Roxy Bourdillon goes back to high school with the queer pop icons
BY ROXY BOURDILLON, IMAGE BY TREVOR BRADY
Sara was torn about whether to include the sex notes. Yes, she and Tegan wanted to make their high school memoir as authentic as possible. Yes, they hoped to tell a queer coming-of-age tale we hadn’t seen before. And yes, without a doubt, the sex notes were a real page-turner, but – and it was a serious but – they were also deeply personal. In these precious, hand-written souvenirs of Sara’s teenage romance, her then-girlfriend had laid bare her innermost fantasies: “I start kissing your body all over, paying close attention to ‘that place’.” She had listed her favourite of all the special, secret things they did together: “When you touch me in certain areas and then pull away, you make me want it so much more.” Sara had very real concerns about exploiting their adolescent love story. Unsure how to proceed, she called the woman who had written those “sweet, odd, amazing” messages over 20 years ago. Although they’d been broken up for two decades, in classic gay girl style, they’d remained the best of friends. “This is a huge ask, but can I use the sex notes, because they’re fucking amazing?” Thankfully her ex-turned-BFF consented and queer culture was granted the gift of the Sex Note chapter in Tegan and Sara’s High School.
Delightfully raw and extremely relatable, the duo’s new book is the tale of two Canadian twin sisters destined to become international pop stars. Depicting their lives between the pivotal ages of 15 and 18, this is the origin story behind one of the most celebrated queer bands of our time. Long before they released nine albums, joined Taylor Swift onstage and performed at The Oscars, Tegan and Sara Quin were self-proclaimed “teenage dirtbags”, intoxicated by the heady temptations of girls, drugs and rock and roll. Their recollections are soaked in 90s nostalgia. There’s a shrine to Kurt Cobain, acid trips at all-night raves, and lengthy phone calls on a shared landline. But what’s most thrilling of all is their unrelenting commitment to honesty. Their detailed descriptions don’t shy away from the fights they had with their parents, and each other. They share their darkest struggles. They open up about their first, formative relationships. They print the damn sex notes.
Reading something so confessional from people who have become icons for the queer community is captivating. Over the course of a 20-year career, they’ve made the leap from emo stalwarts to pop gods, but for many LGBTQI women, Tegan and Sara have always been monumental. I’ll never forget their L Word cameo – a closeted Dana hallucinated that they outed her at a concert – and the band’s 2007 masterpiece The Con will forever be the soundtrack to the first time I fell in love with another woman.
I find myself glued to my proof copy of the memoir. The anecdotes are so authentic, it’s hard not to be reminded of my own adolescence: my secret girlfriend, that initial hesitation to declare my sexuality, the emotional intensity and excruciating awkwardness of puberty. They resist the urge to simplify their story so it’s more palatable, which ends up making it all the more powerful. In the digital age of the 280-character tweet, High School is defiantly complex and nuanced. First-person chapters are told from alternating perspectives, emphasising that although Tegan and Sara are almost identical in appearance (by my estimation, Tegan’s jaw is ever so slightly squarer), their interior worlds are entirely individual.
This point is further underlined when I interview them separately and experience their unique energies firsthand. Tegan, older by eight crucial minutes, is upbeat, enthusiastic and direct. She exudes a natural warmth and brisk self-assurance: “I take up a lot of space in meetings. I tend to have an excess of confidence, and sometimes, I’m sure, it comes off as aggressive, but I will make my voice heard.” By contrast, Sara seems more introspective and cautious. She chooses her words carefully and has a brilliantly dry sense of humour. In the memoir, she refers to puberty as “the time my body began to betray me”. When I ask how long it took her to feel comfortable in her own skin, she replies without skipping a beat, “I’ll let you know”. Later on she reveals, “The most significant thing is that I haven’t changed that much. That was both heartening and horrifying, because I’ve spent a lot of time at therapy, so I was like, ‘What the fuck was that all for?’” We’re speaking just days ahead of their 39th birthday and they both independently describe themselves as “typical Virgos”. Sara, who is suffering with a cold, says, “I’m the most overachieving Virgo human on earth, so when I get sick and can’t do things, I feel devastated.” Tegan, “a classic, neat Virgo – immaculate, tidy, OCD”, quips, “I believe myself to be an efficiency expert.”
They tell me one of the main reasons they wrote this book was to shine a spotlight on an underrepresented perspective. For Tegan, the writing process highlighted “how little significance we put into young queer women’s stories”. “And we do this collectively to women. We write off how valuable they are, especially when they’re young. I became possessed with the idea that the story we’re telling is very important, because young women are all these things, feel all these things, but no one ever lets them do it publicly. I hope this book comforts people who are young, but also who were once young.”
While researching this project, Tegan and Sara immersed themselves in artefacts of their adolescence – devouring old journals, poring over photo albums, and watching hours of grainy VHS footage. Among these relics, they discovered cassette tapes of songs they had written as teenagers. High School’s companion album, Hey, I’m Just Like You, consists of poignantly reimagined versions of those tracks. Long-forgotten lyrics, breathtaking in their sincerity, are updated with their honed pop star voices and high-end production values. The songs themselves explore the memoir’s themes of love, queerness, and inner turmoil. The most movingly open-hearted of all is the closer, All I Have To Give The World Is Me. As I listen to it on repeat, thinking about the young women who first sang it two decades ago, it dawns on me that Tegan and Sara are doing something beautiful and radical with both the book and the record – they are taking their teenage selves seriously.
For Sara, this experience was “therapeutic” and “cathartic”. When she first saw those early videos, she felt “all the things everyone feels when they go back to that period of their life: ‘Oh god, my hair’, ‘Ugh, I’m so annoying’”. “But once you start to peel back that layer – and this is probably going to sound very cheesy – I found myself totally adoring and loving myself at that age. I just remember having that moment when, instead of feeling embarrassed or judgemental, I felt so much love and admiration for the bravery of this kid. It felt very curing to me.”
Another gripping aspect of the memoir is its frank discussion of LSD. While male musicians’ experiences with drugs are routinely glamorised, female singers who partake are usually held up as a cautionary tale. Tegan explains, “The only time we hear about women and drug use is when someone overdoses and dies like Amy Winehouse, whereas men and their drug use are celebrated in the industry.” By talking about acid trips and spliffs in an upfront way, they present an alternative narrative: some women do drugs and still turn out alright. Some even turn out to be Tegan and Sara.
But what I love most about the memoir is that it isn’t afraid to tell a complicated coming out story. While so much of the media we consume pushes the idyllic “it gets better” angle, as queer people we know that isn’t always the case. Coming out can be messy, loved ones might not react how you want them to, and – sorry to break it to you – you may never quite get over those niggling feelings of discomfort with your own identity. High School documents how their mum, who is now an incredible ally, didn’t take it well when she found out about Sara’s sexuality. This had a knock-on effect on Tegan, who admits, “My mom’s reaction certainly influenced my reluctance to come out. It’s so hard. It never stops being hard. Our coming out wasn’t smooth. We didn’t like ourselves and we struggled with that. I want to be a role model, but I also want to be realistic. Not to be pessimistic. I’m just saying that we need a wider range of stories.”
You might assume that having a queer twin at least made them feel less isolated, but the sisters had their own bedrooms from the age of two. And for the record, they didn’t spend their childhood pulling twin-based pranks, they can’t read each other’s minds, and they don’t confide in each other about every aspect of their lives. Tegan recalls, “We never talked about it. When Sara was outed, we didn’t talk about anything. Sara is very vocal about the fact that when I was also dating women, she felt exposed and it made her angry and homophobic towards me. For me, I felt alienated when she started dating women, because I felt like now I wasn’t a part of the gang. It was really challenging. We found our way through it, but being twins didn’t make it easier being queer.”
Not only that, but they had to navigate all this while forging a career in the public eye. They’ve never hidden their sexuality, which means it’s been an interview topic since they started out. Early on, they faced appalling homophobia and misogyny with one critic labelling them “tampon rock”, radio hosts asking them live on air if they were incestuous, and an early noughties NME review branding them “quite lovely, even if they do hate cock”. Horrific, I’m sure you’ll agree, but haven’t things improved for queer artists now? Sara’s not convinced: “I don’t really know if it’s changed. We just got more popular and now we have more power, so people are afraid of us. These horrible, sexist, homophobic garbage people still exist, but they know better than to talk about us that way, because then we’ll broadcast it to our millions of followers.”
Their big popularity boost came in 2013, when they released Heartthrob, a shimmering slice of pop perfection that unveiled a new synth-heavy sound. While most of the press focussed on their sonic shift, Tegan is keen to stress Heartthrob’s impact for LGBQTI listeners: “By mainstreaming our band, we were able to reach all the queer kids that don’t live in New York or LA or London. We were reaching kids that had no access to positive queer representation.” When they performed Everything Is Awesome live at the 2015 Academy Awards, it was a pinch-me moment for them for sure, but watching it at home it felt like this was also a victory for us – to see our longtime queeroes out, proud and, yes, totally awesome at the fucking Oscars, no less.
It’s hard to imagine acts like King Princess and Halsey singing so candidly about same-sex desire without Tegan and Sara having blazed the trail first. They’re chuffed about the current proliferation of “cool, outspoken, giving-no-fucks queer artists”. In fact, they make a conscious effort to mentor and magnify the work of queer female musicians, sending friendly DMs, giving shoutouts on social media and going out of their way to introduce themselves at events. As Sara puts it, “We made the community that we wanted when we first came out.” Their dedication to their LGBTQI family doesn’t stop there. With the Tegan And Sara Foundation, they advocate for the rights of queer women and girls. And now with their fascinating, evocative, truth-telling book and throwback album, they are gifting the community they care so much about once again, this time by offering up the intimate details of their own complicated, devastating, glorious “teenage dirtbag” years. Being queer may not always be straightforward, but having Tegan and Sara in the world, sharing their authentic selves through music and memoir, definitely makes it feel far less lonely and a hell of a lot more fun.
High School and Hey, I’m Just Like You are out now
This interview originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!