To be a twin can be a psychological house of mirrors. And so where better to meet up with Tegan and Sara Quin — feminist pop heroes, freshly minted authors, and, like us, identical twins — than at a kaleidoscopic infinity room in Chelsea? As we left the small mirrored room at the kitschy Museum of Illusions, where our likenesses warped and refracted, we encountered a third set of twins. Reality grew ever more psychedelic, and we snapped a photograph of the six of us to commemorate it.
In their new memoir, “High School,” the Quin sisters alternate chapters to detail their teenage years. Growing up in Canada, they worshiped Nirvana, Green Day and the Smashing Pumpkins. They discovered and explored their sexuality. They sneaked out to raves, dropped acid, fought authority. When a classmate spewed homophobic statements during a lesson on STDs, Sara hurled a chair across the room. In the end, the twins competed in a life-changing battle of the bands. “If we don’t win tonight,” Tegan said onstage, “our mom is going to make us go to college.” They won.
While gathering their research for the book, Tegan and Sara found cassettes of some of their earliest songs. And so “High School” is accompanied by a new album, “Hey, I’m Just Like You,” featuring polished-up re-workings of those unearthed demos. Some of the songs evoke the ’90s indie pop of the band’s Lilith Fair era, while others could be the seeds of electronic-dance bangers. The connective thread is the unguarded emotionality of a teenage perspective.
This multimedia set is yet more experimentation from a band that, across nine albums, has moved from folky indie rock into synth-driven dance tracks and mainstream pop. Tegan and Sara sang “Everything Is Awesome” (“The Lego Movie” theme song) at the 2015 Oscars, and have performed with Taylor Swift. In 2016 they launched their Tegan and Sara Foundation, to benefit organizations committed to health, economic justice and representation for L.G.B.T.Q. girls and women.
During a conversation at a downtown cafe, Tegan was forthright and unapologetic, while Sara was analytical, using an app to astrologically survey our twin-by-twin dynamic. They frequently chipped at each other’s memories and perspectives to hone the truth and soon turned the questions on us: Did we ever feel competitive with each another, or encroached upon, as twins with the same career? These are excerpts from the conversation.
JENN PELLY As identical twins, we have strengths and weaknesses that are different but complementary. I often think: If you put us back together, we would be a perfect person. Do you relate?
TEGAN AND SARA QUIN 100 percent.
SARA I wouldn’t be as extreme, if Tegan wasn’t Tegan. I would have balanced myself differently. When Tegan would go through a dark stage, and be a little more chaotic, I would straighten up and be more disciplined. When Tegan went through a punk stage and started getting tattoos everywhere, I was like, I’m going to wear tailored clothing.
LIZ PELLY I think some twins learn early on that collaboration requires compromise and patience.
SARA A lot of people will say, “I have mommy issues” or “daddy issues.” I have Tegan issues. A lot of my hangups or dysfunctions in relationships are based on our primary relationship as children — what worked for us, what didn’t, how difficult it was to share the same face.
Most people sort of break up with their mom or their dad when they go out into the world and become adults. With us, it’s like we broke up, but decided to co-parent our music career.
TEGAN I believe there is a deep desire in Sara to define herself outside of this duo, like she’s cutting off an appendage. It’s not sad for me anymore, but it was at first. We are better together. Our songs are more developed together, and we stand out in a crowd together. It’s very complicated, to want to sever and tether at the same time, this mix of emotions that’s feuding inside of you at all times: We desperately want to be apart, and be our own people, but I need her to thrive and survive.
JENN Explain the mirror on the cover of “High School.”
TEGAN The mirror is distorted, and so is our perception of ourselves, and of the past, and of each other. In writing the book, it was like: That’s what you remember? That’s what you thought was happening? Over the years, I’ve realized there’s this unfair weight put on our shoulders to represent both of us. It’s a psychic burden; you’re responsible for each other.
JENN One passage that shocked me was when you discover you’ve both been playing music alone. Liz and I talk about cryptophasia a lot, a secret language that some twins share. Is that how it felt?
SARA When I discovered the guitar, I didn’t need to know Tegan was also discovering the guitar. When I figured out I was attracted to my best friend, I just assumed Tegan was figuring out she was attracted to her best friend. I assumed there was this parallel experience happening at all times.
TEGAN I was shocked you had been doing the same things.
SARA Discovering the guitar and writing songs felt like an epiphany, like a miracle. I had been so bad at so many things. This was the one time in my life I picked something up, and I knew how to do it. It felt like a gift, like it saved me. I wanted to protect that for a second, in that little tiny moment where I was doing it alone. But playing with Tegan, I knew it was bigger and better and more special and more seductive to people.
JENN You write about not fitting in with the punks, while also offending people in school because of the way you dressed, like outsiders among outsiders. Did you embolden each other?
SARA I felt alienated at punk shows. I walked in with that chip on my shoulder — “I don’t belong” — and Tegan threw her bag on the wall, walked into the pit, banged her head and thrashed.
TEGAN I always felt, if you want to be in that room, go in that room. If you want to be invited there, go. If you want to be a part of things, be a part.
JENN I wonder if some of this confidence comes from having a built in support system — the us against the world type thing.
TEGAN I never needed an external source to inspire me. It’s inside of me. I want to make my own rules. I don’t want to ask permission. There were long stretches of our career where I felt Sara dwelled on meaningless things. But she was finding a way to work through, and I worked my way around.
There were certain criticisms made of us, early on, that felt unfair. They did not feel like musical criticisms. They felt borderline or blatantly misogynist. My reaction was to design a T-shirt with all of the quotes — Spin magazine: “Wicca-folk nightmare.” Pitchfork: “Tampon rock.” I wanted to sell it on our website, and embrace the part of our history that made us as tough as we are now — not hardened, not bitter, but thrilled to be a part of this still. Because we got around it, and she got through it, and we’re still here.
SARA I always had a more institutional perspective. It wasn’t “tampon rock” that bothered me, it was sexism that bothered me. It was homophobia that bothered me.
The only reason I’m still making music, in this band, is because Tegan was championing me and cheering me on and trying to get me past these obstacles. But I didn’t feel sorry for myself. I felt furious at the industry, at the institutions that were inherently flawed and discriminatory. Even as a young person, I thought: If we’re the ones making it, and I feel this bad, Jesus, what does it feel like to be the artist that isn’t breaking through? I appreciated Tegan going around the obstacles, but I was like: I want to put dynamite under the obstacle and blow it up. We really have struggled with that dynamic.
A lot of that was planted early in our lives. Tegan’s coming out story is so different. She didn’t face the same type of homophobia. She didn’t have the same type of trauma as I did. Tegan holds her girlfriend’s hand on the street. I don’t. I’m afraid. I don’t care how big WorldPride is or how many cool new queer artists are on the covers of magazines. My experience informed how I react to the world. And that sometimes is hard to reconcile.
JENN I was thinking about your song “Nineteen” from “The Con,” which also describes your teenage years. Do you feel you’ve been reflecting on this part of your lives for a while now?
TEGAN When we started talking about other songs that could be included [on our upcoming tour], the first song I thought of was “Nineteen.” I thought about how much of our music harkens back to that high school period. We’ve been diminished over and over throughout our careers for only writing love songs. But what we were really writing about was relationships, including the ones with ourselves — about family, friends, work. You talk about everything when you’re talking about relationships. There’s something about tethering the old songs to the modern age that becomes very cinematic for me. It starts to tell a bigger story.
LIZ You’ve described “You Go Away and I Don’t Mind,” from the new album, as being about the futility of fame. What is it like to reflect on that now that you are famous?
SARA I think that is the most strangely prophetic song. It was very surreal to read those lyrics all of these years later. Because for me, it’s very coherent. Since we were little, we had drawn undeserved or unearned attention. We would go to the mall as little kids and people would touch us. And that’s very disorienting and destabilizing as a young person. I think we did feel popular but it felt false. And that echoes what it feels like to be famous or to be a celebrity in some ways. It can feel very empty.
JENN In part of the book, a friend’s brother asks you to jam, and you talk about how badly you wanted to be taken seriously. Was there a point in which you finally felt like you were taken seriously?
TEGAN To this day there’s a part of us that doesn’t feel like we’ve been taken that seriously, and I think all women probably feel that way. But we’ve now spent the majority of our adult life doing the thing we love, and we’re approached every day by people who are like, “I exist because of you.” Things like the Grammys become less important when you have an entire generation of people who are grateful you were bold and open about being gay before it was cool.
SARA We want journalists and fans, and culture at large, to reconcile how we see young women as artists — and when we begin seeing art as valuable. With our new songs, there are going to be people who say, “Oh, isn’t it cute? They released songs from when they were in high school.” But we want this music to be taken seriously. Not because we’re 38 years old and rerecording these songs, but because we were 15, 16 and 17 years old when we wrote them. And as 38-year-old women who have been around the world, who have experienced so much, I still think there is value in what I had to say. I went back and listened to that music and decided it is valuable.
TEGAN Actually I did first and then you did two months later.
SARA We are challenging people to see this work as sophisticated and mature and ahead of its time.
When we were teenagers, our music was written about as “rudimentary, but geez, there is something there.” It wasn’t rudimentary. There was something remarkable about what we were trying to say. There is something so profound about your first experiences. I fell in love multiple times. I was depressed. I was suicidal. I was passionate. I fought with my mother. I broke up with my sister. Those are some of the biggest moments of my life. How am I supposed to just write them off, like, “Oh who cares, I was a teenager.”
LIZ We’re taught that thinking in an emotionally-charged way is something for your teenage years. But actually, that sort of emotional intensity is powerful to carry with you throughout your life.
SARA I have a visceral memory of sitting down to write the song “Hello” at the end of grade 12. I had been devastated by this girl, Zoe, in the book — I loved her, and she was like, “I don’t like girls.” I was grappling with all of these big things. And I remember thinking, “I wish I was older. I wish I knew how to get through this.” I’m 38 years old, and every time I sing that line, I feel that right now. I wish I knew how to do this better. I don’t understand why I’m still suffering. I don’t understand why I’m still not better.
TEGAN It’s powerful to acknowledge that you don’t have all of the answers yet.
SARA When I sat down and listened to the demos, I just thought: I’m so glad little Tegan and Sara wrote all this music. They were better at addressing my feelings than I am right now.