The Many Faces Of Tegan and Sara
Nylon's October 2019 cover stars are musicians Tegan and Sara.
I was worried that I wasn't going to be able to tell Tegan and Sara apart. Identical twins, the musicians can be hard to distinguish from one another in photos: Is Sara a little taller? Does Tegan have shorter hair? Onstage, they give similarly passionate performances, wailing into their microphones, making their guitars growl like riot grrl, or race like punk rock before growing quiet, then joking and telling stories to the audience. I thought I might mix them up, call Tegan "Sara," or Sara "Tegan," and embarrass myself. But as soon as I met them, I knew that would be impossible.
Up close, the musicians don't just have different styles, they each have a profoundly different presence, and it makes its mark immediately. We sat down to dinner at a crowded restaurant in New York's West Village, and Tegan almost immediately started cracking jokes, meeting my eyes. She talked quickly, and with the enthusiasm of a little kid who wants to tell you a secret. Sara spoke slowly, and she's quieter, more pensive. Often her eyes became fixed on some spot above her and to the right, like she was searching for the right words to finish her thought, and when she did speak, it was with a deliberateness and intensity that suggested she really meant what she was saying. Though I'd seen her roar into a microphone onstage, in person, I had to lean close to hear her.
It had been a long day of back-to-back interviews and photo shoots, all to promote their new album, Hey, I'm Just Like You, a collection of songs they wrote in their teens, and their forthcoming memoir of adolescence, High School. "There's nowhere we'd rather be than here with you," Tegan opened, grinning as she settled in her chair; I'm struck with the certainty that this must be a lie—they'd been working since breakfast, and they must have been exhausted. In their position, I'd rather be at home, in bed, than with me. But, they were sharp, alert, exuding a brisk competence, a kind of grace that's both inherent and practiced. Even though they look young, the sisters, now 38, have been in this business for almost 20 years. They started as an underground act, playing pop songs they wrote on their stepdad's guitar, but now, two decades and nine albums later, they're veterans. They know what they're doing.
Maybe it's because they're so accustomed to fame that they are comfortable doing something that would make a lot of people cringe: publicly revisiting their time as teenagers. Just Like You and High School are twin projects, the songs and the narrative closely interwoven, and in them the sisters recount their formative years in all their pain and earnestness, becoming very intimate with their past selves.
The memoir, which they wrote together, traces their lives from when they were 15 to 18, detailing their crushes, fights, insecurities, passions, their prolific and enthusiastic experiments with drugs, and their first fumbling attempts at music and sex. The book is raw and detailed, and their writing captures the tender vulnerability of that age with a frankness I've rarely seen before. All the eager, beautiful, and stupid passions of adolescence are rendered with an unnerving realism; the raw intensity of the material can make a reader feel implicated. Sara reproduced a pair of dirty, fantasy-filled notes that she exchanged with a high school girlfriend; Tegan wrote with reverence and reflection about her first experiences with acid. It's impossible not to be invested in who these young women were and hopeful about who they would become.
The openness is often jarring; it's honesty at its most aggressive. Stories of secret crushes, high-stakes friendships, early heartbreaks, and newfound passions might remind you of your own adolescence. You will find yourself feeling the teenage feelings along with Tegan and Sara, wanting to protect them from all those formative hurts. In a way, the book does what the best of their albums do: seduces you into the intimacy of their emotions, making you share the sisters' longings, frustrations, heartbreaks, and thrills. Their feelings become your own.
“I really feel like we owed our teenage selves a second chance”
Hey, I'm Just Like You is another exercise in self-exposure. The sisters made the album from songs they had written in high school, which they found in old notebooks at their mom's house. Now skilled studio musicians and producers with decades of experience under their belt, Tegan and Sara decided to give the songs the kind of high-end treatment that they never would have been able to afford, or even known to give, back when they wrote them. The songs, 12 in all, are given real arrangements, high-production values, and the smooth, well-trained voices of the rock stars. The result is that the nascent talent in these early songwriting efforts shines through even more brightly than it would have years ago. The title track and the first single, "I'll Be Back Someday," show keen pop instincts, with catchy choruses and deceptively sophisticated bridges, all dressed in a teen's sense of irreverence and eager love. But there's not just musical skill in these songs—there's also a worldliness, an unexpected sense of having come to grips with suffering. You can almost hear their later work echoing in the background, waiting to be born.
"I was recently talking to a man who knew us as teenagers and helped us get our start in the industry," Sara said, "and he made an offhand comment about how, back in the day, he didn't understand why people were so hard on us. He said, 'They were looking for something complicated in your music, and you weren't complicated.' I felt so offended. I just thought to myself, Are you fucking kidding me?"
"At 17 years old I had lived a lifetime," Sara continued. "I had been through suicide, I had been through death, I had been through violence. … What the fuck else do you need? If I was a boy, and been 17 and gone to war, it would have been so romantic. I really feel like we owed our teenage selves a second chance to write that narrative and say, like, No, we didn't add substance to this album now. We're just proving that at 17 years old we had substance and we had something important to say about adolescence, but also about life." In this sense, the project is an exercise in taking their teenage selves seriously, in giving attention and respect to an age group that often doesn't get any.
Potential catharsis aside, don't they feel exposed, or embarrassed, revisiting a part of their life that for so many of us is filled with misguided hopes and deep hurts? Isn't it painful to go back, emotionally, to high school? Not really, they said. In fact, Tegan and Sara have a deep interest in their teenage years; they talked to me about this time in their lives with an enthusiasm that can sound like longing. Back then, they were less worldly, more innocent, and they see it as being when their newfound relationships to music, sex, and psychedelic drugs seemed to merge in their minds into a single blur of world-expanding potential.
“I had been through suicide, I had been through death, I had been through violence. … What the fuck else do you need?"
"You know how, [for] a lot of people, there's certain memories or areas of their lives that are unforgettable, college, etc?" Sara asked me, continuing: "We didn't go to college… In those three years, we learned how to write songs. We went from not knowing how to play music to being offered a record deal. I started having sex with girls." Her eyes went wide, thinking anew of the ways high school shaped her. "That stuff is so burned into my brain because they were the most important things that had ever happened to me. Because our career launched from that period, I always say to people, it's impossible for me to lock it up and cast it away like other people do with their high school experiences. That is truly when our career started."
In more ways than one, it's when their lives started as well. High school is when Tegan and Sara became the women that they are.
Tegan and Sara assembled their memories from the books from a vast expanse of photos, diary entries, mixtapes, and videos that they made at the time, and you can sense a sort of prescience in their teenage habit for self-documentation, a conviction that the things they were experiencing then, as teenagers, were things that they would want to remember one day. It was easy to piece their memories of high school back together when they were writing, they said, because they had spent so much time chronicling that part of their lives as they lived them. They saved every scrap of it.
Tegan's and Sara's lives have since become a lot more complicated, and more compromised. This is natural in some ways, the universal experience of getting older. But it's also specific: They've been famous for 20 years, and they feel tired, over-exposed. Sometimes, writing so urgently about their own lives in their music feels exhausting; sometimes, they don't recognize the version of themselves that's reflected back to them in magazine profiles or publicity stills, where they're depicted as glamorous rock stars, or in the young fans who see them as confident role models. After so many years of exposure and fame, of showing themselves to the world, it's hard for them to know what they have left of themselves, hard to know the relationship between the women they are and the women who stare out at them from billboards, posters, and TV screens.
Fame can do this to people: It splits and multiplies the self. In a way, there are multiple Tegans and multiple Saras, living in their songs, in magazine stories, in the minds of their fans. Among all of these selves, the sisters can feel lost, like they're trapped in a hall of mirrors.
“We didn’t go to college… In those three years we learned how to write songs. We went from not knowing how to play music to being offered a record deal.”
They've tried to use their fame for good. They've both been out and proud for their whole career, risking discrimination and dismissal in an era when gay rights were not as well established as they are now, and in an industry that can still be hostile to lesbian artists. Their example paved the way for others to follow in their footsteps: It's hard to imagine that queer acts like Hayley Kiyoko or King Princess would be able to have the careers they do without Tegan and Sara first forging a path for them. It wasn't easy—they told me about the homophobia they endured in their early career, with commentators calling them "tampon rock," speculating that the sisters were having sex with each other, or opining about how they "don't like cock." If would have been easier, they said, to stay in the closet, or to hedge their queerness. "I could name 10 queer artists right now that are at the beginning of their career, who are saying they're being told not to speak out, not to talk about their identity, to maybe consider saying bisexual," Tegan said. They never considered doing that. That's not their style.
It was while talking about this that I noticed the sisters stiffen. It's territory they've covered in interviews before, and maybe they are sick of talking about it, sick of laundering their hurt over what they went through for magazine interviews. But it's worth dwelling on how much integrity they showed by being out public figures in 1999. They could have taken the easy route and went back into the closet, but they didn't. They were out because it was the right thing to do.
Once, Tegan told me, a man came up to her to say that her example had helped him come to grips with his own sexuality, and eventually led him to come out, late in life. He'd seen her not just as a celebrity, but as someone who had been true to herself when the stakes were high. The image that man saw of Tegan wasn't the way she saw herself, not exactly, but the gulf between her and the version of her that he saw seemed full of potential, like something she could use to make the world more fair.
For Sara, fame is a bit more fraught. Like lots of famous women, sometimes the sisters get hate mail or mean reviews, and it stings. "I don't like being a public figure, it's just the truth," she said. "I think if it was less scary, I probably would like it more. But I feel afraid. I'm afraid of stalkers, people lying to us. People talking to us or sending us letters with naked pictures of their dicks. Having people try to find out where I live and find out about my girlfriend or her family or my family. Thousands of pages of people critiquing our bodies or our girlfriends' bodies. People writing sexual content about me and Tegan having sex with each other on the internet."
“I could name 10 queer artists right now that are at the beginning of their career, who are saying they're being told not to speak out”
The question of how she and Tegan became metonyms for such hate is one that has gnawed at Sara, made her feel guarded and vulnerable in ways that exhaust her. "I'm extremely uncomfortable giving people anything more than what I'm giving people," she said. "At some point in my career, I was like, Do I feel good enough on stage to accept how bad I feel reading comments about people raping us on the internet? The answer at that time in my life was no."
So why did she keep playing music? Tegan interjected with a wry smile, grinning mischievously across the table at her sister: "The money!"
We finished dinner and a waitress, recognizing Tegan and Sara, brought over a trio of fruit sorbets for dessert, compliments of the chef. I can tell the sisters felt embarrassed at the small display of preferential treatment; they hadn't wanted to be recognized, and they're not even very hungry. I watched them glide tiny silver spoons over their scoops of mango and pear.
Earlier, thinking of how their lives had changed since the events described in High School, Tegan had joked about the silliness of growing up, the way aging changes your desires and weakens your vanities. If their teenage selves could see them now, she said, they would be thrilled—awed—at how famous and successful they'd become. "If they met us and were like, 'You guys, what?' And we were like, 'We're really successful, look at us. We're amazing. We have total babes as wives. Mom's doing great. We're still friends with everyone from high school.' They'd be like, 'Holy shit.'"
But their teenage selves also might not recognize them now. There's another way, too, that their lives have changed since high school: Now, they mean something to people, people they've never met. That meaning weighs heavily on them: they feel it both as a burden and as a solemn kind of responsibility.
As we stood to leave, it occurred to me that the sisters must have decided to write about high school at least in part because it was the last time that they weren't famous. Their first album came out when they were 19. They're 38 now. When they started out, Tegan said, Elliot Roberts, the manager who first signed them, told them that they were going to be the voice of their generation. "He used this on every artist he ever signed," she said, laughing. "It made me laugh so hard… because none of us are going to be the voice of our generation." Instead, Tegan and Sara are just trying to speak for themselves.
SPECIAL THANKS TO GABRIELLE KORN
- PHOTOGRAPHER: Lindsey Bynes
- CREATIVE DIRECTION: Lindsey Bynes
- DIGITAL TECH: Hollyanne Faber
- PHOTO ASSISTANT: Zeina Zeitoun
- PRODUCTION: Oui Production
- VIDEO BY: Dani Okon
- STYLIST: Toyo Tsuchiya @ The Brooks Agency
- HAIR FOR TEGAN: Nicole Blais for Exclusive Artists using Reuzel
- HAIR FOR SARA: Walton Nunez @ The Brooks Agency using R+Co
- MAKEUP FOR TEGAN: Natasha Smee for Exclusive Artists using Make Up For Ever
- MAKEUP FOR SARA: Makeup by Megan Lanoux at The Wall Group
- NAILS: Miss Pop using Chanel le Vernis
- PRODUCTION ASSISTANT: Eliza Jouin