American Masters

Musicians Tegan and Sara

Transcript

Josh Hamilton: I’m Josh Hamilton.

Joe Skinner: And I’m Joe Skinner.

Josh Hamilton: And this is the American Masters Podcast, where we have conversations with the people who change us. Today, we talk to indie pop stars, Tegan and Sara.

Excerpt from “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” by Tegan and Sara.

Josh Hamilton: That was, “I Don’t Owe You Anything,” from Tegan and Sara’s new album, “Hey, I’m Just Like You.” This album emerged from the duo’s rediscovered high school demo tapes, so the songs are crackling with the raw energy of a couple of high schoolers first discovering their talents. They began steeped in the grunge sound of their predecessors, bands like Nirvana and Hole. And through the years have turned into anthemic synth pop superstars. They’ve sold over a million records worldwide, have received three Juno Awards, a Grammy nomination, and recently started the Tegan and Sara Foundation, which fights for health, economic justice, and representation for LGBTQ+ girls and women.

Joe Skinner: And of course, you might know them from performing “Everything is Awesome” from The Lego Movie. In their new memoir, “High School,” Tegan and Sara talk about everything that came before this: the awkward teen years, and all the battles that come with it.

Josh Hamilton: Joe spoke with Tegan and Sara at the beginning of the album’s tour, a multimedia experience with a 90’s aesthetic, featuring passages from their book, VHS home movies, and stripped-down versions of their songs.

Joe Skinner: Are you going to just wear 90’s clothes for the duration of the tour, you think?

Tegan Quin: I think so.

Sara Quin: It's so roomy. You know I've just like been shoving my body into these tight clothes for the last like 15 years and all of a sudden it's like wide legged stuff is back in and I'm like I don't know if it's because we're almost 40 or because I have some kind of hormonal imbalance but like those pants don't feel good anymore.

Joe Skinner: I want JNCOs to come back.

Sara Quin: Love JNCOs. Love JNCOs.

Tegan Quin: They're expensive if you look online.

Joe Skinner: Are they really? Can you still get new JNCOs?

Tegan Quin: I don't know if you can get new ones but like finding the vintage ones-- I went on to eBay to look and yeah they're expensive.

Joe Skinner: Wow. Well, I will personally send you fifty dollars in the mail if you wear JNCOs on stage.

Sara Quin: Oh, that’s so fun. It's like an analog Kickstarter for Tegan to wear 90’s clothes.

Joe Skinner: Okay, well thank you both so much for coming in, I really appreciate it. You just started your tour for your new album, "Hey I'm Just Like You" and you also just released a book and the theme of our season for the podcast this year is around origin stories and how artists draw inspirations from their own biography and, this is just a perfect fit obviously.

Tegan Quin: I was just about to say this literally sounds like we're the perfect fit for this show.

Sara Quin: Did you come up with the podcast idea after you heard about Tegan and Sara's new memoir and their new album?

Sara Quin: Why am I talking about us in the third person? Sorry.

Joe Skinner: No, It was a cosmic coincidence. So you're not only mining your teenage years but you're also directly producing music that you wrote from these years. Could you talk a little bit about the collaboration that you're having with your younger selves and what this experience was like for you in revisiting the old material?

Tegan Quin: Yeah, when Sara and I finished our last record cycle which was about- I mean, this November it'll be two years. So, we kind of had this desire to still be creative but not necessarily just jump right into making a new record and one of the ideas we had was to maybe explore writing a book and within the first two conversations we'd come up with the concept of writing about our adolescent selves returning to high school and the reason- the number one reason and the real pitch of the book was that it's the origin of Tegan and Sara because we started our band in high school. That's when we discovered we could play music. That's when we started songwriting. But as we started writing it got so intense because it's also when we discovered that we were queer or at least, you know, named it. You know, we also really started to see ourselves as independent people and you know, started to venture out on our own and make new friends and it was also a troubled time for us and so the more we wrote the more we kind of dug into young us and got to know young us again and it's been kind of fascinating because I think like most people we thought we'd changed a lot. You know it's been 20 years since we graduated high school. I think we'd left young us adolescent us in the past and we'd sort of written us off the way that we, I think collectively as a society write off young people and we had almost this sort of oversimplified patronizing tone about our early music and our early appearance and our early selves and the more that we wrote and the more we got to know our young selves and you know wrote our origin story I think the more we sort of loved young us and felt like we needed to restore young us and that inspired the new record. So, that's why we recorded all these songs we wrote in high school and I know it's kind of been this real journey, a good journey sometimes an emotional journey but getting to know the early us has been kind of incredible.

Joe Skinner: Why do you think we're so afraid to look back at our early selves and what we made or said back then?

Sara Quin: I've been thinking a lot about this because on one hand I think that's true. I think that certainly in discussing this project, all these projects with people everyone is really quick to sort of tell us like I would never want to go back to high school I hate the way I look or I don't want to know what I wrote about in high school because it would be so embarrassing like there's definitely that. But, then I look around at what is being produced musically, in film and television, just art in general and how, you know, youth sort of influences the clothes that we wear and just the entertainment content stuff that we all digest constantly like, you know, just in the last year like some of my favorite stuff on TV like Sex Education, Euphoria. You know, it's being made about high school and it's being made about adolescence and there's obviously this sort of cultural collective desire to go back to that time and you know I've even been thinking about it in terms of like my own youth and what I was interested in as a teenager and I remember my mom would take us to the video store when we were in junior high and she would let us rent movies and at some point we had sort of like exhausted the Blockbuster like, you know, new releases and she introduced us to all the films that she liked that we wouldn't have necessarily been hip to like she was like "oh you should watch The Breakfast Club", and that sort of let us down this like rabbit hole of John Hughes films. And I just and so many of those films are centered in high school and so I think you know, yeah I think we're all sort of a little embarrassed and uncomfortable maybe even traumatized by our adolescence and yet we are constantly using those years to make really important and interesting art and so I think you know the fact that Tegan and I are getting this opportunity to sort of, I think on a personal level sort of heal some traumas and some wounds from our own adolescence. It's also really exciting to think that we're adding to this kind of, I don't know this sort of cultural ritual of looking back at ourselves and learning something interesting from it and maybe inspiring other people to do the same.

Joe Skinner: I found the book incredibly relatable also growing up in the 90’s and it just makes me wonder who you were writing the book for and if you had specific goals like that in mind while you were writing it because you know on paper I may not seem like a perfect candidate to relate to the book but I found myself cringing and laughing and enjoying myself in all the same- just reliving all the same kind of moments, you know, and sibling relationships are so universal and so many things. Yeah. I was just wondering, did you have specific goals in mind for who you were kind of targeting with the book?

Tegan Quin: You know it's an interesting... it's a really great question and it brings up a lot for me personally. I think Sara and I have been on a 20 year journey to try to correct the- I think often unfair exclusion that women experience in culture like in our specific case now books but also in music. This idea that when women create things it's only for women and I don't think men ever have to deal with that. No one ever says when a new Harry Styles record comes out or a new Radiohead record comes out that like a woman would never write about it and say I found myself baffled that I felt so drawn to it and Sara and I over 20 years have seen just ridiculous statements from often men but sometimes just straight people in general where they're like I can't believe I understand that connecting to this.

Joe Skinner: The human condition.

Tegan Quin: So, it's been this kind of journey for the last 20 years musically and so it's been actually really funny to write this book and then have that same experience again where every time we sit down with a man I'm like holy crap I really related your book. It's like exactly like my teenage experience and I'm like I know. We liked girls and we were weird and awkward and you know, had acne and it was tough and so I don't know I think to go back to your original question of like who was this book written for I suppose we're always thinking first and foremost it's for everyone. Ultimately we're always looking to make, you know, music and art and tell a story that reaches as many people as possible. I suppose that is why we call ourselves pop musicians because we're trying to be popular and... but I do think that when we were speaking to publishers and we were looking specifically at the themes to write about we were saying geez there isn't a lot of stories told by women. We often don't hear women's voices and music specifically and then when you really dive into like the queer female experience there's even less out there. So, you know we certainly want to reach that audience but I really truly believe Sara and I are always driving towards the mainstream because we want our story to become common.

Joe Skinner: That does remind me- in one interview, or maybe on stage or something, you said coming out is not a sound bite and you compared it to trying to solve a Rubik's Cube and I thought that was brilliant. I feel like that somehow relates to this, you know, not trying to pigeonhole ideas and people.

Sara Quin: Also, I mean the other thing too is that we've spent a great deal of the last two decades having really intimate conversations with strangers about ourselves and a lot of those strangers whether it's, you know, at a meet and greet or it's sitting next to someone on an airplane or you know in an- I don't know you and we're like telling you really personal things about ourselves and you know that experience of-I like to think of it as like simulated intimacy because like I don't think it's the same as like what I have with my girlfriend or what I have with my best friend when we get on the phone but we've really like learned how to have really open frank transparent conversations about things that are very difficult for most people to talk about and definitely really uncomfortable for people to talk about with strangers and when I think about some of the stuff that people have revealed to us about their coming out and their early romantic, sexual, you know, experiences one of the things that really just keeps coming up for me as we see, you know, gay- whatever I don't know how I speak so broadly about it like LGBTQ advances like as you see like same sex marriage and you know people speaking more like openly and being better allies to the queer community and you know more representation in film and television. There's also this like collective desire to sort of be like "you guys it's so much better now like let's all talk about how it's better now and we feel good now and let's talk about how positive we feel about being gay" and let's, you know, let's try to sort of like leave some of this other really tricky complicated stuff behind and you know one of the things that I really am excited about with the book and the way that it sort of touches on coming out is that Teagan and I are identical twin sisters who grew up in the same group of friends. We have the almost the same environmental experiences and yet we had profoundly different coming out experiences. We had-we each had a very unique experience with our first secret girlfriends. We experienced the closet but like being closeted not admitting we were gay. We experienced that really different. We internalized homophobia differently. We internalized our shame about our bodies really differently and so if Tegan and I can be identical twin sisters developmentally having this experience that should on paper kind of be similar, be so unique and different and in some cases polarizing, just think to myself that's just it just shows how different all of our experiences are, how unique they are and you know giving people a platform to speak about these things even if they're not positive experiences I think is really cathartic and it's culturally and socially valuable and I don't know I just like- it feels like the right time for us to sort of engage in that conversation and not have it be a soundbite for the first time.

Joe Skinner: Something in particular is all the different accounts of your experiences with drugs and rave culture in Calgary. Can you talk about whether it's important to you to destigmatize some of the judgments around teenage drug use?

Tegan Quin: Yeah. You know, it's been such a tough thing for Sara and I over the last 20 years because we get a lot of well-meaning parents that come to us asking questions about their adolescence. I don't know there's something about us even at a young age people are always coming to us and asking, you know, I mean not random people but people at shows you know accompanying their kids to meet and greets. Obviously a lot of parents travel and come with their, you know, newly out or experimenting or questioning teenagers and I feel like I gave the same advice about sexuality as I give about it about drugs. You know, ultimately it's a personal journey and some of us take it and some of us don't. Some of the struggle with it and others don't and for Sara and I drugs was a really integral part of our youth. It was really really important-very short. It was less than two years but for us, we were very outgoing. We were very sweet and charming and excitable extroverted teenagers on one hand and on another hand we had these very secret interior worlds where we were grappling with gigantic concepts about identity and there was no language and there was no real representation and I think that could have made us very different people had we not had music and had we not had drugs, both of which gave us the freedom to explore ourselves and to open our minds, to connect to each other, to connect to a group of people like us and I think the music scenes that came along with that. So, we were first in the punk rock alternative music scene and then in the rave scene. We met other people like us, other people questioning themselves and I think that it kind of pushed Sara and I out of our shells and once we started to write music of course we replaced that, you know, drug use with music. We became addicted to performing, to writing, to perfecting our art, to mastering our craft and creating a career for ourselves. But, I do really look back fondly on our drug use because I feel like I lost my inhibition. I lost my insecurity. I felt connected. I felt cellularly connected to my friends and to Sara, most importantly. But, lucky for us when we were high we didn't feel connected to writing music. Sara and I both experienced a very similar disgust of our instrument so -the guitar when we were high and so as we became more infatuated with writing music we became less infatuated with drugs. We were lucky ones. So, we've obviously struggled with how to tell this story because we don't want to encourage young people or anyone for that matter to go do drugs because they are also dangerous. They are illegal. They don't necessarily bring out the best in everyone. We just happen to be really good at it. We were able to keep it sort of under wraps and under control and it was a different time. Drugs were different but certainly on the public side of things we feel like men get to talk about experimentation. Men are celebrated for being kind of out there and fringe and taking drugs and expanding their minds and I think women are stigmatized for it. We certainly experience that in the music industry it's like, you know, I've had people in the industry who work for us take liquor out of my hand when I'm on my first glass of wine. You know there's a, 'off to bed now girls, look your best tomorrow' and I don't think men get treated that way and so, you know…

Joe Skinner: But you mentioned during that answer that you were unable to write music while you guys were exploring drug use. What was your songwriting process like at this time and you know in some of your home movie footage we see some awesome posters of Nirvana and we talk about Smashing Pumpkins and Hole and we get a little glimpse of some of your inspirations in that era but can you talk a little bit about your songwriting process and also could you talk a little bit about how you first created the Tegan and Sara sound?

Sara Quin: The songwriting process... I guess in high school, you know, for us everything was about our bedrooms. You know we- that's where like you could come home from school, make something to eat, go up to the bedroom, lock the door, listen to music like everything important to me was in that one room. It was like, I had moved out and was living in my own studio apartment and my parents just happened to live down the hall like it was like I wanted to be in that room at all times and so when Tegan and I found our step dad's guitar and we started shuttling it back and forth between our bedrooms and writing songs. It just sort of became another sort of ritualistic thing that we did in our bedrooms. It was like, you know, sit with the guitar and strum certain patterns of chords and try to sing melodies and write lyrics over top of it. I mean it was really basic and I think- I've really searched my mind when we were writing the memoir for some experience or some maybe like a TV show or a movie or something where I would have learned how to do it. But I think it just sort of was like, it was just something we like obviously picked up from being so interested in music culture that you know if you sort of mimicked or performed the way your heroes performed you would be able to come up with something sort of similar and Tegan and I talk a lot in the book about how there was- once we had learned how to make like power chords which for people who don't play guitar is like an extremely simple shape with your hands. It only involves pressing two of your fingers on two of the, you know, two of the six strings on the guitar and it is pretty easy to like make something that sounds like not crappy and so once we figured out how to master that we were just like- we wrote like 40 songs. You know it was like oh we can make this chord and it doesn't sound terrible and we had a little bit of music background because we had played piano but Tegan and I just kind of were like we're just being very intuitive like it was just sort of like sitting there and and trying out different ideas and we also had each other as sort of like little mini producers. So, it was like I would play something for Tegan and if she acted excited it was like ok great, I'm onto something and then she might say oh you know let me try something in the choruses underneath you. We probably wouldn't have even said chorus. I don't even know if we would have used the word but-

Tegan Quin: Well, no because in your journal you did write like little things.

Sara Quin: I did. I guess, yeah.

Tegan Quin: So we understood verse. We wouldn't have said like a pre-chorus. But we understood what a chorus and verse was. We have no idea what a bridge was.

Sara Quin: The chorus was either the loudest part or the quietest part.

Tegan Quin: I think the big thing was that we wouldn't work on a song for a long time. That's one thing that's really different. It's clear by the output that we had during the two years we were in high school that we were capable of writing music. We just wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote. You write-

Sara Quin: Every day.

Tegan Quin: You write every day and then determine it was finished. We'd record it for each other and then we'd move on. There was no tinkering and perfecting. Once a song was written, it was done and we would just, you know, kind of like interlay our vocals or another guitar, you know, to give the song a bit of texture but then we would just move on and then you can see through the course of those 40 songs we reuse ideas. We reuse concepts. We recycle certain lyrics. Obviously- I can't jump back really into the thought process behind that but it's clear that like maybe something that we really liked. We're now tired of this song but we'll just steal from it and put it into another song and so there's a lot of- you can see that kind of tinkering happening over the course of those two years through our production so. But, we always joked that there's just no one who loves to hear the sound of their own voice like an early musician like a new musician like it's just the song there's a song we have called "Here I Am", which is like six minutes long. There's nine different parts in the song and it's just, you know, there's just an enormous amount of exploration that was happening during that time but there's also a quick release and you know jumping off the song and getting onto the next thing like an impatience which I think feels very adolescent in that early music.

Joe Skinner: And when you first discover these old demo tapes that you based the new album on were they, like you said a bunch of different iterations and variations on single songs or did you find a compiled mastered demo tape?

Sara Quin: There were there were a number of tapes that we found and on those tapes, there was like exactly as you described it. There were songs that really felt like wow this is like very-actually I was extremely surprised when Tegan sent me some of the music because I thought this is going to be gibberish. It's gonna be incoherent and I was really shocked at how fully formed a lot of the music was and then there was like stuff that was a bit like, I mean, we just- like Tegan said, we just were obsessed with the sound of what we were making. So, it was like if I had an idea or I had a even just like a song lit, it was like let's record it. So, some stuff needed to be reworked and needed some of the polish of of adult Tegan and Sara and then other stuff it was just like oh wow this is like, it doesn't even need anything it's just perfect the way it is.

Joe Skinner: I really wish "Tegan Didn't Go to School Today", ended up on the album. I'm still waiting for the bonus track.

Tegan Quin: You can hear it on the audio version of the book which is fun. I actually feel like the recording of that isn't so bad I could imagine. We also played on radio at some point. So, we have another recording of it but it's hard. Some of those early songs, there's a silliness and we were really, you know, as we pulled together the record itself there was really only two things that we decided right off the bat. We didn't want anything too silly so we adapt it's you know change some of the lyrics that were kind of whimsical and ridiculous. But, we also felt like "Tegan Didn't Go to School Today", was silly. Now, the song itself is great and there is something really awesome about the song and the fact that it was in that first batch of songs that we wrote does make it really special but you know there was still part of us that sense that if we didn't take it really serious, if we didn't pull the best, most commercial parts out of those early demos that people would write this off as not the next Tegan and Sara record. I don't know how to articulate it in a different way other than to say like I just wanted to make sure that people took this record as serious as they would any other one of our records. There is nothing different about this other than the songs are older but they're still Tegan and Sara songs, we just never brought them to their full capacity and I was really afraid of leaving some of the silly lyrics or to put some of the songs that weren't, you know, strong because I was really fearful that people would be like, "oh that new batch of songs is just Tegan and Sara songs from high school". So it's been a labor of love to make sure that it still sits, you know, in its own right, like as the next Tegan and Sara record because-

Sara Quin: Maybe "Tegan Didn't Go to School Today", will be the lead single off of our kids' record.

Joe Skinner: That would be a great purpose for it. I think.

Tegan Quin: Is that like a compromise that you would be ok with?

Sara Quin: Yeah, I would be okay with it. I think the content is- it's a little on the sweeter side but it's really hooky. So I think kids would like it.

Joe Skinner: So when's the kids album coming out?

Sara Quin: Well, my God, we've got a lot on our plate right now. So, we'll see.

Tegan Quin: We are doing a graphic novel series that's aimed at grade 8, grade 9 aged-students. Maybe there could be a kids' companion record with that.

Sara Quin: Yeah, maybe. I feel like people get into making kid stuff when they have children like they become so obsessed with their own children and then they become obsessed with children in general and then they become interested in making content for those children and currently I could be persuaded to make something for my cats like I could be interested in doing something for cat culture. But, right now with kids no. It's fine. They've got lots. They don't need us.

Joe Skinner: So, were kids in high school at the time- did they all know that you were musicians and exploring music and was that something that excited your peers?

Sara Quin: I mean definitely our social circle was aware of it because we forced them to constantly listen to us and we were so annoying. It was one of the most embarrassing moments for me when I was going through all the VHS footage that we have from the 1990s. We would do these parties and we were just like, just complete like jerks like we'd be like "you guys be quiet. It's really annoying when you move around and talk" like we're just such jerks but we really-.

Tegan Quin: I don't know if we were jerks. We were just -we were just really into playing.

Sara Quin: We really took ourselves seriously like we went totally from being the life of the party like having fun, partying, dancing to being like everyone sit quietly and watch us perform. But we can't be drinking while we're doing it. But yeah I think everybody was really -this is something that I've like found out later. I didn't understand this at the time. I knew people liked our band and when we would go to parties or we would, you know, in the summers we would go out and hang out in these big parks in Calgary and we would bring our guitars and we had this group of friends that was really eclectic. You know, there was kids that went to raves and there was- we hung out with some kids who were break dancers and I have these memories of us like...such an eclectic group of people like we all bring our like thing with us like it's like Tegan and I have our acoustic guitars and like our friends who are break dancers have brought like cardboard flats because they just they're gonna be like breakdancing all night long in the park and like we just where, I don't know and look -people had skateboards and like some of our friends were dancers and like everybody was just really artistic and everybody wanted to like do their thing and we were also supportive of that and we were really open minded about each other's interests and-

Tegan Quin: You basically just we're like it's like the Calgary version of like Fame.

Sara Quin: Yeah, except everybody was really drunk and sometimes stoned. But, you know, I think it was just like really wonderful and we felt really seen by those people and we, you know, I didn't think of it at the time but like they really taught us what it meant to have a community and what it meant to have a fan base that was like there was so much reciprocity and I just remember at the time feeling so realized by all of them and one of the interesting wonderful things that has come out of making both this album and then writing the memoir is that so many people we went to high school with who we are still friends with who were very close with still to this day. This has given them such a thrill like to to be able to interact with this story again and to be able to hear these songs which for so many of them were a bit of a soundtrack and I didn't we didn't talk like that in high school like my friends weren't like, "thank you very much for writing a soundtrack to our life". They were just like, "I like your songs" but now we're all adults in our late 30s and early 40s and so many of the messages that we get from our friends from that time are like, "oh my God I didn't realize how important these songs were still to me" like to hear them brings up all of these really deep intense memories for people and so now I feel like for the first time after like so many years I'm realizing that these people were like legitimate fans, that they really, really loved what we did. But, I mean, we were doing it completely exclusively for them which makes which makes it even more special.

Joe Skinner: The live show feels like it has a lot of intention to it. All these decisions are being made around where you're placing the books on stage and the decision to perform a heavily acoustic set. What are you trying to communicate through this specific tour?

Tegan Quin: When we look at the book and look at the age we were, there was a simplicity to what we were doing that was just two of us and yet there was power in what we were doing, just the two of us. So, we felt that to go out and do this first tour, just the two of us, would be you know, an homage to that time. It's also something our fan base asks for all the time. We spend all this time like getting a band together and production and they're just -they claim to really just want us to stand up there, play acoustic and tell stories. So, we really wanted to feed that part of the fan base but then when I looked at the music itself and the intention behind the record and a lot of the messaging in the record and the lyrics themselves but also just around this you know sort of concept that we're putting out there there's this idea of, you know, taking a bit of a step down off the stage, off the platform, connecting with our audience but also confirming something that we've always thought but maybe we have never said aloud which is that we are just like our audience. We came from a very similar place. We experienced a lot of the same things that they do, that this incredible life we've worked very hard for it but have also been very lucky to get has created this division or this, you know, kind of disconnect a bit like where we're up on this platform being loved and applauded and we just kind of want to come down off the stage. We wanted to create something that felt much more community-driven and we wanted to create an experience that felt truly intimate. We've been sort of expanding ourselves, expanding our image, expanding our reach expanding our community and fan base and making the music bigger and wider and louder and more explosive and there was just this desire to return to our roots, I think so. I mean we've only got one show down but it felt really special. It felt really nice to do it and I think after all this time it's good to put us in a position where we're out of our comfort zone and we too are experiencing something new.

Joe Skinner: In the show, I noticed that Naomi and Alex are people from your story, that really carry the live show and while they're central in the book they feel even more central in the live show. I guess I was curious to kind of unpack that a little bit and why these were such touchstone relationships from this part of your life.

Sara Quin: I think what really appeals to me about sort of amplifying those parts of our story and those parts for you know for people who haven't read the book Naomi and Alex are the first girls who Tegan and I had relationships with in secret sort of under the guise of like they're my best friend. But, really what's going on is obviously much more significant than that and I think why that material sits better in a live setting or why it's maybe where we focused our energy for the live shows because it's probably what I think our audience is most curious about and I think it's where they sort of intersect in in a relational way. I mean, most of the people who come up to us and meet and greets and talk about our music or the significance of songs, you know, one of two things-it's usually one or two one of two things. It's either I was broken up with or I met my future partner listening to your music. This is my favorite song you know etc.. And then there's the person who comes up and says, you know, I was a closeted teenager in high school and you gave me the strength to come out. So, those are the two areas of the show in the show that we really focus on. You know, our own sort of like struggles with identity and accepting our queerness and coming out and then these really early formative relationships with women that in very different ways impacted, you know, how we learned to be loved and how we love learned to love and I think because both of those girls, both Alex and Naomi, were a big part of our early songwriting. They were, I mean, I know for myself when I started my secret secret relationship with Naomi I was 15 years old. Really, I was basically actually 14. I mean, we were sort of like emotionally, very deeply involved with each other in junior high and it turned into a physical relationship in high school and she was my she was my first muse. I mean, she was the first person I wrote songs about. She was the first girl who broke my heart and who I wrote breakup songs about and so because so many of our fans come to our shows carrying those stories carrying those losses and you know I think I wanted to share ours. You know, I think I wanted to share, you know, share those experiences that so often we don't talk about more. I mean, going back to the soundbite idea from the top of the show we talk about oh yeah, we were broken up with and I wrote a bunch of songs at the end. But it was like this was a really wonderful place for us to sort of dig into that material.

Joe Skinner: And discovering sexuality is kind of central to the high school experience for a lot of people and do you think it was more or less challenging having a sibling alongside you going through a similar process?

Tegan Quin: You know, I think for me witnessing, I mean, I shouldn't even use the word witnessing. I obviously had a sense that Sara was having a relationship with Naomi, her best friend. There were grand changes to our friendship the second they got kind of close to getting together, even before they got together there was a gradual removal of me from the more intimate parts of the hanging out time like when it was time for bed I would kind of be relegated to the guest bedroom rather than sharing a room with them and that was a really new thing. That was a very big change and a shift and so you know I think a lot of the initial period of time when Sara started to experiment I didn't really know exactly what was going on. So, I think I associate a little bit of anxiety and confusion with my first realizations that Sara might be gay or whatever I would have called it at that time, like experimenting with a girl. You know, I don't have a ton of negative associations with my sexuality. I definitely struggled with naming it. I definitely struggled with when I should come out and how. I definitely felt, I mean, I use the word frigid but I guess it'll do for now. I think there was a frigidness like I had crushes on girls and once I sort of figured out oh this is a crush there was a sort of, you know, a long stretch of time where I didn't know what to do with those feelings. It's hard because as I wrote the book I realized there were so many people we knew that were experimenting. It was very much an unspoken thing but it was something that I feel like everyone understood to be happening. That may or may not be true. It seems very obvious now. But it's interesting because even though rave culture was queer even though my own sister was you know experimenting and even though there were other girls in our group that were experimenting it took me a long time to get there. I didn't, you know, get together with Alex until grade 12. But once it happened, at least for me it felt so natural and exciting and fun and yet I still kept it a secret and I think that Sara and I both experienced at that point a sort of frustration, at times homophobia and I think that was because we felt the other was going to give away our secret. Again, I think that was just you know homophobia and fear. You know, I don't think that either one of us wanted the other to stay in the closet or you know I think I experience a bit of like Sara maybe thinking that I was copying her. Maybe there was irritation or agitation but honestly mostly what I experienced around my identity in high school and during adolescence was just not being sure of when or how to articulate it and just thinking well I'll do it when I get out of high school. I think there was something deeply awkward for me about the idea of talking about sexuality because to me it equated to talking about sex and I just didn't want to talk about sex. Even now I think sometimes that's where my uncomfortableness will creep up is that something about saying I'm queer or I'm gay, it's like I'm also saying save time, "hi I'm Tegan and I have sex with women" like I don't know why and that is probably just homophobia. But there's just -no one says to me I don't know, It's just a weird things so I think as a teenager that's what I equated it with and so there was just I didn't want to talk about sex with boys either. I hated talking sex in general.

Sara Quin: Yeah I was just thinking to myself, like thinking about your question too and you know would it have been different if we were straight. You know, like what would we have been like if we were straight? Would we have been like "I had sex like a boy". Like, I don't think we talked- There was something very…

Tegan Quin: We were very non-sexual as a group of people.

Sara Quin: We came from… All of the people in our family like my mom my dad and my stepdad were all raised Catholic and they all refer to themselves as recovering Catholics like none of them were practicing. We didn't go to church or anything. But, I do think there was like something sort of buttoned up about everyone in our family like I -you know I don't want to disclose people's you know sexual coming out stories or whatever but like I've heard wild stories that just like blow my mind like I know people who like upon deciding that they were going to have sex with their high school boyfriend sat down with their parent and said I'd like to go get birth control and I'd like to plan for, you know, safe sex and I'm just like that happens like ...what? Like, I just -the thought of actually sitting down and talking to my parent before I had sex, about the sex I was going to have

Tegan Quin: Never was going to happen.

Sara Quin: ...It's utterly shocking to me and in fact when I see it done in television and movies I'm like that doesn't happen. That is not a real thing. No one sits down with their parents.

Tegan Quin: I think people do.

Sara Quin: I know but I don't believe it. I'm going to have to have children and my child gonna have to sit me down and say Mother, I don't know I just decided I was going to be called "mother". I don't know.

Tegan Quin: Oh my God, Sara's gonna be called mother.

Sara Quin: “I'm going to have sex and I need your assistance in making sure it's safe.”

Tegan Quin: Yeah we were just awkward as hell about sex. I think-so sexuality only complicated further but ultimately I think we were really worried to blow each other's cover and you know it was just deeply awkward.

Sara Quin: I was also scared. I was so afraid for myself and I was so afraid that when I started to realize that Tegan was gay it felt -it was like a burden like I was like Oh God we're both gay, like great. Great. We're both gay. Like, that's like that seemed so much more stressful than if it was just me who is gay like I didn't feel relieved. I was like oh God. Like, it just it just sort of doubled the weight that I was already carrying.

Joe Skinner: Also growing up in a rural community do you think that had any impact on this period in your life?

Sara Quin: I don't think so. You know, because in a lot of ways you know, when we talk to friends who like okay I have a friend who grew up in upstate New York and you know went to a small high school and you know didn't know any other gay people and didn't have access to raves or drugs or music culture or whatever it like. By all you know like I think it's fair to say that we actually had quite a cosmopolitan cultured experience given the circumstances like we were going to raves and I saw you know, with my first raves it was the first time I'd ever even seen gayness like I saw men touching each other or holding each other's hands or kissing each other or like snuggling up in the music you know in the dark or whatever, listening to music, I-.

Tegan Quin: People snuggle at raves?

Sara Quin: I don't know, you know, like cuddling or whatever like I guess I'm trying to like I don't know I'm being like polite like probably on ecstasy or like giving each other back massages or whatever but like I remember thinking like wow I'd never seen men be gentle with each other. I'd always seen men punching each other like slapping each other in the back or like football team or whatever like I'd never seen men be, well to me the culture felt very feminine. It actually felt like all that toxic masculinity that was everywhere in our school and music and all these places. When we went to raves there was this sort of like queerness to the whole thing even if people weren't gay and you know my mom would talk to us about gay people. My mom would say like it's okay to experiment and you know there was actually quite a lot of social cues and space for us.

Tegan Quin: Which somehow didn't make it any easier.

Sara Quin: No, that's I mean like I don't know. My mom brought us home like independent films with like queer storylines and like you know we had these videotapes that Tegan and I found one of the things that really broke my heart about them is that we constantly are interviewing people like we were like these like little mini journalists running around the school being like, excuse me can I ask you some questions and we constantly ask people about homosexuality. We use that word. We say "how do you feel about homosexuals? How do you feel about homosexuality?" Like, do you think people who like homosexuals are like stereotyped and we clearly were comfortable enough to talk about the ideas but I just don't think even with all of that gayness and openness and whatever around us, something prevented both of us from feeling comfortable enough to talk about it publicly and I think you know I think that's not dissimilar to the way it is now. You know, I think this idea that like oh a bunch of famous musicians came out as gay and there's some characters on TV are gay and you know Bank of America has a Gay Pride float now so like everybody should be fine right? We're all fine with it. Raise your hand. Everybody's good? Great. Everybody's comfortable. And it's like that's not the way it works. Like I talk to kids all the time. Adults- I talk to adults and kids all the time who are still not comfortable with their sexuality and we're talking about historically decades and decades and decades of just horrible rampant homophobia. It is like institutionalized. It built into our systems. Of course, we still feel uncomfortable and I think you can have the gayest stuff around you and still not quite feel good about yourself. I think that's totally normal.

Joe Skinner: Your career spanned a huge change for the LGBTQ community from the 90’s to now even with a lot still staying the same. Were you treated as musicians and advocates for this community in a different way in the beginning versus how you are now?

Tegan Quin: Yeah, you know, it's interesting because when we first started playing music we were both uncomfortable with how to talk about our identity and but obviously it was clear to specific gay press that we were gay even before we'd come out. I mean, where were we going to come out? I mean we were 19 years old.

Sara Quin: Like, we were out.

Tegan Quin: Nobody cared. We were out. But like, you know, with the very minimal amount of press we were getting it wasn't a question that would come up automatically. But, then we got the cover of Lesbian News which was like this-I think it was called Lesbian News.

Sara Quin: Like, they don't put straight people on the cover. It's not like whoopsy daisy, we have a couple of gays, we have a couple straights on there.

Tegan Quin: And so obviously they knew and again you know that part of our career- that early part of it isn't documented well because it just wasn't social media. There just wasn't that much coverage of us. We were such a small band so, it's hard to say exactly what it was like at the beginning. Other than to just go back in our memory like we didn't-it's not like high school. We didn't write journals, we weren't running around backstage, Sara and I, interviewing each other about homosexuality anymore so it was like...it's hard but my memory of the time is that it was just really awkward. No one really asked. When it did come up, it was weird. You know, we were often talking to men who were decades older than us which is who mainly you know, at that time it was predominantly men that interviewed us for indie rock and rock magazines and it just seemed awkward. There was no language. We didn't have it yet. They didn't have it yet. I think we went through that phase that every, you know, person who's othered goes through where it's like you want to be- I'm done being othered now. I'd like to just be included in the full conversation. Why do I always have to talk about being a woman? Why do I always have to talk about being queer? Why do I always have to talk about being a twin? You know, we went through that awkward phase of our career and so yes now is a completely different time. It's hard to even compare. It's a different world. The language is so different. People, just in general, I feel our society and the media has grown up so much and matured so much and things have changed so much. You know, I think that the way that the queer community supported us at the beginning is very different than the way they support us now. I think that there was a huge stretch of our career, I would be so bold as to say 15 years of it, where the gay male community pretty much just ignored us and they tend to dominate the gay press and so we were really under covered in that region, that area. Like they're just- you know Curve Magazine covered us. Lesbian News put us on the cover. You know, when Diva came along they covered us but there was a lack of coverage in the LGBTQ community and it was actually Heartthrob our really big pop record that came out in 2012-2013, when the gay community really, really jumped on board and so I think for a long time we actually felt really isolated. We weren't celebrated by the gay community. Straight press, I think played a role in creating this idea that we were an LGBTQ icon status band. But, I think that was pretty untrue for a long time. We were much more celebrated in the indie rock world than we ever were in the LGBTQ world. Now, if we're not talking about press and coverage in the mainstream like sure, yeah I think a lot of queer people supported us and came to our shows. We saw them firsthand. I mean, if we're saying like yes, there were women who had short hair in our audience or who looked like us. There were a lot of people in the mid-2000s who had mullets and maybe they were queer. I don't know. But, we hoped so.

Sara Quin: We hoped so.

Tegan Quin: But, it was just a different time. We didn't talk about it the way that we do now. So, it's all guesswork but I would say that it was really in 2012 when we sort of became more mainstream pop that we just saw this influx of coverage from the queer community and then the straight media started kind of adopting this like LGBTQ icons, lesbian icons, queer icons like that was sort of put on us which was also hard for us because then we've often felt awkward because why were we the ones that got to be called that? You know, there was a lot of people in our community that were like you don't represent us. You are not my voice and it's- we went through a whole phase where we apologized all the time for that. We were like sorry, we're the queer band that we're- only one of us gets to be partially famous at a time. So, especially around like "Everything is Awesome" Oscar's, “Closer,” time period, there was a lot of apologies on our side of things because there was a lot of queer people meeting us and saying, yeah I like your band but I like straight people music too and it was just like ah. So there's like a lot of awkwardness.

Sara Quin: I think too, you know, one of the things that I'm starting to realize now as we're looking back. There was this there is a scarcity issue when you don't have a lot of queer people making art publicly or being celebrated publicly. It can be really frustrating when someone starts to hog all the gay attention. Well, that's just a reality and I don't hold it against anyone like I just I'm like I have seen it happen. I've seen it happen from afar now. Someone new and gay comes out and you just think to yourself like, “Why are they getting all the covers of the magazines like, good for you. You came out.” Like, you know, and I just think there's like a little bit of it like cattiness because there's not a lot of space for us and so... not us like me and Tegan but space for gay people. So, when you start to see gay people get celebrated, I think there's like some- a little bit of like, cattiness and fighting and I think Tegan is right. There was something about, specifically around gay men, that we didn't quite understand initially and I now know that it's misogyny. I think there was a lot of men who didn't like us because we were women who had short hair and didn't wear makeup and we weren't like- they weren't interested in hearing our story and they weren't interested in the way we looked and there was a sort of like, sorry you don't represent the gay culture that we're representing and so I don't think we knew that at the time. But, I know that now and I know that because those problems exist within our community, well outside of the entertainment industry. It's about fundraising and it's about what issues concern our community. It's about representation. It's about who is important and who holds power, both financial and otherwise. You know, when we started to understand how our community- the problems within our community, just because you're gay doesn't mean you have good politics, doesn't mean you have good identity politics, doesn't mean you're not an ass****. So, I think like, once we started to realize like okay, we're dealing with some big systemic issues here. This isn't just like, people are like "No, no no. I don't really like Tegan and Sara's mullets". Like, this was big stuff that we had to kind of unpack and at 21 we had none of the experience or education to deal with that. Whereas, at like at 39 now, I can say to like the editor of a big gay magazine, "Hey, I know you called us lesbian 40,000 times in this interview. We've asked time and again, please call us gay or please call us queer. Please don't gender us. Please don't do this thing or that thing", like we never used to stand up for ourselves because we were so afraid of those you know those gatekeepers- gay-keepers. Yeah, I just thought of that. I just thought of that. But I just-yeah, we've really tried to sort of like, in a really Canadian polite way, start sort of shuffling things around that we sort of accepted through our 20s that I just don't want to accept anymore.

Joe Skinner: Well, thank you for that. I just have a couple more questions. You know, the book ends with Garage Warz, basically around when you both find success and so along similar lines to what we're talking about, I'm curious, you know, what the next book would be about, what you would try to chronicle. What would be the through line of that next chapter?

Sara Quin Gay-keepers. It'll be about the gay-keepers in the early aughts and it might be the most controversial thing we do.

Tegan Quin: I think we definitely think of the next few years after we graduate high schools being an interesting place to mine next. Now, is it worthy of a book? Is it something that would hold our interest or anyone else's? I'm not entirely sure. But, we do obviously intentionally leave the reader wondering, even though you do know what happens to us because you can just go on the internet and type in gay twins and Tegan and Sara pop up. But I mean-.

Sara Quin: Don't do that Google search, you guys. That's not what comes up.

Tegan Quin: It's actually probably problematic.

Sara Quin: It's actually not. If you put gay twins right now, believe me when I tell you that it's not going to be anything wholesome.

Tegan Quin: Okay, how about Canadian gay twins? You probably would've gotten Tegan and Sara.

Sara Quin: No. Again, I'm really just suggesting you don't do that.

Tegan Quin: All right. So, I think that there- we intentionally left the reader wondering what happens. I mean we intentionally didn't go into our coming out. I don't address my coming out at all. Sara just starts to touch on it in the epilogue and so you know I think that that was definitely us saying there might be another book or there might be an opportunity to tell the next chapter of the story. Again, that early part of our career from 1998 till I would say probably 2003 is very under covered and they're just-you know, we don't have a lot of press and no social media so there's definitely, I think an opportunity to dive into the early part of our career and our official coming out. I think we're always struggling with like, what does our audience want? So, I think we need to see how people react to this book and see if there is a natural evolution towards telling the next part of our story. Ultimately, we do want to make sure we're always giving our audience what it is they want, you know, so I'll see if there's a demand to know like, how does Tegan come out? Tell us.

Sara Quin: I think too, like, I mean not to be like argumentative but it's so funny cause I actually don't feel in any way -like I think what drew me to writing about high school... I mean, first and foremost is like, am I interested in it? Do I want to spend a year and a half with myself as a teenager? Of course, in my mind I'm thinking, I think our fans will be really into this. I couldn't believe how much work it took to write a book. Like, you know music is complicated and you know, inspiration comes in waves and I've had bouts of writer's block and you know there's lots of things that are difficult about making music. But like, just the discipline and the sort of like sitting for eight hours at a time, day in and day out for months and months and months on top of months and months and months, it was hard. It was really, really hard. It's not- it wasn't rewarding in the way that we've become used to. Like, the reward of making music is that even at the end of a day when a song is in its most basic early like, zygote form, I can play it for Tegan or I can play it for my girlfriend or I can even listen to it myself and sort of have a third person kind of experience. Writing is really isolating and it's really- there's a sort of... it's just different and so I think for me like if we're gonna sit down and write a book again I need to be invested in it. Like, as Tegan was just talking about, writing about the early part of our music career. I just find myself just, totally disinterested in that for some reason. But, I will say that you know, whatever we write about next, you know, it has to hold our attention. It has to be something we want to deeply research and explore because that was what really was like required of this book.

Joe Skinner: Well, I'd be interested.

Sara Quin: Maybe you and Tegan...

Tegan Quin: Let’s collab!

Sara Quin: you can ghostwrite my part and Tegan can help you out with it. No, I mean at some point maybe. I think what it is, I'm going to be like, probably regret saying this. But, I just find music memoirs about careers really boring and I don't know if there's a way for us to write about it in a way that doesn't feel insidery. Like, I have read so many music memoirs that describe the inside of a tour van or like the backstage rider or like the food people get. Like, I live that nightmare every day. I don't want to write about it. Like, I want to write about the things that are intriguing to people and interesting. But, I also want to be interested in it myself and so I'm like, there must be something from that time that would be interesting to me but right now when I think about it just makes me feel like... I don't know. Just like, I just don't want to do it. I don't know. But, I think that there was like a learning curve about high school for me where, you know, we are having some of the most stimulating and rewarding conversations of our career including this one and you know, there's something so joyful to me about spending so much time working on a project and then getting to go out into the world and talk about it and feel like it all made it worth it. Whatever we end up putting out to the world next, I hope that it yields that sort of same experience.

Joe Skinner: Well, you know my last question is, our series is called American Masters and both of you were technically born and raised in Canada.

Sara Quin: Uh oh.

Joe Skinner: But, you know, you've obviously had a huge impact in America. So, I was hoping you could just maybe talk about the differences you experienced once you started to find an international audience in your career.

Tegan Quin: It's interesting because I think a lot of people-.

Sara Quin: That might be an interesting book for us to write is all the ways that Americans dealt with us when we were just young Canadians.

Tegan Quin: Well, yeah I was going to say that. We signed a record deal in America and we were always treated as an American artist, even in Canada. It felt a bit like because, I don't know if it was deliberate or not, but because we signed an America there seemed to be a hands-offness that was a big part of the early part of our career in Canada. You know our equivalent of the Grammys are called the Junos and we we've had nominations over the years from like you know won nomination for like an alternative record of the year kind of thing. But we didn't win in Juno until 2015 and a reminder that we started in 1998, so-

Sara Quin: So Canada hates us. Basically is what Tegan was trying to say.

Tegan Quin: They definitely didn't. But, in a weird, we played the game in America. We chose- there was sort of like, you can choose to play the game in one place or distribute it all over the world and we did choose to play the game in America. We signed in America. We moved to America. We, you know, coupled with Americans. We really invested deeply in our career in America and it was very early on that we started to also invest in places like Australia and Europe and the UK and Canada was a part of it. But, that was not something we necessarily decided for ourselves. It's just the first person who signed us was Elliott Roberts who managed Neil Young and they had an imprint out of Santa Monica and they took us for dinner at South by Southwest in 2000 and said,"Don't worry about Canada. They will follow you. They will they will figure out who you are and they'll love you but you need to go around the world you need to build a career elsewhere. Don't get trapped on the Trans-Canada Highway", which is the highway that runs from one end of Canada to the other and a lot of artists do get trapped in Canada. You know, it's a great country to be trapped in. It would have been okay probably too. But, we were really obsessed with seeing the world and right away, as 19 year olds going down to the U.S. and then you know, when we were 20 we went over to Europe for the first time, we were shocked. I mean, you know it's a culture shock to go to Europe. It's a culture shock to go to America. Everything is different. You know, I think we experienced just every part of the first few years of our career as a culture shock. We didn't have cell phones. There was no Wi-Fi or Internet. We were so disconnected from our family and friends. We went to Europe the first time and we had Canadian dollars in our wallets. You know, we had no idea where to even go to get money. You know, we don't have credit cards. We pulled my mom collect and then she said, "Don't call me again it's going to be too expensive", I mean we were so naive. We were so young. You know, now you Google everything. You look up everything. We had no idea what we were doing for the first couple of years of our career. We just, you know, everything was a culture shock and we were treated like a novelty everywhere we went. You know, people couldn't believe we were from Canada. It was such a different time. We played Letterman when we were 20 years old and a radio station from Edmonton, Alberta got the hotel number and woke me up at six thirty in the morning and we were- I can't remember now. I don't even want to estimate because I don't wanna seem like an idiot. But, we were one of a dozen Canadian acts or something that had ever played on Letterman and we'd gotten invited to sit on the couch and actually talk to Letterman and you know it was just so novel. When we would tell people that we were from Canada they'd be like, "No way. This is incredible. How did you get here? "You know, it's like on an airplane. You know, it was just so different and now it's like we get on stage and we like, "We're from Canada" and people like-.

Sara Quin: What state is that in?

Tegan Quin: Yeah.

Joe Skinner: Thank you for coming in. I really appreciate it.

Sara Quin: Thank you.

Tegan Quin: Thank you so much. This is great. Thank you again.


URL: https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/podcast/musicians-tegan-and-sara/
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