Tegan and Sara Looked to the Past for Their New Album and Memoir — and Found Their Present Selves
Sara: "I think I imagine the person I am today is a result of my adult experiences, but it's so weird to learn that a lot of who you are today you were when you were 15 years old"
Published Sep 20, 2019"This is not nostalgia," asserts Tegan and Sara's Sara Quin, in an interview with Exclaim! about the duo's memoir and new album, Hey, I'm Just Like You, both due out later this month.
The memoir, High School, and album — their ninth — have roots in the 1990s, when Tegan and Sara were teenagers living in Calgary, figuring out their identities, and what they were going to do after graduating high school. But as the duo explain, their new projects are not simply for the sake of reminiscing.
"This material feels vibrant and new because I lived it, but then I immediately wanted to do other things," Sara explains. "It felt exciting to go back and look at these younger versions of ourselves now, because we have all of this context and this perspective as adults."
"For us it felt like an important era to document," Tegan adds. "I don't want to say it's not too personal — it's very personal — but it doesn't feel too exposing. We, like so many other queer-identified people, struggled with our identity and struggled with inner homophobia. We felt that it was important to tell that part of our story.
"As you get older, your audience stays young, and I think that a lot of our audience is still grappling with their identity and adolescence, and is looking for guidance. I think for Sara and me, Hey, I'm Just Like You and High School both say the same thing, which is, 'We are going through this then, now, whenever, with you.'"
When Tegan and Sara wrapped up their 2017 tour in support of their eighth album, Love You to Death, they wanted to take a break from music and work on a creative project that would allow them to engage with fans in a way they hadn't before. They knew that their fans were eager to hear more of their trademark stage banter and thought about starting a podcast. As talks progressed, they realized that there aren't a lot of books by and about women in the music industry, so they decided to challenge the status quo.
In High School, Tegan and Sara, writing alternating chapters, give readers distinct accounts of their young adulthoods. They tell stories about navigating the difficult terrain of relationships, whether they are romantic or with friends, family, or each other, and how music came to play such an important role in their lives.
"The one thing that I've always really struggled with in music is that it doesn't give us the opportunity to tell the whole story," says Sara. "You're giving people the headline, but you're not necessarily able to get into the meat and potatoes of it. I really liked the idea of telling a story where we would be able to give everybody a full perspective."
While researching High School, Tegan and Sara set up a WhatsApp group chat with friends from high school, most of whom they keep in touch with, and conducted interviews with family and friends. They also used notes, journals and VHS footage from their high-school years. While gathering materials, they found the cassette tapes of their earliest songs, written and recorded between the ages of 15 and 17.
After hearing these songs for the first time in over 20 years, Tegan and Sara were struck by how well they held up, and felt compelled to use them as the basis for an album they hadn't initially set out to make.
Produced by Alex Hope (Troye Sivan, Carly Rae Jepsen), Hey, I'm Just Like You balances the glossy pop sounds of Tegan and Sara's most recent records and the power chord-driven pop-rock of their early releases. The album's most striking quality, though, is its biting honesty, and how mature the songs feel — a sentiment that contradicts what the press said about the pair's initial releases.
"The music really impacted me and right away, I felt such admiration of those young songwriters," Sara says about hearing the cassette tapes again.
"It actually made me feel really pissed off about some of our early press. They were writing about us as if we were babies. It seems so annoying to me that we were winning contests, getting offered record deals, and people were flocking to our shows, yet when you read the press it's like, 'They're rudimentary guitar players but there's something there' or 'Ripped from the pages of their diaries…" and it's like, 'Fuck you! I'm taking acid and getting into fistfights and falling in love. We're not babies!' I think there's this assumption that the music isn't sophisticated or that it doesn't have value because how could a 15 year-old have anything important to say? Obviously this music proves that even at 15 years old, you have something important to say."
"We write off young women as being 'silly.' We don't give women enough credit for being visionaries or geniuses — not that we were either — but we assign that identity to men so easily," Tegan says. "Young men are celebrated in our culture and our society constantly, and I think that women, we don't come into our genius and our power until we get into our 30s and 40s."
Part of the reason Tegan and Sara decided to focus on their high-school days is because the rest of their career is already well documented. Tegan and Sara released extensive video footage of the making of If It Was You (2002), So Jealous (2004), and The Con (2007), and a three-volume book set that chronicled tours and the writing of Sainthood (2009). In 2011, they released a live album and tour documentary entitled Get Along, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. While this extensive documentation is a generous treat for Tegan and Sara fans, as Tegan explains, it's born out of feeling like they have to continuously prove their work is their own.
"I don't think we documented the making of our records or our tours because we felt like people would be that interested in seeing the process. I think that we had to prove that we really do play all of the instruments and we really do write all of these songs, and we really are behind the mixing desk, making decisions. I actually feel like it came from a place of… not insecurity, but because of being challenged and questioned," Tegan admits.
"We're really good friends with Jack Antonoff, and here's a guy who's working on the biggest pop records and has his own project, and a side project. I don't think that he gets challenged: 'Are you really doing all of this, Jack? Or is there someone pulling the strings behind you?' I think that as women, we do get challenged: 'But someone must be helping you.' No! I think we can do so much because there are two of us. Yeah, Sara is behind me. Sara is helping me."
High School and Hey, I'm Just Like You tell the duo's origin story, but it also offers affirmation for anybody of any age who is struggling to live an authentic artistic life. Although these stories are from Tegan and Sara's past, they remain deeply connected to their present.
"Upon writing about it and listening to the music and watching the VHS tapes and reading the notes and the journals, I was just amazed by how vibrant and important and seminal so many of those [teenage] experiences were," Sara says. "I think I imagine the person I am today is a result of my adult experiences. I've been around the world, I've traveled, I've been essentially married and divorced, I've owned houses, I've experienced tragedy, death, and births, but it's so weird to learn that a lot of who you are today you were when you were 15 years old."
Tegan echoes her sister.
"All the therapy, and all of the development and self-improvement that you do over the years, what you really realize is that you're sort of you. Always you."
Hey, I'm Just Like You is out September 27 courtesy of Sire Records.