Throughout their 20-plus-year career, Tegan and Sara say they have always identified more as storytellers than musicians.
In addition to nine studio albums — which have sold over a million copies units in the U.S., according to MRC Data — the identical twins have have taken fans into their world with multiple documentaries, web series and book projects, including a 2019 coming-of-age memoir, High School, which they’re adapting into both a graphic novel and a television show for Amazon’s IMDb TV (with writer-director Clea DuVall).
Today, they’re launching a new chapter of their media empire: a newsletter on Substack, the publishing platform that has grown its slate of prominent voices to include musicians such as Patti Smith, Jeff Tweedy, Neko Case, Perfume Genius and others. Like those subscriber-supported newsletters, Tegan and Sara Quin’s Substack, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” will include both free and paid-tier content, spanning audio and text-message conversations as well as essays, lyric annotations and behind-the-scenes looks about their upcoming projects – like their upcoming tenth studio album.
Our therapist told us that we need to talk to each other MORE. So we started a newsletter called, I Think We're Alone Now, @SubstackInc to do just that. https://t.co/DJZDgjr1Zq pic.twitter.com/pcBFm2maZW
— Tegan and Sara (@teganandsara) January 25, 2022
“The people who like Tegan and Sara treat us like we’re people they know,” Tegan says in a Zoom interview with Sara. “If you really want to know what it’s like to be around Sara and me — what our communication’s like, what making things is like — this is the place where we can show you.”
The duo’s literary agent, Marc Gerald of Europa Content, had suggested the band meet with Substack last year. At first, they weren’t sure: Didn’t they have enough projects going on? But a conversation with Dan Stone, who works on writer partnerships for Substack, opened their eyes to the way the platform could not only be an archive of a fruitful creative chapter, but also a solution to the dread they sometimes feel about sharing their lives on the internet. “A lot of the writing and connection that we crave, it just doesn’t exist on social media anymore,” Tegan says. “Social media has become this super curated, very flat-feeling world for us. So Sara and I were hesitant as we looked into the future with all our projects, like, ‘How do we promote these things without feeling disingenuous?’ ”
Yet as their Substack took shape, the pair quickly realized it would be far more than a marketing vessel. In early editions of the Substack, they write movingly about major changes in their lives and careers. In the introduction letter, they open up about parting ways with their longtime management team and asking to be released from their longtime label, Warner Records. (The band is now managed by Christine Stauder and Kevin Morris at Red Light Management.) In the second installment, addressed to Sara, Tegan writes about how a stray comment Sara made during an Instagram Live conversation about their collaborative process had hurt her feelings — but also inspired her to expand her inner creative circle and push her songwriting more than she ever had.
“I’m currently working on some drafts for upcoming weeks,” Sara says, “and sometimes it actually feels more exposed than anything I’ve ever done.”
The band talks about Substack the way some musicians talk about SoundCloud: as a platform where they can share ideas and experiment “without the need to gloss it up or package it,” Sara says. “It doesn’t feel like we’re trying to make something that will chart or win over people. It feels like something to discover. I just don’t know if there’s anything else that we’re doing on the internet right now that that offers that opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity for the band to discover things about themselves, too. Though their writing on Substack will primarily be nonfiction, Tegan says their pitch deck for the project included the prospect of the band trying out short fiction.
“Will people be interested in that? I have no idea,” Tegan says. “And I think that that’s really exciting for us.”
Below, the band shares more on their vision for their Substack, becoming independent artists and their multiple album projects due this year.
In the first two installments, you get very candid about where you are in your career and your relationship to each other as collaborators. Did you always know it was going to be so personal?
Sara: Putting together a pitch document is really different than what happened when we actually sat down to write. Our editor, Alana [Levinson], was really crucial in helping us think about how to make this not a post on social media that’s telling you about a thing that we’re doing. That will make or break this project for us: If it doesn’t feel like a creative project, then it just feels like another marketing tool. If it’s not artful, then I don’t think it should be on Substack.
Tegan: When we were first talking with our editor, she reacted the way that people who meet us act when we talk about each other: “That’s so interesting, Sara, that you feel that way about Tegan — I never would have thought that.” Or: “That’s interesting that that’s the way you write songs, I would have thought you write songs together.” It’s wild to think we’ve been around for 20 years and there’s so much of our process and relationship that’s just completely not out there. I feel like we share so much about ourselves! But there’s something about revealing how we are when nobody’s around that is interesting to us. Working with Alana allowed us to see that. She found it interesting to hear us talking to each other about what we wanted to make.
Have you studied what other musicians on Substack are doing?
Sara: Yeah! It’s good to see. It’s nice that everybody’s doing so many different kinds of things.
Tegan: I think people can expect that there’ll be a lot of experimentation in the first couple of months. There’s so many things over the years that people who listen to us have asked for, and we want to try to deliver them in a format they didn’t know they wanted. It’s going to be about finding that sweet spot: Does it satisfy our needs? Does it satisfy the people interested in Tegan and Sara? And how do we find new people who just think what we’re doing is really interesting? I love the idea that someone might end up liking our newsletter just because we’re twins. Or maybe some people are going to be interested in our experiences as musicians pivoting into other industries.
What kinds of things have people been asking for that you’ll touch on with this?
Sara: One of the things that has really been on my mind is this set of twins we hired for our TV show. I have never intimately known another set of identical twins, never have had close friends that are twins. Sometimes when we’d talk on FaceTime or text with each other, I find myself really fascinated by them. There’s this feeling you’re being left out of something because their connection is so, so specific. I had this profound realization that that is what people experience around us, and people’s curiosity about us is in some ways trying to penetrate this barrier. People ask us these questions [about being twins] where I’m like, “Oh my God, why do you care?” But when I’m around these twins that are going to play us, I find myself thinking about those kinds of questions about them.
It’s given me context and perspective about what people are curious about. When we started putting the Substack together, we originally thought that I’d do annotations for my own songs, but we immediately flipped it: I should do annotations for Tegan’s songs. It gives us an organic way of entering into a conversion with each other. Just before this call, I was reading through Tegan’s annotations on my song “So Jealous,” and I cannot tell you how profoundly wrong Tegan’s impressions are. It’s so funny to really realize how deeply Tegan believes what she’s saying: “Here’s what you were going through at the time, so I know what this lyric means.” I’m just like, “This is so wild!” And that’s the key to any creative project – if we’re excited and curious as we’re making it, it usually turns out a lot better.
In your first installment of the newsletter, you get right into discussing some very big changes for the band, including amicably parting ways with not only your longtime managers but also your longtime label, Warner Records. What inspired you to make those moves at this point in your career?
Tegan: As artists who write a lot about relationships, I think all relationships change. We’ve been making music since we were 15 years old, and we have worked with lots of different people. We were on Warner for 14 years, but we’ve been on Sanctuary and BMG and Vapor and Universal up in Canada — these were all part of the same deal, we just kept getting sold and moved. Interestingly, some of the relationships that changed in the last 18 months were the longest relationships that we’ve ever had.
We had, I think, the best management out there. Piers Henwood and Nick Blasko started managing us in 2002 when we put out our album If It Was You. And Piers is still the executor of our will — these are our people, and they become like family. But at some point your relationship changes and evolves, and you change and evolve. Not to Gwyneth Paltrow it, but there was a natural conscious uncoupling that started to happen between us and our management team. As Sara and I started to veer into other lanes and work on ventures outside of music, they understood that that wasn’t something they were that interested in. We were really still universe-building and wanted more infrastructure, a bigger team, more help. So it just felt like a really natural evolution.
And after that happened, it just felt like it was time to rip the Band-Aid off. Warner was an excellent label for us, but we also went through four different administration changes, and with each leadership change, there was just a different energy that came to our project. I so sincerely mean this — there’s no reason to say otherwise — we had a great time on Warner. We still love the team over there. In the next few days, we’re announcing a record that’s going to come out with them. But it felt like we’d done our time there. As women in our early forties, we felt like, “We want to f–king own our records. We want more say, we want more control, we want a new team.” And major love to all the people at Warner who make those decisions, because they let us leave. It was really cool that they didn’t force us to stay.
Sara and I have been really candid about this throughout our career: We are the only permanent fixtures in Tegan and Sara. And that doesn’t mean we recycle people quickly. We were with our former managers eighteen and a half years — that’s practically unheard of in our industry. But we work our asses off, we have so many ideas, and we just needed some new blood. And what’s great is that all those people are still on the team in a weird way. We always joke that we get the Tegan and Sara harem — you come to a Tegan and Sara show, and it’s our cousins, our ex-girlfriends, my stepdad, his new partner, my mom’s ex-boyfriend. And now it’s going to be old managers. Piers wrote the other day — he said, “I can’t wait to subscribe to your Substack, tell me everything about it.”
The record that you’re announcing soon — that’s different from the proper studio album you’ve been working on?
Tegan: Yeah. More info about the new album will come trickling out, but that won’t be till the fall. Gotta give you something to chew on until then.
You started posting new acoustic renditions of old songs on your YouTube last year. Is this in-between project akin to a greatest-hits collection or a Taylor’s Version-style re-recording?
Tegan: You’re in the right neighborhood.
Sara: We had taken on doing acoustic versions of So Jealous, but me playing Tegan’s songs and Tegan playing my songs. We fiddled with it through the first year of the pandemic and finally decided to do something. It’s not as glammed up as a Taylor’s Version, I can promise you. We were recording it in our bedrooms at home, so it’s pretty lo-fi. We had talked about doing it in a proper studio and were like, “That just feels wrong.” We just captured exactly where we were at, when we were there, and it had to be purely acoustic. I think it’s a really, really special recording.
Tegan, you mentioned “universe building” earlier. Looking back on your early video and book projects, do you both see your moves into television and beyond as a continuation of that?
Sara: It’s the beefed-up version of that. At the heart of it, we just like making stuff like. A lot of my friends love to just make music, they’re always making music. I love making music, but I can’t deny that I also like doing this other stuff.
Tegan: The other day someone we were speaking to, I think it was a publicist, said, “All my clients want to be mysterious, they don’t want anyone to know anything about them.” We’re the exact opposite of that. We’ve always wanted people to understand us. As artists, that’s the biggest thing that I’m trying to satisfy: I want to be known. Not famous — I want you to listen to my song and feel like you understand me, because whatever I wrote makes you feel seen.
This universe-building is just creating more vehicles so we can be understood. Before, it felt like the only way people would understand was if we created those things. No one was covering us. We weren’t getting press. There was no social media. We had to create all these other supplementary items to help tell our story. And now we have opportunities to tell more about who we are. Sara and I said this at the beginning of our career: We don’t feel like musicians, we felt like storytellers. And ultimately what makes somebody tell a story is a desire to connect with people. Music happened to be the vehicle that we first used. But writing a memoir, working on a TV show or Substack, it’s just the joy that comes from someone going, “I relate to you.”
At this point, what can you share about your 10th album?
Sara: It’s an ambitious record in that it doesn’t sound like anything we’ve done before, and I think it certainly pushes our band. It’s a bit shots fired. I hope people hear this record and think, “Oh s–t, they’re still making really great music.” I want to still be inspiring people. I want people to feel jealous [of these songs]. I think it’s fine to say who we worked with, right? Who produced the record with us?
Tegan: No! Don’t say anything! [Laughs.] You’ll find out in our Substack.
Sara: I feel really excited to go out and perform it live. It feels like more of a performance record. I will say that: It is not a pop record at all. Nothing pop about it. It’s definitely the most intimate and collaborative record we’ve done. There’s a lot that will be part of our Substack, sharing in detail how these songs came together. It really was just me and Tegan and one other person on all the songs. In the past, I’ve been kind of afraid to rock the boat in giving feedback to you, Tegan. But I think in some ways that has held us back from making better songs. With this period of time, I just put it on the line: “I don’t like this lyric, I don’t understand this thing, do better.” What do we have to lose? We’re 41 years old and making a new album! I think it’s really strong.
What’s the status of the High School TV show? You mentioned the twins playing you — the cast hasn’t been announced yet, has it?
Tegan: No, they’re saving that. Pre-production starts [this week]. It’s shooting in Calgary. Should be wrapped by mid-June at the latest and hopefully out this year. No confirmed date, but that seems to be where the train’s moving.
Sara: I’m going to Calgary this week, so I’ve already been pre-planning my Substack content because I think that’s going to be one of the most exciting places to capture. There’s all this opportunity for Tegan and I to really organically dialog about what we’re seeing or what we’re feeling. I’m very Virgo — I’ve already got my folder for Calgary like, “Here are the things that I really want to think about writing about.” And without Substack, I wouldn’t be necessarily thinking about these things in this way. I’m just inspired to have a place to really have our fingerprint on it — to be able to tell this story in exactly the way we want to tell it.