Tegan and Sara: Making the Most—“[Music] is This Universal Language”

Music is a personal matter. Your favorite songs, the tracks that make your heart pump and your soul swell, may not do anything for anyone else. They may just be your own sense of pride or salvation. But music can also be passed down through the generations, too. Vinyl records, a favorite bootleg live performance, can be handed from adult family members to kids, and while individual songs or refrains may not stick to each person who indulges them, there is a good chance that, between kin, something will be loved in common. And for the outstanding musical duo of twin sisters Tegan and Sara Quin, that reality occurred early in their lives.  

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The two were born to young parents, who were 21 and 22 years old when the twins came into the world. So, of course, music was everywhere in the household, as is the case for many young couples. There was dancing and lip-syncing by all, including the kids. And this early introduction sparked something in the twins, who later ventured out on the road after high school, signed with Neil Young’s record label, and have since gone on to earn accolades out the wazoo. Tegan and Sara recently shared the release of their new LP, Crybaby (out in October), their second release of 2022 (Still Jealous came out earlier that year), the world is as open as ever to them. Sometimes it even resembles a luxurious “buffet.” 

“When we were 15, we found a guitar,” Tegan tells American Songwriter. “We’d joked for years that we wanted to be in a band—it was the ’90s and everyone wanted to be in a band.” 

They found it one day while playing hide-and-seek. (There may have been a significant amount of weed smoked, too.) One of the twins—Tegan doesn’t remember who—pulled out the instrument, and almost immediately they began writing songs on it. That quickly led to recording, which quickly led to early performances. All of this, though, was done largely in secret. They didn’t tell their parents. While, yes, it was the ’90s and music was everywhere, from grunge to raves to rap and more, both Tegan and Sara weren’t ready to outwardly state that they wanted to be artists in earnest. Indeed, 30 years ago is a long time. And women, especially young women, weren’t always taken as seriously about their ambitions. So, it took time for the twins to realize who they really wanted to be.  

As Tegan explains, the duo was something of a dichotomy early on. As they grew up, they realized they identified as queer during a time that didn’t offer a great deal of acceptance. And as twins, they were always being looked at. Lots of things were happening at once, from internalized homophobia to developing a “gregarious” outer shell. These are the details, Tegan says, they re-remembered in more recent years as they went back into past journals and photo albums and earlier song recordings. The twins did so while conducting research for their 2019 (best-selling) memoir, High School, and, later, as they were turning that book into a forthcoming television show for Amazon.   

“We were struck by how confident we were,” says Tegan of looking back on the old work. “I don’t know where that came from, but Sara has a theory. Because we are identical twins and we look so much the same, we were so used to people looking at us without our consent. So, we learned how to control how people saw us.”  

Tegan and Sara (Photo by Pamela Littky)

In this way, the two created extroverted personas to deal with all the eyeballs falling onto them. And this continued as they ventured more and more into creative parts of their lives. The first song they wrote between them that they dared share with anyone else was called “Tegan Didn’t Go To School Today.” Sara had written it when they were 15. But, as Tegan says, it wasn’t the first song they’d composed. It was the first they were willing to share that showed talent. It was something of a “silly” track. But it was an entry point. The twins could show the song off, indicating they had a new hobby, so to speak, or even a new passion, but because it was humorous to a degree, it took the teeth out of their vulnerable announcement of ambition.  

“Because it was silly and sweet,” Tegan says, “it felt safe.” 

Growing up in Alberta, Tegan and Sara lived a middle-class suburban lifestyle in Canada, where they were born. While their parents never married and later found new partners, everything was amicable. Their mother’s new partner was in construction and that helped to offer some (financial) stability. Their parents, along with the new beau, co-parented the twins. Everyone worked hard, often into the night, which allowed the twins some unsupervised time to dive into their productivity and creative experimentation. They kept an eye on each other. In high school, Tegan and Sara did a lot of the things many people undertake later in college: some drug use, parties, hanging out with older people, and skipping class. They also had jobs and started a band. They got into mature music like that of R.E.M. and Nirvana. 

“We packed a lot into our high school years,” Tegan says.  

Upon graduating from high school, they were ready to venture into the world. They secured a $10,000 loan for an LP from their grandfather and agreed to pay him back within six months. They made an album and went out on tour. They’d grown up fast and were ready to hit the highway. Today, their formative years remain fertile ground for their content creation. Between the memoir, the Amazon TV show, forthcoming graphic novels that portray a fictionalized contemporary version of their early years, and an album of songs released in 2019 written from a younger person’s perspective, Tegan and Sara have mined their (early) lives remarkably well. Because they entered the scene as young women, they weren’t often understood properly by the media, composed of older, often out-of-touch men. They suffered from sexism, misogyny, and homophobia, often hearing questions like, “So, do you two have boyfriends?”  

“It was eye-opening to go back to the music we’d written in the ’90s,” says Tegan. “We’d spent so many years struggling in the music business, mostly covered by men.” 

Tegan says they developed a sense of dissociation, forgetting about their formative years early on for the sake of progressing forward in their burgeoning careers. Now that they feel more accepted and solidified in their identities as adults, they’ve gone back to their older work and re-embraced it. It’s affirming to remember where they came from. It’s also affirming to remember how much they’ve accomplished since, from multi-platinum albums and a Grammy nomination to being covered by The White Stripes (their song “Waking With A Ghost”) and working with big names like Cyndi Lauper, Katy Perry, and Lady Gaga. Not to mention they were signed early on by Neil Young. But for Tegan, none of these are “triumphs,” necessarily. They’re more the markings of hard work. The fruit of their labor. With each career phase, they improve, learn more, and get better.  

Simultaneously, as time has passed, the world has become more and more accepting of who they are as people at their core. Marriage equality was passed in Canada and later in the United States (though it seems to be threatened more and more in the U.S., sadly). Some of that progress is due to people like Tegan and Sara talking about their identities and relationships, both in their songs and in interviews. But also talking about it directly with their fans. Sometimes parents would come up to them and tell them their child came out as gay and they’re scared for what that might mean. But these parents are heartened by Tegan and Sara’s success and their closeness with their folks. Now, the twins are seeing new generations of artists speak out and continue to change the world. It’s something of a “pass the baton” moment. 

It’s still hard, though. On one hand, you want to speak out about what’s right. On the other hand, it can be easy to be pigeonholed or experience “coded” language meant to dissuade mainstream listeners. 

“I wish our sexuality did not have to be in the headline,” Tegan says. “I find it extremely marginalizing.”  

Nevertheless, the identical twin duo has pushed through. They recorded their new 2022 album, Crybaby, with John Congleton, who has also worked with big names like Angel Olsen, Sharon Van Etten, and Future Islands. Ironically, they began the work at Crybaby Studios in Seattle and later undertook sessions in Los Angeles. The new album is terrific, born of a new creative process. It stands out for its nuance, its emotive, heart-on-the-sleeve style, and its diverse sonic qualities. For Tegan, the LP is “fresh and new” and “energetic.” But the album began as past ones do, with one sister sending songs to the other to get her thoughts.  

“It’s just really different than anything we’d ever done,” says Tegan.  

The duo had a lot of time thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, and they wrote and wrote. Sara did a lot of the production work, even re-recording some of the more folky songs Tegan would send over—this was new. Congleton helped with production work, too, and in pushing the duo to agree to write a full record, song after song. The result is an album that includes some parts bedroom pop, some parts indie rock, and a whole lot of conviction. Standout tracks include the hypnotizing “Yellow,” the melancholy “Faded Like A Feeling,” and the frenetic “Fucking Up What Matters.” And now, as Tegan and Sara look to the future, there is a lot on the horizon. From an “intimate” string of tour dates this fall and winter (the duo’s first in five years with a band) to the release of the TV show and graphic novels, with more yet to come. It’s a lot. But all these represent decades of work and a desire from the twins, now 41 years old, to continue to make more art and indulge their vast ambitions.  

But that doesn’t mean everything is smooth, either. As Tegan notes, when it comes to the creative lives of women, there is a different pressure than with men. They felt it when they turned 30 and again more recently at 40. There is a prevailing sense of, “Shouldn’t you stop now?” It doesn’t make sense, though. Who works their whole lives at their passion and lets it go because a page on the calendar turned? If anything, it should be applauded. All the choices they have at their fingertips. All the connections they’ve made.  

“It’s weird how ‘ambition’ is such a yucky word for women,” says Tegan. “It’s still something we battle.”  

But while the world may not always be on the same page with the twins, the music subsists in standout ways. Recently, the duo played Late Night with Seth Meyers and Tegan says she couldn’t stop tearing up. The music took hold. Seeing her sister succeed on a coveted stage took hold. They made this life for themselves from scratch. No matter what anyone else says. Now, more than ever, it’s time to enjoy the spoils. And while they’re born of effort, they exist because of songs.  

“It’s so cheesy to say,” Tegan says, “but [music] is this universal language. Fuck, man. Music is just so cool!”  

Tegan & Sara Main Photo by Eluvier Acosta

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