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Tegan and Sara Quin weren’t always famous. That might seem like a cloyingly obvious statement, but for a duo that signed their first record contract 21 years ago this month, it seems like they’ve been visible in the indie sphere for as long as there have been blogs to write about them. There’s a point near the end of their new joint memoir, High School, where the young identical twins switch from fighting over use of their home phone to fighting over time with the computer. This is just one of many signifiers during the course of the book that point to major changes in how people would experience the world, with the late-’90s representing the end of more than just a century of numbers preceded by 19. But one thing is for certain: However the world changed with the donning of the internet, with the tragedy of 9/11, with the rise of cell phones and streaming services, Tegan and Sara were going to be cultural touchstones throughout it.
If you asked the two Calgary natives at 15 if they thought their lives would wind up having such an impact, there would surely be disbelief. High School portrays the Quin sisters as rebellious spirits, experimenting with drugs, lying to their parents, and generally disappointing teachers. It’s not until a good way through the book that the young women discover their stepfather’s guitar, transforming them from Green Day and Smashing Pumpkins enthusiasts into budding artists. But as their new album suggests in the title, the point of High School isn’t to portray them are outliers because of their creative spirits, it’s to show just how universal their experience is. Hey, I’m Just Like You.
Meeting in an empty restaurant at The Mondrian Hotel in West Hollywood with a view that reaches past Beverly Hills and into the vast urban sprawl, the Quin sisters have reason to celebrate on this August day. Besides the impending releases of their first book and ninth album, earlier that morning Billboard had revealed its latest cover, with Tegan featured along with Adam Lambert, Big Freedia, Hayley Kiyoko, and ILoveMakonnen for a special Pride issue. When considered in relation to the stories they are telling about their humble beginnings, it’s easy to see the magnitude of the journey, from two young girls wrestling with their sexuality to becoming bona fide queer icons.
“I think when we started on the memoir, it was the idea that this was the origin of us,” Tegan says. “Not just us as a band, but us as people. Us as queer people.”
This latest creative period for Tegan And Sara surprisingly came from a designated break. Choosing to put a pause on their recording career after another acclaimed album and tour cycle, this time for 2016’s Love You To Death, the twins put time into their foundation work — the appropriately named Tegan And Sara Foundation — and debated ideas like starting a podcast and writing their memoir. The latter ultimately won out, with the pair uncorking a wave of inspiration that was coupled with a deep dive into the archives of their past. Anyone with an attic full of mementos can imagine the foreboding nature of searching through the events of two decades prior, but for Tegan And Sara, it proved revelatory.
“Those experiences are seminal to me,” Sara says about her teen years. “I figured out that I was gay and I fell in love. That happens to a lot of people in college, where they figure themselves out. I started grade ten and I didn’t know how to write songs and then by the end of grade twelve, not only did I know how to write songs, I was being offered a record deal. Of course, that experience for me is more interesting than just being like, ‘I know I had the worst hair, right?'”
So, to tell this story, the sisters worked separately from their own memories of the events of their high school years, ultimately surprising each other with how different their own takes on the same moments could be. The book reflects that process with alternating chapters told from either Tegan or Sara’s perspective. The pair fortunately maintained contact with many of the figures in the book to fact check and spark memories, and had tons of video, audio, and written material from that era to sort through. As far as writing chops, though neither had ever written a book, their lives had more than prepared them for the challenges they’d face.
“We’re storytellers,” Tegan notes. “The truth is that email and the internet and running our businesses has allowed us to…”
“Develop a voice,” Sara says.
“Yeah,” Tegan agrees. “Develop a voice and also further educate ourselves around strengthening the way that we speak and the way that we articulate what we need, what we want, what our experiences are.”
Beyond reading how that voice has evolved over time, one of the joys in both the new book and album is seeing how much of what many currently love about Tegan and Sara was present from the very start. At one point in the book, the two are performing showcases in the hopes of getting attention from record labels, when they begin on-stage bantering. They note that they skipped school to be at the performance, and the laughter of the audience puts them instantly at ease. Anyone that’s ever seen Tegan and Sara perform know just how integral their on-stage speaking is to their sets, and to see it there even as teens shows just how naturally their presence as performers came to them.
Their new album underscores these revelations, another document to their musical gifts that flourished early on. Hey, I’m Just Like You is made up of the first songs ever written by Tegan and Sara when they were first starting out, the tunes that helped them solidify their chemistry before crafting the ones that would eventually be on their earliest albums. The songs aren’t presented exactly as they were conceived more than 20 years earlier, but they aren’t complete rewrites either. “We wanted to really honor and respect [the song’s origins] in the record,” Tegan says. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t come in and completely deface what we had done as young people. It wasn’t a desperate, ‘Well, I guess we’ll try to find some good parts out of all of this.’ It was like, ‘Wow, there are actually twelve really good songs here and some of them need extra parts so we’ll stitch them together with other songs.'”
Where the duo’s experience really shows is in the presentation. “I’ll Be Back Someday” is a pop-punk throwback that pays tribute to their youthful musical tastes, while “Hold My Breath Until I Die” is the kind of reflective power-pop that populated their work in the aughts. Their recent pop interests are on display as well, as “Keep Them Close Cause They Will F*ck You Too” and “We Don’t Have Fun When We’re Together Anymore” could easily fit on their recent albums with their expansive synth-pop. But mostly, the album combines everything the women have recorded before now, mixing synth textures and acoustic strums with the inimitable melodic sense that has apparently been an integral part of their music since day one. Hey, I’m Just Like You feels like a journey across the history of Tegan and Sara, all told through the prism of their humble beginnings.
Put together, the entire book and album project feels distinctly brave, as if the two are opening up a piece of their lives that a lot of people would rather not revisit. Tegan and Sara don’t make themselves look cooler than they were in High School, with their drug use, disinterest in studies, and all-around rebellious ways presented as a matter of fact, with neither endorsement or judgment. It feels important that young people can read about Tegan and Sara’s origins and maybe see something of themselves in it, that young people can know that how they act in high school isn’t neccesarily indicative of who they will become as adults. Sure, some people party in school and wind up sidetracked later in life. Others become some of the most imporant recording artists of their generation. It’s impossible to predict, even if adults love doing just that.
“Nobody is more shocked that we ended up the way that we did than the people who taught us in high school,” Sara says, while noting some of the important differences between her and her sister. In the book, Tegan and Sara’s individual identities are highlighted and amplified. One key moment comes with a realization that Tegan would only register the positive feedback she heard, while Sara would only take in the negative. Even speaking with them about delving into their past selves, Tegan comes across a lot more in touch with her younger self, and comfortable with who she was at that young age. Sara, though, is candid about the struggles she had in facing her past.
“This book forced me to sort of reconcile some pretty dark, self-loathing feelings about that time,” Sara says. “You educate yourself, you grow, you learn, you become the person you think that you want to become. You don’t want to go back and look at the person who didn’t have any answers, who didn’t know anything. But I will say this: When I went back and I really spent a lot of time looking at those videos, listening to those songs, reading those notes, one of the things that really broke my heart is that no one hated me more than I hated myself. I feel like I more than Tegan didn’t have the armor in place that would allow me to not take to heart certain criticisms. And specifically when we first started playing music in high school and we started getting reviews and people started writing about us, music journalists, that sort of thing, I looked for any tiny detail that proved that whatever insecurity I had was real.”
Sara adds that she wishes she could give her younger self a hug and tell her that it would be alright. But none of us had the life experience to deal with whatever part of youth gave us the most trouble. That ability to survive is what later defines us. Recently, sports journalist Mina Kimes tweeted about the recent film Booksmart, noting that she wished it had existed when she was in high school. It’s easy to figure out why, as the film focuses on scholastic overachievers who regretfully ignored their social lives, and treats the experience of young women with the grace and respect that they deserve.
Tegan and Sara do the same thing in both their new book and album, and it’s easy to imagine people having the same reaction, be it budding musicians or just regular kids coming to terms with their own sexual identity. Tegan and Sara’s story isn’t important just because they went on to become famous musicians, it’s important because the experience of all young people, and particularly young women, is valuable. Their power is that they can make us all feel like we’re receiving that hug, that encouraging promise that everything will be all right, that whatever seems so important and crucial when you are young, it’s just one piece of a greater life. Tegan And Sara might be just like you, but if you look around, there are countless others just like you, too.
Hey, I’m Just Like You is out now on Sire Records. Get it here.
High School is out now via MCD × FSG. Get it here.
Tegan And Sara are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.