It’s one of the more surreal passages from High School, the Quin sisters’ often funny and occasionally dark memoir. For reasons that aren’t completely clear, the car that Tegan and Sara and a handful of their Grade 12 friends are in is being chased through the streets of northeast Calgary. At a stop sign, three men brandishing baseball bats and pipes emerge from the pursuing car. The scene is unnerving and strangely over-the-top, more Mad Max movie than coming-of-age tale.
“I think with the New Year’s chapter, it was important to capture some of that fear,” says Sara Quin, in an interview with Postmedia. “That was always existing. We were always aware when we were out running around at night and hanging out at parks and sneaking out of the house that there was a menacing kind of feeling that at any point something bad could happen.”
This is not to say that High School is a story about a hardscrabble life on the streets. For the most part, the twins lived a normal, lower middle-class life with caring and often strict parents. But it does show how the Quin sisters, who alternate writing chapters, manage to capture the elevated fears and hopes of their younger selves while also offering a detailed snapshot of life in northeast Calgary in the 1990s. It’s also evidence that the book is no ordinary music bio. As the title suggests, it covers only the Quin sisters’ high school years at Calgary’s Crescent Heights and ends just as their remarkable career is about to begin. It ends before they were famously signed by Neil Young’s record label. It ends long before the gold records, the Junos and Grammy Awards and performance at the Oscars.
“I never felt very compelled by the idea of writing about our career,” Sara says. “That might be because we don’t have enough distance from it yet. I have nothing against music memoirs, but for whatever reason they don’t interest me. It’s not what gets me going.”
Instead, High School is an origin story. For much of the book, the twins seem like normal teenagers. They experiment with drugs, try to avoid being grounded, engage in epic fights with each other and have their hearts broken.
There are some coming-of-age wrinkles later on that are specific to their earliest career moments as precocious folkies, including how they weathered their first scathing review after winning first place in Garage Warz or raced home from school the Monday after an early Vancouver showcase to find numerous voice-mail messages from major record labels. Tegan & Sara have also released Hey, I’m Just Like You, an album that finds them applying their modern muscular dance-pop sound to the folk and punk songs they wrote as teenagers.
But most of the book takes place before all this. And much of it deals with identity and, specifically, the Quins coming to terms with their sexuality. There is a touching moment early on when their stepfather tries to make amends to a tearful Tegan after calling Kurt Cobain a homophobic slur. In another chapter, Sara becomes so enraged by a classmate’s homophobia that she throws a chair at him.
But the sisters, who wrote their chapters separately, had very different paths when it came to realizing and accepting their sexuality, something Sara was shocked to discover after reading her sister’s contributions for the first time.
“I immediately thought to myself ‘She’s lying,’ ” Sara says. “There’s no way she didn’t feel the way that I did. There’s no way she wasn’t freaking out and stressed out about being queer. There’s no way that she just happened upon this person later in high school and then decided ‘Oh, I guess I do like girls.’ It just seemed so different from my experience. I was doing the thing that I hate (what) other people do with us: I just assumed Tegan was having the exact same experiences as me.”
The first chapter — as told by Tegan — details the twins estrangement from each other early on in high school, some of which revolved around Sara’s close relationship with a girl named Naomi.
Naomi is one of the dozen or so friends who appear throughout the book, sharing the Quins’ journey, encouraging their creativity and offering general support when they struggled with issues of body image or sexual identity.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t met someone like Naomi, who was brave enough to have a relationship with me,” Sara says. “Even though it didn’t work out and there was a lot of torment in that relationship, she loved me and she cared about me and I needed that at 15 years old. I didn’t feel loved. I didn’t feel lovable. All those people in the book, they saved us. They made us feel like we had value and had lives that were worth living.”
Now 38, the Quins are considered “LGBTQ icons,” a term that makes Sara uncomfortable but is actually used as a description of the duo on the back jacket of High School. Sara says she hopes the book shows younger people going through similar experiences that they are not alone.
“It’s better and it’s so ubiquitous now and everybody treats Pride like it’s St. Patrick’s Day or something,” she says. “But the realities of queer lives is that that’s not always the case. So that is a huge part of telling the story. First of all, it’s just reminding people that we didn’t come out of the womb with a rainbow flag wrapped around us going ‘We’re gay and we’re here and we’re excited!’ It wasn’t that easy.”
Tegan & Sara play two shows at the Bella Concert Hall on Oct. 10. Both are sold out.