Combing through their records while writing their coming-of-age memoir High School, indie pop duo Tegan and Sara stumbled upon old tapes of some of their earliest musical compositions.
Those forgotten songs formed the basis for their latest record Hey, I’m Just Like You, an earnest electro-pop effort that perfectly captures the excitement and uncertainty of adolescence – after all, they were teenagers when they wrote the songs.
The Calgary-born twins brought that album – and its inspiration – to Ottawa’s Algonquin Commons Theatre on Tuesday. The stripped-down show alternated between readings from the book and acoustic renditions of new and old songs, accompanied by amusing clips of the singers in their tumultuous teen years.
With an output that ranges from folk to alt-rock to pop, the Quin sisters are adept at turning their melancholy meditations into irresistibly catchy dance tunes. Their familiar songs took on deeper meanings paired with bittersweet stories about first loves, self-discovery, and coping with homophobia and self-doubt, and glimpses of rough home movies added an air of knowing irony to the youthful grandiosity of their memories.
For the Quins, the book and album project was a way of exorcising some of their regrets about their high school years, which they admitted included plenty of fights, lies, classes skipped, and drugs taken. Throughout the writing process, Tegan explained, they resolved to be “the opposite of what we were as teenagers, which was liars.”
Angsty ballad “Don’t Believe The Things They Tell You (They Lie)” was a particularly poignant rediscovery for Sara, who said she was heartened to recall that their teenage selves had been self-aware (and a touch remorseful) about their misbehaviours. “Maybe all teenagers are psychopaths for a while,” she mused, quickly adding: “Like, we didn’t murder people.”
That’s not to say the Quins regretted all of their teenage transgressions; they maintain that experimenting with drugs – particularly acid – helped repair their then-strained sibling relationship.
“We’re not encouraging you to go out and try LSD,” stressed Tegan. “I mean, it worked for us.”
Self-described contrarian Sara took the opposite perspective, expressing her continued fondness for psychoactive substances, prompting Tegan to interject: “She’s just saying that to get you riled up – she had like two gummy bears and had to talk her girlfriend out of calling 911.”
The show was especially moving when they discussed their experiences discovering and coming to terms with their sexual orientations.
Reminiscing about her first relationship (a secret romance with her best friend at a time when both girls were fairly closeted), Sara reinvented poppy Love You To Death single “Boyfriend” as an introspective piano ballad: “You treat me like your boyfriend, but act like I’m a very best friend…I don’t wanna be your secret anymore.” Later, tales of Tegan’s early relationships set the stage for stripped-down renditions of Heartthrob singles “I Was A Fool For Love” and “Closer.”
My favourite part of the show was scrappy pop-punk tune “I’ll Be Back Someday”, which was the first song the sisters wrote after graduating to electric guitar. The track was given a pop-rock makeover for the album; here, the Quins’s stripped-down electric rendition channelled their early days as members of a “punk-lite” band called Plunk.
It was easy to see how the then-teenaged Quin sisters were able to beat out a slate of older, male-dominated rock bands to win a local Garage Wars competition, a coup that marked their break into the Alberta music scene. That said, they admitted, reception wasn’t universally positive; one university columnist called them “sixteen-year-old Ani DiFranco wannabes” and speculated that the “judges’s mental faculties must have collapsed.”
Sara admitted to struggling with the media attention during that time, fearing being outed and worried that being gay would hold them back.
Chronologically, the show ended on that ambiguous note, with the twins facing an uncertain future in an unforgiving industry (set to acoustic ballads “Please Help Me” and “Where Does The Good Go”).
Of course, things all worked out in the end – but neither of them knew that at the time, which is what makes these songs – and the stories behind them – such a poignant time capsule.
Line-up: Tegan and Sara
Venue: Algonquin Commons Theatre
Date: Oct. 22/2019