Twin-sister indie-pop duo Tegan and Sara tell their “origin story” in the upcoming memoir High School. The siblings wrote the book together, alternating chapters, and across more than 350 pages, they recount their formative years, and the beginnings of their musical collaboration.
“High School provides a purview of the queer adolescent experience,” the duo’s mother writes in a statement found on the book’s website. “It is a story of two resilient young women who found their voices through authenticity, connection to others, music, and apparently a lot of experimentation with psychedelics.”
High School is out on September 24th. Ahead of the book’s release, read an advance chapter below, titled “Hula-Hoops and Chainsaws,” in which Sara Quin recounts the first time they played one of their original songs for their friends. Read the prior chapter, in which Tegan recalls how Sara wrote the song on a guitar borrowed from their stepdad Bruce, here.
Strumming those first chords made the whole body of the guitar vibrate against my chest, sending waves tingling up through my wrists and along the veins in my arms. The weight of the wood felt intimate, touching almost all of me at once.
After we’d been caught shuttling the guitar between the basement and our bedrooms, Bruce gave us permission to use it. Alone in my room, I’d sit on the carpet with my back against the bed, plucking and strumming with my right hand, humming a little under my breath. Sometimes in the morning before school I’d sit with the guitar on my knees and try to remember little melodies I’d thought of before I’d fallen asleep. My thumb was red and swollen from dragging it along the thick ridges, so I cut up the plastic cards in my wallet and made myself a little pile of guitar picks.
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The day that I wrote my first song, Tegan stayed home from school, claiming she didn’t feel well.
“You’re not going to school?” I asked flatly from her doorway.
“I’m sick,” she said, pulling the covers back up to her chin.
“Can I wear your shoes?”
“Whatever.” She closed her eyes.
That afternoon when I came home Tegan was cured of her headache and sore throat. She followed me from her bedroom to mine, flopping down onto the bed.
“Anything interesting happen today?”
“No, same bullshit.”
“Did anyone ask about me?”
“Nope, I don’t think anyone noticed.”
She tilted her head. “Come on.”
“Here.” I handed her a stack of notes from friends.
“Don’t forget to put my shoes back in my closet.”
“Yes, yes, your precious shoes.”
I reached for the guitar in its case and started strumming chords lightly. I didn’t ever sing loudly, or with much confidence, but because I was just joking around, I adopted a kind of British whine, and wailed like a kid might. The words were simple. I was only trying to make Tegan laugh, but they spilled out easily as I shifted between chords.
Tegan didn’t go to school today
Left me all alone to play
Got up, thought everything was fine
Found Tegan was walking that fine line between school and home
Took her favorite shoes when she went back to bed
Could have kicked her in the head
Got to school, forgot my name
Got all flustered, acted lame
Tegan didn’t go to school today
Tegan, I missed you!
“We have to record that!” she said, grabbing a blank tape from my bookshelf. She popped the deck open and stuck the cassette inside, pushing it closed.
“I don’t even remember what I sang!”
She pulled a piece of paper from my binder and started writing down what she could remember.
For years we’d been going to see punk gigs on Sunday afternoons at a community center downtown. We never recognized the band names on the fliers but they all sort of sounded the same, so it didn’t matter who was playing. There was no cover charge to get in, but you had to bring canned food for the Food Not Bombs hamper outside the entrance. We didn’t dress like the kids at those shows, and sometimes in line or just inside the door, I’d see people giving us dirty looks, if they looked at us at all. The regulars gelled their hair into mohawks and moved through the pit like tropical fish you knew were poisonous just from looking at them. Some of the girls had shaved heads with a single row of bangs or sideburns grown long from above their ears. No one was friendly, but we weren’t there to make friends.
In the main hall, bare fluorescent bulbs flickered greenish light on the linoleum and the bands set up right on the floor where the audience stood. Tegan and I usually threw our bags down against the walls and marched straight to the pit, swinging our arms out at a ninety-degree angle. The inner rings would collapse into violent pushing that we mostly avoided, preferring to just bounce off each other like bumper cars at the edges of the pit. Sometimes after a show, I couldn’t even remember what the band looked like, and I’d never felt interested in their instruments. What I loved was the atmosphere, the permission the music gave us to unfurl our insides out.
I was ashamed to think about us playing Bruce’s acoustic in front of those snotty punks. Even if we found some way to stand up with the guitar, I felt like my body wasn’t shaped right. The women in bands that I idolized had flat chests and electric guitars that they swung around their hips like Hula-Hoops and over their heads like chain saws. If we were ever going to be in a real band, we needed an electric guitar. I’d figure out how to deal with my body later.
The following Friday night, Tegan, Christina, Naomi, and I were making prank calls in Grace’s bedroom when we heard her older brother, Daniel, playing guitar and singing in his bedroom. We sank into silence, our ears tilted toward the wall they shared.
“He sounds really good!” I said to Grace.
“He is, right? But he’s so shy.” Grace looked back toward the sound of his voice, pulling at the two dark braids of hair hanging over her ears.
“If I could sing, I’d be like Courtney Love!” Christina said, standing up and taking a rock star–like posture. She held an invisible mic and thrashed her long blond hair.
“No one should ever hear me sing,” Naomi said. “I can’t carry a tune to save my life.”
Christina collapsed back to the floor, out of breath. “It’s hard work being a rock star!”
Grace said, “Let’s knock and see if he’ll let us listen.” She went to her closet and pulled a small bottle of vodka from under a pile of clothes. “But first.” She splashed the clear liquid into our Slurpee cups with a mischievous grin. We filed out of the room, standing in a huddle outside Daniel’s door, chewing on our boozy straws.
“Danny?” Grace touched the door lightly.
“Can we listen?” Naomi asked. I pinched the back of her arm. She turned and smiled, winking at me.
There was a pause and then the click of the door unlocking. We followed Grace into the room. Daniel shut the door behind us and locked it. The blinds were closed tightly, and the only natural light refracted on the floor and wall through a bent piece of plastic near the bottom of the window. Daniel turned on the bedside lamp and lit a cigarette. The walls were covered with band posters and psychedelic artwork. I could smell the skunky weed from the plastic bag near his stereo. I sat on the floor in the corner, next to Tegan.
“We want to hear you play!” Christina, always the bravest among us, blurted out.
“Yeah?” Daniel smiled, revealing a set of small sharp teeth. He pulled his hair from its elastic band and let it fall to his shoulders. He picked up his electric guitar and sat down cross-legged in front of his amp. His fingers were pale and fine, and they climbed on the strings like the legs of an insect. His vocals sounded shredded and strained, then sorrowful and tender.
When he’d finished, Tegan said, “You’re really great, Daniel.”
His face blushed scarlet. “I’m not that great.” He took deep breaths through the filter of his cigarette and blew smoke up toward the closed window.
“Sara and Tegan write songs, too,” Christina said, when Daniel leaned the guitar against the amp. Then, realizing she’d revealed a secret, she mouthed “Sorry” in our direction.
“I placed the electric guitar across my lap. It felt like a weapon, sleek and dangerous.”
“Let’s hear one,” Daniel said.
“Yes!” Grace echoed, sitting up and crossing her legs.
Tegan and I locked eyes. My heart was racing. Daniel extended the neck of the instrument to me. I put my Slurpee cup on the carpet, wiped my hands on the knees of my jeans. I placed the electric guitar across my lap. It felt like a weapon, sleek and dangerous. I held it to my chest, ran my fingers along the strings. Little squeaks rang out of the amp. Tegan and I had spent weeks writing songs on only two strings. The rest had snapped when we’d wound them too tight. I didn’t dare touch the tuning pegs on Daniel’s guitar. Instead, I shifted my fingers into a familiar shape, struggling to make use of the extra strings.
I strummed Daniel’s pick against the strings and began to sing. I was dazzled by the energy bouncing between the walls. My face throbbed with heat. Every time I made a surprising switch between quiet and loud, sad and happy, the air cracked around us like it had been whacked with something solid. Tegan’s voice in the chorus split the song into stereo. I’m alive! Look at me! She screams, I’m alive! Hello, it’s me! When we finished, I felt tipsy and buoyant. I turned the neck of the guitar back in Daniel’s direction, but his hands didn’t move.
“Are there more?” he asked.
That night in my bed, Naomi watched me in the near dark for a long time. We lay on our sides facing each other.
“I didn’t realize you could do that,” she said.
“You know what,” she said, sitting up. “You write and play songs!”
I laughed. “I guess so.”
“But how did you learn to do it?”
“I don’t know. I just tried, and I could.”
I wasn’t sure how to explain it. It was instinct but also mimicry. Hold your hand this way, move the other fast or slow, open your mouth and sing.
She squinted hard at me, shaking her head. “You’re really good.” Long after she had fallen asleep, I lay awake replaying her praise, grinning at the ceiling.
Excerpted from HIGH SCHOOL by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin. Published by MCD, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux September 24th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Sara Quin and Tegan Quin. All rights reserved.