Tegan and Sara’s High School Reunion: The Duo Talks New Album, Memoir, and Acid
Lead photo by Trevor Brady
When your band consists of two identical twin sisters, your origin story is destined to be unique.
In High School — the memoir from Canadian pop artists Tegan and Sara released on September 24 via MCD — the pair dive into their formative teenage years and explore their evolution from Canadian high school students to internationally-known recording artists. Originally from Calgary, Alberta, Tegan and Sara have thus far released eight studio albums since they signed a deal with Polygram records on their (shared) 18th birthday. Their ninth album, Hey, I'm Just Like You, will be released on September 27 on Sire Records and features all re-recorded versions of unreleased demos the two recorded as teenagers.
Perhaps best known for pop gems infused with authentic substance like 2004’s “Walking with a Ghost” and 2012’s “Closer” — they also hit the Oscars in 2015 to perform their Lego Movie hit, “Everything in Awesome” — the two have been in the spotlight since they won Calgary’s amatuer music competition “Garage Warz” in 1997 as a pair of 17-year-olds with no bassist or drummer. In the ensuing 22 years, they’ve continued to make music on their terms while also speaking out and lending their cache and resources to projects in support of the LGBTQ+ community, as well as encouraging the hiring and training of more women in the technical side of the music industry.
For Tegan Quin, one of the appeals of focusing on high school for the memoir and new album was the chance to authentically feature two female voices describing their creative trajectory and the stories that informed it.
“The book is not a salacious tell-all,” Tegan tells MERRY JANE. “It's not necessarily even to benefit us. We became very obsessed with the idea that women often don't get to tell their creative story. There were just very few female memoirs about music and we really believe in positive representation. We believe that having a book like this, as young people, would have really influenced us.”
As prominent queer women working in the music business, there was also a desire to not pivot too far in the other direction and surgically remove the emotional warts from the narrative.
“I think there are people that just want our story to be positive,” Tegan says. “For us, that was part of the reason we felt driven to write the book. The only kind of stories we hear about LGBTQ people who become famous are often only about the glamorous, exciting, successful part of their lives. But the reality is that we still struggle with identity. We still struggle with homophobia. We still have days where we don't feel good about ourselves.”
Tegan and Sara in high school, photo via
The intent of their memoir, explains Tegan, was to “climb down” from the platform the two are constantly put on and to show that they are just like everybody else — thus, the title of the new record. That’s arguably a lofty goal for two artists who had never written a book before, but if High School proves anything, it’s that Tegan and Sara are remarkably gifted in whichever medium they choose to work in.
For example, in one passage, Sara expertly describes the typical audience she’d find at the punk gigs she and her sister started attending at a nearby community center when they were around 15. Having quickly learned that both sisters were prone to rebellion, constantly at each others’ throats, and not entirely enamored with the structure of school, Sara shares the following recollection: “The regulars gelled their hair into mohawks,” she writes, “and moved through the pit like tropical fish you knew were poisonous just from looking at them.”
The memoir boasts a unique structure, with Tegan narrating one chapter and Sara the next. Together, the narrative follows a fairly conventional chronology, strengthened by the seamless transition from one voice to the next. Recalling the writing process, the sisters explain that in order to avoid contradicting one another, they would periodically give stacks of chapters to one another to proof and critique. The end result is a book that equally honors their individual identities and collective camaraderie.
High School also reveals that Tegan and Sara’s interest in playing music began when Sara “borrowed” her step-father Bruce’s guitar when she was 15. It wasn’t long before the two found themselves in each other’s bedrooms, working on songs they would shortly release to their friends and family under the name Plunk. All told, the Plunk era resulted in about 40 songs that were eventually stashed and forgotten in a childhood closet for 20 years.
Some bands might wince at the prospect of hearing their earliest work, written when they were teenagers, but not Tegan and Sara.
“There's this narrative that everyone has about their younger selves, especially creators, where everyone thinks our first work is so embarrassing and so bad,” Tegan says. “I just wanted to push back on that. I don't think this record is any different than anything we would have been capable of writing now. I think it’s fucking crazy that we were able to write these songs when we were that young. That these were the first songs we wrote only proves why we've had a 20-year career.”
Naturally, any book focused on high school will inevitably include some passages on the more wild moments of adolescence. Tegan and Sara deliver here as well, recounting the time their friend Wendy had her house utterly destroyed on New Year’s Eve, how the sisters’ step-grandfather and Kurt Cobain both took their own lives in a span of two days when the pair was fourteen, and, of course, their affinity for drugs. High School documents how both Tegan and Sara fell hard for LSD as teenagers. They weren’t casual fans, either — the sisters even dropped acid at school sometimes.
Sara emphasizes that she doesn’t want to be seen as a spokesperson for underage acid consumption, but she also readily acknowledges the importance of the role LSD played in stoking her and her sister’s early creative fires.
“I feel like drug use is often couched in this idea that you must have just been staring at the wall the whole time,” Sara tells MERRY JANE. “I can't overstate how important I think drugs were to our early creativity and to the sense of self we were discovering. Again, I'm not advocating for 15-year-olds to start experimenting with acid, but I cannot deny that it did have a significant, positive impact on our young creative selves.”
In fact, Sara confirms that she actually preferred LSD to cannabis at the time (she hasn’t taken the former since the ‘90s, but has recently become re-acquainted with the latter). Still, she acknowledges that weed had its place in her and Tegan’s life.
“I would take acid at school because I could still pay attention,” Sara says. “I could still be awake and alert. Weed was more of a weekend thing. It was an after-school thing. Tegan and I would smoke pot and watch music videos and then, eventually, both of us would probably nod off and fall asleep.”
Photo by Trevor Brady
What works so wonderfully about both High School and Hey, I'm Just Like You is how much respect and empathy Tegan and Sara have for their younger selves. It would’ve been easy to mine those Plunk recordings for their most embarrassing qualities and poke a little fun at their salad days, but what Tegan feels isn’t shame — it’s pride.
“I'm proud of these songs,” she explains. “I'm proud of what we were saying. I think I would be too scared to say half of that shit now. I'd be too afraid to admit that I lie all the time and that I don't feel good about myself. I think that I would never be able to say these things, but yet I feel them so deeply now, so I'm grateful that we held onto those songs. I'm so grateful we didn't put them out then. I'm so glad we can put them out now and that people will take them seriously.”
For Sara, hearing her and her sister’s earliest work was inspiring. Given the two only started looking for those songs as research for the memoir, it speaks to the potency of what they discovered that the now 38-year-old Tegan and Sara felt compelled to re-record twelve of the songs they found. The result is a uniquely beautiful merging of who they were as teenagers with who they are today.
The guitar-driven pop on Hey, I’m Just Like You is a departure from Tegan and Sara’s previous two records, which saw the pair embracing a more streamlined, less rock-adjacent sound. Single “I’ll Be Back Someday” harkens back to the band’s earlier work, with an electric guitar reinforcing the defiant confidence of the chorus. Thumping percussion and a twinkle of synth make the delightfully-titled “Don’t Believe the Things They Tell You (They Lie)” a worthy peer to the songs on their 2004 breakthrough, So Jealous.
The pair are also looking to spread the love around by supporting the next generation of female recording engineers, producers, mixers, and more. They insist that at least 50 percent of the roles on their own tours be filled by women, as well. To that end, Hey, I’m Just Like You has the distinction of being the first Tegan and Sara record produced, performed, engineered, mixed, and mastered by a team of all women.
“Here's the thing,” Tegan says, “there are so many great women making amazing records. We have a list of all of them. I'm going to spend the next few years talking about how if anyone, at any level in our industry, wants to use women for any technical work, we have a database. We found them all and we're adding to it daily.”
The database is not yet available, but Tegan and Sara have always been eager to reinforce their words with actions. In 2017, the sisters teamed with the non-profit Women in Music Canada on a series of initiatives to “directly support women musicians and professionals across the country.” As an example of the type of person they’re looking to spotlight, Tegan points to Alex Hope, the 25-year-old Londoner who produced the band’s new record.
“When I met her, she was hitting her Juul in a hoodie and I could not believe that she was 25-years-old,” Tegan laughs. “She can play every instrument. She's wildly talented. I do feel like she's absolutely on the level of every other producer we've ever used. She just finished the new Alanis Morissette record, as well. It was a privilege to work with her.”
In a sense, it’s a full-circle proposition for Tegan and Sara. As they reflect back on how far they’ve come since it was just the two of them holed-up in a bedroom with an acoustic guitar, it’s fitting that they’re using the moment to capitalize on a chance to showcase the incredible young women working in the recording industry today.
“All of the women who worked behind the scenes on this record are incredible,” Tegan summarizes. “I'm glad we're at a place where we can we can redistribute the money that comes to us to this new crop of young women who are coming up.”
And furthermore, the book and album reinforce the idea that young artists can create magic, even if they’re still finding their voice. “Emotionally, it's wonderful to go back and honor those songs and the creative teenagers we were,” Sara says. “At the time, we doubted ourselves and we didn't give ourselves enough credit for what we were doing. Now we can go back and sort of right that wrong. We get to go back and say, 'Hey, these stories and songs have really value to people!' That’s been a really exciting experience.”
“High School” is now available from MCD. Order a copy here. “Hey, I’m Just Like You” is available from Sire Records on September 27, 2019.
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