Aly & AJ are rehearsing in "Studio A," a smaller, more intimate Los Angeles space than they're typically used to booking. I walk into them playing 2017's "Take Me," before the sisters stop and ask for me to have an in-ear. Immediately, the song comes alive over headphones with that massive chorus off a single that, in many ways, changed the course of Aly & AJ's music career, post-Disney stardom. "When you gonna take me out?!" they shout in unison, as the live band launches into a shimmering synth-pop explosion. "I know that you would want it/ If I could sink my teeth into you..."
The girls are prepping for a summer of performances, including a slot at Chicago's Lollapalooza on July 29th, fresh off the release of their first full-length album in 14 years, titled a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun. Today, Aly & AJ are familiarizing themselves with all the material — both new and old — that they'll be touring. A mix of nostalgic classics alongside current material from a project that sounds like a real proper reintroduction.
After a year away from live music, it feels a bit foreign for Aly & AJ to have an in-person audience, as well as it is for me to be the audience, but the way their music fills every crevice of the room wipes out any possible tension — it's emotional euphoria.
They move onto "Lucky to Get Him" off the latest effort, which seats Aly at a keyboard, composed and in a very '70s-inspired Americana outfit that fully reflects this era. "True love comes once in a life," AJ sings, as the song builds into an electronic climax like twirling in a desert. As combined perfectionists, they ask to try it once more. "We've gotta make sure you're singing those ooh's," AJ advises Aly, before taking the next time through on her knees. "Don't be foolish, a second could last a whole lifetime," they sing — a lyric about love, though it oddly matches the diligence of this rehearsal process.
Throughout the session, Aly & AJ move between instruments depending on the track at hand. On "Listen!!!", a scorching anthem accurately described by one bandmate as sounding "very U2," they both play electric guitar. This extra instrumentation is required to make the ending "become a big 'fuck you,'" as designed by the sound engineers. And on "Slow Dancing," the girls' earnest ballad about being in someone's arms, Aly picks up a tambourine while AJ takes the acoustic guitar. After one run-through, AJ says she wishes everything "felt as good as 'Slow Dancing,'" but Aly affirms that they're "just a little rusty." I can't tell the difference, of course.
Aly & AJ continue with even more tracks off a touch of the beat..., from the driving sunshine of "Paradise" to the emotionally charged "Symptom of Your Touch" and "Don't Need Nothing," featuring the lyric that inspired their album title. Then we revisit "Promises," from their 10-year anniversary EP, complete with eery owl-like ooh's that, at this point in the night, Aly has perfected despite admitting she's "exhausted" after a week of back-to-back promo.
"Potential Breakup Song" has transcended time for Aly & AJ, who first released the Insomniatic hit as teenagers back in 2007. For old fans who grew up with the girls as child stars and on-screen BFFs, the pop-punk single represents a distant memory and, perhaps, Aly & AJ's most successful song to date. For an entirely new generation though, "PBS" has become a viral TikTok sound, which in turn inspired an "explicit" remake in 2020. Now performing it live, Aly & AJ have updated "PBS" once more, with a slow, melodic introduction that fits inside the dreamier world of a touch of the beat...
So while they've been forces in the entertainment industry for more than a decade, Aly & AJ are embarking on this next chapter as hustling independent artists — completely in control of their sound and vision, with an underdog approach to perfecting the live show, especially. After band practice wrapped, I sat down with the sister duo to dive even deeper into a touch of beat..., their 12-track album produced by Yves Rothman and recorded at the iconic Sunset Sound in Hollywood. We talk about everything from California to freedom and success, below.
California seems like a great topic to start on, considering the album's direction. Did that influence unfold naturally or was it intentional from the beginning?
AJ: A combination of both. We wanted to make a record capturing the feeling you get when it's a perfect, beautiful day in California and you're driving down PCH, or you're even going down the street to pump your gas. There's this energy here that feels so specific and we wanted to capture that with the music, and to make this record feel like a West Coast record, so that it shows our upbringing. We are California kids — we were born and raised here, so we wanted to fingerprint that.
Where did you grow up in California?
Aly: The Valley and then Laurel Canyon.
AJ: We were born in Torrance. We've migrated all over the place.
How much of this album happened during lockdown and how much was done before?
AJ: A lot of the songwriting was done in 2019, actually. There are a couple songs that are 4-5 years old like "Pretty Places" and "Slow Dancing," but those are the oldest. The record really took off in 2019, so a lot of it was actually done, although in 2020 we decided to revisit everything. We wanted to make sure the lyrics were up to par, to dust off the old cobwebs. The pandemic hit and I was filming a show, so we had to take a moment to make sure we had a solid album before starting production. We did write one song in particular during quarantine, which was "Stomach," which we wrote on Zoom with a good friend of ours who was in Arizona at the time.
Aly: We were grateful that we had written a majority of the music in person with people, because it would have been hard to have created an entire album over Zoom. The fact that we had the majority of our work already blueprinted really helped us, and then it was just a matter of getting a group that felt safe all cutting in one room. Ben, our drummer, was a part of that group. We did the majority of the vocals at our producer's place, Saturn Sound, so it was a mixture of those two studios.
The music really captures this energy of re-entering the world — of getting back out.
Aly: It is strange — we changed some lyrics, for instance "Slow Dancing." That one really changed, but that was also written four and a half years ago, I want to say. We unearthed it for this record because we started playing it for our producer and he loved the chorus. He wanted to make it a quarantine love song — not too much on the nose, where people are like, "That's all I can think about when I listen to it," but we did change a few lyrics to specifically feel like they were relevant for the times. Everything else was pretty much there, just some tweaks, but it does feel like a very timely record with the state of the world.
Do you remember when you came up with the lyric that would become the album title?
AJ: We decided that was the album name in June of 2020, so very much in the middle of the pandemic we decided this is the album we want to come out with in 2021. We hoped we would all be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and now we are, which is great. That lyric was written in 2019, in December, funny enough, because that was part of a batch of songs that Aly started with Jorge Elbrecht in Denver. They'd started this culmination of a few songs that started the record — "Don't Need Nothing," "Paradise," a song called "Get Over Here" — those are all tracks that started the process.
Aly: We ended up not putting "Get Over Here" on the record, but I think it will come out later this year as a deluxe track. "Don't Need Nothing" was the second song I wrote with Jorge ever, and AJ got into some sessions with him when we made another trip to Denver to write more.
AJ: I remember listening to the demos of those first three songs while I was shooting a show, just in the hair and makeup trailer, and Aly was like, "This is what I've started with Jorge" and I was like, "This is awesome. This is definitely the start of a record," and "Don't Need Nothing" had that original lyric in it. That song has always been something that speaks to us in a way.
Aly: It's also my favorite to play. It feels really good live, we don't really fuck it up ever in rehearsal. Other songs, over time, you have to work out a little bit more with your band and it's always interesting to see which songs those are — those slowly reveal themselves in rehearsal.
AJ: You even saw them today — "Lucky to Get Him," "Listen!!!" — we haven't played them in [a while] and they were rusty. Sometimes songs come back and it's like, "Wow we never left the stage," and other times they need more help.
The things you notice as being "rusty," of course, I had no idea. I was just like, "This sounds amazing."
AJ: We're very detail-oriented perfectionists, so the things we hear that are off-kilter are usually tasteful still to the normal ear.
Aly: We used to get really hung up on that stuff, even more when we were younger. We would get really upset about stuff like a vocal that was missed, or flubbed, and there are times where I'm like, "We could tone that down even more."
AJ: I like that about us — we keep each other at this constant level of, "Bring your A-game."
Aly: Also we know on stage when one of us has messed something up or said a wrong lyric, the other one is looking over.
AJ: We're pretty obvious about it, we're working on our subtlety — that stage subtlety.
Going back to the album title, I love how ridiculously long it is. I can't think of another album title that long...
AJ: Everybody says Fiona, which she's the longest in history, but nothing recent. 1975's the only other one that comes to mind.
I wonder if you felt more freedom with this album in particular, to take risks or have no rules, to do whatever felt good?
Aly: This run-on sentence completely encapsulated our message behind the record. It was a gift that revealed itself to us. It wasn't a really hard hunt to find it — it was just us having a casual conversation outside the studio and it was a matter of us getting the team on board with it, which they were pretty responsive. I was scared because I was like, "They're gonna hate that it's long." It's funny because everybody hates long movie titles, too. For whatever reason, they like it alphabetically–
AJ: When you're trying to sell a movie to Apple or to Netflix you want it to be an A or a B or a C, so that it's higher up.
Aly: We threw out all the rules and were like, "Forget it. This might be a PR nightmare and it's long, but that's fine." It's one of those things where you can hunt stuff down continuously and it just doesn't come, and then some things come effortlessly. That name did and also the album cover.
AJ: That was a hard one for us — we didn't have an album cover [until close to album release], it was crazy. Here we are about to print vinyls and DSPs have to get distributed, so finally we found the cover and it was this pic that Aly's husband took of us on the beach.
Aly: It was a [behind the scenes] image from a photoshoot we did with Amanda Charchian, who's a great photographer. For whatever reason, he just captured a [behind the scenes] moment that we were not intending to have as the album cover. It felt like the name because of the energy and then we paired up with this incredible artist, Jimmy Turrell. We had him do his thing over top of that image. He did this amazing, collage-type work which spoke to us immediately and we were like, "That's it, done."
AJ: It's amazing when something is such a question mark and then the next day it's answered.
I like that you used the word "run-on" sentence because the album is truly best experienced from start to finish, versus individually by songs. You hit play and then it takes you inside a very dreamy, desert-like, sunny feeling. Did you think about this listening experience?
AJ: Very much so — we're not single writers, we're album writers. We love a cohesive body of work, it's what we've been doing since we were kids. For us, it's about storytelling — a collective group of songs coming together to serve a greater purpose.
Aly: We wanted this record to actually stand the test of time, so that people 20 years from now can go back and listen to this album and be like, "Wow that's a really solid collection of music." Hopefully we'll be proud to play the songs live, years from now.
AJ: Everything is kind of a run-on sentence in our lives. Our careers have been a run-on sentence, the way we talk is a run-on sentence. I think California is — constant, continuous sun — traffic here, even the air is madness, and the record depicts that.
What story do you think this project tells? Especially as a snapshot of where you both are in your life, right now.
Aly: It tells a very long, twisting, turning journey for us that never had one straight path. I don't think anybody in general has one straight path, but ours was very much not a typical career path. We had opportunities to have gone that route, but we always would do a U-turn or take a hard right. For whatever reason, we're those kinds of artists, and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that we were very spirited in our opinions and our determination to make music the way we wanted to make it, whether or not the label, radio, fans or media wanted those songs. Sometimes that was hard for us to come to terms with because it meant maybe less success.
AJ: We're two people that are both massive people pleasers. When you grow up as an actor it's constant feedback and, "Yes I'll do that. I'll change the direction of this. You want it like this? Done." It's always about that, to keep your job most of the time, so you're constantly bending to what other people want. Finally, Aly and I with this record we were like, "Let's not do that." So this record to me is like the coming of age drama of Aly & AJ. It's very much our story, it feels like our first album.
What is success to you now? Is it charting, or not really?
Aly: Back then, everything had to do with radio play. That was an obsession, for sure. Now it's more about being respected by fellow musicians that we look up to or that we might play shows with in the future. Or you could even say our friend group — that they look at this music differently than even the past stuff. The outpouring of support has been through the roof and I think we needed that validation because we've gone a long time feeling like we weren't quite good enough or we're underdogs. It just felt like this time around we were being validated by people that we really look up to and respect. I do think success for us is being successfully happy in your life — much more so than being successful in your career. That's part of your life, but being successfully close, as sisters, that's really important.
AJ: I also think society's idea of great success changes. It used to be radio, it used to be charting. Now it's playlisting and in 10-15 years from now it might be different. As long as your idea of success stays tangible and real for you, it won't really matter what other people think of as success, because that's constantly going to change. For me it's great songwriting, and a really great bond as sisters.
Aly: And people coming out to the show and saying they're really fucking good live. That really matters. You can only be so great on the radio, but can you really do it in a live setting? Those are two different talents. That, I think, is the thing we will hopefully look back on and be like, "We were successful touring artists," and hopefully we do that til we're older women. I don't know when we'll call it a night, but it's funny to think of us when we're 70 on a tour bus.
Let's talk about "Listen!!!" First off, why three exclamation points?
AJ: It's our mom's favorite number. Not that it was because of that, but I think that three is such a thing in our life.
Aly: It has to be uneven, it can't be two.
AJ: My number is eight — I'm really into that number, but we're not going to do eight exclamation points. We co-wrote the song with Jorge on one of the trips where he came to LA to see us. We wrote that in a day, it just flew out. He had this great little guitar riff that we started singing over and then the melody came out. We were excited that we could have this anthem-type song on the record that felt like a bit of a revolt, whether it was to a relationship or society or your mental state. For us, we were dealing with a moment in our administration where we were really frustrated, so we wrote that song with that in mind.
AJ: The music video has this forward, feminist movement vibe going on, with old archival footage of housewives "sticking it to the man" and then us in front of the garage.
Aly: Being able to have Nancy Wilson on it was a huge moment for us because we've always been such big fans. She's a mentor, a dear friend, and we just messaged her, randomly, to ask if she'd be down to play on this.
Is there a song on this album that you feel the most connected to?
Aly: I would say "Hold Out," but "Pretty Places" is also very personal because I did write it with the idea of it being about my husband
AJ: Which is so funny because when I'm writing it's not from that perspective, but yet we write together and it has to be for the two of us.
Aly: We somehow make it work — I wonder how HAIM does it? But I would say "Hold Out" because it's a song about struggling with mental health and feeling like you can't really reach out to that friend, or that person, to tell them you're going through a bad time, knowing that you need to. I think that song is really powerful, it's our one true ballad of the record.
AJ: Also "Stomach," which is connecting with a lot of people. It sounds kind of bizarre — I didn't write it for them, but I think about my parents getting divorced at an age when Aly and I were at this tender age. I think about that for the future of my kids and my life, and will it turn out the same way and will we repeat history. It hits me really hard — seeing their bond break is really heavy. It's hard when it's finally revealed that your parents aren't perfect. It's the first time you're seeing their flaws.
How has it been for you both working through lockdown and the pandemic? What helped you get through?
AJ: Honestly, making this album.
Aly: That really saved our minds.
AJ: We did not handle it well. The first two months Aly and I were like, "What are we going to do?" My show got cancelled, we couldn't tour, we couldn't go on a set. The only thing we were left to do was make an album.
Aly: March and April were the hardest, wouldn't you say so?
AJ: Almost all of March and all of April, where we were in limbo.
Aly: And then May opened up a little bit because we started doing some co-writing with Yves [Rothman], our producer, just dusting up on the songs that were already 75% there. We finally saw him the first week of June, we got together in person. Then it was us like, "We want to get in the studio," and we had the tracks set up so the band could play.
AJ: It's an interesting way to make a record — something Yves was really into, which I love. The band didn't even hear the tracks before they came into the studio. They would listen every day to the track they were going to be playing–
Aly: They listened to the demo, basically. The demos are pretty different from the songs. There were a couple of songs that remained somewhat true to the demos, but I would say 80% of them were wildly different.
How does that change the song, when they come in and play it for the first time? Does that make it rougher or do they add their own edge?
AJ: We let them interpret what they needed to interpret. Aly and I, we're not precious about instrumentation, even though we're precious about our songwriting. When we hire a band we know we're hiring them because of what they bring to the album.
Aly: So we were like eyes closed, "I'm good," you know.
AJ: Sometimes they would come up with parts that weren't even around. All of a sudden "Slow Dancing" has this crazy cool outro that didn't exist originally. Aly and I are in there, in our own way, conducting, but we're also letting them have free reign to completely perform and shine. That's their stage.
I feel like that contributes to the ease of the album, to how it feels effortless and unrehearsed.
Aly: I hope we continue to make records like that. Our major focus with this album was the songs needed to be great, which is an old-school way of record making. It's all about the songs, not all about the singles, and I think we're in a moment where singles are a thing. That's a pop thing in general, to make sure the single is a smash, it's a hit, but at the end of the day there's nothing better than listening to a complete, full album that feels incredibly cohesive. I do feel like we accomplished that.
When you listen to the album, what makes you the most proud of this body of work?
AJ: There's a timelessness to this record that Aly and I set out to do and it's really nice to know that we succeeded at that. I truly feel that this record feels grounded, thoughtful and focused, and past records we've made don't always feel that way. I'm really proud that we set out to make a record we'll be proud of playing in 10, 15 years. I think I will hold pieces like "Pretty Places" and "Hold Out" and "Stomach" as pieces of work that I'm proud of — so will Aly.
Aly: No matter how much we bend within the genre, there's a side of us that wants to go even more alternative, probably because that's our personal music taste, but there will always be a pop sensibility to our music because we're pop writers at our core. I'm most proud of the songwriting and the fact that we were not led astray by anybody. It was just like, "You guys do you."
That's rare to find.
AJ: It's really rare. Sometimes you have moments where you're not feeling that confident as a writer, but somehow some song that you wrote just takes off. I have to say, I don't think Aly and I were the most confident writers when we were writing Insomniatic, but somehow "Potential Breakup Song" took off.
Aly: Now we're just so much more in control.
Stream a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun, below, and check out Aly & AJ at the T-Mobile stage this Thursday, July 29th at Lollapalooza in Chicago.
Photography: Todd Ritondaro
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