IN CONVERSATION WITH ALY & AJ
Interview by Jana Letonja
When the California sister duo Aly & AJ released their dream-rock return in 2021, it marked a new beginning. A decade and a half into their careers, the album was their most realized yet, the work of a band reclaiming itself. In the wake of the runaway TikTok revival of their 2007 hit ‘Potential Breakup Song’, Aly & AJ transformed their foundation of Disney pop and TV sitcoms into a new vision of sparkling guitars, close harmonies, and highway sprawl, growing on their own terms.
After the success of ‘A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun’ Aly & AJ returned right back to the studio. Their upcoming album ‘With Love From’, which is coming out 15th March, is a travelog filled with organic instrumentation and road songs, like a series of postcards to fans from each town they’ve seen on their journey. Aly & AJ will also kick off their ‘With Love From Tour’ on 30 March through late April, and then pick it up again in September.
Aly & AJ, you debuted your first album in 2005, when you were in your teens. What made you pursue a career in music?
Aly: It was something that we didn’t necessarily seek out professionally at first. I think it was a bit of a fluke, but it all started from us just being super creative as young children. Growing up, in school we were always involved in something creative, whether it was a speech meter, a talent show, a play. Music was a big part of our life. Growing up, we always had music in the house and we started playing instruments at young ages. Once we picked up multiple instruments, I think that started to influence us as songwriters, which only happened after we really picked up guitar. That showed us we were more than just musical people. We were possibly artists because we were writing songs.
AJ: Ever since we were young, we were really creative kids, but we didn’t necessarily see ourselves doing this as a profession. We were born in LA, but we lived in Seattle for seven years. When we moved back to LA, it opened the floodgates for more creative opportunities than Seattle held. So I think acting and music kind of started simultaneously. We got signed at such a young age and started playing instruments at such a young age, that we then formed into a band that led to writing our own music and playing live. In a way, I think that kind of curtailed our acting careers a little bit, because there was a confidence in who we were as a band at a young age that brought a confidence to us as actors. So the two I think have definitely helped each other and we’ll always consider ourselves to be both. Right now, the focus is really on music cause we took such a long break from it.
Right after the succes of your 2021 album ‘A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun’ you returned back to the studio, where you worked more quickly than ever on your upcoming album ‘With Love From’, which is being released on 15th March. This is an album of haunting introspection and personal recollections, like a lost diary that has been found. What drove you to record a new album so quickly? Tell us more about the inspirations behind it and what can we expect from it?
Aly: We were just inspired to get back in the studio again because we felt like we had new inspiration and more songs inside of us. At that point we had finished all of the production and writing on ‘A Touch of the Beat …’, but we had some inspiration still left in us and we didn’t want to wait and hold onto that until we were available again. We knew that we would be out on the road a lot this year, so we thought it would be best to have another record that was on the back burner, waiting to be completed.
We just got back in again and worked with all the same collaborators that we did ‘A Touch of the Beat …’ with. With the same producer, we recorded it again at Sunset Sound. I don’t know what inspired us to get back in, but I just knew that we had more music to make and we really love the writing process. I think that’s one of our favorite parts of making records. For us, that’s the fun part and we can do that for many months out of the year, again and again, as long as we’re feeling inspired about topics that we wanna write about.
AJ: It’s funny, people have asked “Why so fast? ” And I’m like “Why not? ” It makes sense that we went this quick because it’s never that fast. It actually took quite a bit of time. But in terms of timing out the records to be so close and so back-to-back, they feel like two sister records. ‘With Love From’ does feel like a little bit of a continuation. We had so much to say when we released ‘A Touch of the Beat …’ and it was 16 songs. Aly and I hadn’t released a full length record in so long and it just felt right. So to have 11 songs coming out makes sense for us in so many ways, because we were on a roll with our writings. We were like “Let’s not stop this while it’s on the move”.
So you are actually for the first time now also the co-producers on the album. How has this been for you, officially being the co-producers?
AJ: Nothing changes for us. It’s a title, which I think is important, especially as young female artists that are in the industry and have been doing this for a really long time. But it doesn’t change our role. We’ve always had that role, to be honest. And even when we were young, we learned a ton in the studio with past collaborators. And as we were really young, at the time they were never gonna give us that credit, which makes sense. As we got older, we were like “We’ll just keep diving in without the credit and that’s okay”. And finally it was like, no, this makes sense. This is something Aly and I worked really hard on and it should be acknowledged, you know? And it was time for Aly and I to shine a light on that because it’s something that we are heavily involved in and invested in. Our producer, Yves Rothman and James McAlister have done a ton of work. So adding a co-production title never takes away anything from what the other producers have done. If anything, it just adds to it. We’ve all had many creative ideas throughout the months of making this album, and we all deserve to be acknowledged for that.
You tracked this album in one week, all 11 songs from it.
Aly: We tracked the band and most of the vocals in a week and then we went back into the studio afterwards and did harmonies and background vocals separately. But the amount of comping and putting together which vocal takes we wanted and solo parts took months. I think the entire album in its totality took 10 months to complete. And that’s from start to finish, from when we actually got in the studio to when we finished the mixing and mastering, which is actually a little quicker than what it took for ‘A touch of the Beat …’.
The special thing that is unique with this record is that we recorded all of our vocals live with the band at the same time. That was definitely a unique challenge because we’ve never done that before and it gave us fewer takes to work with. But it also added to the vocal performances because they are not perfect vocal takes, they have emotion and character to them that I think is really special. AJ and I were able to step back and look at our vocals in a different way than what we’ve done in the past. We previously combed through them in a maniacal way and this time we just let them be what they are.
‘With Love From’ is described as a travelog filled with organic instrumentation and road songs, like a series of postcards to fans from each town you’ve seen on your journey. Why would you describe it as such? And how would you describe your personal relationship with your fans?
Aly: We’re very close with them. We have this really wonderful open dialogue that we’ve always had since we were young children when we first started. And over the years we’ve realized that we’ve grown up with our fans and vice versa, so I think there’s something really beautiful about this give and take between our creative art and the fans that listen to it. We wanted to make a record that felt like we were making a love letter to our listeners across the US and around the world as well. And for whatever reason, these songs feel like songs that you would be listening to on a long cross country road trip. I think there are elements of that in ‘A Touch of the Beat …’ as well, with songs like ‘Pretty Places’ and ‘Slow Dancing’. But with this record, we dove deeper into that concept, also just stripping back anything that seemed electronic or modern in its instrumentation. We wanted to go back to our roots in terms of what instrumentation we did choose to use. It was important to us that it would reflect well in our live show and I think we’ve gotten more knowledge because of touring so much over the last few years.
‘With Love From’ emotional range is all from hope to sadness, sentiment to introspection, turbulence to calm. You wanted the energy of this album to feel like a thunderstorm. Why did you want it to feel like that and to capture the feeling you get from the weather?
AJ: When we were creating the record and working on the art for the record, traveling to take stills and shoot music video clips and promotional material, this storm kept following us and we were like “This is bizarre ”. When we were writing the record, we had weather in mind a lot. I think this year is going to be an insane year for weather. Supposedly it’s an El Nino year. So I think that our record being an up and down telling of how the weather can shift and change really fast is actually really telling as to what this year’s going to look like. Our lives are really frenetic, always changing. We will be on the road one day and then we’ll be filming a movie the next. It’s a really insane industry that we’re in and because we’ve split ourselves between acting and music, it can be really frenetic.
Aly and I were like “How do we tap that energy that we feel in day-to-day life into our music?” I don’t know if people are gonna listen to the record and feel like “Oh my gosh, I’m in a thunderstorm”, but for us that’s the way we’ve been able to perceive making the record, and it’s helped give us a really clear, thoughtful path while we made it. Between shooting in Marfa, Texas and Las Vegas and all the other spots we’ve hit, and seeing this thunderstorm follow us, we were like “Well, this just completely represents this upcoming album. Life is like the weather, it changes constantly. So how can we bottle that into music? “
How did your sound transform comparing to your previous albums and music?
AJ: We’ve really grown as people and songwriters and live musicians. I think that’s brought confidence and security in the music we’re making now that we didn’t really have before. Aly and I were always comfortable with songwriting and playing live, but we were also under the rule of a label that was surrounded by pop artists. We were trying to stand out in a situation that was difficult because when you’re so young but so clear about what you want, people don’t necessarily believe it or trust it because of youth or being a female or whatever it might be. And I think that held us back a little bit at times. We had to regain that confidence and find it in ourselves without having to rely on a label or a management firm to tell us “This is what we want for you next.” Instead, it’s “This is what we want for ourselves next”.
I think that’s really important to find as an artist. So many artists talk about this, this era of freedom where they finally found a time in their career where they opened up to a new chapter and felt like “I found who I am and how to stand up for myself as an artist”. I really do feel like this album has been that for us. And that’s thanks to great management and independent labels and independent distributors who have let us really be free with the music we wanna put out.
You’ve collaborated with a team of collaborators at the vanguard of alternative pop, producer Yves Rothman and co-writer Jorge Elbrecht. Why are collaborations, especially with your personal feminist rock heroes like Heart’s Nancy Wilson and Melissa Etheridge, so important to you?
Aly: They’re important because, first of all, they are people that we really look up to and always have. They are very important to AJ and I, so being able to share their gifts and talents with our younger fan base is really important. Just having their blessing that they would even be interested in collaborating with us means the world. It only further indicates that we are in the right place and that we’re headed in the right direction because people that we look up to are willing to collaborate and make music with us. That’s really validating, but they also fit the vibe of what we were trying to capture on this album.
Nancy has such a great feel as a songwriter and guitar player and vocalist. And Melissa was able to lend her guitar skills on ‘Hold Out’. It’s such a beautiful guitar part that she added. It’s cool because people can make albums in their room all by themselves without a collaborator and then there are people that can make albums with a hundred different people. I really love collaborating with other people because it opens and expands my mind on what is maybe possible at that moment. AJ and I have always liked collaborating and it started at a young age because we were introduced to co-writing at a young age. That really helped us understand how to write in a room with people we haven’t met or haven’t known for very long and to feel comfortable in sharing creative ideas. It’s really great that it was fostered at such a young age for both of us, cause I think it’s really helped our songwriting at this point in our career now.
You have both acted in many film and TV projects as well. In 2015 you produced Richard Linklater-inspired film ‘Weepah Way for Now’, based on your own experiences of sisterhood, stardom and growth. What do you believe is the strongest message of this film?
AJ: That’s a beautiful question. We haven’t been asked something like that in a long time, cause the movie is not new. For me, the movie represents the strong bond that sisters hold through really tough circumstances. And it was hard, because throughout our careers so many people have wanted to either write a show that portrays our life or a movie or even a reality show. In the past we’ve just felt like it didn’t portray who we are as sisters at all. It took Aly’s husband, who was living with us at the time, to really unlock what the bond of Aly and I really represented and how that would be seen on screen. I think he did a beautiful job. I don’t really think anyone’s been able to do that for us. And I think our music does it, but I don’t think we’ve been able to do it on film.
Aly: It’s an honest portrayal of friendship and heartache and pain in a way that feels very unfiltered. In a lot of movies it feels like we want to brush under the rug some of those moments that are very true to real life. This movie has some of those scenes that really truly do happen to us. We wanted to share that on film and even though they might be shocking or triggering or even disturbing, it was important for us to share and it was also therapeutic for us to heal from any past trauma that we might have endured as young kids. It was really important for us to make that movie and I know a lot of people enjoyed it. AJ: That movie served as a time capsule for Aly and I. We didn’t think we’d ever make a movie together, one that we had produced and starred in. Knowing that it was in a location that Aly and I really care about, it was our first house outside of living with our parents that we were able to be in together, and also we have pets in there that are no longer with us, so for me to look back on that movie is kind of beautiful. I haven’t rewatched the movie in a long time, but it’s beautiful knowing that so much is captured on that film that we can look back at in years to come.
Since your return to music in 2017, you have extensively used your platform to advocate for political causes, particularly the advancement of LGBTQ+ rights and the importance of voting. Other causes and organisations you have voiced support for include the Black Lives Matter movement and Planned Parenthood. In what way do you use your platforms to advocate for these important causes?
Aly: We have a responsibility as artists to use our platforms for good and to help educate our fan base that maybe don’t know about certain organizations, that maybe don’t know about certain movements that they can become involved in. It’s hard to know and to learn absolutely everything, but I know that we can learn a lot through social media and it doesn’t have to be negative. It can be positive. AJ and I try to use our concerts, our website, our merchandise as ways to be able to donate money and funds and also just information to organizations and fans that are really looking for some kind of a way to connect with their community.
The LGBTQ+ community has been so incredibly welcoming and warmhearted towards us. I think they have been for a while because the music that we wrote when we were young kids happened to really connect with them. Whether they were out or closeted at the time, it was music that they felt really safe with. And that inspired us to create this sanctuary, this community of fans that are able to not only help each other out in tough times, but able to also share information with each other. I think that we have a lot of hope in our future because of youth and because of people that are willing to get out on the streets and actually make things happen for themselves instead of just sitting at home, doing nothing.
You have also partnered with The Trevor Project, an organisation dedicated to youth suicide prevention in the LGBTQ+ community, and Project HEAL, a charity dedicated to increasing access to treatment for eating disorders. Why are all of these causes of such importance to you? Which one do you believe is currently the one that needs the most attention?
Aly: Honestly, I think Project HEAL could use a lot of light shown on it because it’s something that people don’t really wanna talk about. We were introduced to the organization through a dear friend, who is a survivor and she’s gone through a lot of treatment herself and a lot of past trauma that she’s overcome. And she has Project HEAL to thank for part of that healing. It just shows that people are scared to talk about things that feel taboo, that feel scary to talk about, to verbalize. I think we’re getting better in terms of people talking about mental health and the fact that it’s okay to ask for help, but I know that there are still people out there that aren’t able to get treatment for eating disorders and are desperate for answers. I don’t feel like they have a support system and Project HEAL really made this wonderful network for people that are looking for that. We figured that we would have fans that would need that help as well and so it inspired us to be able to work with them, to get the word out. They’re a smaller organization, but they’ve gained a lot of traction over the last few years. We’re just happy to help spread their message.
AJ: I also think that working with someone like Project HEAL is really inspiring nationwide because body dysmorphia is something that so many people are going through. I feel like Instagram and Twitter and social media in general has kind of perpetuated this twisted idea of what a body looks like because of the means to fix things and touch up things and trim things. It’s so easy to get sucked into what social media looks like. And that’s why I think Project HEAL is more important than ever because body dysmorphia is rampant right now.
Young women are growing up with TikTok and Instagram going “Is that how I’m supposed to look?” They’re incredibly important and also very available because they’re a smaller organization. They’re very easy to get a hold of and in touch with. For instance, a mutual friend of Aly and I was really seeking treatment and I was able to give her help by someone who’s very high up at the company and they immediately helped find her a treatment center. So it’s things like that that go a long way with that kind of company.
Besides the release of ‘With Love From’, you’ll be also going on ‘With Love From Tour’, which kicks off on 30 March, going through late April and then picking it up again in September. What would you say you are most excited about this tour?
Aly: We’re excited to weave in this new album with ‘A Touch the of Beat …’ songs because I think they’re going to sit really well in the set together. We’re also bringing back some really old songs from our past that we’re trying to flip on their head and rethink their layout in our set. That’s definitely been a challenge for AJ and I, but we’re also up for finding a unique way to play these old songs where they still honor the original, but we’re able to give them a new life with this new sound that we’ve grown into. I’m just excited to have the show fully built out and to see the flow of each song and how it sits in the set list.
And then obviously, we’re looking forward to meeting the fans one-on-one, hearing their stories. I think that always really fills up our cup when it comes to validating why we do this. Sometimes it can be really discouraging and the industry can be really hard on your artistry. When you meet the fans and you hear a special story, you’re like “Oh, this is why I do this”. It’s not just about me and the music, it’s so much deeper than that. We’re looking forward to hearing more stories and playing for fans who have never seen us play live before. I think there are still a lot of people out there who haven’t been to an Aly & AJ show, so we’re always excited to play a first show for them.
What are the most important things for you both when you are performing live on stage?
Aly: Vocal health is definitely one of them. We thankfully have always, at least in this new iteration of music that started back in 2017, been really great at it. We have ways to preserve our voices and to preserve our energy that we’ve learned over the years. I think when we were younger, we would tire ourselves out a lot more, and I think we’d over sing. AJ had moments of losing her voice and that’s fully past us, which is great.
And honestly, it’s surrounding ourselves with a great team, a great band, a great front of house engineer, a great lighting director. We’ve noticed that everybody has their place in the production of the show and all of them are needed. They’re all equally needed, so the more that there can be this team spirit behind the tour, the better. This last tour was very hard on us. I think it’s because it was coming back to the road during Covid and just having a lot of hard things happen to us while we were out. It was very challenging, but I do think that we had a really great team of people around us and we all held each other up.
AJ: Aly and I are not the type to really lock ourselves into a bubble right before we go on stage. I need camaraderie. For me, it’s a matter of laughter and inside jokes and having fun with the band and then centering myself. Especially mentally and spiritually. It’s important for Aly and I that we pray before and we have our little handshake and our routine, but I like being around people and engaged and entering some sort of joyful stage before I hit the stage, because I think that’s important and it’s kind of indicative of what our music represents as well, as opposed to locking ourselves in a room for 30 minutes and being like “Don’t talk to me”.
What do you do in your free time? What are some of your favorite hobbies?
Aly: We love reading and spas. Those are two things that we really enjoy. We like yoga and pilates and hiking. We like being outdoors. We don’t go to the beach as much as we should, especially being California kids. I think we should do that a lot more. I think it would be good for the soul, but we definitely are outdoorsy. We like to go and visit our mom who lives a couple hours away out in the country. Being around horses is really therapeutic for us and she lives on a ranch. We love our pets, they’re always with us. My dog actually tours with us. Songwriting is also kind of a hobby for us. It’s very relaxing.
AJ: I sometimes consider our work our hobby in some ways. But I think when we’re detaching from that, my number one priority is just taking care of myself with a great meal and a massage. I really look towards physical kind of therapeutic remedies. A massage or a facial really winds me down from a stressful week or a stressful month or coming off the road. Just time with our dogs, good food, traveling, all of that keeps us happy and excited and creative.
Talent Aly & AJ @alyandaj @iamaly @iamaj
Photographer Stephen Ringer @auhasardspr
Stylist Amanda Lim @itsamandalim
Hair Jerrod Roberts @jerrodrobertshair
Make-up Caroline Hernandez @carolinehernandezmakeup
Watches Wind Vintage
Location Sunset Sounds @sunsetsoundrecorders
Fashion Assistants Allie Vonn, Landon Rivera & Sasha Nuhn @allievonn @itslandonr @sashanoon
Editor Timi Letonja @timiletonja
Cover design Arthur Roeloffzen @arthurroeloffzen
Interview Jana Letonja @janaletonja