Feature image photo by Araya Doheny/Getty Images
I’ve never fastened my emotions to a memoir the way I did with Tegan and Sara’s High School, an open-hearted, open-handed first-person narrative of their teenage lives in the ’90s — before they became Tegan and Sara. It is so deeply, precisely personal; yet broadly relatable. I shouldn’t have been surprised. That’s kind of their whole thing. Now their book is a TV series, written and directed by Clea DuVall and Laura Kittrell, that lands tomorrow on Amazon Freevee. Just in time for the release of their new Crybaby album and tour, and the release of Sara’s actual human baby. Somehow, between the music and the show and the parenting/aunting, Tegan and Sara found time to chat with me about the challenges and joys of bringing their story to the screen.
Heather: Tegan and Sara, thank you so much for talking to Autostraddle today.
Tegan: Oh my God, we love Autostraddle! So nice to see you, Heather.
Heather: You too. I also want to thank you both personally. Your music, your writing, the work you’ve done with the Tegan and Sara Foundation, the way you have modeled queer community building — all of that has been so vital and aspirational to me in my life. This is a cool, full-circle moment.
Tegan: Ah, that’s amazing.
Sara: Thank you.
Heather: Whose idea was it to launch a tour, a new album, a TV show, and a literal baby at the same time?
Tegan: [Laughs] Not good planning on our part. Every time we do this we’re like, “We’re only going to do one project at a time” — and then what can we say? We just get inspired. The show was happening and we had time to write a record. I mean there’s amazing opportunities that come because of the show, to help shine a light on us as a band, because we continue to just muck about in this sort of indie, sort of mainstream world. We’re always sort of straddling those worlds, but it’s like hella stressful right now around our world.
Heather: I’m sure! Are you on the road already?
Sara: Not yet.
Tegan: Just some promo trips and stuff. But my mom’s coming, Sara’s bringing her partner and the baby. It’s going to be a full family affair here in about three weeks.
Heather: Amazing. And your dog also? Is it going to be—
Tegan: No, I’m not bringing the dog! Dog’s staying home!
Heather: [Laughs] Baby, yes. But not the dog! That’s one step too far!
Tegan: Gosh. Heather, don’t be crazy.
Heather: Let’s talk about this show! I love it. I loved your memoir. I listened to the audio book as well, which I thought was just wonderful. The show is such a heartfelt representation of your story and it’s also adding a real modern sensibility to these ’90s era experiences. Is there a different level of vulnerability that goes into allowing someone else to take your story and tell it, rather it than telling yourself?
Sara: Yes. The answer is yes. I think that’s the most complicated part about this process. Tegan and I spent a lot of the early part of our career knowing that if we were going to be successful in communicating directly to our audience, it meant that often we had to put in that extra work to build an online community when it was still very new, to spend time talking with our audience and community building in person at our shows. There was a lot of work that went into really being — quite literally — the face of our band; not relying on things like radio or press or TV. There’s a sort of strange irony in now telling our original origin story, but really having to let someone else do it, and not necessarily have a ton of control over how it turns out.
Heather: You chose who to turn it over to wisely, I gotta say.
Sara: Yes. For us, the biggest thing, in working with Clea, who is a friend, was just a sort of a request and an understanding that we would continue to be involved in the conversation. We read the scripts, we leave notes. Whether or not those notes are always adapted or implemented was less relevant than if we just got to have those conversations. Even just sort of texturally, to give that perspective to Clea and Laura as they were writing, just so those little details, at least for us, were captured in the show and make it feel really authentic.
Then obviously just from the completely brand perspective, the show is called High School, but the characters are Tegan and Sara. We are still an active IP. We are going on 23 years without a cancellation or a major scandal. When you hand over your name to other people — and not just the show but the people, the actors who play us — there’s a lot of opportunity for things to go sideways. It’s a big trust fall where you’re just flailing through the air, waiting and hoping that there’s a soft landing. It’s really scary. But I think art requires a kind of surrender and a risk. I think Tegan and Sara, we’re still trying to make art that surprises people and this feels scary, so I think that that probably means we’re on the right track.
Heather: What part of this TV creation process came the most naturally to you? You’ve been creating art together for so long, so collaboratively, and this has to be a different experience.
Tegan: I think actually we are very collaborative because everything we do, not only with each other, but you collaborate with co-producers and engineers and the record company and our creative director and the band. I think probably the hardest part was that we were all of a sudden having to collaborate with somebody who maybe doesn’t always collaborate, and it’s not quite as effortless. Clea is incredible and is our friend and is caring and empathetic and loving and knows all of our people, but we would often share our opinion and it would be like, “Well, just let me do what I’m doing.” Whereas, in our world it’s like, “No, you will hear me out! You will hear my ideas!”
I think we probably take for granted how much we collaborate and that there’s conflict that comes from collaborating and that’s normal and healthy and we just have to go through that. Clea and Laura are incredible and got through it with us — we all love each other and are friends and all hope we get a season two, so that’s a good sign. But yeah, collaborating comes naturally to us, but it’s not natural for everyone else and we push it on people like it is — and that’s intense.
Heather: My best friend is my sister; I understand a little bit about that dynamic. Were there things in your memoir that you felt comfortable putting on paper that you did not feel comfortable putting on television?
Tegan: Yeah. That’s a great question. I know we have such limited time, so I’ll just say, I think probably generally speaking, there were things that felt deeply personal, that felt like okay to share in the book — but then for the show, it was like, well, we’ll have to delve into the other characters. I think we were careful about how to portray those other characters. That’s probably where Laura and Clea fictionalized the most or did composites of people the most: the characters around us. Most of these people are still alive, they’re still in our life. My mom’s a therapist, so how do we portray her as a therapist on TV becomes really complicated because you don’t want anyone to watch the show and go, “Wait, that character must be me!”
Tegan: It’s like Sara said, it’s a lot of trust and complications. The book is its own entity. I really hope people who watch the show go and explore the book, if they haven’t read it, because it’s a different thing. But yeah, that’s definitely complicated.
Heather: Did you feel as much of protectiveness over these other peripheral “characters” in your life as you did over your own story? You’re nodding vigorously.
Tegan: More. Much more.
Sara: More. More. More. I think Tegan and I have been exposing ourselves and our lives for so long — I guess “exposed” almost feels like the wrong word. We’ve been really transparent and open about our lives and our relationships. But music is kind of abstract, it’s like poetry or something. Television is like fucking television. It’s exposing. I mean, every moment of being protective or diligent about details was about protecting our friends and family and hopefully getting out of this without lawsuits or people disowning us.
Heather: One thing I’ve asked everyone today, I especially want to ask you: If there’s a need for either of you to get into this ’90s head space, what’s your go-to album?
Sara: Anything by Smashing Pumpkins, for sure.
Heather: Hey, just like Book Sara.
Tegan: I would say Hole. When we started working on the show and we started sending back and forth songs, Clea sent a couple options for Hole songs and I went back and just went deep and was just like, “Oh God, yeah.” It transforms me to Grade 10 immediately.
Sara: Actually, not for Grade 10, but we just recently got to talk with Ani DiFranco for the first time and I spent some time with Living In Clip again, and man that album is like…
Tegan: So 12th grade.
Sara: So ’90s.
Heather: So gay.
Tegan and Sara’s High School lands tomorrow on Amazon Freevee.