For Aly & AJ, Sisterhood Has Always Been the Priority

Culture

Alyson and Amanda Michalka have undergone many evolutions: They were young actors, they broke through as music duo Aly & AJ in the mid-2000s, they briefly rebranded as 78Violet, and they returned as Aly & AJ while pursuing separate acting careers as adults—but through it all, there’s been one integral constant: sisterhood.

“It’s everything to us; it’s the foundation of our band,” AJ, the younger of the two, tells ELLE.com. “For us, the goal is to really make sure that our friendship as sisters is preserved for years. Beyond the music being an important part of our lives, it’s our friendship.”

It’s safe to say that was and is part of the band’s lasting appeal. That rich, complex relationship between sisters has had a special place in art and pop culture throughout history, from the literary families in Pride & Prejudice and Little Women to today’s music groups like Chloe x Halle and Haim. In the mid-aughts, Disney-watching millennials got it in the form of guitar-toting and beach-waved Aly & AJ, who expressed their bond through songwriting, harmonies, and pop-rock chords. Seeing not only one girl but two shine together as equals—not to mention they just looked really fucking cool on stage—it’s no wonder they’ve stuck with us all these years, even if we didn’t realize it then.

That partnership is key, Aly, who is two years older, says. “It would be really weird to do this alone. I’m not gonna lie,” she says. “I have mad respect for the artists that are solo because it seems like it would be a really, really hard job.”

In May, the Michalkas, now in their early 30s, released their first album in 14 years, a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun (a lyric in the track “Don’t Need Nothing”)—which boasts themes of sisterhood, healing, and joy, while wrapped in a sun-kissed, retro California vibe. It follows their recent EPs Sanctuary (2019) and Ten Years (2017), and their 2007 album Insomniatic (the one with “Potential Breakup Song”). Despite the timely optimism on the album, most of the songs came before the pandemic and took about six months to write. Although, once quarantine started, they did adjust some lyrics to reflect the current moment. (“Stomach” was even written entirely on Zoom.) But for the most part, the tracks were recorded at Sunset Sound, the iconic recording studio in Hollywood.

The sisters recently announced that a deluxe edition with four new songs is due in early 2022. “I think deluxe is tricky, because a lot of people end up over-writing for a record and then they have some throwaway tunes that aren’t necessarily great; they can end up being skips. And I think this deluxe is really, really strong. I’m excited for people to hear the rest,” AJ says. The first of the additions, a seductive single called “Get Over Here,” just dropped last Friday. (That was originally written in 2019, too.) The duo plan on dropping the rest of the new tracks over the next five months, Aly says. Then they head out on tour from the end of February through May with stops scheduled internationally and across the U.S.

aly and aj

Stephen Ringer

So, yes, Aly & AJ are still on a roll. Even during our call, they’re in the midst of their first official New York Fashion Week (tours and and filming schedules have precluded them from attending in the past), hopping from one buzzy show to the next including Collina Strada, Monse, and Peter Do. Wearing chic, coordinated dresses and suits, the sisters looked like far from NYFW first-timers, but still, the native Californians had to adjust to the Manhattan scene. “It’s been really fun,” says Aly, “But it’s also so different from the nightlife of the experience in Los Angeles.” At least they didn’t have to brave it alone.

Here, Aly & AJ discuss how they’ve grown as songwriters, overcoming the pressure of young stardom, and why this new album felt like their first.

You just released a new single, “Get Over Here.” How did it come together?

AJ: It was kind of one of the leading songs of this new record. I was filming a show at the time, and Aly took a trip to Denver. And she started working on this new album with Jorge Elbrecht and they started writing three songs. “Get Over Here” was one of them. We kind of defined the sound and the tone of the record, and essentially it’s a hookup song. It’s all about the desperation and yearning of just wanting someone to get over here as soon as possible. And it’s kind of sexy the longer you wait, the longer you’re in anticipation.

We fell in love with the track, but it almost became a 16-song album. And we were like, Look, we have to save some of these tunes and they’re really strong, but let’s just put out a deluxe and have this be one of the leading singles of the deluxe edition. And it just made sense. I could see that song on the main album, but I think that’s what’s so special about it. It’s getting its own life and its own moment right now.

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The inspirations for the album revolve around joy and escapism. In “Pretty Places,” you both talk about “pulling away from the pain.” Was it a conscious choice to focus on those themes [considering the pandemic]? Or did it just come naturally?

AJ: I think it was a bit of both. I think it was definitely a natural record that Aly and I wanted to make. It was the tone we wanted to really celebrate this moment of like, we’re hopefully coming out of quarantine and out into the sun, but a lot of that energy was already something we wanted to put into the record before COVID had even hit. I think we just leaned into it more knowing that we were coming out of such an aggressive year and such a year of sadness and pain for so many people that this album felt like a benchmark of hope. And I hope that it’s come across that way because I think people have really taken it as so.

This album came 14 years after your last. Why did you feel like this was the right time to finally release another LP?

Aly: Well, we never really intended to have as long of a break as we did. We were still kind of writing in between those times. We put out some music under a different name, but, at the end of the day, we hadn’t really made a studio album like this in a very long time. And I think for us, it came down to the fact that our commitments to the TV shows that we were on were no longer holding us back from getting in the studio and putting a lot of time and energy into the actual production part of it. Which is why we made two EPs, because we were able to do a few songs here and there, and I could fly back from Vancouver and AJ could record on the weekends and stuff, but we couldn’t actually give ourselves to a 12-plus-song album. When COVID hit, we realized that that window was open even wider for us.

“AJ and I just have gone through a lot of growing pains, especially having started so young, and that this record felt like the first record for us, in a weird way.”

We had planned on making a record after AJ wrapped from her show [Schooled]. But then because it ended up not coming back, it gave us, you know, five more months to make the album. It was huge for us. I think that ultimately, AJ and I just have gone through a lot of growing pains, especially having started so young, and that this record felt like the first record for us, in a weird way. We felt like we were making our first album. I obviously remember making our past records, but in a way, this felt like this was the first one. And it was kind of the first one that we were making as adult women.

aly and aj

Stephen Ringer

Why did it feel like it was a first for you? What’s changed when you approach music now?

Aly: I think that there was this excitement to making music that we had lost a little bit that we have gotten back with this record. There was this kind of like sense of wonder and excitement and hope. We’ve been in the industry for so long, sometimes you kind of can’t help but be jaded by certain things. And for whatever reason, none of that existed with the making of this album, whether it was the writing process, the recording process working with our producer, it was just like, everything was possible and I don’t know why we had that sense of security and hope, but we just did. And we really fell into it. And I think that it was a little bit of self-manifestation on our part, but also just following our producers’ trust in us. That was a huge thing.

Absolutely. How do you think you’ve grown as artists since the last album?

AJ: I think there’s a confidence on stage now that Aly and I feel really, really comfortable up there. Like it feels like home. A perfect example of that was playing Lollapalooza. We got on stage at one o’clock and we had no clue what the crowd was going to be like, and we were ready to play our hearts out no matter what. It ended up being an amazing experience and probably one of the best moments of our career so far. I also think our confidence as songwriters, I just think that we’ve hit our stride. We’re artists who are truly writing for ourselves and for our fans. And I think those should be the two priorities when you’re making a record.

“I think that in the past we felt pressured to have to write for our label or for radio.”

Aly: Yeah. And I think that in the past we felt pressured to have to write for our label or for radio. I think that’s like kryptonite to artists. I think it’s like the worst possible thing. And thankfully we’ve found that out and we’ve just embraced, like AJ was saying, writing for the fans and then ultimately at the end of the day, writing for us, because we have to enjoy these songs. We’re going to be the ones that are playing them for years to come.

I will say, listening back to songs like “Rush” or “Chemicals React,” I’m still super impressed with the songwriting, even though you say there was some pressure behind it.

AJ: I’m really proud of those songs.

Aly: I am too. When it comes to AJ and I as artists, I think the thing that we associate ourselves with first is being songwriters. And then I think that we would say that we’re singers. And then I would say, we’re performers, entertainers, and all the rest comes from there. But really at our core, we’re songwriters. And I think that we love the act of songwriting so much. In another life, would we have been writers for other artists, and maybe we were never ourselves, if we hadn’t started our careers at such young ages? But we really just love the sense of community that songwriting brings and the experiences that happen in the room [with the] person you’re writing the song with. It’s really magical, and it’s something that can’t be taught. It’s just, it’s kind of cosmic.

aly and aj

Stephen Ringer

What does it feel like now to have a new generation experience your music from TikTok? You were going viral in the past year.

Aly: It’s wild. I don’t think we ever saw that coming. It was obviously really rad that this younger generation could either relearn the music or just completely find it organically through the platform. Some of these kids are super young and they probably weren’t even born when we were putting music out. It obviously makes AJ and I laugh, but at the end of the day, it’s just great that we were able to kind of get new fans from that. And now they’re listening to the new music.

AJ: We were at a party last night and we’ve really connected with Gigi Goode over the past year, we just adore her, and she had asked me, “Does it make you kind of roll your eyes or [do you get] sick of hearing that people are excited about ‘Potential Breakup Song’?”

And I was like, “Honestly, no.” It makes me feel good every time someone’s like, “That’s my childhood.” Or like, “I listened to that during a breakup,” or like it comes on in a club. It’s not embarrassing. It truly feels good to know that we have a little time capsule song.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been sick of a fan coming up and saying, ‘I grew up on your music’ or ‘This matters to me.’”

Aly: You know, it’s interesting. I don’t think we’ve ever been sick of a fan coming up and saying, “I grew up on your music” or “This matters to me.” That’s always been very relevant to us. I think sometimes we would get frustrated why people loved a song so much. And that was only in, like, our early 20s. Like, “I don’t want to play this song again, we’ve played this song like 2000 times now.” But now, in a strange way, it’s all so removed, so many years ago, it’s gotten this fresh start. Now it can actually feel old and close to home.

AJ: It’s like all of our children. We’re the proud moms, and they’ve grown up.

How good did it feel to finally curse on “Potential Breakup Song” last year?

AJ: It felt good.

Aly: It did feel good. Although, you know what’s funny? I think a lot of people thought that we wanted to swear on that song originally. And I don’t even think that it crossed our mind because we knew that that would have gotten absolutely blown down by the label. So there was no way that we were even going to entertain that idea. It’s funny because it sounds so natural and normal that it would, but we didn’t even dare go there.

AJ: It’s really fun to sing live because now people just immediately go off. They’re so hyped on the words. It’s actually hilarious. It’s like none of us have ever sworn before and we’re all just so excited to say it. [Laughs]

aly and aj

Stephen Ringer

aly and aj

Stephen Ringer

During those times when you two were apart or filming your respective shows, how would you keep in touch and support each other?

Aly: A lot of text messages.

AJ: Lots of texting.

Aly: A lot of FaceTime.

AJ: And we live really close to each other. We have purposely decided we’re going to be a five-minute drive because our business is together, our friendship is super tight. There are so many reasons to be near each other in a city like LA, so we’re neighbors. We keep in touch constantly. When one of us is shooting, we’re on FaceTime pretty consistently. We still run our business from afar. And we really make sure that sisterhood is the priority.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

On Aly: Annakiki three-piece suit, Adeam boots, Yun Yun Sun cuff, Missoma cuff; Tibi suit, Isabel Marant boots, Missoma pendant and chain necklaces, Joanna Laura Constantine earrings, Lady Grey ring; Khaite blouse, Damari Saville blazer, Adeam pants and boots, Missoma necklaces, Joanna Laura Constantine earrings, and Lady Grey ring.

On AJ: ALC blazer and vest, Jenny blouse, stylist’s own tie, Levi’s x Karla denim, Peter Do shoes, Pamela Love earrings, Kavant and Sharat ring; Derek Lam jacket, Tibi two-piece set, Isabel Marant shoes, Pamela Love blue and shell ring, Common Era pendant necklace, Monbouquette, Missoma bead necklace; Derek Lam jacket and pants, Isabel Marant blouse, Nomasei boots, stylist’s own belt, Common Era necklace, Missoma necklace, Kavant and Sharat earrings.

Styled by Amanda Lim and Keito Garcia.

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