Tegan and Sara Quin received their first piece of “fan mail” when they were 17. It was the summer after they had graduated from high school, and the twins had decided to pursue music instead of going to university. So when an aunt they were visiting asked them to perform for her and some friends, they pulled out their acoustic guitars and sang, as they’d done at open mics and house parties, a few growling songs about their identities and uncertain futures, their dueling perspectives united by just similar-enough voices.
The next day, they woke up to a three-page, front-to-back single-spaced letter from a friend of a cousin, a guy in his 20s, who congratulated them on the performance... and then proceeded to list all the ways they could be better: chords they should use, techniques they should consider, changes they should make to their singing styles. He thought he was being helpful: “I think you guys have a real chance or else I wouldn’t be writing this.”
Sara uncovered the letter last year amid old journals and lyrics while researching her and Tegan’s upcoming memoir, High School, out now. Told in alternating chapters from each of their perspectives, the book revisits the traumas and transformations of their acid-fueled dirtbag teen years, during which they discovered music and navigated their sexuality as young queer women in mid-1990s Calgary. Now 39, Sara hadn’t seen the letter in decades. But the familiarity struck her: How many times over the years had men—friends, musicians she admired, random people she had sat next to on airplanes—given her unsolicited advice about how they could make their music less simple (that was the word they always used) and more interesting to them? But another question nagged at her: Why—after eight studio albums, a million records sold, a handful of awards—had she believed them on some level?
Tegan, the older of the two by eight minutes, didn’t care about the letter—she never put much stock in that kind of criticism anyway. But Sara clung to it. When she revisited some of their early press clippings, she noticed that she’d volunteer comments about how rudimental a musician she was, tearing herself down before anybody else could. “I was like, oh shit, we were good—fuck these motherfuckers, why did I adopt this narrative?” Sara says one summer afternoon over drinks in SoHo; she’s having a Tom Collins, Tegan a sparkling water with lemon and lime. “I believed that we were not good because a few people said we weren't good, and that was how I felt for 21 years.”
The letter got one thing right, though: They did have a real chance. The following year, Neil Young’s longtime manager signed them to his label. Over the next two decades, they smoothed out the rough edges of their early work into slick new-wave hooks dressed up in an indie-rock package, then dispelled all of that on 2013's Heartthrob, a glossy Top 40 makeover that wound up on numerous critics’ year-end lists. Even more special was the culture they’ve built around the band: The stories they’d tell between songs in their early years inspired a Deadhead-like devotion among fans who’d travel around the world to record them. And long before they shared their journey to becoming artists in High School, they offered listeners a different kind of how-to manual through multiple documentaries, fake talk shows, web series, and batches of homemade demos, turning Tegan and Sara into not just a band but a content house ahead of its time.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sisters, who live in Vancouver, are already working on a pitch to develop High School for television, envisioning a kind of next-gen My So-Called Life. But it seems owning their legacy in this way is still something they’re getting used to.
“Sara’s going to cringe—I’m sort of joking—but I think we’re visionaries,” Tegan says tentatively, as if she is trying out the word. She keeps taking her sunglasses on and off because, though the sun is shining directly in her face, she worries it makes her look like an asshole rockstar to wear them in an interview.
Sara, whose monochromatic tattoos pop against her cream-colored shirt, flashes an are-you-kidding-me grin and leans over the table. “Can we please note for the record that I’m the one drinking, not Tegan?”
“I'm just saying,” Tegan continues, “we found all this footage and all these photos and wrote a book, and we’re piecing it all together to talk about something that every single one of us will relate to: being an adolescent and feeling hormonal and sad and depressed and freaked out and unsure. If you were sitting with any guy right now talking about a new project, he’d be like”—she slumps back in her chair and lowers her voice—“‘I’m fucking amazing! I’m about to drop the coolest fucking thing!’ And I’m just like, fine. We did it. Look at what we pulled together after 20 years. It’s the most interesting fucking shit.”
Which brings us to the tapes.
Last year, as they worked on assembling High School, Tegan and Sara came across cassettes featuring dozens of their earliest songs. The recordings were low-quality, but Tegan loved them right away. She was drawn to their rawness and melodrama, yes, but also their worldliness. There’s nothing like your favorite music in high school, when you can love something so much it physically aches. These demos unlocked those feelings again. “I could sit and write 20 more songs that I’m not going to love more than these ones,” Tegan says. “The second I started listening, I was laughing: ‘These are the best melodies!’”
Sara, however, wasn’t so interested. For weeks, the digitized versions of the tapes sat on her computer. She had long ago closed off that chapter of her creative life. Even as she started on the book, she didn’t see the point in revisiting the songs: What was their value? Were they just teen-girl diary musings? While Tegan threw herself into the music right away, Sara had to get cerebral about it, which for many years was indicative of how the duo worked: Tegan tended to write immediate heart-on-your-sleeve anthems, while Sara wrote weirder, more metaphor-driven songs, hypnotically hooky in their own way.
But one day while working on the book at a local library, Sara watched old VHS-tape footage of a battle-of-the-bands contest called Garage Warz that they had won in 1998. In front of a crowd of drunk college students and local journalists, they had closed their set with a song Tegan wrote called “Just Me,” the kind of declaration about staying true to yourself that you can only really write as a teenager. It’s a terrible video—the lighting is all blown out, and you can’t even really see their faces—but suddenly Sara found herself crying.
“It seemed so crushingly sincere, and instead of feeling cynical, I just let myself be okay with the message and not see it through my old eyes,” she says. “I thought it was the goddamn sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.”
She and Tegan later decided that for their ninth album—Hey, I’m Just Like You, arriving Sept. 27—they would reimagine and rerecord these earliest songs and, in a way, apologize to their 17-year-old selves for writing them off. They’d apply everything they’ve learned across their two-decade career to give the material—full of “things we would have resisted at other points in our career because we were afraid of what it would say,” Tegan says—the shot it never got. It’s their most collaborative album to date: For the first time in their career, Tegan sings whole parts Sara wrote and vice versa, making authorship of the material occasionally hard to trace. (Accordingly, they’ve described it as the first Tegan and Sara record.)
Yet the most striking change is that guitars, in a nod to the source material, are more prominent then they’ve been in a decade. Before they went full-on synth-pop with 2013’s Heartthrob, the duo had felt like they had plateaued in the indie-alternative space. The overt sexism and homophobia they experienced had thankfully declined by then: No longer was anyone calling them “tampon rock” (as Pitchfork had done) or saying they were “quite lovely, even if they do hate cock” (as NME had done) or asking if they made out with each other on stage (as a radio DJ had done). But the most popular bands in their arena at the time— The National, Vampire Weekend, Arcade Fire—were predominantly men, as were most of their fanbases, and they didn’t see any room for themselves. Their closest peer seemed to be Hayley Williams of Paramore, with whom they toured in 2010 and whose footing in the pop world inspired them to reach for a bigger audience with glossier production.
Moving away from guitars, however, wasn’t only about getting to the next level. For the band, the instrument could be a symbol of unwanted attention. Tegan jokes that if they're holding one in a public, a man will inevitably come up and ask, "Is that a guitar? What kind of guitar you got there?" Male musicians would make comments over the years suggesting they were hiding behind them. Even when her guitar-playing sometimes got in the way of her singing, like on the motormouth “Northshore,” Tegan says she held onto it, eager to prove she was as good as any guy in a punk band. The specter of male judgment loomed so large, in fact, that it almost drove Sara away from the instrument.
“I hate that I feel this way now that I’m thinking about it,” she says, “but I felt like when I gave up on the guitar, I was giving into the idea that men were scrutinizing my guitar playing. It made me so unhappy and so uncomfortable that eventually, by giving that up, they were finally able to see what I was good at."
There were many other reasons why she wanted to switch their sound up—most of the music she was listening to and inspired by was electronic-based, and having studied the piano as a kid, she has more theory and skill she can draw on. But still: “I realized that if I put the guitar down, I would be invisible to the people who had bothered me and scrutinized me, and I would become more visible to the people whose attention I desired and whose validation I needed.”
Heartthrob was like the Canadian pop equivalent of Kacey Musgraves's Golden Hour, minus the Grammy wins—less a reinvention and more a crystallization of all their influences and skill sets, one that put them on the radars of people who might have otherwise missed them. It also undoubtedly shifted the sound of pop music. Both Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen cited the album as inspirations ahead of their zeitgeisty 1989 and E•MO•TION LPs, respectively.
Yet the band noticed other changes too—for one thing, their audience got a lot gayer. Throughout their career, Tegan says, they’d seen reviews of shows in which male writers would talk about being shoulder to shoulder with lesbians, and it just never matched what they were seeing from the stage. It had taken so long for them to get substantial coverage in queer media outlets, to score invites to LGBTQ organizations’ fancy parties and galas. Suddenly queer fans of all genders were coming to their shows and telling them they’d never heard of them before.
“Oh my God, who wants to go to Gay Pride and listen to ‘So Jealous’?!” Sara interrupts. “I mean, Jesus, we didn’t sound like fun gay music at all.”
“But that’s what I mean!” blurts Tegan. “There was this total disconnect. We were covered as a gay band, which limited us in the mainstream, but then in the queer community, we were not the icons everyone was making us out to be.”
During the rollout of Heartthrob, Tegan and Sara were frank about their ambitions. They wanted pop radio airplay, they wanted to hit arenas. They’re less concerned with those benchmarks now. It doesn’t feel worth it to them to hustle from radio station to radio station all day just for DJs to play their song once out of politeness. And playing the game of mainstream success feels especially pointless when the rulebook has been thrown out. Hey, I’m Just Like You’s lead single, “I’ll Be Back Someday,” with its crunchy guitars and manic chorus, perhaps sounds less destined for Top 40 than past singles like “Closer.” But in an era when 17-year-old Billie Eilish has become the coolest artist on the planet with her freaky genre-less creations, who even knows?
“It’s the wild wild west out there, and Hey, I’m Just Like You is our cultural answer to that,” Tegan says. “It’s our way of saying, ‘You’re going to us find us or you’re not, but we’re for everybody.’ I’m not choosing a lane.”
Of course they hope critics say nice things, and they hope sales aren’t disastrous. But this time, they mostly just want to have conversations, real conversations, about their work. Conversations about the themes that stretch across the book and the album: how It Gets Better, and also how it doesn’t. How everybody gets overwhelmed about what they’re doing with their lives, even adults. How the things that happen to you in high school—the bullying and the insecurities and, yes, the letters from your cousin’s friend—shape you and “become threads that stay with you your whole life,” Tegan says.
Sara jokes that if the only milestone they achieve this cycle is a Terry Gross interview, she’ll be thrilled. “There's something so profoundly depressing about this, but to be taken seriously at that age would have been an impossibility,” she says. “It’s like we've gone back in time: ‘They’re finally ready for us, Tegan!’”
A few weeks after we meet, on the day of their 39th birthday in September, they tape an episode of Fresh Air.
On the day Heartthrob came out in January of 2013, Katy Perry, still riding the high of her blockbuster Teenage Dream album, tweeted about it in all-caps. Her validation gave the band a noticeable industry currency—their record label rejoiced, radio DJs brought it up in almost station visit. “It sent a message that the record, and our band, was to be taken seriously in the pop world,” Tegan says. It occurred to the pair that they could make a more concerted effort to do the same for other artists, particularly queer musicians and young women, and become the supportive voice they wished they’d had coming up. They started going out of their way to introduce themselves at events and offer support over DMs. They gave their cell phone numbers out and wrote a one-sheet of advice they could pass along to up-and-coming bands. They used their platform to spotlight Hayley Kiyoko, MUNA, Shura, Alex Lahey and others.
There were male artists who had supported them and taken them on tour, but it never felt like a community, like they could call these guys up for a sounding board anytime. And when they’d talk to other established women and try to commiserate about the sexism they experienced, they’d often encounter shrugs and denials. Even other queer musicians seemed to keep their distance, as if acknowledging each other had consequences. “We were all told you can’t have too many of us together at the same time on a bill,” Tegan says. “It sounds so crazy now,” Sara adds, “but it is fucking true.”
Yet when you hear the story of how Tegan and Sara hired 25-year-old Alex Hope to produce Hey, I’m Just Like you—along with an all-women team of engineers and musicians—you get a glimpse of what that community looks like. Hope, best known for her work with Troye Sivan, has co-written her share of great one-off pop songs, but she had never steered an entire project until now. So during a meeting last year, Sara asked her point-blank: Was she up for the task? “And without missing a beat,” Tegan recalls, “[Hope] was like, ‘Yeah, of course.’” Later, when Sara asked what instruments she was best at, Tegan remembers Hope saying, “Well, I can play everything here, I'm good at everything, but I am a very good guitar player."
Tegan, it should be noted, was somewhat horrified by this line of questioning—she thought it sounded like Sara was questioning Hope's qualifications. “We often associate risk with taking a chance on a woman,” Tegan says. “Sara and I had to remove that language from our mouths." But Sara admits she was testing Hope in a way: “I wanted to see if she was going to say, ‘Yeah, motherfucker, I can do it!’ or if she was going to be like”—Sara adopts a heliated whine — “‘I’m a bit scared!’ Because if she showed any weakness, I would have been like, ‘No man would show weakness!’”
Hope’s confidence, Tegan says, made her feel confident—like, for the first time in her career, she didn’t have to prove anything. Even with dear collaborators like Greg Kurstin, the Grammy-winning producer behind Adele’s “Hello” who worked on their last two albums and would say the nicest things about them if you asked, Tegan felt like she had to preemptively apologize for, say, the messiness of her demos or her own playing.
With Hope, she didn’t care. And when Hope did have constructive criticism about those things, Tegan took it at face value. “She knew it wouldn’t offend me, and I was able to accept her because I do think she’s my equal,” she says. “She’s the nerd who learned every instrument and knows how to speak our language. But she also wasn’t afraid to tell me if something was good or bad, if my ideas were strong or not. I feel like men are afraid to hurt our feelings.”
Hey, I’m Just Like You ends with a new version of “Just Me,” now retitled “All I Have to Give the World Is Me” and fixed up with a dreamy electronic sheen. Tegan originally thought it was too cheesy to include, but Sara fought for it. While working on the song in the studio, she couldn’t get this one vision out of her head. They’re 17, and Tegan knows that Sara has been having tumultuous secret relationship with girls and questioning the direction of her life. Tegan is starting to experience the same things, so she writes herself this reassurance and one day comes into Sara’s room to play it for her.
2019 Tegan is shaking her head throughout this retelling—she doesn’t remember any of this. “It’s like fan fiction,” she tells Sara.
But Sara keeps going. 1998 Tegan sings her these lyrics about looking in the mirror and trying to accept what you see, and she leaves a part for Sara to sing some words of encouragement back: Go ahead and change, go ahead and change. Do it. Be yourself. Fuck these motherfuckers.
“What makes it heartbreaking is Tegan is allowing me to say the things that she knows I need to hear,” Sara says, her voice cracking on the last word.
Tegan does a double-take. “Are you crying?”
“Yeah! It still really upsets me,” Sara says with a choked laugh. Her eyes well up as she turns to look at Tegan. “I’m saying these things to you, but really, you’re making me say them to myself. That's how it feels when I hear the song. I’m saying, ‘It’s okay, it’s fine,’ but I’m saying it to me.”
The voice she needed to hear the most, it turns out, was right beside her the whole time.
Originally Appeared on GQ