10 Years and 10 Questions is a recurring interview feature in which a veteran artist, actor, or director answers questions spanning across their life and career.
Tegan and Sara are busy reliving most people’s worst fear: going back to high school. In their debut memoir, High School, the indie rock-pop duo cozy up to their preteen worries. As teenage girls and twins, the two revisit their past in an attempt to grapple with their identity, intentionally buried memories, the messy pain of break-ups, and the ever-present question of what we’re supposed to do with the life we’re given.
High School reads like a late-night sleepover with your best friends, complete with embarrassing stories and hushed questions about sexuality. In true Tegan and Sara fashion, though, it’s refreshing from start to finish, an example of creating art not just for yourself, but for the sake of untangling knots for others as well. The two have a way of clearing their head that feels inherently assuring, and that’s been evident with the string of records they’ve gone on to release since officially forming a band in 1997.
Over the past two decades, Tegan and Sara have built their name atop a candid body of work. Part of their band’s success comes from that honesty, where they explore the anxieties of queer love, the acne scars of young adulthood, and the strangeness of coming into yourself over time. With their ninth studio album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, the duo rework material they originally wrote and recorded between the ages of 15 and 17. Instead of sounding like adults masquerading as teens, the two slip naturally into the straightforward, earnest, and catchy songwriting of their past, giving it the modern production sheen it deserves.
It should come as no surprise that if Tegan and Sara were ever in the right mindset to discuss their past with newfound clarity, it’s now. With 10 questions spanning 10 years of her existence, Sara Quin offers a sincere look at her life growing up in the ‘90s on through to the band’s current position as pop purveyors, LGBTQ leaders, and relatable culture icons they wish they had growing up.
Your new book, High School, tracks your coming-of-age story as twins, from growing up in Calgary to picking up the guitar at age 15. In writing this book, what memories were more difficult to dust off than anticipated? Had you intentionally forgotten any parts of your childhood because they were tough?
We knew that we wanted to cover our development and discovery of art, songwriting, and the creative journey of discovering you can do something musical or write. I was really interested in talking about our discovery of being artists. It was obvious to us that because both Tegan and I had same-sex relationships in high school — under the guise of “This is my best friend! But actually we’re having a relationship!” — that we knew we wanted to cover that. It allowed us to talk about how complex identity is. It wasn’t a light bulb moment. For Tegan, as her sexuality bloomed, she was really surprised by it, whereas I had been carrying it around on my shoulders like an albatross ever since I was young. We wanted to contrast these big parts of our identities: being artists and also being queer.
For me, what took a lot out of me was the grief, the trauma, the depression that came up that I felt as a teenager. Some of that was in part because of the landscape of homophobia. It was an environment of teachers and parents and, really, the culture at large that was so homophobic and misogynist. Obviously, I wasn’t shocked to remember that it was like that, but to be in that headspace again, to remember what it felt like as a 16-year-old looking at a future that was intimidating because, at that point, there was no representation. There was nobody I was looking at who grew up gay and became a popular musician. I didn’t have anyone like that, and it was scary. To go back to that and remember how hopeless I felt brought back a lot of sadness for me.
After you released your debut album, Under Feet Like Ours, you were offered a record deal with Neil Young’s label, Vapor Records. That’s a massive leap, to go from self-releasing material to having one of the biggest generation-spanning musicians cherry-pick you from a crowd of young artists. Later that year, Young brought you on tour as openers along with The Pretenders. What lessons did you learn from that tour, especially when it comes to the unspoken rules and tricks of playing live?
We talk about that often. In fact, it was the seminal experience that allowed us to shape the way we wanted to build our own band and career. To see Neil surround himself with people who had been with him for decades — his manager, his guitar tech, and so on — created a sense of family. To have that be our first experience, to see an artist who not just had a career but had an interesting career with successful records and dud records and experimentation while keeping a devout worship-like feeling with his fans? We always joked that after school, our friends went off to college and we went off to tour with Neil Young. It was an expedited diploma program. We got to see a well-oiled machine in real time. He also had so much kindness and generosity, which informed the way we went into our career. We left that tour going okay, these are important lessons that we can take.
But I also want to note something funny. In the past, we’ve been asked so many questions about this tour, with the majority of them being about what a cool opportunity it was or what Neil was like. Nobody really asked how we felt or what we learned, which is funny because the underlying theme was that I don’t think Tegan or I wanted to be on that tour — and not because of Neil or anything that happened. It was simply because we were kids. We were teenagers who had just finished high school! We were hanging out with friends, had our first girlfriends, and were terrified to go on tour.
A promoter in Calgary who booked us back when we were young brought this up the other day, actually. He was like, “Oh, but that tour must have been an amazing experience!” I had to tell him about how I cried every single day, about how I wanted to be home having sex with my girlfriend. I wasn’t thinking about my “career” at that point. It was such a real feeling of conflicting desires. I learned really quickly not to be honest with the press about everything, because people would ask us what the tour was like, and we learned to tell people the things they wanted to hear while omitting that I was crying on the payphone to my girlfriend saying, “I miss you so much that I might die.” It was an unexpected lesson we took away from that tour, too. [laughs]
You released your first-ever music video for “The First” in 2000. It’s a pretty straightforward clip compared to later music videos, as it’s essentially footage of you playing the song in a room merged with footage of you walking under a bridge. When looking back on past music videos, how do you think your creative control developed over the years?
You know, that era of the business was like the darkest time for me. I don’t think we lost creative control or anything, but we were both extremely impressionable. We signed a record deal and briefly worked with a management team who suggested we work with a producer who was doing well in the industry at the time. We were proud of what we created together, but every choice we made during that time felt like an odd pairing. It was usually a man, and we did the things that they thought were cool.
When I look back on that time, in particular, I realize that, yes, we were a part of it and we got to weigh in, but I was left with the unsettling feeling that we weren’t quite allowed to steer. It wasn’t sinister or some manufacturing of a pop band. We were guided by people in our lives who were trying to be helpful. But when we made If It Was You a few years later, I remember thinking, “Okay, now we’re in control again.” Sometimes we were making mistakes, but I felt like I had shaken off the trepidation that I had felt, that questioning of “Is my instinct right, or is his instinct right?” We were 20, so of course, we weren’t entirely sure! But when we were 22, we figured out how to be confident in that department, and it was an important distinction to make.
From the outside looking in, your career entered the big time with So Jealous. It went gold in Canada, was reviewed by big print publications, and later got an extra bump because The White Stripes covered “Walking with a Ghost”. But from your view, did it feel like you were entering stardom?
It didn’t feel like stardom, but I definitely recognized the shift. It felt like we were entering the mainstream. Partly it was because of the sheer number of opportunities that opened up: a tour opening for The Killers, playing Coachella on that album cycle, landing in Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums of the year. Our album sales certainly went up. I didn’t feel famous or like a star, but I could feel the numerical shift happening. I’ll never forget it, though, because my grandmother died shortly after this. When we were in Rolling Stone, she bought a physical copy of that issue. My grandmother never put anything on her fridge — she was a very clean, almost sterile person — but she cut out the review from Rolling Stone and put it on her refrigerator. I remember being in disbelief that she did it, but she was really proud! It was a significant cultural marker that she understood. I don’t know why, but in my mind, that’s what made me go, “I think this is it. I think this means we’re really a band now.”
This will sound odd, but we were always recognized before this moment, too. Because we were twins, dressed a certain way, and were in the music scene before we were in the music scene, we were always recognized to some degree. There was a change, though, where we started to be recognized out of context, like in airports. I remember stopping in a gas station and having someone recognize us from being on TV, and now it feels completely normal, which is weird in itself.
You’ve always been transparent about teenage struggles and the realities of young adulthood, and you articulate it well. I think that’s why so many films and TV shows choose your music to soundtrack characters working through similar issues, like in Degrassi, The L Word, One Tree Hill, and Girls. How does it feel to see your songs soundtrack a visual coming-of-age experience? Does it ever make you see/reconsider your song in a new light?
When [we] started to see song placements in shows like Grey’s Anatomy and One Tree Hill, I couldn’t actually watch it because I didn’t have cable. I didn’t buy cable until I was 32 years old. It’s not an interesting story. I just didn’t watch TV and was always on tour. I would watch hockey games on the CBC in Canada, and that was it. I knew our songs were on TV shows and was getting paychecks for it, but I never actually saw it. Because of Grey’s Anatomy, I was able to buy a condo. I remember the experience of getting placements in real life. It was a drastic change in my economic situation. Somebody put this money in my bank account, which means I don’t have to tour for nine months now. It was literally changing our lives, and it wasn’t until many, many, many years later that I happened upon our songs on TV. It’s a weird but cool moment. We totally take it for granted now because we can immediately find it on the internet.
The only difference was the episode of The L Word that we appeared in. The way I watched The L Word was by going to my friend’s apartment who would record the episodes to VCR for me, and I would pick up the tapes from her. I remember filming that episode and being excited for it because it felt like a 90210 soap opera with gay people. At the time, I was so starved for any queer shows that I didn’t get caught up in the problematic elements of it. I was just like, “Who gives a shit? They’re gay and they’re hot; that rules.” All of this does make it sound like I lived in an Amish community or something, but I was just so caught up with my girlfriend and riding bikes and doing art things and I don’t know! I’m a boring suburban person who watches tons of TV now, I swear.
Click ahead for more years and questions with Sara Quin of Tegan and Sara.
Then came The Con, the album that undeniably blew up. You decided to bring several guests onto the album to collaborate, like Kaki King, Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie, Matt Sharp of The Rentals and Weezer, and Hunter Burgan of AFI. What was it like opening up the songwriting process from just the two of you to other musicians?
Around The Con was when Tegan and I started to address the isolation we felt in our lives. Up until that point, we had been very incubated. We were in this band as the primary members with the creative labor entirely on our shoulders. Yet, despite this, there was an apprehension to open up the circle because, at that time, there were these inherent sexist assumptions made if you were a girl who didn’t do everything yourself. If you were not a superhuman, I can play all the instruments better than anyone has ever played them before, I wrote every single song, I took the fucking photos for the album cover, I drive the tour bus. If you did not literally do everything, people would be like, “I don’t know. Do they really write these songs? Are they even alive? I think they’re a product.” I know people laugh and think I’m being funny, but it felt like if we didn’t prove our authorship, then it was up for debate.
Around that time, we started to flirt with the idea that we had proven ourselves enough to bring in other musicians to play on the album, like Kaki King to play a ridiculous guitar part or have Matt Sharp write parts that inform other elements of the song. Why can’t we have other people collaborate [with] us? We started to ask those questions and build the community we had long for — something that had started to open on our tours, too, by choosing openers who we could bond with. To suddenly be the band going on tour with our friends felt like a significantly more fun experience and reaffirmed our work in a way, too.
This was the year you embraced pop wholeheartedly. While you obviously flexed those muscles on Heartthrob, you also put your pop hook skills to work by writing songs for musicians like Lisa Loeb and Carly Rae Jepsen. What did writing songs for other artists teach you about the flexibility of your songwriting?
It’s interesting. I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy those experiences, because it was cool getting to try using other muscles when writing pop songs, especially for those artists and the ones we collaborated with before then, like Tiësto and David Guetta. It boosted our self-esteem in that we saw ourselves traveling outside of the genre that had been designated for us. In indie rock, there are so many rules: do this, do that, don’t look like this. It felt scripted. Being welcomed into pop and electronic music felt encouraging. Popular artists being excited by our ideas felt like an enhancement of the community that we were trying to be a part of. That was the part of it that made me excited.
In terms of the actual music, though, I discovered a lot about myself as a songwriter. I prefer to write songs by myself. I’m an editor. I’m a perfectionist. I like to work on something for months and rewrite it. I think that’s why I loved writing our memoir because it required a certain type of rigor of the mind. Sometimes in the songwriting room, a person asks you to brainstorm ideas right there on the spot. Of course, I’m sitting there like, “Wait! Shouldn’t we think about this for a month?” It made me have to work a totally different side of my skill set, which was helpful, but I definitely prefer the loner songwriting style on my own.
You sang the vocals on The Lego Movie’s theme song “Everything Is AWESOME!!!”, which became a breakout hit — so much so that it earned you an Academy Award nomination. How is having a famous song in a movie different from having a famous song on the radio? Do they feel like different types of fame?
It was profoundly different. The ubiquity of that song and its use everywhere made me feel almost like it wasn’t us singing on it. Tegan and I wanted to see the film when it came out in New York City. We got there too early and were sitting on a bench outside of the theater waiting for the next showing. Suddenly I heard the song come on inside the theater, and then we watched as like 150 people streamed out of the theater while our song was playing. It was so weird. I almost felt dislocated, like someone else was singing the song and it was in its own stratosphere. I actually loved it. Sometimes when we have songs on the radio, I think we sound annoying or weird, or I pick apart the song. I’m too critical. But with the Lego song, it was perfect: we got to be a part of it while still being anonymous. That was a totally new type of fame for me.
Love You to Death saw you and Tegan write some of your most honest, transparent lyrics about queer relationships and what it means to be a part of the LGBTQ community. Did you see yourself becoming more confident in your sexuality as time went on?
It’s interesting having written the memoir and listened back to the music because, in a lot of ways, we were more explicit about our sexuality when we were teenagers. We were acting under that guise that no adult was really paying attention to us. There was a complete lack of self-awareness in that we weren’t wondering what people would think of us when they heard it. It was more about getting our thoughts and feelings out there. I admire young Tegan and Sara for that. We laugh about it because in our later years, we’ve had people ask us why we don’t use pronouns in our songs. We would say, “Who cares? Why does it matter?”
But then you start to think and realize, yeah, it does matter. When we went back to those early songs, though, we realized Tegan constantly uses “she” in them! I asked her if she was afraid of people thinking she was gay, and she didn’t have an answer for it. She was like, “I don’t know. I was into girls, so I said ‘she,’ and I didn’t even think about it.” There was such a lack of self-consciousness that it’s easy to envy now. The older we get, we think about it cerebrally and question our wording, especially its influence. I know the importance of sex in songs and what it can add, sexually and culturally.
Your new album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, is the byproduct of discovering the original demos you two wrote when you were between 15 and 17 years old. How did you feel when you stumbled across them? What was running through your mind the first time you played them back?
I really avoided it. We spent a few months looking for the tapes, the primary reason being that we wanted to listen to the tapes for the memoir. We had written about the songs at that point and wanted to make sure we didn’t capture them incorrectly. Tegan found the tapes and got them digitalized. I put it off and didn’t want to listen to them, to the point where it actually felt like a chore. There was a day where I was working in the library in Los Angeles and got in an Uber home, and Tegan texted asking if I had listened to it yet. So I figured, fine, I’ll do it. The first song I put on, I immediately started crying. I couldn’t believe how affecting it was for me to hear myself at 17 and the joyful emotion that was in my voice. It was like seeing a video or picture of yourself that you haven’t seen before.
Honestly, it was like I could physically remember what it felt like to be 17 and writing songs and the anticipation and terror of leaving high school. It all flooded back. The thing is, I didn’t cry because I was sad. I cried because I felt overwhelming pride and grief at how dismissive of that version of me I had been. All that work, all that art, I had decided it was crap. I ignored it, and it felt like I had ignored this whole story of myself. It came flooding back, and that made me so excited to work on it. The music felt very much like Tegan and Sara — it’s not like we discovered our childhood prog rock band or something — but there were still idiosyncratic quirks, like how often we sang together or things like that. It was somehow exactly what I needed to hear.