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 “Tegan Didn’t Go to School,” in which Tegan Quin recounts how her sister wrote her first song on a guitar borrowed from their stepdad, Bruce. Read the next chapter, in which Sara Quin recounts the first time the two played the song for their friends, here.
One afternoon while Mom and Bruce were out, Sara and I were rooting around in the storage under the stairs when we found a guitar case tucked between two towers of office supply boxes. I can’t remember what we were actually looking for, what item was worthy of trespassing the only space in the house that was designated for Bruce’s things. But once we saw the guitar case, we forgot about what we were searching for and that we were breaking his cardinal rule: never mess with his stuff.
“Bruce has a guitar?”
“So weird. I’ve never seen this before.”
“Here,” Sara suggested as she clumsily hauled the guitar over her head. “Help me, grab it.” She passed the bulky laminate wood case over her head into my waiting hands. Bruce was particular about his things and would notice any slight disturbance to his stuff, so we covered our tracks before we turned out the light and closed the door. We were deferential to Bruce’s belongings in a way that we weren’t with anyone else’s, ours included, and so my heart pounded as we moved the contraband out of its hiding place and brought it to the office. I trailed behind Sara, watching her labor with the long neck of the case as she navigated his gym equipment.
“Careful,” I sang behind her.
“You be careful,” Sara said.
In the office, she placed the case on the worn gray couch, left over from Bruce’s bachelor days, and popped the gold locks along the perimeter. I stood alongside Sara and felt a jolt of excitement flood my bloodstream as the yellow body of the guitar was revealed. It was a Fender. Sara looked at me, twisting her mouth open, raising her eyebrows.
“This is so random,” I said. “Why does he have a guitar?”
Sara shook her head. “I don’t know. Obviously, he wanted to be a rock star, or he was at some point and never told us.”
I reached out and grabbed the neck and pulled it free of the black fur-lined case.
“Wait!” Sara shouted. “Maybe we shouldn’t . . .”
“Why not? He won’t be home for hours. It’s fine. Relax.” I folded onto the floor, crossing my legs, and laid the guitar across my lap. Its thick body pressed into my thighs, I wrapped my right arm around it like I’d seen other musicians do a million times on TV and in music videos. Though neither of us had held a guitar before that afternoon, finding the guitar felt exhilarating, and the desire to play it felt instinctive.
At this point in our lives, Sara and I had taken nearly a decade of piano lessons from a grandmotherly woman named Lorraine. We both loved Lorraine, even if we didn’t particularly love the piano, or at least not the classical pieces she forced us to learn, or the theory we studied twice a week in her rumpus room. Half of our weekly lessons were spent talking, something Sara and I both liked to do a lot more than playing the piano. I think Lorraine let us chatter because she knew we didn’t practice. Eventually, she’d suggest we review whatever piece of music she’d assigned the week before, and my stomach would knot. As I stumbled through it, I would promise myself I’d practice more the next week. I never did. And Lorraine never reprimanded me. She only doled out compliments and tips for how to improve.
“Did Lorraine call your bluff this week?” Mom would ask from behind the steering wheel as we climbed into the Jeep after our lessons.
“No,” we’d reply, smugly.
“This is hard,” I said, plunking the fingers from my right hand along the strings of Bruce’s guitar while my left hand tried to hold the neck in place. The sound it made was less than inspiring.
“No, I think you’d do it this way,” Sara suggested after a second, pulling the guitar from me into her own lap. But she had the same result. “We need something to like, play the strings with.”
“Like a pick?” I opened the case and found an orange Dunlop plastic pick. “Got one.” I handed it back to Sara, sat down across from her, and watched in amazement as she strummed.
We smiled at each other. After an hour we carefully returned the guitar to its case and replaced it in the space under the stairs, checking and double-checking we’d left it exactly where we had found it. Neither Sara nor I mentioned finding the guitar to Mom or Bruce that night when they got home. I also didn’t mention to Sara that when she went to Naomi’s after school in the weeks that followed, I stole the guitar from under the stairs and played it secretly in my room. I don’t know why I kept my interest in the guitar a secret from Sara, or why I didn’t just reveal to Bruce that we had found it and that I wanted to learn and take lessons. For some reason during those first few weeks, I kept the guitar and my desire to hold it to myself. Instead of smoking pot and falling asleep, I watched MuchMusic quietly in the basement with the guitar in my lap, trying to mimic the shapes I saw Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love making with their hands in their music videos. Slowly, I was able to start holding power chords that didn’t sound half bad. And almost immediately, without thinking, I began to hum melodies along with them.
Sara and I had sung in the choir in elementary school. Though neither of us was a prodigious talent, we joined school productions and loved being onstage. I loved lip-syncing along to my favorite bands in my room and longed to stand in front of a mic. But I only ever sang in front of other people if everyone else was also singing: drunk at a party, in the mosh pit of a favorite band, lying in sleeping bags in the tent trailer in Grace’s (a friend from the Frenchies) backyard. Never alone.
The only time I could recall having done so was in grade eight when a friend named Dawn called our house. After I finished a long monologue about my love of Green Day, she somehow coaxed me into singing “She,” her favorite song. At first, I had laughed nervously at the strange request. Stalling, I tried to figure out if I was being tricked — a reasonable theory since we hadn’t exactly been close friends in junior high. But as she encouraged me from the other end of the phone line to sing, I started to warm to the idea.
“Come on,” Dawn begged.
“But you have such a good voice,” she cooed.
Finally, I agreed. “Alright . . .”
Starting quietly, I mumble-sang the first few lines. As I started to sing, I liked it. I liked the butterflies flapping frantically in my stomach as I managed the notes and the words and worried about what Dawn was feeling on the other end. I liked having an audience. After I sang out the final note, Dawn purred, “Sing it again.” I was awash with an untamable desire to perform for her. Her request quenched some part of me I hadn’t even known existed five minutes earlier. “Okay,” I agreed. And then I sang it again. And again.
I had never created my own songs or original melodies before. But the instinct was there. As the first attempts at original melody snuck out of my throat, I felt high. After that, time flew. I stitched words to the notes ringing out from the guitar with no awareness of the time. It was just luck that I noticed the clock in my room; I’d had the guitar out of the basement for over an hour. Reluctantly I returned it to its case and then back to the storage room in the basement. That night as I lay in bed, I hummed the beginning of the song I’d been writing earlier. In the dark, I felt a glow of purpose as I drifted off.
What I didn’t know was that Sara was doing the same thing when I wasn’t around.
I stopped dead in my tracks on the stairs when I heard her through the closed door of her bedroom one afternoon.
“Tegan didn’t go to school today . . . ,” she softly sang.
The first notes of her melody made the hair on my arms stand up.
“Left me all alone to play . . .”
It was good.
“Got up, thought everything was fine . . . found Tegan was walking that fine line between schoooooooool and home . . .”
She held the word “school” out longer than the rest, and I laughed quietly to myself. Holy shit, I thought, she’s really good.
Discovering that Sara was writing songs felt serendipitous—almost as magical as discovering the guitar. A few days later I was in my room doing homework when Sara appeared in my doorway. “Do you want to hear what I’m working on?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I had no idea how she had known I’d also been playing the guitar alone, and I didn’t care. Every moment before that one became irrelevant.
“As the first attempts at original melody snuck out of my throat, I felt high.”
Back in her room, she sat cross-legged on the floor. She started singing the song I’d heard through her door a few days earlier: “Took her purple shoes when she went back to bed. Could have kicked Tegan in the head. Got to school, forgot my name. Got all flustered, acted lame. Where’s Tegan?”
I burst out laughing.
She stopped. “Bad?”
“No, it’s really fucking good.”
She played the song a few times, and I clumsily sang along during the choruses. We interrupted each other to make suggestions, and when we finally arrived at something that felt finished, I went in search of a blank tape so we could record it: another instinct.
“Ready?” I nodded to her when I had the stereo aimed at her guitar.
I pressed Play and Record together. We both exploded into laughter.
I hit Stop and said, “Come on. No laughing.”
“Okay, I’m ready.”
It took a few tries, but eventually, we made it through the entire song. Listening back after, I couldn’t believe how good it sounded. How good we sounded.
“Let’s try it one more time,” Sara said. “Don’t sing until the chorus.”
That afternoon we were so enthralled by our process we didn’t hear when Bruce and Mom arrived home, snuck upstairs, and stood outside Sara’s door for who knows how long. But at some point, they knocked, and we both froze in place on the floor of Sara’s room. I stood, my legs half-asleep, and unlocked Sara’s door. Instead of looking angry or displeased catching us with Bruce’s guitar without permission, their faces lit up, not at all upset by our deceit.
“Let’s hear it,” Bruce said.
Stopping, again and again, tripping through the song, we played them “Tegan Didn’t Go to School Today.” When we were finished Bruce said, “It’s pretty good.” And Mom, smiling wide, clapped wildly next to him.
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.