Aly & AJ: 'We've Never Been More in Control'
Story by Justin Moran / Photography by Ryan Duffin
20 June 2018
Sister duo Aly & AJ capture a distant moment in time for Millennials who grew up watching Disney Channel. Their pop-punk music videos, from "Rush" to "Potential Breakup Song," played religiously during commercial breaks, making the pair household names for every teenager dreaming of love (and romanticizing heartbreak) under their parents' roof.
But because Aly & AJ were thrust into the spotlight early on, they too were learning about life along with the rest of their fans, only now making music from a position of experience a decade later. Their EP, aptly titled Ten Years, no longer looks at love as an idea, but as something they've lived through — and the authenticity is apparent with each track.
Now, Aly & AJ are bringing their new material on tour through July, and have just released another single in celebration of Pride month. The track, "Good Love," follows the nostalgic, synth-driven sound of Ten Years, with dense, power-pop production that slowly builds into a soaring, stadium-sized chorus. "I wanna touch somebody/ Cause I love somebody," the sisters sing with more joyful undertones than the searching melancholy of their comeback EP.
Fulfilling every twenty-something's teen dream, we sat down with Aly & AJ in Central Park hours before their Gramercy Park show in New York to talk about their return to music.
Your Ten Years EP came out in 2017, and you've just started regularly performing those tracks live on tour. How does it feel now having some separation from the project?
AJ: The EP came out in November and now performing those songs for the first time live is really rewarding. I think it was good that there was a little bit of a gap [between the release and tour] — we've got to enjoy the response, we've got to hear people's thoughts on the EP, and then really take the time to figure out the live aspect of it. We're playing old songs, we're playing new songs, we're playing a couple of unreleased songs, we have a couple cool covers. And I'm really proud of the music, I think it has translated beautifully live.
What is it like mixing the new songs, with the old songs?
Aly: It's interesting, some of the songs have been more of a challenge than others. We've changed some of the instrumentation more than the actual melodies of what we're singing. It always drives me nuts when artists do such a change in the melody of the song that people will recognize, so that it's unrecognizable — that's always bizarre to me. So we chose to kind of stick with the basics of what the song is, and just change more synths sound, guitar sounds, adding little things here and there — slight tweaks to make it flow better with our more recent stuff. I mean, "Potential Breakup Song" is pretty much as it's heard on the record. That's the one song that we didn't touch.
AJ: The flow feels good. We had to figure it out, but that's what rehearsal is for. There are some songs fans are expecting to hear. I'm still proud of those tunes, so you might as well incorporate them into your set cause it's just gonna make the energy of the crowd that much more excited. And the response to the old tunes has been pretty wild. The coolest part so far being on this tour is people's engagement with the new music. They've been so involved in the EP. People know every lyric to all four songs and I'm kind of shocked by that.
Aly: I thought that it would be a very large majority of people singing along to the old stuff, but they're just as invested in this new sound of ours as they are in the old, which is really cool.
Because Ten Years is so short, it really allows you to get to know the individual songs. Did you consider that when cutting down the tracklist to only four?
AJ: Totally. We feel like the EP, even if it's only four songs, has to arc. There's a little bit of a ride that it takes you on in regards to the order. That to me is the most important thing — putting songs in the correct order, just in regards to how it makes you feel. Whether it's a rhythm thing, or it's the way the synth kind of rolls into the next song, the production has to work as a whole, and it has to take you on a bit of a journey.
Aly: We were almost going to have three songs at one point — it was going to be a three song EP, and then we were like, We need to add another song, and it was actually going to be a different track. We last minute decided that "Promises" really fit with the other songs, and it's funny cause that ended up actually being one of the...
AJ: The fan favorites.
Aly: But it's cool to listen to the music that we made during that time, when we were cutting the EP, which wasn't that long ago... when did we start cutting vocals on that like a year ago in April, May? And then now see where we are in our songwriting as in the last month. There's already growth just within a year.
AJ: For sure. The new single "Good Love" definitely takes you to a different place than the EP, which is neat. I mean it definitely follows the same sound — there's no departure in sound, we've really established this new generation of our music, but the new single takes you on a different journey.
When you listen to the EP, what do you think is the arc?
AJ: It's hard to explain, but there's a swell to it. You have to really figure out when a song ends, what do you want to hear next? And I feel like the beginning of one song and the end of one song, leading into another is so important. For Aly and I it's a toss-up, and in the beginning we kind of just go, Let's hear it like this, and then it's like, No I don't like the "The Distance" up against "I Know." It's the same thing live — it's not easy to figure out, but you kind of get a feel for it.
Aly: But there's a bit of a somber undertone throughout the EP. It's slightly sad, and a lot of the melodies and the synth tones used throughout the EP all feel very coordinated, but it doesn't mean that the song is a depressing song or makes you sad. There are definitely songs that are more critical about past relationships. Whereas, our new single, "Good Love" is something positive, and makes you feel good like a celebration.
Love is complicated. It's not all celebratory — it's a wild, unpredictable mix of happiness and sadness.
AJ: Yeah, they're gonna be hand-in-hand, and it's complex. There's ups and there's downs and a relationship might end, and it ended for a reason and then you think you're never gonna get over it and then you meet someone else, and they fill that space. No one ever replaces the other person you were with, but I do feel like this record is about different relationships, and someone else filling that spot that you had in your heart for the person prior.
Aly, how is it for you singing these songs while being in a marriage?
Aly: You know, it's funny, a lot of the songs are not necessarily written about my husband. Which makes us laugh. Once in a while he'll be like, "Who is this about?" and it'll be like about someone that AJ is dating. But he has a couple songs that are written about him. Actually one tonight that I'm playing is written about Stephen.
AJ: It's hard when you're in a healthy relationship...
Aly: You also don't want to write, "I'm in love and everything's great and I made the right choice with who I married. I'm so happy and relieved and one day we might have kids!" That's so boring!
AJ: It doesn't make the best story. It's a great story in life, but not as a song. I feel like the songs looking back on the past are more interesting.
Aly: Or even relationships that don't necessarily exist for us, but that exist for other people, or people we know, I think make great songs too. It's funnier being a duo and having to write music about a relationship when obviously both of us are not in that relationship. It might be more about AJ's boyfriend, or about a past ex of mine, and we have to make it work for both of us. But it also is good because it gives different perspectives to the song. In a past song that we were writing about AJ's ex-boyfriend, I was like, "This is getting a little bit too literal." It was "The Distance," right?
AJ: Yeah, yeah, it was so personal that Aly was like, we don't need to be that in-depth about this.
Aly: It wasn't even necessarily personal, it was like you were being so sappy about it. And I was like, let's give it a little bit of imagination for people that don't know the actual story of this long distance relationship that you had. Some of this can be a little fictionalized, and that's okay. That's the fun thing about writing. A song can be completely fiction, but it also can be 80% fact so that someone actually really gets and relates to it.
AJ & Aly
Now "The Distance" is so relatable. It could be friendships, it could be love, it could be family. That's my favorite song on the EP. Do you listen to M83?
AJ: Yeah, we dig them!
Aly: I love them.
It really reminds me of M83 — that kind of '80s, final credits of an epic movie vibe.
AJ: That's a cool reference, I like them a lot.
What sort of things do you listen to while making music? Your sound has become very nostalgic, but it's not blatant.
Aly: Or in a copied way. We're very weird about that. Like, I always am really cautious about listening to too much music while making a record, cause I never wanna copy something or accidentally use a melody that was from something else, and be like, "Oh shit, now I just made that mine." But we listened to a lot of Peter Gabriel, Duran Duran, Beach House, and LCD Soundsystem.
AJ: A mix of old things.
Aly: It's funny cause there will be really strange, weird references that will make zero sense for the song. Like what was that... was it Robert Palmer? I guess that was "Good Love." Sometimes we'll have really random references, whether that's a vocal reference and it has nothing to do with how the song is produced, but helps us wrap our heads around the idea of the song, or how we want to sing it. We definitely listen to music, but we didn't really delve like crazy hard into it. Those were our main references — a lot of Peter Gabriel. We really love him.
Do you have similar tastes? Is it easy for you both to align?
AJ: Very similar, yeah.
Aly: We actually have really similar music taste, and fashion taste.
AJ: Very much so.
Aly: AJ sometimes is a little bit more into what's new and cool music wise, cause I just feel like you listen to a little bit more music.
AJ: I like to discover, I'm a music freak. So for two years every day it was like, "You gotta listen to this, you gotta listen to this." Some things I would hate, some things I would love. I brought that into our band a little bit, and it helped inspire some cool ideas because I discovered these bands, whether they were Vancouver bands or from LA, or wherever, and it helped form a new group of inspiration that Aly and I didn't originally have. But we're both music lovers and both super similar in our love for things. And we hate the same things.
Aly: Yeah, usually. We're like 90% on the same page.
AJ: It makes for a really good team, and helps our songwriting.
Was there ever a point where you guys felt the need to work independently?
Aly: Like to do something solo?
Aly: Not really.
AJ: No, I don't think we've ever questioned that. People have asked, "Would you ever do a record on your own or like change up genre, or split up." For me, this is where I feel the most comfortable, in our music as a twosome. Acting is obviously something we keep more separate. When it comes to music, I wouldn't really want to do it alone. I wouldn't find the same excitement for it, either.
Aly: It's also just a lot to take on as a solo artist — all aspects of it, not only just the singing, but the speaking during shows, interviews, everything is all on you.
Aly: I also understand that people sometimes don't get along forever, and that's why a lot of bands break up, because they're not family and something happens and it pisses the other person off and they all of the sudden want to make completely different music, or they want to have a family, or they don't want to tour and the other three members actually do. So much of that changes things and it helps, I think, that we're siblings, at least.
AJ: Yeah, it does.
Aly: Cause we have a better shot at surviving.
AJ: You're looking long term.
Have you always been so close to family? Do you have a great relationship with your parents?
AJ: It's just us two, so we've always been really close. We've always been really creative too, since were young, and always together, so I think that creativity bonded us at a young age. We're also really close to our parents, we've been very family-oriented our whole lives. And I feel like that comes through in the music a little bit. And, what I love is that, I think our music has either brought siblings together, or brought them out to our shows. Like the amount of siblings that come to our shows...
Aly: It's so sweet. A lot of people connect cause of an older sibling showing them our music, or them discovering our music together, and one of them always related to one of us more than the other, which is really cute. They're like, "I was always Aly, and she was always AJ."
AJ: It's really cute.
Well, people grew up watching you on TV. I think back to being in my mom's basement and watching your music videos during the Disney channel commercial breaks with my sister. Do you love or hate hearing those stories?
AJ: No, I like them.
Aly: I think they're sweet. I mean they are what they are, like they made us who we are as people today. So, I find it flattering.
Do you feel connected to the first chapter of Aly & AJ, as a band?
Aly: We definitely really remember making that first record, because it was the first album we ever made. We were completely beginners when it came to being in a studio, and we had done demos and stuff, but sitting down with producers and mapping out production and how we wanted to shape a song or make a song better that we had written. I think those are really important years. More than anything, they made us better writers.
AJ: It's a little hard to relate to now, cause a lot of it doesn't even almost seem...
Aly: It feels like another lifetime or something...
AJ: It seems so long ago.
Aly: Because we were like 15 and 13, and we're now 29 and 27, which is wild.
I can't believe you guys were 15 and 13. But I guess that was the era of Disney creating these teen superstars.
Aly: Yeah, yeah, it was. It was right after Hilary Duff had her moment on the channel. That was kind of when we made our first record, I think she had just left Hollywood Records. But I remember making the second record too, and it was a lot harder for us, because it was that sophomore record, which I always think is like the hardest. We were much more stressed about like, we need to have a single, and we really wanted to be seen as cool, older artists, even though we were still kind of kids, we were 18 and 16. But I remember not really having as many worries on the first record, it was more fun. With the second record, we were fighting with the label about certain things, or asking to work with a certain producer and they would fight back. It was very much a different time for us.
But I think they were both really important moments for AJ and I to go through and shaped who we are as artists now. I it makes us really grateful to be out on the road and touring again, because we did it the first time and went right from never touring in our life to being on a bus, and headlining. Which is not how most bands get their start. They're usually having to be in a van and drive hours at a time, and everybody has to like, switch out, and take naps while they're laying down in the backseat. That was never really our start. So now we look back on that and kind of go, "Wow, we really lucked out on our experience." At least those first couple records, and being able to tour in the way we did.
Does it feel like more of the beginning now?
Aly: Kind of, yeah.
AJ: Yeah, it does kind of. It's like 12 of us on a bus. And it's only 20 dates, but for us, it's like, we haven't toured in so long that it feels like the beginning of something.
Aly: And it's definitely not glamorous. I mean it's also not like roughing it either, but it's...
Aly: Yeah, it's...
AJ: It's that middle ground.
Aly: We're making the most out of our show. It's also nice cause people are seeing us in a very honest pure way. There's not a bunch of shit going on to distract you from the show, which I love. The more that I go to concerts, and the more simple the set up is, and the more it's based on the music than just like fireworks going off and 70 dancers. I'm like, If I wanted this I'd go to a broadway show. And I'll enjoy it and love it. But, I don't really need that in a concert experience. I just want to feel like I'm getting the music live and in a semi-intimate way.
AJ: Yeah, exactly, no bell and whistles.
Aly: And that's how it's supposed to be, or that's at least how it started.
The Gramercy seems like a perfect venue for you, then.
AJ: Yeah, it is.
Aly: We also like being a bit of the underdogs, I think there's something cool about that. Like, people not necessarily knowing what to expect from you, and then they might hear something or watch a show or see a video clip, and then they're like, "Okay, I get it."
AJ: I like winning people over. We haven't earned our seats at the table quite yet, but we're close. We're getting there.
How much are you in control this time around?
AJ: We've never been more in control. The decisions, like before a song goes out, or an image, or what, that's all Aly and I, which is really cool because, as an independent artist, it's really rewarding to have every decision be made through you. Not because you need to be the one in the power position, but because it is your music and so, every chance you put something out, it's so personal, that it better be exactly what you want.
Aly: And if they've been doing it for a while, I feel like the artist knows what their fanbase wants and what their fanbase is expecting, or likes, or enjoys.
AJ: More than like, some 45-year-old dude at a desk.
Aly: Yeah, it doesn't make any sense, like they don't know!
They have no idea.
Aly: I mean, like my dad, he has great taste in music, but it's the same thing as him choosing what our album cover should be. I mean if we let my dad choose that, it'd be like shocking.
AJ: He did not get our video! When we showed him the "Take Me" video he was like, "Why are there vampires?"
Aly: His reaction was hilarious, I don't think he said one thing: "good job girls!"
AJ: He's really proud of us, but he was definitely confused.
Aly: Which made us be like "perfect."
For more information on Aly & AJ, click here.
Photography: Ryan Duffin