Tegan and Sara photographed on Aug. 1, 2019 in New York City.
Tegan and Sara photographed on Aug. 1, 2019 in New York City.
Jessica Xie

Tegan and Sara's Time Machine

The duo unpacks their debut memoir ‘High School’ and ninth studio album ‘Hey, I’m Just Like You,’ both out this week.

On a sunny morning at the Arlo Hotel in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood, Tegan and Sara Quin are both fresh-faced and in short sleeves, tattooed arms bared. We’re meeting for breakfast, but Tegan’s already eaten, having forced herself to wake up at 5:00 a.m. in preparation for day one of what’s about to be a long week of consecutive press days -- today, involving a trip to The New York Public Library, fittings at their publicist’s hotel, and many, many more interviews. (She recommends the scones.) 

At this particularly busy time in their lives, the duo is also flashing back to a time when things weren’t yet quite so hectic for them -- professionally, anyway -- as they speak about their new book, High School, and ninth album, Hey, I’m Just Like You. Both succeed at transporting the audience twenty years back, to when Tegan and Sara were teens simply trying to survive school, suburbia, and each other.

Indeed, Tegan and Sara, formerly known as Sara and Tegan, formerly known as Plunk, are about to release an album of material that they originally wrote in the '90s, allowing much of it to see the light of the day for the first time. They’re also taking a crack at memoir-writing in the form of High School, which documents not their music career, but the days just before it was about to kick out in earnest. It’s a stirring dual account of drug use, early sexual experiences and ‘90s rave culture, their coming-of-age (and coming out) stories. These two projects are being released in the span of a week, which is the sort of overachieving we’ve come to expect from the sisters Quin.

HIJLY’s guitar-driven sound, while reminiscent of their early albums, is, still, a departure from their previous two records. Heartthrob was one of the smartest pop albums of 2013 and earned them their first Billboard Hot 100 entry in "Closer," and 2016’s Love You To Death drew strong acclaim and saw them tour with wireless mics for the first time, hinting at an imminent conversion to full pop stardom. So sure, you can call HIJLY a return to their roots. 

But even that is kind of an unfair summation of the project. There are elements of other “eras” on the album -- a LY2D synth here, a So Jealous riff there -- but it's sewn together in a way that feels like Tegan and Sara. “Every band says it,” Tegan acknowledges, “but I just think it is a really good record, because it's songs that haven't been fucked with, and that we wrote pure, but with all of this skill and what works for us.” Besides, the duo has spent 20 years and eight records experimenting -- who’s to say that there even is a trademark “Tegan and Sara sound” to throw back to?

In fact, there’s plenty more going on beyond the guitars being “back,” and it’s more important than ever for Tegan to know if people will invest. She knows they’re good -- it’s why they’ve survived this long -- and she doesn’t have the same worries about how their music will be perceived that she had in her twenties. But their fans have grown up, too, and there’s a chance it’s no longer life or death for some of them to receive a new Tegan and Sara record. 

“I'm not like, ‘Oh, God, everyone's gonna hate it,’” she explains. “But these days my fear is, ‘Are people going to really take the time to really hear what we're doing here? Hear how powerful these songs are? Will they take the time to learn the lyrics, to feel passionate? Have we been around too long that we aren't able to generate the excitement and passion we did 10 years ago?’” 

“We'd been reluctant to make a new record,” Tegan admits of the period after Love You To Death, explaining that she'd tried writing, to no avail. “Neither of us was feeling very excited or inspired.” She needed something big to happen -- something that “wasn’t a death or a breakup” -- so that their new record could come from a similar place that fan favorites like The Con (2007) and So Jealous (2004) did. “They've resonated most because it's clear how vulnerable and raw and committed and focused we were, making those records,” Tegan says. “I wanted that -- I craved that feeling.”

Sara, too, was missing the spark. “This is controversial, but I’m not that passionate about music these days. Even our own music hasn’t been thrilling me and exciting me,” she says, quick to add: “I’m very interested in our new album, but before we made that, I was feeling a bit...not totally creatively stimulated, intellectually stimulated.”

That lack of excitement was part of what motivated her to begin work on their memoir. By focusing creative energy into a different medium with High School, Sara achieved the satisfying feeling she used to get when she made music -- and eventually landed on a newfound joy for it. “I thought, ‘Here is a way to express myself creatively as an artist, as an emotional being.’” 

As luck would have it, the idea for the new record solidified during the writing process of High School. When they initially found the first batch of songs they’d ever written -- Tegan estimates there were 40 -- an early idea was to put them out as an EP, or for use in the accompanying audiobook. But as they got further into writing, they realized the songs didn’t merely hold up; rather, they had strong enough melodies and elements of lyrical sophistication that -- given an opportunity now with 20 years' experience as performers, songwriters and producers -- they could properly bring them to life.

“I was afraid [the songs] would be bad,” Sara says. “My memory of the lyrics is that they were quite nonsensical, vague, mumbled, changed constantly.” But upon seeing printed-out lyrics that Tegan had saved for a song called "Valium," now titled "We Don't Have Fun When We're Together Anymore,” it all came back. “I thought, this is really remarkable that after 23 years, I could recall the melody just by looking at words on a page,” she says. “It sounds cheesy, but when Tegan first sent the songs to me, I could hear the joy. When I hear our voices, I hear the joy coming through, of what it felt like to play those songs. Which is a gift unto itself, because it reminded me of what it used to feel like...magic. That's when I started thinking: these songs hold up.” 

Now, they had a daunting task ahead of them. How to turn 40 songs -- all of which needed tons of work -- into 12? “There was going to be splicing and sewing things together,” Tegan says, exhaling at the memory, “but by the time we finished writing the book, I was really ready for it.” 

“Tegan and Sara Land,” as Tegan jokingly describes their camp, is a democracy. So the duo called on about 12 people who listened to the demos and voted, then they picked the most popular songs. Included in that group was Sire Records president Rani Hancock, who A&R’d the record. “It was hard to choose, because there were so many great ones,” Hancock remembers. They then brought in an entirely female team; not simply to prove a point, but because that’s who was best for each role. “They weren’t hired because they were women, they were hired because they’re the best at what they do and they happen to be women,” Hancock says.

They decided on producer Alex Hope and engineer Rachael Findlen to lead the charge. “We just were looking for who was best for the roles,” Hope says of further building out the team, “And we just filled all of those roles super easily with women.” Once the duo chose the tracks they wanted to work from, Tegan stripped them all back to one vocal and one guitar, and they played with arrangements in that basic form. The rest of the crew headed up to Vancouver, Canada, where both Sara and Tegan are now full time, and set up shop in Bryan Adams’ The Warehouse Studio, which, after some teeth-pulling, provided them with two female engineers. (Sara later wrote a letter about how the onus is on the studio to put more women on projects, in order for them to accumulate credits and be sought after by bigger artists.)

Hope fondly remembers "going on long tangents and talking about aliens for an hour,” and how Sara and Tegan’s mom, Sonia, would pop in and out of the studio. Still, the pressure was on to make a record in two short months. Fortunately, they’re some of the most organized people on the planet. “Working with two Virgos is kind of a dream for me,” Hope jokes. “They love a fucking spreadsheet.”

For her part, Hope was quickly becoming an in-demand songwriter and producer -- with Troye Sivan, Carly Rae Jepsen, Marina and Ben Platt collaborations under her belt by the time she landed in Vancouver -- but it was her first time producing an entire album, and she was conscious of what was at stake. “I wanted them to feel happy and connected to these songs that they've been living with for a long time -- the most vulnerable time in anyone's life is when you’re a teenager,” says Hope, who plays piano, synthesizer and “most” of the guitar on the album. “It was kind of this jigsaw puzzle of all of these amazing ideas, [and we made] them into a cohesive record.”

Tegan and Sara didn’t want HIJLY to sound like an album of cover songs, so the tracks became something else entirely. “At some point, they just become current to me,” Sara says. “We wrote these songs in the '90s, and it's almost more like we demoed, then went into a coma, then woke up.” (Tegan snorts at this.) 

But speaking about the songs and the people who wrote them, as they’re doing now, is what hits home. For example, while 38-year-old Sara did not write ‘Hello,’ she can empathize with “Little Sara,” the version of herself that did. “That’s where I get attached to the emotion of the person, and admiring of that person, like, ‘Oh, God, 17-year-old Sara was so worried about how she was going to get out of high school and move on and what that future [was] going to look like,’” she says. “I can understand her anguish and fear, because those things are still very much a part of the version of me now. It's just that now I'm [in my late thirties], so I have a credit card and a therapist and a cell phone and a girlfriend who can help me with all those things when I get scared.” 

The line, "Right now/ I wish I was older,” chokes her up to this day. “Even at seventeen, I didn't mean, ‘I wish I was 22,’ I just meant, ‘I was more mature, I wish I was more sophisticated, I wish I had more skills.’ A sigh indicates that that might still ring true. 

Tegan points out that as teenagers, you allow yourself to feel overwhelmed by the grandness of what's to come; to get existential and spiritual. “That's what's beautiful about the songs. To have the bravery and honesty -- there's something so powerful about singing songs that we wrote about the present [2019] that we used to sing right to the people we were talking about,” she says. “It feels so profoundly powerful that it's as if the songs were written today.” She never thought about anyone but herself when she was writing, so there was no self-consciousness, except that of being a young person. No one had analyzed her yet, which was a great gift. “The simplicity of saying exactly what I was feeling, I could never do that now,” Tegan says.

When one listens to those early demos -- some are floating around the Interweb -- one thing’s clear: the Quins had strong songwriting sensibilities from the start. It’s why they were being offered record deals at seventeen, and the music industry developed an almost immediate fascination with them. HIJLY, then, is a gleaming repository, full of evidence of what happens when you write songs without an outside audience, and all of the advice and criticism and analysis that comes with that. “We were truly writing for the pure joy of pushing this out into the world, but with all of this skill and what works for us,” Tegan says. “We've taken all of that raw product after 20 years of experimenting, then run it through that machine, if you will, and come out with something that I think is so beautiful and visceral."

While writing High School, Sara and Tegan’s memories sometimes differed. They left the details in those chapters alone, as they had plenty of family and friends weighing in during the writing process and, it turns out, allowing for such discrepancies helps one maintain editorial control. Tegan brings up the chapters where they find their stepdad’s guitar and secretly begin learning to play it. 

“We have very differing memories, for example, of finding the guitar and writing the song--” 

Sara interjects, laughing: “--We still do! We just went to the house, and Tegan's like, ‘It was under these stairs,’ and I was like, ‘Those are the stairs you wrote about? No. It was in the furnace room--’” 

“--And there were key moments in the book that, along with the editors, we decided it was good, we were playing with perspective and memory, without fear of other people being like, ‘That's not how it went,’” Tegan finishes. 

To the point: stories had to be condensed, and memories were shaped by 20 years of storytelling on stage. But at the end of the day, what rings true is that they were simply different people, having different experiences -- a somewhat obvious fact of their lives that still gets overlooked by critics. “There were misconceptions about how people imagined twins, sisters, our stories should be, like, we should have been best friends that told each other everything,” Tegan says. Not a bad idea then, to write a book laying it all out, serving as their final say on the matter, if they so choose. “We’re trying to unravel those misconceptions and reveal what was true, and what wasn't, about that time -- even for ourselves.” 

That method also succeeds on the album, as the duo owns up to all of the lies they told back then. “I’m a liar/no one believes me,” goes the bridge of “Don’t Believe The Things They Tell You (They Lie),” while Tegan vents on lead single "I'll Be Back Someday": "'To the end, my friend,' oh, what a lie/Oh, what a lie/If I could pretend, if I could lie/If I could lie.” So why all the dishonesty?

“We lied,” Tegan says matter-of-factly. “We were liars! My mom is really upset about it.” 

Sara’s nodding. “One of the things that was so sad to me was there were all these letters where I'm writing to a friend saying, ‘My mom thinks I'm a liar, my mom calls me a liar, and I lie to her every day.’ The theme [was] already there,” she says. “Back then, I was struggling with this -- I am lying to her, because the biggest lie of all is that I'm hiding my sexuality, so it forces me to tell all these other lies. Big lies, small lies. Drugs, to me, was a small lie. I was literally holding the most giant truths about myself from Tegan, from my mom, from my friends, from my family. I was lying my whole life.”

"Grown-Up Sara" couldn’t be more intent on telling the truth. She shares a story about leaving the garage door open at her house overnight, and waited a week to tell her girlfriend -- the longest secret she’d ever kept from her. When she finally told her, she felt like she’d been absolved of a murder. “Of course it's right there, both consciously and subconsciously,” she says now of baring those past lies -- and therefore setting them free -- on the album. “You're always processing it.”

Another form of freedom came in the way they wrote High School. Sara and Tegan didn’t edit each other’s chapters, which led to a few surprises when they read those accounts for the first time. “When Sara started reading my side of the book, she couldn't believe how I was depicting my relationship to my sexuality, that I didn't labor over it,” Tegan says, referring to how she dated a boy in high school, and had experiences with men well into her twenties, even while she felt attracted to women. “I wasn't a conclusive, like, ‘I am gay, that's it.’ But the profound sense of relief at finding what worked for me overwhelmed the parts that were feeling unsure about how to come out.” 

By reading Sara’s chapters, on the other hand, Tegan felt a sense of clarity. The duo continually communicates through a conduit -- people who interview them, their managers -- and often Tegan won't learn things about Sara until she talks about it publicly to other people. So it was therapeutic for Tegan to read and learn how much more was going on under the surface with Sara that had nothing to do with her. 

“One of our biggest conflicts is that sometimes I feel Sara's behavior is about me. It is a really good reminder that, to this day, how Sara behaves is not a reflection on me,” she says. “Sara has an interior life that I am not privy to; she isn't living her lie in a vacuum with me. Even though we are stitched together, I have to have more respect for her interior life, and her exterior life that doesn't include me.” 

For both, the book is a chance to assert their individuality. “It’s about how two people living in the same environment with the same circumstances can have very unique paths to discovering who they are,” Sara says, “and then how they cope with those things in life, ultimately becoming very different, with a different outlook on the world.”

Sara and Tegan have been unusual since birth, but their origin story also has the sort of normalcies -- talking on the phone with friends for hours, pasting photos on your bedroom wall, buying an anticipated record the day it comes out -- that can make a reader think: same. In some ways, Sara sees High School as a way to truly be able to relate to their fans, and vice versa. 

“What gets more and more challenging as we get older is that the vast majority of our adulthood has been through the lens of success, fame, celebrity, whatever, and it becomes somewhat disingenuous to say, ‘I'm just like you,’” she says carefully, aware this might come off as cruel. “Going back to high school, what was really interesting and exciting was to reconnect to the part of myself that is truly very much like everybody.” There, the album’s title comes into play, too. “[For] our fans who've spent years telling us, ‘I see myself in you, your story is my story…’ this version feels truly authentic.”

A vast majority of the lyrics and music was written in high school, Sara reiterates, but they changed anything that she truly didn't feel related to now. Some songs had to be left on the cutting room floor entirely, like Tegan’s favorite of Sara’s, a track called “Zebra Sun” that was inspired by their hometown. Tegan wistfully quotes a line: “‘A last goodbye to the zebra sun.’ It’s about when the sun gets low in Calgary and starts to throw out stripes from the trees... it’s fucking beautiful." Sara also rewrote a song of Tegan's, now called "Keep Them Close 'Cause They Will Fuck You Too." She deadpans: “It had about 5,000 more lyrics. So I’d remove four words, and suddenly I have a sentence that I understand. Tegan was like, prog rock.” (At this, Tegan scowls good-naturedly.)

Then there’s the title track, “Hey, I’m Just Like You,” which was originally written about their relationship as sisters, including their “twinness” and physical resemblance, but also about the relationship they had with their social circle and friends: “I always feel invincible when you're around/ You and me against all the millions.” It was a message for those on the outside, looking in: Tegan and Sara are capable of anything and everything. Watch them achieve it all. 

And they have, despite the odds. “At seventeen, no one gave us credit for offering substantial ideas in our music,” Sara says. “[These songs] would have been written off as music made by teenaged girls, about things that teenaged girls care about, that could never be seen as sophisticated, that could never be seen as worldly.” With HIJLY, Tegan and Sara have taken that work and refocused it through the lens of everything they’ve accomplished since. All that’s left is for the people to listen. “To me, it'll be a great justice done to Tegan and Sara at seventeen.”

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