Revision History: Tegan and Sara on High School
Tegan and Sara Quin discuss revisiting their school days for their new memoir and album
Nostalgia is one hell of a thing – a warm nest that you can bundle safely inside, knowing that the sharp edges of experience have dulled and the pain lessened by the passing of time; the good memories and wisdom of hindsight rise, filtered to the top.
We might look back on our high school days – for those who have been through it – with a mixture of emotions ranging from a nostalgic fondness, embarrassment, or just pure and immense relief that such a dreadful juncture is over. Some people dream about it, waking up in a cold sweat from visions of turning up without clothes on or being unprepared for an exam – revealing insecurities and anxieties, if dream interpretation is to be believed. Please, though, breathe out: you’re not there anymore.
But imagine going back into the depths of your youth to revisit the excruciating details: first loves and heartbreaks, fateful parties and misadventures, complicated family dynamics, friendships that came and went. That is what twin sisters and bandmates Tegan and Sara Quin did when researching and writing their first memoir, High School. The book charts the pair’s teenage years and formation of the band that would start off recording demos at school and go on to be Grammy-nominated indie-pop icons selling over a million records, touring the whole world and seeing huge mainstream success all while maintaining their punk ethos. And, importantly, being featured on the Grey’s Anatomy soundtrack.
Born of thousands of pictures and notes, 20-plus hours of VHS tapes and interviews with friends, family and ex-lovers, High School takes the trip back to Calgary, Canada where the sisters grew up in the 90s during the height of rave and grunge culture – both of which would influence their band’s sound for decades to come.
For Tegan Quin, however, looking back wasn’t all warm and fuzzy. "It definitely did not make me want to be back in high school," she begins. "It just reminded me how fucking hard it is to be in high school and how hard it is to be young. When we look back, of course we feel like we know a lot [now], but I think that means we create a narrative for all young people that they don't know anything. That they have to go out and live to truly have experience.
"But by the time I was 18, I’d uncovered my ability to create, I'd gotten offered a record deal, I had travelled, I had established that I was a queer person, I had experimented and got really deep into drugs and come out of it, I was a latchkey kid, my parents divorced twice, I had the shit kicked out of me a thousand times because I went to a school with a lot of gangs and drugs and two friends had died. What did I know about life and love?" she asks rhetorically, her voice now indignant. "A lot."
The result of this deep dive into the past is a book that is universal – high school is a rite of passage almost everyone goes through, after all – but also unequivocally for the fans. It’s a consensual rummage through your favourite band’s diary; the details wonderfully juicy, the humour sharp as it is silly, the ups and downs in parts relatable and enlightening, but all with an incredibly potent message at its heart.
Alongside their musical achievements and throughout their 20-year career, the band have been leading voices for LGBTQ+ and women’s equality and in 2016 formed the Tegan and Sara Foundation, a charity that advocates for economic justice, health and representation. Writing the book allowed the pair to tell their stories, and those of their friends and peers, with the kind of candid and raw honesty that is rarely afforded to marginalised people, if their stories are told at all. It's how the "varying degrees of excitement, apprehension and dread" felt by the core characters who agreed to participate and reveal what are, at times, particularly intimate details were eased – a deep and mutual understanding of why they needed to be shared.
"There’s just so few books and so little representation for queer women, especially women in music, that we really asked from this place of, 'God, imagine how much this would have benefited us as young people'," says Quin. She is anchored to her belief that this, above all, is why the book exists, speaking passionately about how society can "patronise and diminish young people" and how one-dimensional the coming-of-age story can be for them, particularly when it comes to the discussions of drug use that feature heavily in the memoir.
"It’s like men are celebrated for exploring, stretching their minds. We just never see any depiction of women doing drugs unless it's Amy Winehouse or Courtney Love, and then it's a tale of warning and trepidation," she notes. "I think women, especially young women, are handled with kid gloves. We get shaved down to a ‘silly girl' writing in a journal, 'I lost my virginity' or 'getting my period', and yes, these are all big and important things, but we have more depth than that." High School was their chance to "handle our past and our histories with more care and more respect."
The real joy in reading the book is, even in its darker moments, their narrative perfectly captures the point of realisation that something exceptional is about to emerge. The transformative nature of music and counter-culture for teenagers is well documented, but peering in at a micro-level and seeing two people reimagining themselves, forging their identities and healing from the painful experiences they faced with such clarity and self-assuredness is, well, punk as fuck.
But crucially, their origin story isn't solely about Tegan and Sara, but how they galvanised the people around them. "I think it was very clear right from the start – literally we'd written three songs – from the reaction and having talked to my parents and friends and read all these notes, that it wasn't just a lightbulb for us that we figured out this thing, everyone around us was excited, relieved, invested, caught up in it," explains Quin. "It was as if we sat down and were able to capture everyone's feelings and emotions."
It separates the memoir from navel-gazing. Sharing this journey of experimentation and self-discovery, Quin states, "wasn't like being a rock star or getting a record deal. It was truly just the transaction of creating something, sharing it and being told that it brought comfort to somebody that comforted me."
There was a solace to be found in looking back, but not at the expense of looking forward. Alongside High School, the band release their ninth album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, reworking and reinventing the songs they wrote as teenagers with the songwriting experience they’ve now graduated with. And, like anyone who has fought to make it out the other side, Quin feels at her strongest: "I learned that I could do more than I think I can. I have a lot of confidence right now that we don't have to stay in our lane."
High School is out now via Virago
Hey, I'm Just Like You is out on 27 Sep via Sire Records