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Tegan and Sara on Growing Up, Telling Queer Stories, and Building Their Own Universe

For the last few months, Tegan and Sara Quin have been in their hometown of Calgary, Alberta, teaching a pair of twin, queer 21-year-olds how to become Tegan and Sara. This is a necessary step for the indie-pop duo’s upcoming TV series, High School — based on their 2019 memoir about their teenage years in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, full of raves, alternative music, and not-so-secret girlfriends. 

The first season is set in 10th grade, “when we first discover that we can play music,” says Tegan. The actors portraying them are quintessentially Gen Z — before coming on set, Railey and Seazynn Gilliland were TikTok famous — but in Calgary, they’re steeped in Nineties alternative culture, wallet chains and all. The four of them are on set five days a week, 12 hours a day, and on the weekends, they’re in the studio, where the Quins are helping the actors record the first songs that Tegan and Sara wrote in high school. Highlights include “Tegan Didn’t Go to School Today.” (“It’s an earworm!” says Tegan. “​​Everyone on set sang it for days and days afterward.”

Neither Tegan nor Sara live in Calgary anymore, but they’ve rented apartments in their hometown while they’re working on the show. “It’s been awesome,” says Sara. “But sometimes I go back to Vancouver and I feel very discombobulated — similar to when I get off of a long tour. It’s like, oh, yeah, right. I live here.” 

As they head into the summer, they’re just coming off the release of “Fucking Up What Matters,” the first single from their 10th studio album, which will be released this fall, and they’re starting to develop a graphic novel based on their middle school years. When I catch up with each of them, they both manage to take a break from their 12 hour days on set, but their breaks are a few hours apart. (Each one assures me that I’ll “get an earful” from the other about one thing or another.) 

As we talk, the force that ties all of their projects together seems to be their drive to tell queer stories, tell good stories, and tell new stories. “When we sold our book, when we sold our TV show, we were just like: This is a story unlike any that’s been told. So why not tell it?” Tegan says. “It’s unique, it’s different. And yet it’s universal and relatable. And I think more of us need to do that.”

This conversation has been edited for clarity and condensed from multiple interviews.

What do you think of being on a TV set for the first time? 

Sara: It’s probably up there in the top five experiences of my life. It’s like the Make-A-Wish Foundation for bored musicians. I got to watch the most amazing producers and directors and grips and camera people and actors and acting coaches.

Writing the memoir and now making the TV show has sort of satisfied the part of me that always wondered if I would have been happy going back to school. I’m getting to see how an entirely different industry works. And being on set five days a week, 12 hours a day, it’s like I’m doing a master’s degree or something. It’s been a really cool experience.

In 2019 you released an album called Hey I’m Just Like You, where you re-recorded and produced songs that you guys wrote when you were in high school. But this is the first time someone else has sung those songs. Has that felt strange at all? 

Tegan: Actually, I love it when people perform our songs. I’d love to be a Dolly Parton eventually, and just have people come to us and be like, “Oh my god, Tegan, we need a song from you.”

It’s fascinating. [The Gillilands] have never played music before, or acted, but they’re really naturally gifted and talented. So I laugh because in the studio I’ll sing a guide track for them, and then they sing along and their voices are so much better than ours. I’m like, “Do you guys wanna be in a band? Can I sign you?”

We also have gone back to the original versions [of some of the songs], so we’ve returned to some of the really ridiculous lyrics and absurd chord changes and stuff that we were experimenting with as teenagers. So I’m not like, “Wow, that ‘chocolate-covered pants’ lyric, it’s really moving me.” It’s ridiculous. But it feels right. You know, I don’t want to rewrite history.

At first look, it doesn’t seem like Calgary would’ve been an easy place to grow up as a queer kid. How does it feel to be living there now, as an adult? 

Sara: As a woman now in my forties, with a lot of life experience and having lived in a lot of different places, it’s really nice to come back to Calgary and see it as almost like a muse. 

The experience that we had in the Nineties was, to some degree, really consistent with what a lot of queer people were probably feeling in the Nineties, when they were figuring out how to be both out and be safe in a world that was, you know, pretty hostile toward gay people. But we were fortunate enough to grow up in a time where being alternative and going to raves and having what we’d call the “mean people suck” attitude — that was very, like, of the moment in the Nineties. It wasn’t that people [in the alternative community] were like, “Oh, yeah, gay people are great,” but there was, “Oh, my God, don’t be discriminating against gay people.” We were kind of protected or buffered by a narrative that was happening in alternative culture.

If there was going to be a way to come out in the Nineties, or a place to live in the Nineties, Calgary wasn’t the worst place. And I’ve always felt really protective. Like, people would say, “Oh, God, it would’ve been so much easier for you if you’d been living in one of the ‘bigger cities’ in Canada, like Toronto or Vancouver or whatever.” But to be honest, I don’t necessarily agree with that. 

My first really awful homophobic experience was when I moved to Montreal at 23. There was this sort of assumption that now that you’re in Vancouver, or now that you’re in Montreal, or now that you’re in New York, everything’s better. The ambient homophobia that was really, really specific to that time in the world existed everywhere: It existed in the music industry, it existed in New York, it existed in our family.

I think the little world that we made for ourselves in Calgary was as good as it would have been anywhere. There was no place that was, like, perfectly suited for being queer at that time. And so the fact that we helped shape a community in Calgary, and amongst those people, amongst those friends, I felt as safe as I would have felt anywhere else.

In 2019, you released an album and a memoir about your time in high school. This spring, you announced that you’re working on a graphic novel inspired by your middle school years. Those are arguably our most vulnerable years, and you’re sharing so much of them. How has that felt? 

Tegan: Sometimes, when I zoom out and I look at [everything], I’m like, “Are we narcissists?” I know we’re not. But sometimes I’m like “Ehhhh?” 

But I think that it is a fine line to mine our stories, our youth, our life, so intensely. I’m not going to do a great metaphor here, because I’m going to try to do a metaphor about mining and I actually don’t know anything about mining. But I hope it is not an ugly, barren, gross plot of land that we look back at and go, jeez, we really mined that to shit. I hope what we’re actually doing is — this is gonna get real cheesy — I hope we’re not stripping it, we’re planting trees. I think by sharing, we’re hopefully evolving and growing, not just going inside ourselves being like, “All right, what else do I got in here?” 

Part of what’s so unique about writing a book and then making the TV show is that there just isn’t a lot of representation of twins. It’s not like we’re a marginalized people, but we are misunderstood. I think that there is something really profound about seeing two people who you would normally think are the same — and that if they’re going through something, then they must be going through it together — to see them suffer on their own, and to recognize the humanity of that. I think all of us are searching for a soulmate. In a way by being a twin, everyone just assumes you kind of have yours. But it’s not like that. 

Did you take away anything unexpected by diving into those phases in your life? 

Tegan: Our big takeaway was that we were just way too hard on our younger selves. When you’re young, you’re so vulnerable and impressionable, and you’re strong and you’re opinionated, and you’re discovering the world. I think we should embrace the things we make and the things we felt and the things we do when we’re young. We should give young people way more support than we do, and we should respect them more. I find so much of our culture is so patronizing to young people. When I was young, I wasn’t an idiot, and I didn’t appreciate being treated like one. 

To take it one step further and do the TV show, and discover these queer, young people who six months ago were making pizza in Fresno, and all of a sudden, they’re leads on a TV show and they’re going to inspire a whole new generation of young people. One day, they were telling me that they had been recognized at the mall for their TikTok account. And I’m like, you’re going to have to prepare yourself, because [when the show comes out] people aren’t just gonna come up and be like, “Oh my gaaaad, you’re famous, you’re on TikTok.” They’re gonna come up to you and be like, “You changed my life.” When people come up to me on the street, they’re generally like, “I came to a show and that was the first time I’ve ever seen other LGBTQ people,” and it’s so fucking heavy, and emotional, and meaningful. 

We’re preparing them for that. I don’t think they’re prepared for it yet, but they’re gonna have to get prepared for it, because I’m sitting on set, and I’m watching them portray us at that age, and have these intense conversations and these incredible emotions, and I’m, like, weeping. It’s a set full of adults who are truly moved by the portrayal. 

It’s this kind of multi-generational moment where we all tap into who we were as young people and recognize it’s tough to be young, it’s tough to figure out who you are. As you get older, that part of you is still there. 

Throughout your career, you guys have talked a lot about universe-building and found family. Those terms are common in queer communities, where — either because we’ve been rejected from our families of origin, or simply don’t have a blueprint for what queer lives look like — we often have to build worlds of our own. How do you think that’s translated into your work? 

Tegan: I think probably the most glaringly obvious queer impulse we had was to become more mainstream. We felt sort of limited by indie rock; we felt like we were just being pushed into the margins, and that we were expected to be glad for that. That’s part of our desire to empire-build, and to expand the Tegan and Sara Universe, and to constantly push back on this idea that, “OK, we cleared this space for ourselves, that’s where we belong, and we must stay there.” I feel like we’re still fighting against that. I can belong anywhere I want to belong: That sort of exploration feels very queer to me.

It’s so funny because as the mainstream has embraced LGBTQ people and queer identities, they just made a bunch more closets for us. I hate “Pride” press. And it’s not to say that I don’t think we should celebrate Pride, or that we shouldn’t, you know, have issues related to Pride and Pride packages and Pride parades! I just think most of us are only talked to during that period of time. 

A lot of magazines and websites were building out queer entities and going, “Look, we’ll cover all the queer music here!” I’m like, I don’t want to be covered in the queer part, I want to be covered in the mainstream part. I want to be with all the straight people. And I want it to be normalized that I’m gay, not put in my own issue.

As a queer person, I am always thinking about my identity. And as a woman, I’m always thinking about my identity. Sometimes the desire to constantly build is a reaction to feeling like I’m wearing this identity and the identity doesn’t feel very big. I think that my desire to build a bigger career and a bigger world and to do more things, and to have more people know who we are, is about saying, “I do not want to be small.”

CHICAGO - JULY 24:   Tegan (L) and Sara perform live in concert at Lollapalooza 2005 day two July 24, 2005 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Matt Carmichael/Getty Images)

Tegan (left) and Sara perform live at Lollapalooza 2005 in Chicago.

Matt Carmichael/Getty Images

You’re releasing your tenth album later this year. Does that feel like a major milestone? 

Tegan: I do have moments where I’m like, “Are we old?” And then I remember that we started when we were 15. We put out our first album when we were 19. So yeah, it does feel like a huge milestone. But I also feel like you could probably take the first two records and erase them, not because I don’t like them or love them — I just think those are the kind of albums that people don’t usually even put out. So I feel like, emotionally, we’re on our eighth. 

Sara: It doesn’t feel like a huge milestone. It just feels like, “Oh, good. We’re still inspired.” But it’s weird how, almost overnight, you sort of move from one — you know when you’re filling out a form, and you have to put a checkmark with what age bracket you’re in? I feel like, in the music industry, we moved overnight from an age bracket that we were in for a really long time to a new age bracket. And I’m kind of like, how do I feel about that?

Tegan: Honestly, I’m super proud. I’ve spent every day pretty much just marveling at the fact that we still are thriving and doing so well and incredibly grateful that we still want to make music. This record in particular, I just feel like it’s extremely inspired. And so yeah, I’m like, “Wow, 10 records!” But I’m also really thrilled because I think we do something different every time we put an album out. As long as we’re making something new and unique, I feel like it’s justified.

You’ve described this album as your most collaborative album so far. You also re-released your 2004 album So Jealous, and each recorded each other’s tracks, and in your new Substack, “I Think We’re Alone Now,” you annotate each other’s songs. It seems like you’re in a particularly collaborative moment in your partnership. Is that intentional?

Sara: It could be like, “Oh, we’re really close right now.” Or it could just be that we were in a global pandemic and the world felt like it was spinning off its axis, and Tegan was literally one of four people I was allowed to hang out with. 

But I do think that having other creative collaborations in my life has made me sort of contextualize what Tegan and I do. We’re very comfortable in what is an uncomfortable process. Making anything with anyone is uncomfortable.

Tegan: I think we’re probably still exploring and uncovering the “why,” but I think probably my instinct is to say that your twenties — and even in some ways your thirties — are about identifying who you are as a person and striking out on your own and autonomy and independence. And that was no different for Sara and I, even though we were in a band and had this project and this world we were building together. I think there was a real desire to carve out space for ourselves as our own people — geographically, artistically, business-wise, personality-wise. As we’re in this new era of our lives and our career, there’s less of that. And there’s more, I guess, openness to collaborating and strengthening each other, you know, musically and writing-wise. I think that we’re also more confident and probably more open and capable of receiving feedback from each other, without creating some sort of massive meltdown [laughs]. 

Sara once said that while most people have “mom issues” or “dad issues,” she has “Tegan Issues,” and that you needed to separate from each other to find your own identities and “co-parent” your music career. How have you guys navigated this new, way less separate chapter?

Tegan: We spent a lot of Covid in therapy, but a very specific kind of therapy: The therapist was from the professional world and sort of had an HR background and worked with family businesses. A lot of our life has been about trying to identify ourselves as individuals. And when we initially started the therapy, she was like, “Yeah, that makes complete sense. You need your own friends, your own life, your own stuff.” That’s something we’ve heard again and again and again, and we feel it. But within a few months, she was like, “No, that actually doesn’t work. You are individuals, of course, and we all see you as individuals, but you are a band, you are an organization, you have a structure to your business. You can’t be at odds. You have to work together or you’re undoing the other one’s work.” 

I think a lot of Sara’s and my emotional terrorism of each other comes from a desire to be seen as an individual. And we have to just let that go. In our professional world, we’re not individuals, which is really insane. But it’s true. Leaning into that and accepting that is still something we’re in the middle of doing. 

Sara mentioned moving into a “new bracket” in the music industry. Part of that seems like it’s moving into a mentorship role. How has it felt for you guys to be sort of elders in the industry?

Tegan: It’s so funny, because one of the first things that we talked about when we first started doing interviews — so we were like, 18, 19 years old — was being role models. There was this really intense conversation happening in the late Nineties and early 2000s about Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, and if they were bad role models for women. As we were the same age as these women — but obviously incredibly different — it came up a lot. And I remember thinking that it was so weird that somehow the way they dressed or the way that their music was  made them not-good role models. They worked hard, they were really professional, they were doing well, they were accomplishing things that the average person doesn’t accomplish. There were lots of things to look up to. 

So I’ve always thought: it doesn’t really matter if you’re popular or not. You are a role model. Somebody’s looking up to you. I do think that there was an absence of role models and an absence of mentorship and an absence of support when we were coming up in the industry. And a lot of that probably just has to do with the absence of social media — there was just no organic way for artists to reach out to each other.

How has that manifested as you’ve started to mentor younger musicians? 

Tegan: A lot of our mentorship is just sharing information so that we all know what’s happening. Just letting people know that we’ve been through it. It’s really alienating and lonely sometimes out there. Letting people know that what you’re experiencing is really common, is really important.

I think our industry is really fucked up, and we don’t have the structure and the unions and the support and the transparency to share information and share people. It’s a very individual business. We’re very siloed from one another. And I think that that’s the angle Sara and I take, especially when talking with queer artists, or young artists or young women, that are coming to just share information. I love when people text or email Sara and I or hit us up on Twitter, and they’re like, “What does your record deal look like? What percentages are you getting?” And I do the same. I ask other bands all the time. I think information is power. 

Sara: One of my first really significant mentors — [a tour manager] who I saw as being wiser and cooler and having more resources than I did at the time — would always be like, “You can ask me anything, you can call me at any time if you ever need anything.” I remember thinking, there’s no way. She’s definitely gonna get tired of this. And I learned to trust that she was being honest. That dynamic made me think, “Wow, if I can be that kind of person for somebody…” I don’t think you need an abundance of that in your life for it to change your life. For us, it really was one really significant person who happened to be queer and happened to be a boss and happened to be willing to give us that time as we were figuring out how to bloom.

Tegan: I also feel like there’s so much more transparency now, so we don’t have to do as much of it. There are more artists sharing, even just Twitter threads. We can all learn from each other. It doesn’t have to be scary.

You’ve talked about how much more LGBTQ representation there is in the industry now than when you started. But through your work with the Tegan and Sara Foundation — which you founded in the wake of the 2016 elections, to advocate for economic justice, health, and representation for LGBTQ girls and women — you’ve had a front-row seat to some of the worst attacks on LGBTQ people that we’ve seen in decades. How do you deal with those two conflicting realities? 

Sara: One of the things that has always felt true to me is that things are always more complex and more challenging than what one article or headline can cover. Like, even on this TV show, people will come up to me and be like, “Oh my God, it must have been a fucking nightmare to grow up in the Nineties and be queer.” And yet here we are making a TV show that’s kind of asking the viewer to believe that even though it was a nightmare in the Nineties, we found this wonderful little pocket of safety to be queer, and basically date a bunch of girls. 

All of which is to say: Yes, this is a time where everyone’s going to tell you, “It’s so much better.” And also, for so many people, holy shit, it’s so much worse, or it’s as bad as it ever was, or the government fucking sucks or politicians are dickheads — and, I mean, all of it’s true. 

I take comfort in the fact that at least now we can access our queer history. We can access activist history from different communities, and we can learn from those movements, and we can take solace in knowing that things do change. 

Tegan: When we started the foundation, one of the most striking revelations was just learning that Sara and I are in the one percent. We actually don’t experience most of what LGBTQ people experience. We’re cis, we’re 20 years into our career, we’re wealthy, we come from a wealthy country, we were raised in relative comfort. My mother gave us money to help us buy our first apartment. I can get meetings and sell a TV show, I can sell a book, I can tell my major label that I would like to no longer make records, and then get signed by another label. I can talk to Rolling Stone

I’m so grateful for the work we do with the Tegan and Sara Foundation, because it keeps us really, really, really rooted in what’s happening. Especially when it comes to LGBTQ issues that are happening and the rollback of rights and the attack on trans youth.

I realized that I’m not necessarily the person to offer much in that department — that I had long ago stopped experiencing a lot of what the young people coming to our shows were feeling and experiencing. So the work with the foundation is just listening and finding the qualified people who are on the ground, and making sure that they’re funded and supported. 

In the industry, I think that the culture is really thriving. It’s not to say that the politics don’t matter. They do. It isn’t to imply that it isn’t harmful to LGBTQ people of all ages, and their family and friends, to see this happening. It is. But I think in terms of the culture, it is thriving, and it is kind of amazing and beautiful to see. There’s so many more options — and there’s so much positive representation out there — that it feels more hopeful than it sometimes reads on paper. But it’s a very weird message: all of these queer artists and all this queer representation, Lil Nas at the Grammys doing the thing, and then what we see in politics, it’s just awful. 

Ultimately all of my answers these days just turn into: I think social media is a disaster. I think it’s ruining us as a society, and we need to turn it off. I blame everything on social media. I feel like we’re just so distracted and numb.

Didn’t you find Railey and Seazynn on social media?

Tegan: [Laughing] Yeah, on TikTok! I love TikTok, I’m so distracted over there. I love it. I feel so good when I’m there.

Sara, you’ve talked a lot about having conflicting feelings about fame and about being perceived by other people. But between your music career, your work with the foundation, and creating stories about your youths, it seems like you’re more on display than ever. How are you handling that? 

Sara:  I think [it’s different] because we’re so in control of it, and we’re participating so much in it. Like, what else are we here for? We have a story. Let’s tell it. It’s just to make something and to put it out there and hopefully have an impact on people. Whether it connects with every single person or doesn’t is not the goal. That whole stereotypical, “If I could just go out and play a show, and connect with one person, it feels good.” That is not true, but I like the sentiment. And when I think about all the stuff that we’re doing around our younger selves, and potentially putting ourselves in the crosshairs in a way that was really vulnerable and really scary, I just think to myself, “But what if we can connect with someone on a really deep level? Like, what if? What if seeing these characters that are based on our lives has some profound effect on someone?” That feels so exciting to me. 

I don’t mean that in, like, a god complex way. When I saw My So-Called Life on television, and I saw the way that Angela and Rayanne supported their friend Ricky as he was figuring out his sexuality, it made me feel like I want to do that. I wanted an Angela and Rayanne. I wanted to live in their world.

I feel positive doing it. Because on a personal level, it’s extremely healing. And it’s really fun. It feels cerebral and cool to kind of be watching your own life, but outside your own head. So I think the risk of being perceived in a bad way, or all those things that make me sometimes public-shy and contemplative about fame — I still can still hold all of that in my mind and wonder if it’s worth it. But when it comes to the actual making of art, it’s completely worth the risk.

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