Growing up, very few teenybopper artists appealed to me. Maybe I was always just an old soul, but in my opinion, good music is always just that: good music. You had your boy bands and your girl groups—real ones and those made for TV—and you had your quintessential pop stars of the time that found a “brand” and stuck with it. Aly and AJ Michalka were none of the above, and I believe that is why I found myself being a dedicated fan for so long and waiting on the edge of my seat for all of their new projects—even through a ten year hiatus.
Sure, they started out with a Disney Channel-meets-teenage girl demographic, but they didn’t narrow their style down to just that. And yes, they were a girl group of sorts, but really they were just sisters who had talent and a love for music and each other; something of which shone through in all that they did and—to this day—resonates with fans of all ages, genders, and backgrounds.
Since reviving your music career last year, you’ve had a dreamier synthpop style rather than your earlier pop rock roots. When did you find yourselves going in that direction and where does that influence stem from?
AJ: I think Aly and I have really just grown as musicians and our [tastes have] changed immensely. Growing up, we definitely felt influenced by eighties and nineties pop, but I really feel like that truly infiltrated our writing in the last like five years. As you know, we took a really long break from music and the biggest goal was to make sure that we were coming back with something to say; not only lyrically, but just that our sound would be a new, established pop sound for our band. I really think we’ve accomplished that…. Aly and I have really tried to stay true to what we feel is right for our music and it just so happens that that involves a lot more electronic elements and a lot heavier synths and a lot less singer-songwriter influence.
I think listeners can definitely hear that in your music and it really pays off, because I for one loved your last EP, Ten Years, and your latest singles, as well.
AJ: Aw, thank you!
Aly: Thank you so much!
You’re welcome! Since I mentioned your latest singles, your music video for “Church” recently dropped and it’s quite deep and very aesthetically pleasing. When it comes to music videos, album artwork, and even just writing songs, what is your overarching musical process like?
Aly: A lot of it is pre-planning, but it’s also mixed in with a bit of winging it to a certain extent. AJ and I definitely went into this last EP with a lot more intention in terms of thinking about how the overall sound was going to be paired with merchandising, paired with videos, and everything felt like it was good. I think the last go around we would be making choices based on what we were into at that moment in time, but we didn’t necessarily think about it over time, so I think for AJ and I this go around, it felt much more intentional to hone in on each song. When it came to the producing and the writing, AJ and I always kind of start each song from the ground up in terms of starting with a melody line, either on keys or guitar, and then kind of go from there; which is pretty much how we almost always write. These last eight or nine months were very much driven by our television schedules, though, so a lot of the times we didn’t have the opportunity to be in the room with each other, so one of us would start a song and then send it to each other and then, say, AJ would finish up the bridge or I would come in and lay down the vocals. Then we would both kind of get a chance to give notes. A lot of our sessions ended up actually not being together, which is very abnormal for us, but that is just kind of how the making of this EP ended up being, just because we both so happened to be shooting iZombie and Schooled at the same time while making it.
Of course. With that being said, Aly, you’re on The CW’s iZombie, and AJ, you’re on ABC’s Schooled. Aside from making music, you’re both still quite immersed in the acting world. Would either of you or both of you consider ever doing a film or television project that was more centrally based around music?
AJ: Yeah! I think Aly and I are really specific about what that project would be, just because our music is really, really sacred. It’s difficult to really find the right acting process that feels true when you’re a musician. We’re not against playing musicians on television or in film, but I think it really would have to be the right thing. In regards to possibly doing a musical down the road, I would rather almost do a live theater production of a musical rather than something filmed [for TV]. However, I kinda think that it’s wonderful to be able to do both—and they really can help each other. I think it’s really special, too, that I get to play a musician currently on TV. The character that I play on Schooled has come back to her old high school and has become the music teacher there, so knowing how to navigate that kind of world in the sense that I’ve grown up writing and playing instruments and singing with my sister, I feel more comfortable in that role because of that. I think that really shows. It’s not easy for actors to play musicians, but when you already have that background I think it really helps. I think it always just depends on if it is the right project, but I would be very open to doing more musical related projects whether it be for TV or film.
Absolutely, and I know fans would love to see you both bring your passion and talent to life in something of that nature in the future.
AJ: Yeah, exactly!
Let’s talk a little bit about your last EP, Ten Years, that came out about a year and a half ago. That was released independently, so what made you want to do that and what has that experience been like?
AJ: Well, that was Aly and I’s way of getting back in the game. I mean, our fans have really, really been patient and asked for music for a long time, and as you know we took a ten year gap, and not necessarily ten years on purpose, but it was then that we finally realized that we were doing ourselves a disservice if we didn’t come back and make music, and there was also fans out there that were excited about new material, so why were we not presenting that to them? So, Aly and I really made sure that not only were we really focused about the music we wanted to make, but also about the kind of visuals we wanted to represent. I think that we really have been able to accomplish that with both EPs now.
I agree 100 percent.
AJ: I truly do think that it was because we started so young and we were so influenced by so many different styles of music at the time [that it] also made it trickier.
Aly: We were never girls who enjoyed listening to one style of music specifically and that was what influenced us. It would have been a lot easier for us to find our sound if we weren’t so heavily influenced by so many styles and genres of music. We also were getting in a room with so many different producers who would so easily mold us to be one way or the other that at the end of the day, we felt like “Yes, we like this style of music. Yes, we enjoy listening to it, but is this the kind of music that we actually want to make and put out there?” I think Ten Years ended up establishing the sound of what this new future of Aly and AJ is to sound like, and I think that will always be a part of it. Even if we stray from that sound down the road and on future records, I think that it will always have that eighties synth influence.
Music is so interpretive, as well. So, what you’re taking away from one song to implement into your own might be taken differently than someone listening to what you created.
Aly, AJ: Exactly.
I feel as though a lot of “child stars” often have a hard time connecting to things they did at that point in their lives, yet you two still play—and seem to enjoy playing—some of your earlier songs. Even with your new EP, Sanctuary, being released, will you still be performing some of those older hits of yours live?
AJ: We definitely are. It’s funny because we are starting rehearsals and we have been really working on the set list and the order of how we want songs presented and what we want to play from old records, as well as playing both of the new EPs. We’ll definitely, definitely be playing a handful of those songs that people can expect—at least five, maybe six of those old songs and definitely the singles that we released that kind of, in a way, have penetrated pop music. Songs like “Rush” and “Potential Breakup Song” and “Chemicals React” that I think over 10 years later people care about. I think it’s really important to not shun your past career and kind of embrace how you started as an artist. I think it shows the arc of where you have now ended up, which I think is really cool in a sense. I get really sad when bands that I love don’t play their old material, because it’s like ‘Why are they not embracing where they started?’ Fans are purposefully going to those kinds of shows to witness and hear old material that first made them fall in love with that artist, and I think that is very important to bring to a live show.
Definitely! Like you said, so many people have connected to those songs over time personally and you don’t really want to take that away from them if they’re going out to see you specifically.
AJ: I think that’s important. You know, fans have requested on Twitter and Instagram what they want to hear, and Aly and I have been careful of respecting that, which is also what we ended up doing last year and it ended up being really fun. The response to the old and the new music is actually pretty seamless as of last year and it’s excited to see that people are just as excited to hear the new stuff but can also have a moment to kind of celebrate their teen years again, when they first heard an old song of ours.
Aly: It kind of made us reappreciate the songs in a new way, too, seeing them live in a live setting after this many years and the fact that we were able to rework them into our set. They aren’t being played exactly like the record, which I think is good. It fits in with this new sound that we have kind of started with the Ten Years EP. I think AJ and I disliked playing those songs when we were like, you know, 19- and 17-years-old, and it took a while for us to reappreciate them again and give them a new life.
AJ: The cool thing is that fans can kind of reshape the way you look at an old song, so like last year for example, Aly and I weren’t going to play “Like Whoa.” Fans have definitely talked about it and Aly and I were just like ‘No, we don’t feel that connected to that song. I think we can leave it out of the set,’ but then we ended up playing it during our L.A. show and it went over so well that we continued to play it. It was one of those things where we were like ‘Ok, the fans have made us reappreciate and love this song again, just based off of their reaction,’ which is really neat that fans can shape what you end up playing.
Being a musician really is a give and take between the artist and their audience.
AJ: For sure.
On the topic of your fans, how do you feel having seen fans of yours truly grow up alongside you guys? What is that like?
Aly: It’s neat because of just that: we’ve grown up with our fans along the way. We’ve noticed that a lot of fans come to us with really interesting, specific, and deep stories that have to deal with our music or the fact that they were a closeted gay kid and listening to our songs in the Midwest and have now come out and are at a concert with their boyfriend. Those types of stories are really inspiring to AJ and I and I think it makes us appreciate that we did start so young and that we’ve had this long of a career. It’s really neat to basically grow up with your audience.
That’s so special, and you’re always making sure your fans and heard online and at your shows, which is so important. For the Sanctuary Tour, you’ve partnered with The Trevor Project for all 30-plus dates. Can you tell us what this organization means to you and why do you feel like now was the right time to bring such a great awareness group on the road with you?
AJ: I think now is an important time as any. I wish that Aly and I as teenagers were as involved with the community as we are [today]. I mean, obviously we were younger, and it was about displaying your music for your fans and the excitement of new music, but not necessarily as much as the give-back as it should have been. I don’t look at us and fault us, since we were younger, and I think growing up and the knowledge that we have gathered and the friendships that we have shaped has had an effect on who we are. The amount of fans who have now kind of addressed us and made it very clear that they may have come out to a certain song of ours, or felt comfortable about their body because of a certain song that Aly and I had written, or just things that are so specific to how it shaped their teen and adult years that Aly and I felt really empowered to make this year the year of giving back. I think that really starts with a place like The Trevor Project.
I absolutely understand and commend you for that. I know your fans new and old are, and will continue to be, very close to you and very appreciative.
Aly: That’s our hope, thank you.
Now, I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so I’m curious: how do you two stay so close and manage to keep your lives, both personally and professionally, so in sync? I’m an only child, so I can’t imagine trying to balance so much between the two of you and do it so well.
AJ: Aw, that’s sweet. It’s hard, though! It takes work. In a way, you have to nurture your friendship like it’s a marriage. For Aly and me the great thing is that we happen to be very similar, we obviously have different characteristics and a couple different personality quirks, but we’re very much on par with the way we look at life, the way we listen to music, and the way we view pop culture. I really think that helps us create a great band. It also gets in the way of the differences that can cause big blow-up fights, which is why a lot of bands break up, but there is loyalty that we feel toward each other that goes beyond the band that isn’t connected by blood. Growing up, being only two years apart, we were forced to hang out all the time and I think that was really important for our parents and it helped shape a really important friendship between the two of us…. Staying connected with schedules and figuring out our TV career and our film career, but also keeping music relevant, has been extremely hard, and in the last couple of years we have gotten better at it, but we’re still learning. We’re each other’s greatest supporters and I think that goes a long way.
Be sure to check out Aly & AJ at Irving Plaza in NYC on May 19, and at the TLA in Philadelphia on May 21!