head-bobbing nostalgia. “Hold My Breath Until I Die” captures the life-or-death stakes that youth injects into relationships, while the title track is a colourful celebration of friendship. Held up to Tegan and Sara’s present-day selves, the songs retain their punk heart while the album’s pop production is a testament to the twins’ musical evolution.

Now idols of entrepreneurial savvy and queer resistance, the duo have still spent a lifetime trying to maintain individual identities while building an award-winning career branded heavily on their twin image. “There are some strong parallels between being a twin and being famous,” Sara says with quick fervour. Even in strollers, people would swarm them at the mall. The Quin’s parents started taking the toddlers out on errands separately to avoid the overwhelming attention. “Sharing a face” had its upside, though, like when they transferred to a new school in third grade. “I knew we could use each other as power. We could go to this new school and if we were together, people were gonna be interested in us. We wouldn’t be invisible.”

That superpower became “claustrophobic” over the years — a “trap” that oppressed individuality, yet made the pair uniquely distinct. Does Sara still struggle with it? “Absolutely. It almost intensifies with age,” she says. The infantilization that such a “fluke of science” invites is a point of contention for her. “People will say in an interview, ‘Do you still live together?’ And I’m like, ‘Do you live with your 40-year-old sibling?’” Her voice has spiked an octave. “People would try to ask us what we called the ‘classic twin questions.’ I would just be like, ‘No. I’m not gonna give you pull quotes about whether we can read each other’s thoughts.’ Give me a break. If I could read Tegan’s mind, we’d be in Vegas doing card tricks.” Her tone drops. “Why are there certain rules for non-twins that we don’t allow for twins? Or why do we treat famous people like they don’t get the same kind of privacy and respect that you want?”

While writing both book and album, Sara rediscovered poignant confessions sprinkled amongst “asshole adolescent” notes (“My science teacher’s a bitch!”). She was failing classes, but was afraid to admit she didn’t want to go to post-secondary. “I was a deeply closeted, suffering, confused teenager.” She scribbled notes about wanting to live up to the expectations of my parents. “Especially my mother, who was risking it all and going back to school and working a job full-time and raising us. I can barely deal with my life and my cats.” Her mother isn’t so sure, and worries the memoir doesn’t showcase her well. “I think that’s her own self criticism because most people read the book and think she was fantastic. And she was.”

For their upcoming birthday on September 19, Tegan and Sara will be working. Maybe indulge in a “nip of scotch” before bed. It’s a far cry from the experimental days of their youth, but Sara doesn’t mind. “I just wanna stare at a bird and tree, and sleep really well.” That giggle again. “I feel like it’s a nice period of my life to be creative and quiet.”

Hey, I’m Just Like You (The Remixes) EP is out now on Sire Records.

*This article originally appeared in the September 2019 print edition of BeatRoute.