Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Tegan and Sara by Parri Thomas for Best Fit 003

How Tegan and Sara survived high school (and wrote a book about it)

02 December 2019, 09:00
Words by Emma Madden
Original Photography by Mathew Parri Thomas

Tegan and Sara Quin's first memoir High School doesn’t begin in typical autobiographical fashion; it begins with each other.

“I have no visual memory of Tegan before we were four years old,” Sara writes in her prologue, “What I can summon is the feeling of her. As if she existed everywhere, and in everything.” On the next page, Tegan recounts a three year-old Sara’s—or was it really Tegan’s?—bout of night terrors. In both accounts, the identical twin sisters recognised themselves as separate bodies for the first time. “Without Tegan I had become me,” Sara writes, “And it was awful.”

After sharing the same womb, bedroom, house, parents, nine albums and twenty-year music career, Tegan and Sara’s bond has been barbed by irreconcilable samenesses and differences. While High School allowed the identical twin sisters to tell their individual stories in alternating chapters, it’s now that the conflicts arise. Whether they’re bringing their High School stories to the stage, as they did recently on a short tour across the UK, or speaking to press, they’re seldom willing to corroborate. When the world looks at you as though you’re the same person, your version of events is precious evidence of your own subjectivity.

In person, Tegan and Sara are easily distinguishable. Tegan is a little more rascally; a little less afraid to tip the boat. Sara is resolute, poised, more likely to talk about the historical and social context of her and her sister’s artistic output, as Tegan plunges deep into their inner lives.

Together, they’ve created a legacy that should intimidate. They revolutionised pop in the early 2010s, creating a signature sound that was later picked up by the likes of Taylor Swift, Carly Rae Jepsen and the late, great Chairlift. They created a new vision and grammar for girls who like girls. “Are you into Tegan and Sara?” was once the lesbian equivalent of “are you a friend of Dorothy?” They, arguably, prefaced today’s brand of fandom in which stans seek to protect their underdog object of worship. Still, spending any amount of time in their presence, whether that’s listening to their music, reading their memoir, or interviewing them, leaves you feeling overcome with tenderness and ease.

Here’s what happened when Tegan and Sara took us back to high school.

BEST FIT: What is it about your time in high school that feels so vivid to you?

SARA: We figured out we were songwriters, we figured out we were gay, we launched our career. If we had launched our career six years later, I don’t think we’d be going back to high school. A lot of people are like ‘I don’t remember anything about high school,’ ‘I don’t remember my first crushes,’ ‘I don’t remember how I felt about my body,’ whatever, but it’s like I gained consciousness in high school. All of the things about my body and my mind and my desires and my artistry and my queerness. It was like they woke up.

So I feel like there’s something really valuable about deconstructing that and looking at it, because those are the origins. High school was not boring for us at all.

Was nostalgia for high school exacerbated by the fact that that was the last time you weren’t famous?

TEGAN: Maybe. When we found all the old songs, and the process of writing them—that for us was the language we used to talk about all the things we were struggling with. It’s also when we learned to harness all the energy we had inside of ourselves to get attention and control. It’s an amazing feeling to perform a song for people and have them applaud, even when they were friends.

So I wonder if it’s also about returning to the first time—although it’s fraught: full of trauma and anxiety and changes and confusion—we were being rewarded for who we are as people and what we were contributing. A lot of people don’t get that until they’re older, until they graduate university or get their first job or whatever. We started to get rewarded when we were really young, and it was nice to revisit that feeling, and be like, this is why we do this. This is why we travel around the world. This is why we sacrifice the years at home and the family and friends—because this is good, this is fun. This fills me up.

Was the desire to write this memoir also about reclaiming your time and significance as teenagers? Sara, it must have been gratifying to have an audience cheer when you read out the anecdote about hurtling a chair at a homophobic classmate

SARA: I feel conditioned to talk about my difficult experiences as a young person and even as an adult without emotion. I’ve been conditioned to talk about myself in an empowered way, and I don’t wanna talk about myself as vulnerable or weak, and some of that is systemic within my family, and a lot of it is institutional within our society.

I don’t wanna be a weak queer woman, i just don’t. But what I’ve discovered in writing about the story like the one you’re talking about is not only did I experience homophobia directly, but I experienced it environmentally all the time. Even though I wasn’t yet out as a queer person, I was absorbing the reality of the conditions that I would be subjected to once I did come out. Meaning, while I was still not out, I was recognising in that classroom when that kid was talking like that that the adults were not gonna stand up for a queer person. My peers were not gonna stand up for a queer person. So I felt compelled to stand up for queer people. I recognise that I was standing up for myself and I was claiming that space as mine, and I was going to determine what was appropriate and what wasn’t, and I also wanted to talk about how it became my responsibility to set expectations for the people around me.

Even in the show, while the story makes people feel uncomfortable, I feel like it's my job and also my right to talk about trauma and discomfort and power within our community. Because a lot of people in the audience are part of our community. I wanna be able to determine how I speak about my experience. I don’t wanna ride around on a float waving a gay flag and being married and being like, everything’s fine now. I wanna talk about the injustice, and the continuing inequities within our community. I also wanna talk about the system that is rigged if you wanna be queer and other and not follow the rules, and push buttons, and talk about what you feel—because if you are, you’re kind of banished to the margins.

I think it’s really important for us to talk about internalised homophobia and pain and not have to see ourselves as bad gays or victims. Every night when I tell that story I feel differently, but it makes me feel in control of something I was never in control of.

"I think it’s really important for us to talk about internalised homophobia and pain and not have to see ourselves as bad gays or victims." - Sara Quin

Was there ever a part of you, as teenagers, that anticipated your lives being important enough to write a memoir?

TEGAN: I don’t think so because that probably would have seemed like work. I went out with Emma from the book, who I hadn’t seen in twenty years, and she brought back notes Sara and I had written her and it was really revealing. We’d already done the first draft of the book at that point so I had to go back and write, and I really encouraged Sara to read them too because we missed a lot of things.

The book ended up being so focused on our music and relationships with our best friends and secret girlfriends. There was so much in the notes that I’d forgotten about because they’re not details that I held onto. The idea that our friends became a conduit for myself and Sara was literally taken from one of those notes. We were using Emma as a way for Sara and I to tell things to one another. What was also in the notes—and it’s all dated—was at the beginning of grade ten, when we’d found the guitar, and we said how we were gonna become rock stars. In the book, I’d written it as though that was something i figured out later on.

It was like we weren’t giving ourselves enough credit. The music and art we were making was very intentional, and I think we had our sights set on something.

SARA: We were also right on the cusp of...not social media and the internet per se, but on the edge of when video cameras became accessible. That was very uncommon that we were even able to film ourselves, that was new technology, and we were starting to see a little bit of a trickle from the States. There was also a trickle of early documentary and reality TV that was starting to happen. The year after we graduated high school, was the year that Survivor first aired.

There was also a cultural understanding that we were on the precipice of a change in how we managed our own self-image and our identities. Even when I watch a lot of the footage that I have from high school, we’re constantly interviewing our friends about things. I’ve since spoken with a lot of my academic friends about this. Like, how did we do that? One of the things we really landed on was Madonna’s Truth or Dare. That was really something that we were obsessed with. It was the first time that we had really engaged with what was essentially documentary footage. And what people do in documentaries is talk to the camera, we don’t necessarily see what’s behind the camera. We were certainly trying to pick up on those things and trying to emulate them. I think we caught the bug early of like, ‘I’m interesting! People wanna know what I think!’

I don’t think of that as a coincidence, how soon after that, we see that explosion of to-camera MTV self-interviewing style.

Tegan, as you just mentioned, in the memoir you talk about your friends being conduits for yourself and Sara, can you truly face one another now or has that conduit extended to your audience?

TEGAN: We don’t use the audience as a conduit, we use you as a conduit: the press and media, our record label, manager, adults. I see the audience as a body of energy that we interact with in a really different way. I can’t speak for Sara, but I rarely call her to have a conversation about how I feel. It’s only when we have a middleman that we really start to communicate. I’ve spent so many decades rejecting the idea of twin telepathy and I remain steadfast in the fact that it does not exist, but I do believe that we know each other. We just know each other. We don’t necessarily have to sit down and talk about things. I started to think about if we used the ‘conduit’ because it’s an opportunity to almost like, surprise the other one. Sara recently said in an exces meeting that she almost feels compelled to take up an opposition to me...

[Sara begins shaking her head]

TEGAN: ...At times, even when she agrees with me

SARA: Not quite what I said

TEGAN: That was almost verbatim, but anyway, here’s the thing: it was a great moment because I thought, that’s where the lifeforce is. What’s the point of all this if we’re always going to be on the same page? Why would you want me to speak for her? Why in the moment, can’t she formulate her own concept of what she wants?

When Sara’s talking about something I’ve seen or liked or known or felt, it’s interesting to hear her perspective. It generates this excitement in me to generate my own opinion, because most people just assume we’re the same and have the same feelings and same emotions. We share this career so we must share a fucking brain. It is fun, it is interesting, to through this other source, generate my own identity. Obviously, it’s a fine line because you don’t wanna hurt the other’s feelings or make them the opposition.

But this idea, that we can be so similar yet feel so differently–look at the book, we have completely different experiences about coming out, our sexuality, and all these things. I think all people feel this way—they wanna stand out from a crowd, but as identical twins, we’re on this lifelong journey to establish ourselves as separate entities. I’m pleading my case and you’re the judge, and she’s kind of the witness or something.

"I’ve spent so many decades rejecting the idea of twin telepathy and I remain steadfast in the fact that it does not exist, but I do believe that we know each other." - Tegan Quin

Sara, you looked as though you were opposing Tegan when she called you “oppositional”

SARA: I don’t think I do that, I don’t think I’m motivated in the same way Tegan is. I see how it happens, that’s kind of a mechanism of this job. It’s not like I’m gonna answer your question after asking Tegan about it. There is something really compelling about social situations like this where you’re asking me questions i haven’t been asked before, so of course I’ll give answers that might be new to Tegan, but I don’t really know if it’s about choosing something to be different from Tegan. It’s not like I feel compelled to take a different position, it’s just that there’s a safety when one person is so adamant about a certain situation, there’s a safety in being able to think the opposite, or something different, because there’s this anchor of one person taking position over the other.

So for example, I’ve been thinking a lot about this around homophobia, because people keep saying to me, how did you end up with so much shame and homophobia and Tegan didn’t? It’s that Tegan’s defence mechanism, her lack of internalised homophobia, comes from burying. It’s like she was able to act in a really quick way and to put up the walls before that really impacted her. I don’t write music to tell Tegan something. It just so happens that often by writing music, Tegan understands me better. In some ways, and I’m not trying to be oppositional, but using the audience as a conduit isn’t something I’ve really thought about before but it does make a lot of sense to me. I don’t necessarily think that the audience is that different from our friends in highschool. In some ways, by opening up, by performing, we do allow ourselves to be seen by one another, but also to everyone else. When I’m onstage and I perform something to the audience, I feel more realised by them, but also by Tegan.

TEGAN: I agree with that. When I performed to my friends, I was opening up to them in a vulnerable way. But when I do that to an audience, I don’t feel exposed, and also with friends and family, it’s a two-way street. I always use my mum as an example. After the show she’s like ‘you cannot tell that story about me onstage’ and im like ‘ok, ok’. I think we have to learn, because starting out our audience was just family and friends, we have to learn how to protect them and ourselves. I also joke and say that if people wanted the real story of Tegan and Sara, you shouldn’t interview us together. I think people who interview us separately get a better experience. We tell our publicist this all the time. It’s my deepest fear of being disrespectful to Sara by interrupting her or whatever. So I do let her talk. I often don’t wanna answer the same question she just answered, so there’s not a lot of back and forth. When I don’t have sara looking at me, I can tell you whatever.

SARA: No, but I do think it’s interesting to, in defence of this co-interview, hear what Tegan thinks in response to these questions, because it helps me to clarify what I really think. It’s interesting what you were saying about the friends and the conduit, because in a way, I really wanted the opposite. I really wanted my private person. For the first time in my life, I remember thinking, can I trust this person to hear me? It [being with Naomi] was probably one of the first times I remember thinking that I only wanted her to know the things that I was telling her. It was really the first time, as a young person, that I had decided I don’t want Tegan to know this thing. In keeping those secrets from Tegan, it allowed me to understand that required privacy and intimacy that I couldn’t just share with my sibling. I was like, ok, no more triangulation. I really just wanna be having my own conversation with someone. That was a pretty instrumental part of my development.

There seem to be two kinds of grief in this memoir. The grief that comes when you realise you’re really two separate bodies, and the grief of realising that you’re the same. Sara, when Tegan started dating girls, you write as though your shame was being reflected back at you.

SARA: 100%. That does kind of tie into homophobia, even within the queer community. When I was young, one of my strongest memories was that there were certain types of acceptable gay people. For women, it was usually butchy women, and for men, it was effeminate men. So, we not only had to accept each other’s sexuality, but our gender expression too, and I didnt know how to delineate those things because I was a fucking annoying teenager.

But I remember really jumping in on that, like yeah, I don’t wanna be a butchy woman. But then I shaved my head, and tried to dislocated myself from the gender expressions that were effeminate. I felt like there was a cruelness in seeing the parts of me externalised that I didn’t wanna see externalised in other people. And I still feel that way. Sometimes I’ll get a little trigger when I see someone really obviously queer. My instinct is to look away. My instinct is not to be seen by them or recognised them . My adulthood has really been about leaning into that, like ‘Nope! I’m seeing you, I’m looking at you.’ I think by rejecting those people first, I was preparing myself for a life where I knew I was going to be rejected.

So, in some ways, it was preventative. It was my own defence mechanism—I will reject you before you have an opportunity to reject me. This idea of seeing Tegan as gay, it felt petrifying, and I wanted to look away from her. I think she did the same for me. When I go back and reread our history, when I came out and my mom was mean, I would have loved for Tegan to have been like, ‘Hey man, I’m on your team.’

We didn’t have that afterschool special moment. It was more like: Tegan didn't wanna be collateral damage, and that was really isolating, but it was kind of every man for himself.

"I think we were just like every other teenager, so consumed with one another." - Tegan Quin

From this memoir, it seems you were most violently sundered from one another when you started having sex. Then, towards the end of the book, there’s that moment where you come together again—you sleep in the same bed—that night Tegan’s girl leaves the country.

TEGAN: I think we were just like every other teenager, so consumed with one another. It was like, that bit at the end of the movie where the asshole gets heartbroken and they need their family and friends again, and I think ultimately we were the same as anybody else in that way. We were confused and lost and sad. The things that often stand out in our memories are really sad things, but I think what was cool about writing this book is that there’s so much positivity. There’s so much laughter, we were so funny. The story ends up being about body dysmorphia and homophobia and trauma for Sara...

[Sara shakes her head again]

TEGAN: ...and for me, it ended up being about drugs and music

SARA: I think that stuff’s in there for me too!

TEGAN: No, no, no there was—but the first stories we chose to write—it was interesting to see what we gravitated towards. One thing that I really wanted to be in the book is that we were always really funny. We always used our humour and our charisma and the duality and the banter to win people over and to charm them. It was really nice to see that that existed then and to be reminded of that, and to be reminded of how much affection there was. In my mind, we’d grown up in this way where we were always at each other’s throats and beating the crap out of each other.

But in every video and every photo, we’ve got our arms wrapped around each other and there’s so much love and warmth between us and I think coming out as gay did create a bit of physical distance between us because people sexualise lesbians and twins and we’ve been sexualised in that way online. You type in Tegan and Sara into Google, and ‘are they dating?’ is one of the first questions. I think Sara and I have been a little shortchanged of physical intimacy because of that. It’s awkward. This idea that we’re consistently living through puberty in view of everybody.

Has the feeling of diminishment that you experienced as teenage girls extended into your adulthood because of how the music industry has treated you?

SARA: Definitely. That really resonates. Part of it is: Who are we as people? How are we judged and valued within society? But a big part of it is also about who likes us. That’s how we’re judged in the music industry. Because women liked us, and more specifically, women who looked like us liked us, we were assigned a very different value than if we’d have been young straight guys who had a male audience. I’ve seen people speak about this. Harry Styles says that his audience is being diminished because they’re young girls. They’re almost laughed at. When you talk about the early Beatles, they weren’t given a lot of credit compared to later Veatles who were then beloved by men. I’m starting to think about that a lot more now.

A lot of our peers—we came up with Arcade Fire and other bands who’ve made a significant cultural impact—and I’ve been thinking about how we had just as big an impact as them, maybe even bigger. What’s wrong with us? I think a significant factor is that our audience is not as visible because whether it’s true or not, it’s assumed that that audience is queer women. And not the right kind of queer women. Not the hot, sexy kind. The queer that other people didn’t realise were queer. I think that’s a big deal.

"Because women liked us - and more specifically, women who looked like us liked us - we were assigned a very different value than if we’d have been young straight guys who had a male audience." - Sara Quin

I always think this when I come to London. The first time we sold out a show here we went for dinner with the record label, and as we were walking back there was a queue all the way up the street, and I remember the women who we were working with at the label saying, “holy shit look at this queue” and then she was like, “they’re all girls though, we gotta get you guys some male fans.” I know we’re not the only people who are told this. I’ve been watching Rhythm + Flow on Netflix and more than once I heard the judges say: ‘It’s very important that both men and women relate to you.” Nobody wants to shit talk women, but you just can’t erase men from the equation if you want to be seen as important, and have people like you.

When I was queueing outside for your show, there were a lot of drunk men catcalling outside, but once we got in, the space felt like a really nice escape.

SARA: I always have that feeling when I walk past nightclubs on a Saturday night. All it takes is that one night in a club and I just start to feel like an ogre, that I don’t belong in this world. It’s weird how that very specific culture of heteronormative, performative out-to-find-sex can really make me feel like the most weird, marginalised person.

Is the memoir a way to pivot out of the music industry?

SARA: Hopefully!

TEGAN: I don’t think out, no. I think Sara and I...we’re not oldschool, we’re not against the way people put out music now. I’m all for streaming and digital, but Sara and I are more inspired by creating a body of work and reflections of songs, and because of that we need time. We can’t just pump something out for something to do. We’re more of a classic artist in that way. And I don’t believe that the album is dead. I think the book was a way for us to slow our roll. In my mind, I thought we’d write a book, then take a year and write a record. I sort of imagined we’d be putting out a record sometime next spring, but obviously, in writing the book it inspired us to rewrite these songs. So it’s definitely not pivoting out.

We just wanna be really courteous to our audience and to our bodies, so we don’t just tour nonstop and pump out music and burn out. Everyone seems to be having existential breakdowns on social media, and I think sara and I have managed to circumvent a lot of the pitfalls and pothalls that other artists get to because we don’t get out of control. When things start to get heavy we’re like ok, let’s call it. I have faith in our fans, in each other, and the music and the art we’re making. We can slow down if we need to.

Ultimately, the book has proven to us that there are other lanes that we can explore creatively and that we don’t have to stay solely in music. I’m very happy doing what we’re doing right now but I’m very excited to make more music. We really haven’t written a new record since 2015, so it’s been a long time. But the book has really done what I wanted it to do which is spark music. It’ll be interesting to see how it’ll change the sound of Tegan and Sara and our process. We sang each other’s songs on this record and we’re performing each other’s songs right now. We’ve never done these kinds of things before, so I’m wondering whether we’ve released the shackles, where we’re no longer in a prison of our own or the industry’s making.

SARA: I also love the idea that writing has freed us up from so much of our history. We were certainly being seen as who we are with all of our achievements and our music and whatever, but it does feel like we’re getting a totally clean slate. Like, I don’t feel that the people reading the book are judging us as songwriters. People read the book, and in a lot of cases, they weren’t even familiar with our music. So I think we’re being critiqued in a way which feels much more balanced and fair than in music. We’ve also had to carry these shackles and assumptions of—I don’t care that it’s almost 2020—I think people still see us through the lens of the bullshit of the 1990s and the early aughts. I think some journalists are able to disconnect those two things, but I don't think we are free of the homophoia and misogyny that tainted the first half of our career. I just don’t. This book makes me feel like at least we can start again from here.

Sara, did you mean it when you said you “hoped” this memoir would be a pivot out of the music industry just now?

SARA: I mean, it’s less about not wanting to be in the music industry anymore. It’s just that i desperately wanna feel like the stakes are higher. And at least right now, in music, I hate the feeling that we’re bumping up against a ceiling. And it’s not because of something that’s wrong with our band or anything like that. I have to believe that our most brilliant material is still ahead of us. And if you don’t think that way, I mean, what are you doing? You have to feel that way. But in some ways, it’s really hard to do that in music.

This book feels like we have an opportunity to do something bigger. I know if we write another book it’ll be so much better than this one. I know it. With music, I’m like always like, this is gonna be our best album! I mean we’ve tried, nine times, and i always love them, but like, I really feel that way about writing. We really will get better at it.

High School is out now via Virago

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next