From Taylor Swift to Pink, Halsey to Kesha, female artists have really turned up in 2017 so far, releasing some of the most dynamic and empowering music the industry has seen in recent years. But while the solo acts are certainly bringing the girl power, there’s a duo that is also joining the movement: Aly & AJ.
Yes, we’re talking the blonde sister duo that once had us singing hits like “Chemicals React” and “Rush,” and were spotted all over the Disney Channel because of their affiliation with Hollywood Records. Why does it feel like it’s been so long since we’ve heard their names? Because it’s been 10 years since their last release under the moniker.
After releasing their sophomore effort Insomniatic in 2007 -- which spawned their highest-charting Billboard Hot 100 hit, the top 20 jam “Potential Breakup Song” -- Aly & AJ (real names Aly and AJ Michalka) reached a point where what they were doing became more of a job than it was fun. And while it was technically was their job, at 16 and 18 respectively, AJ and Aly knew they had to take a break.
Although they didn’t completely go away from music right after that, changing their name to 78violet in 2009 and eventually releasing a single titled “Hothouse” under that alias in 2013, nothing ever really materialized, and the girls proceeded to pursue individual projects. That is, until Aug. 18, 2017, when Aly & AJ made their return under their original title with an ‘80s-esque indie pop single, “Take Me.”
"It just felt like the perfect reintroduction. There’s something about the way the beat drops, the song makes me feel so good when I listen to it, it’s one of those things that’s undeniable,” AJ tells Billboard of the song. "I love what the song stands for, I think it’s empowering.”
Co-produced and co-written by Jamie Sierota (formerly of Echosmith) and Ryan Spraker, the song certainly shows a new, more mature side of the girls 10 years later, something that they’ll carry into their forthcoming EP, which they hope to release in October. With so much time passed since their last release and a new chapter beginning, Billboard wanted to catch up with Aly & AJ to break down the timeline from hiatus to comeback, hear why they almost feel reborn, and find out what else they have in store.
How does it feel to have a new song out as Aly & AJ for the first time in 10 years?
AJ: We’ve evolved. We've had 10 years of cocooning this music into something that has really taken off naturally. These tracks on the EP just came in an effortless way, and Aly and I kind of looked at each other and went "well, I think we found our sound." We just wrote, and this is what came out of it. It's really cool to be back.
ALY: We went in with a completely fresh, clean slate. And that was really the goal, so that we didn't really have any preconceived notions on what we were wanting to write or what we were hoping we'd write. We definitely have to give a lot of credit to our two collaborators as well, Ryan Spraker and Jamie Sierota, because they had a huge impact on helping mold the sound with us, since they were not only our co-writers but also the producers of these four songs on the EP.
How you were feeling back then when you decided to step away from music?
ALY: We were in a place where making music wasn't fun to us anymore. It felt like a business. And I think having the pressure to need to write songs for radio was very overwhelming for AJ and I, and something that we really struggled with when we were signed with Hollywood Records because we didn't really have radio support over there during that time, nobody was really playing Disney acts on the radio. I think were also a little wiped out, just from you know touring a lot and, you know, being away from home and our dogs and our dad, and you know at that time we still lived in our family house together. Looking back, we can see that we were super lucky doing what we did at such a young age, but now we're coming in with so much more wisdom and just life experience the second round.
When was like the moment that you guys were like "I think this is the time to try again”?
AJ: Aly and I went through just a long period of time where we just didn't feel creative musically. And, you know, we went through the whole writer's block thing, and we went through having two pretty successful records and figuring out how we want to transition as adults. We shelved a lot of our own songs to get to this point, so there's a lot of music we could've released during this window of time that we didn't, and I'm glad we didn’t.
ALY: When AJ and I decided we wanted to make music again, we ended up calling up a music co-writing partner of ours from the past, Mike Alazondo. He kind of helped guide us to the two co-writers that we ended up writing all the music with and that ended up ultimately producing the record. And Mike helped oversee as an executive producer and let us use his studio. He opened the doors to his studio and these two guys that he works with, and that was a huge moment for us in starting this whole train.
Did it feel like you picked up right where you left off?
AJ: No, to be honest it’s very hard for me to even remember what it felt like 10 years ago.
ALY: I know, it’s so weird. I can barely remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday, let alone how I felt 10 years ago making an album.
AJ: It’s so different from picking up with an old friend where you left off, and if you have that rapport you can just talk after 10 years and be best buds again. I don’t feel that way with music. Even though I love music, I feel like the industry changed so much that I guess that’s why Aly and I took so long, because we didn’t know how re-engage, so we took such a huge pause because we were so paralyzed by how to re-introduce ourselves. For me, I don’t look at it like we’re right where we left off, I look at it like, ‘wow, I feel like we’ve never done this before and here we are.’
ALY: Yeah, I feel like we’ve been reborn or something, but being reborn with the wisdom and knowledge that we did not start out with. Now because of us releasing this music independently, we’re very much on every single email, every phone call – almost to the point where it’s a little bit overwhelming, but I’d also rather know everything than not know enough. That’s when you start to get into a problem as an artist, when you’re being protected from some of the things that you do need to hear. And maybe it’s a little hard to take, but I think it also helps you grow as an artist – and if you truly disagree with the criticism it just makes you want to prove yourself even more.
Did you guys debate coming back under a different name?
AJ: We talked about it for a second but then we also looked at each other and said “We can’t do a third name, people are going to think that we’re absolute jokes.”
ALY: We also got advice from consultants and people in the industry who were like, “You know what, it’s your actual name. There’s nothing wrong with that. Own how your fan base started and that’s how you should release music, because people will actually know what to look for when they search for something.” We spent so many years getting to that point where we had some form of notoriety and it’s kind of, you know, a slap in the face if we don’t end up using Aly & AJ.
Where do you guys feel like you’re both at individually or collectively, as musicians and people because there’s been that 10 year gap?
AJ: It’s not about me anymore. When you’re younger, everything is about you because you’re in this world where you’re growing up in the industry and “What am I going to do? What’s my next move?” I now feel very comfortable with the way that our career ended up and I can take time to focus on what other people’s needs are. Our sensibility as musicians…you know, the bar has raised. The music I listen to now is elevated. I barely listen to the radio, to be honest. I don’t want anything infiltrating my ears that I don’t want to possibly put out in my song.
ALY: I do feel a lot more confident as a writer than I did as a 15-16 year old. AJ and I really held our own, even in those early days of writing. I feel very proud of our music in a way I hadn’t felt in the past. I actually truly 110% am behind this new stuff. AJ is definitely more of an optimist while I’m more of a pessimist so me being actually really excited about the music is really bizarre.
There’s a bit of an '80s vibe with this song. Is that indicative of the sound you’re channeling for all of your new music?
ALY: Every song has almost an '80s, nostalgic sound that we specifically love. A lot of the music we listen to comes from the '80s or is '80s inspired – the heavy, Phil Collins/Genesis-type drums. Just the fact that '80s music made people feel so good, I think it was an era where people were putting out records that made people want to roll their windows down and go on a road trip. We wanted to make an album that felt like that for our fans.
Would you say that this music feels like the most true to who you are overall?
AJ: Other than the record we made, which at that time was very pure and sort of who we were at that moment, I would say that this is the oldest version of us and this is our purest and truest moment.
ALY: It kind of feels like our first record again. I think we have the same innocence towards it in the sense that it’s been so long that I almost feel like it’s a new act and we’re starting fresh. There’s a wide-eyed kind of excitement towards this music.
AJ: Yeah, there isn’t a jaded feeling about any of the new music, which I think we had in the past when we made that second record. I think we were a little bit rebellious in our ideas because of what we wanted to make at that age and we were kind of clashing with the [Disney] channel at that moment.
Anything else you want the fans to know about where you’re at now?
AJ: We’re here to stay, fans should know that they’ve waited a long time but Aly and I found who we were again in our sound and just appreciate the support that’s been thrown out towards us so far. We want to continue this -- music is our first love and we’re ready to tour and continue to make records. We’re on track to continue and there’s no going back at this point. We’re excited about the sound, we found the sound and we found the love again.
During our interview, both Aly & AJ mentioned that they don't have fandom name yet. Brainstorm the coolest, most fitting name for Aly & AJ fans and let the girls know your ideas via their Twitter.