When you hear the names Tegan and Sara, many different things might spring to mind: identical twin sisters, queer indie rock icons, several pivotal scenes from Grey’s Anatomy, etc. All of these would be correct, but they only scratch the surface of a much bigger story. For the majority of Tegan and Sara Quin’s career they’ve strived to maintain control, whether that be within their music, their image, or even in their relationship with one another. To boil them down to a few key words for the sake of packaging would be doing them a grave injustice. Their new Audible Original, aptly titled Under My Control, seeks to tell their truth, as they provide an in-depth look into the band and sisterhood that is Tegan and Sara.
Before even becoming a band, the sisters, who grew up in Calgary, were familiar with being looked at. Being identical has that effect. Towards the beginning of their Audible Original, the two talk about this sensation as Sara recounts a story from their childhood, in which they attempted to leave a bank, without their mother, because they were tired of people looking at them. Though Tegan also points out that, “It made us feel special and famous, before we were famous.” When I chat with them over Zoom, they express a similar sentiment, adding that it became more enjoyable to be recognized for their music. “You know in some ways there was a pleasure in knowing that being recognized now had more to do with something we’d created and not just with this randomness that we were born twins and we look the same,” Sara says. “There’s not much you can say when someone goes, ‘Are you guys twins?’ and you’re like, ‘Yeah.’ Like, that’s it.”
In Under My Control, listeners join them on their journey as they win their local music competition, Garage Warz, choose to start their band instead of attending university, and take on all of the industry meetings that follow. Though they are both musicians and songwriters, it took some convincing for Sara to commit to the band, while Tegan knew and had known that it was something she wanted for herself. “There was no question. I was going to be a musician. That’s what I was. I was a rockstar. That’s how I talked at the time,” Tegan says, laughing. “But it was fueled by fear that there was nothing else for me.” In terms of what propelled them to take on the huge task of recording their first album, Under Feet Like Ours, on their own, Tegan admits that it was not, “normal behavior to figure out how to get the funds, make an album, release that album, get an agent, find management. But I felt like we wanted to prove that we could do it and I think we really didn’t know what we wanted to do at university. We had no goals. Like. I did not want to get a normal job.”
The band ended up signing to Neil Young’s label, Vapor Records, and opening for Young on tour. It was the first time they had been out on the road, traveling internationally, and they were terrified. They recounted doing their first round of press during the tour and expressing the fear they had been experiencing to journalists. Their candor was not well received. “I learned really quickly ‘Do not tell people really how you feel,’” Sara says on Under My Control.
Since then, through multiple mediums including their music, their memoir High School, and their new Audible Original, it seems as though Tegan and Sara have grown to become more vulnerable so that they’re able to be honest about their story, and so fans and artists alike can connect to them on a deeper level. “By putting our voice on record we’re hoping to at least share our perspective and that feels really good,” Tegan says. “When we were 22 I’m glad that this didn’t exist. I’m glad there was no social media. I mean we say it all the time. F*ck, I mean it’s a nightmare when I think about what we would’ve said or done online.” Sara also tells me that not wanting to share her negative feelings about their career came from a place of shame. “I’ve always been afraid by being honest about not always liking our career or not always having a good time on tour with people that it would be insulting or disrespectful,” she says. “I was so embarrassed and ashamed to admit it was hard and that I wasn’t having fun and that I just wanted to hang out with my girlfriend. I don’t know, I was like a child. That’s what I wanted to do.”
“It was a tremendous weight,” Sara mentions on Under My Control, referencing the pressure to come out as queer to the world on top of all of the other stresses that come along with being in the band. “Even if I was having a good time it was like all this big important stuff around like money, and travel, and safety, and queerness, and whatever. It was just always kind of like an albatross on my shoulder. I couldn’t ever be totally free of it,” she elaborates. When both sisters decided to come out of the closet, Sara tells me that the thing that made it scarier was that Tegan was also queer. “It would be one thing if I was just going to be closeted, but if we’re both gay, I mean, I guess we come out. It’s like how do we both lie?” So though it might’ve made it scarier, it also pushed them to come out. Now when I ask if they’ve been able to process it all to arrive at a place of peace, Sara says, “that’s an Audible Words and Music piece onto itself on some level,” but that any internalized homophobia she had, “really broke for me in my mid to late twenties. It was like a ten-year process I would say.”
In an attempt to control their narrative in the early days of their career, they pushed back against the label “lesbian folk band,” fearing it made them inaccessible to a broader audience. “At the time we really fixated on the fact that they called us folk, but I actually think that what we were fixated on was that they were calling us lesbians because it felt at times coded, but mostly just blatant,” Tegan explains on their Audible Original. “It felt like them saying, “This is not music for everybody. This is only music for other lesbians.” Sara communicates this same thing over Zoom adding that, “the second I found queer and embraced it I was like, ‘We’re f*cking queer. We’re queer musicians,’ and I just remember that being like hugely freeing. It was like liberation.”
As Tegan and Sara tell the story of their career and sisterhood during Under My Control, they also take eight breaks in the action, in which new recordings of some of their hits including, “Closer,” “Where Does the Good Go,” “Walking With A Ghost,” and more appear. These performances offer a look into how the band’s music has changed over the years, along with explanations from the sisters about why it was changing. They perform “Living Room” from their album If It Was You, which Tegan notes “was an aggressive attempt to shake off” the lesbian folk label. Before their performance of “Walking With A Ghost,” Sara explains how the song was responding “to what I thought was sexist reviewing of our music.”
There’s often an expectation for women in music to constantly evolve and Tegan is aware of this. “I’ve read lots about how women feel they have to remake themselves every record and that women have to make career-defining albums and career-defining haircuts every time they do something new. But I think even in 2004 that I understood that and that with each new record, it was going to be our job to change.” Sara has a similar perspective, but she also feels that they were reinventing themselves because it’s just a fun thing to do, she tells me. “I’ve looked at other bands where they always wear a plaid shirt and have a beard and are always making records that sound the same. It’s just like so that’s it for them huh? It’s just the same old black-rimmed glasses. That’s it huh? In some ways I guess I envy that, but then on the other hand I’ve had so much fun reinventing myself.”
While Tegan and Sara might be known by many as incredible musicians, that’s not necessarily what they want to be remembered for. When they started to think about what legacy meant to them, they started to explore new avenues to tell their story to connect with fans outside of touring. What resulted was their memoir turned TV show, High School. When I asked what they hope people think of when they think of Tegan and Sara, Sara says, “I truly, truly hope that at the end of my life people still think I’m a good person, a nice person, a generous person.” Outside of that, Sara mentions their advocacy and philanthropic work through the Tegan and Sara Foundation. “I’m very proud of it. It’s not easy work.”
“There’s something very comforting and healing in remembering that we used to just be sisters,” Sara mentions towards the end of Under My Control. After all this time of attempting to control the narrative of their band and their story, it really does boil down to just this: Tegan and Sara are sisters. I know I mentioned above that using only a few words to describe the two can minimize them, but somehow after Sara says this, I was left with a sense of fulfillment. Tegan and Sara will always be sisters, and nothing in the past, present, or future will change that.