Photo: Stephen Ringer

Aly & AJ

Aly & AJ realize there is no time like the present.

At the time of our chat, 2022 is in its final stages and the California-born sisters, born Aly and AJ Michalka, are halfway through their biggest UK tour to date. They are a couple of hours away from taking to the stage at London’s iconic Shepherds Bush Empire, where they will play to an audience of 2,000 people who have waited over a year for the show to take place. Upon walking down the hallway backstage, it is hard to ignore the framed images on the wall that alarm every performer that they will be stepping out onto a stage that countless stars such as Amy Winehouse, David Bowie, and Prince also once set foot on. It’s these historic facts they in fact like to make note of as the duo tell me that Nirvana performed their one and only concert in Glasgow at the venue they headlined the night before. 

The said tour they were embarking on was in promotion of their first studio album in 14 years, A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun, which was released through Aly and AJ’s own record label in May 2021. Met with universal acclaim, they were keen to get their show on the road and perform every night. But, due to the shitty inconvenience of the pandemic, they were forced to postpone their European leg to the bottom half of the year. Even though it’s not an ideal situation for any musician to put plans on hold, the wait had been well and truly worth it for Aly & AJ.

Photo: Stephen Ringer

We’ve been ready to play since February [2022] when the shows were supposed to happen then we were only able to just start touring later in the year, which is tricky because you’re touring an album a year later and the goal is to put out an album and tour right away and no one was able to do that,” AJ says. “It’s good to be back. I mean, the last time we played any overseas shows really on a tour was at the end of 2019 on the ‘Sanctuary’ tour. This just feels like a little more of an event as the venues are bigger. We’re hitting like eight big cities, it’s been really lovely.”

The live shows weren’t all fans had to be buzzing about, though. Days into kicking off the European leg, Aly & AJ dropped the album title track as the lead single to their fifth studio album, With Love From, and shortly after announced that the new record will arrive on March 15 as their second independent album. The 11-track release hears the duo expanding their horizons more, showcasing a less poppy portrayal but a more folky, blues sound that has been teased on previous fan favorites – (“Slow Dancing” and “Pretty Places”) – as well as some country vibes. While the record can be considered a continuation and isn’t a million miles away from A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun, it definitely feels like an evolution.

We’ve both really enjoyed diving into this sound because it’s music that we grew up listening to. We really grew up listening to country music as young kids and so it’s funny that we’ve now kind of had this full circle moment of bringing that into the records a bit,” Aly says. “Eventually we might just make a full-blown country record but we’re not there yet.”

Photo: Stephen Ringer

The decision to make something that appeared less pop was never a cautious decision or an end goal for Aly & AJ. Ultimately, it’s where their songwriting ended up leading them due to the bands they were listening to at the time of making the record. “I think Aly and I will always have the sensibilities of a pop writer because we’re really used to writing pop material, or at least in a pop format,” AJ says. That aside, they’re not really into categorizing their music anymore. “To me, it’s like genre-less. It depends on the mood you’re in. I don’t even really believe in like, pop, rock, alt, or indie. “Genres are kind of obsolete. It’s more about like, what mood you’re in, what you’re feeling that day. To me, it’s all about emotions rather than genre.”

With less electronic programming and synths, Aly & AJ brought the album to life by recording sessions at Sunset Sound studios with a live band, just like the last record. A big difference this time around, however, is that they recorded their vocals live while the band played at the exact same time. “It helped kind of inform a lot of the performances AJ and I were able to make as singers,” Aly says. “I think it gave us a lot more of a challenge when it came to comping the vocals because we didn’t have as many takes as we would’ve normally done if we were just in a studio doing all the vocals in one day for a song,” Aly continues. “I think it gave some really colorful performances because we were just going more by the vibe instead of it being like, ‘Okay, is this perfect?’”

Photo: Stephen Ringer

While supporting Ben Platt on his nationwide North American “Reverie Tour,” Aly & AJ had already been performing the first single, also the album title track, every night. Despite a positive reception from the crowds each night, they already knew they would be leading their campaign with it. “We already knew but we were curious to see what people’s reactions were,” Aly says. “But with the love that’s already been shown, I feel like we made the right choice. I mean, it’s hard to pick a single in a way because it’s as if you’re picking the firstborn child to be the favorite when there are other songs that mean a lot to us.”

She continued: “I think it’s a really good depiction of this new era and kind of what we want to say with the record in terms of the tone and the storytelling behind it. It’s definitely leaning into an Americana kind of storytelling because we are obviously American girls and we’ve done a lot of touring all over the States. We thought that would be kind of cool to be able to encapsulate that in a record and bring that to 11 songs that tell this kind of journey for us.”

Comparisons to the song on social media drew to the material they made under 78violet during the early part of the last decade, particularly the singles “Hothouse” and “Boy,” which featured in their film, Weepah Way for Now. “I’m not totally sure if I understand the sonic reference between those two, but I’m happy with it. I still love that album but I’m kind of glad that Aly and I didn’t professionally release that record because I don’t truly believe we knew exactly what we wanted to do,” AJ says. “It wasn’t super focused,” Ally adds. “I am still proud of some of those songs and I think ‘Hothouse’ is really special,” AJ continues, insisting the comparison is still really cool.

The warm response to the song has further proved to Aly & AJ that taking risks and going against the grain is something worthwhile. “It shows that you can choose something that maybe isn’t super obvious, but if you put the time and energy, and love into a song that you believe in, everyone will fall in love with it too because they know that we’re in love with it,” AJ says. “I think any song can be a single. It’s about how you present it and the joy and passion you have for the song.”

Photo: Stephen Ringer

With Love From is more of a laid-back listen, featuring a more stripped-back production for the majority of the songs. With this in mind, they still made sure the record offered some anthemic moments — (“Love You This Way, “Tear the Night Up,” and “Baby Let Baby Lay Your Head Down”) — to help pick up the pace without taking anything away from the vision they pictured. “Where we had some songs that bring a little more of a punch of energy, especially since I know that the fans do love some of the more upbeat songs, we wanted to bring that into the record without sacrificing the overall story that we’re trying to tell,” Aly says. “I think that was definitely important.”

And while With Love From doesn’t gear in the same direction as their 2019 five-track EP Sanctuary, the intro to the album track “Talking In Your Sleep” feels like a mini ode to the ‘80s-infused songs. “We said it gives us The 1975 vibes,” Aly says. “I really like the corruption of that song.”

“I would say that that song in a way sonically maybe sticks out the most in the sense that it does to me feel like a little bit more of like past Aly & AJ, but in a way where I’m like, I think this song is really strong and it deserves to be on this record. It links the past a little bit with the present,” AJ says. “We co-wrote that with the producers and co-writers of ‘Into The Rush.’ We rekindled our friendship with them in the last couple of years. It’s been literally 15 years since we’ve written songs together but that was one of them that came from the session,” Aly adds.

Photo: Stephen Ringer

After kickstarting their career signed to Disney’s Hollywood Records, the duo has spent the past six years releasing their material under their self-titled independent label. With that comes more creative freedom and decision-making, which they admit the latter can be an exhausting process, but the opportunity for them to be more hands-on feels like more of a reward than a chore. “It feels like we get a direct satisfaction from it because we know that we went through all of those steps to get it to that place,” Aly says. “Whether that be the music video or the packaging of the vinyl or the merch pieces, everything is very personal to us. And I understand why some bands aren’t able to be hands-on in that way. They might not have the time, and they might not have the interest or the mental capacity to handle it, but I think it helps that there are two of us.”

With Love From might still be an independent release but it’s the first time they have put out an album through their new distribution deal with SoundCloud to help provide them with marketing support. “They’ve been extremely supportive and in a way, it’s kind of felt like the help of a major label,” AJ says. “Instead of having an Interscope or a Hollywood Records or Sony behind your music, it is a smaller company, but they’re so powerful in terms of distribution because we’ve actually been able to have a lot of support from them that I don’t think we would have had that with a major label.”

If there’s one message Aly & AJ want to get across with the release of this album, it’s that they have no plans to disappear. They’re in this game for the long haul. “We’re gonna just keep making music as long as we can and touring as much as we can. I think our goals as a band are to be known for our live show. I think that our most important asset as a band is the connection we have together on stage. I think it’s very unique because most people aren’t up there with their siblings on stage,” Ally says. “I think for us it’s capturing the essence of who we are in this record and that it makes people want to come and see it live not just hear it on their vinyl, or at home or in their car, but that they’re like, ‘I actually want to see this live’ and ‘I wanna see how it translates differently from being on a record’ and then seeing the live performance with the live band.”