Tegan Quin talks ‘High School,’ new album and discovering TikTok twins

With "Crybaby" and "High School" dropping this month, Tegan and Sara are booked and busy

We’re living in the Tegan and Sara renaissance, and it’s a great time to be a former (or current) angsty teen queer.

High School, a TV series based on the Canadian pop duo’s 2019 memoir of the same name, released last week on Amazon Freevee in the U.S. and dropping Oct. 28 on Prime Video in Canada. The series follows the twins in growing up in Calgary in the ’90s, navigating queerness, teen angst and their budding music careers. 

It’s a smaller, grungier story than many of the big-budget queer teen shows out there right now, and the duo like it that way.

“I think some of the teen queer stuff that’s out is more about being a queer teen, whereas our show is about music and culture and family and sisterhood and adolescence,” Tegan Quin tells Xtra

This week, the now 42-year-old twins will also release their 10th studio album, Crybaby, and launch their first North American tour since before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Xtra sat down with Quin, one half of the eponymous pop duo, to talk about working with director Clea Duvall on High School, pulling TikTok twins out of a pizza restaurant in California to play her and her sister, and bridging the teen angst of the ’90s to today. 

Let’s start with High School. What is your hope for longtime Tegan and Sara fans coming to the show? 

High School is based on our memoir, which was set in high school—so 10th, 11th and 12th grade. And the first season of the show is based on 10th grade. So if someone read the memoir or is very up on their Tegan and Sara facts, they might find it all familiar, but I think probably a lot of people don’t know our origin story.

I think the TV show will be be exciting for people who like Tegan and Sara because you get to see a glimpse of what we were like in high school and how we started our band and figured out we were gay and all that. But honestly, my hope for people who like our band, and for people who just discovered the show and have no idea who we are, is that they just see a glimpse of what it was like to be a queer teen in the ’90s. We don’t see a lot of stories about queer girls and we definitely don’t see this kind of story. This is very Canadian and, I think, a pretty honest portrayal of what it’s like to—especially for a queer girl—grow up and just love your friends and be obsessed with them. There’s so much longing and intensity of the show, and it’s our hope that people watch it and either feel nostalgic, or be like, “Oh, God, that’s exactly how it was.” 

 

As someone who grew up queer in Alberta, something that I think a lot of people will really connect to was that the show was filmed in Calgary—it’s this really Canadian queer story. We don’t necessarily have a ton of those in pop culture. 

It was a must that it had to be shot in Calgary. We didn’t want to change much and turn it into a U.S. story. At one point it was really funny, there was a rumour that it was going to be shot in Toronto and we were like, “No.” It was a big part of our pitch, actually, when we went out and tried to sell the show, that it would be in Calgary.

We’re really proud of the fact that we’re from Canada, and we didn’t want to turn our story into something different. We’ve definitely met with people who I think would have pushed us to try to make it a different kind of show, and Clea DuVall just felt really passionately that it needed to be our story. But it’s not a biopic—this is not people mimicking us. This is not the Queen movie or whatever. Ultimately this is a coming-of-age story about queer girlhood and ’90s music and starting a band. The show is populated with composites of people we knew, but we filled in a lot of the details and fictionalized a lot. 

For queer youth today, there’s increasing representation of their experience—you look at the success of Heartstopper and shows like it. Do you think queer teens today are going to be able to connect with your experiences in the ’90s?

Look, I love Heartstopper and Never Have I Ever and Sex Education. I think these are really beautiful, very slick, very well-done shows that are aimed at teens and adults—just incredible casting, incredible music. They feel more mainstream and Hollywood in the sense that like they’re very clearly like, the more rom-com kind of feeling and they’re so clever and brilliant and eye-catching.

I think that [High School] is more subtle. It’s more indie. Like, I’ve been describing it as indie rock and Heartstopper is pop. I think it really encapsulates us—it’s a little more homegrown, down to earth, indie rock, cinematic. It’s brooding and slow at times, and there’s so much longing in it. When we went out and sold the show, our comparison show was My So-Called Life and the way it embedded music and these really intense storylines. But it was also a show for teenagers and yet they told the story of the parents and the adults around the teenagers, so also people in their 30s and 40s would watch the show. It became a show a lot of us as teenagers in the ’90s watched with our parents and I think High School is that. 

It’s not Euphoria, not terrifying, but it still wrestles with really intense stuff like homophobia and sexuality and drugs and lying and loss. 

How you found Railey and Seazynn Gilliland, who play you, on TikTok is such a great story. How does it feel watching them play you?

They weren’t actors, and they weren’t musicians. So definitely there was a little like cajoling and pushing and coercing everybody into seeing the vision we had. But once we got them on tape and got dozens of other auditions, it was clear that there was something special about them. Unlike a lot of other actors who auditioned, who were very good and slick and had the chops, Railey and Seazynn were more organic and vulnerable and wild—and feral, if you will, and that’s what we were like.

There’s some parallels, you know. At 21 years old, they were leads on the show. At 21 we were signed to Neil Young’s record label and headed out on the road. We pulled them out of obscurity; they were working at a pizza shop in Fresno, California, and not knowing what they wanted to do with their lives. And in a way that’s what happened to us when we played a contest in high school and all of a sudden every record label in Canada was calling.

I could see in Railey and Seazynn a bit of like, “What’s happening? I don’t know if I want this, but I’m intrigued.” A lot of questions, and that really reminded me of us.

How was it bridging this new generation represented by them, with your band and with director Clea Duvall, who are arguably two of the touchstones of queer culture for a certain slightly older generation?

They weren’t intimidated, they weren’t overwhelmed. They weren’t fearful of being around us. You know, they liked us, but, like, to this day, they have not read the book. They don’t even know what happens after Season 1. They have no idea what’s gonna happen and I think that’s hilarious. When it came to Clea, they just saw her as the boss on set. She’s quiet and quite soft-spoken on set, but is really clear about what she needs and wants. She just did a fabulous job directing them and I don’t think they have fucking clue who she is. And that was hilarious. 

I think it’s so cool that the actor who plays me on the show has never even been to any concert ever in her life. So when we go through L.A. in a few weeks, I was like, “Do you want to come to the concert?” She’s like, “Yeah, you could be my first concert.” I love it. I think it just makes their performances more real because they’re not trying to pretend to be us, they’re not living in fear that they’re gonna disappoint us. They’re just playing the role of a teenage girl figuring out who she is. They’re not obsessed with figuring out how to play Tegan and Sara. They’re just playing teenagers going through their fucking shit.

Connecting that sense of time and evolution to the album, Crybaby: how would you describe the kind of era that y’all are in right now as a band? Who do you see as your central fan base these days? 

We’re always making music for ourselves, but I’m hoping that, you know, existing Tegan and Sara fans love the new era of music and also hoping that with new music means new fans. We launched a mailing list, kind of like a blog, recently and it’s wild how many people are writing that they’ve just discovered us during the pandemic and I’m like, “Wow.” Like, we’ve been around for so long, I just imagined everyone even knows who we are or just does not need to know who we are. 

We never make the same record twice. We wait for inspiration, we just write and work until we find a batch of songs that makes us feel like, “Fuck, we have to record these and go out and share them with the world.” Crybaby was a product of just being at home for two years working on the show and some other projects and we just started to accumulate songs that felt really special and important and had something interesting to say. The reaction so far as to the first handful of singles has been really incredible. And it seems like people really did want some new music, which is exciting. It’s finding new listeners, which is great, but it also seems to be pleasing old-school Tegan and Sara fans. And that makes us really happy too.

What’s different about your music-making process and touring now that you’re at different stages in your lives—like being married or Sara’s baby?

We finished up our last big record in 2017. We’ve been touring for 12 years straight, basically. Part of the reason why we wrote the book and developed the show was we wanted to be at home. Mostly because we were tired, but also you know, I don’t want to just put music out to put music out, I want to wait for inspiration and hone our craft and try other things. So it’s been a long time since we’ve toured and we’re really excited to do it again, and we’re excited to see what it feels like to tour during COVID-19 times and what it’s like out there. It’s a little scary, but at the same time, you know, standing on the stage and performing is what we do, and I think we’re really excited to see how it goes. Sara and her partner are committed to trying to make that work. The whole family’s coming out on the road and my mom’s gonna join us for a lot of the tour to help out.

We’re playing a lot of the hits and old stuff, but the new stuff is fucking great and so high energy, it’s really exciting to play and I think we feel invigorated and really inspired to go out there and, you know, bust it out on stage. 

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Senior editor Mel Woods is an English-speaking Vancouver-based writer and audio producer and a former associate editor with HuffPost Canada. A proud prairie queer and ranch dressing expert, their work has also appeared in Vice, Slate, the Tyee, the CBC, the Globe and Mail and the Walrus.

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