Over a decade after their debut on the Disney Channel, pop stars Aly & AJ Michalka made their return to music last year with the EP Ten Years, a glittering concoction filled with new bops and a brand new sound.
If last year was about returning for the duo, then this year is about giving back: in addition to releasing new music this year (including the single “Church”), they’re heading out on the Sanctuary tour this May in support of The Trevor Project, the world’s leading organization dedicated to helping at-risk queer youth.
“I think it can hopefully help bless a lot of our fans,” AJ tells Billboard. “As much as we want our fans to come enjoy our music, it’s also hopefully a moment where we can give back to them.”
The duo spoke with Billboard ahead of the release of the new single about giving back to the community, how their LGBTQ fans helped inspire them to return to music and what it’s been like becoming independent artists.
How will your new tour support the Trevor Project?
Aly: We’re gonna have one or two booths set up at every event in every city representing the Trevor Project, which is helping young LGBTQ kids dealing with coming out and with suicidal thoughts that can come up and so much more. We’ll have a booth up in each city through this company called Propeller. We’re asking for signatures to be given out at the concert, really to stop this absolutely terrible idea of conversion therapy, which we are absolutely disgusted by. They said, “Hey, if we could have some help in getting signatures so we can stop this from happening,” and we said, “Done, we’re on board.” We have so many LGBTQ fans, and AJ and I have always been huge supporters of the community. We thought this was a no-brainer.
AJ: I first got introduced to the organization through my good friend Raymond Braun. Aly and I really feel like this is the year of giving back, and we want to continue that movement. This year it’s all about the Trevor Project, and I think it can hopefully help bless a lot of our fans. As much as we want our fans to come enjoy our music, it’s also hopefully a moment where we can give back to them. Like, how can we help in a deeper way?
What is it about your music that resonates with the LGBTQ community?
Aly: I think that a lot of the kids that we played concerts for who listen to our music were probably closeted at the time that they were listening to AJ and I, because they were children at the time. On top of that, I think the subject matter in our songs is uplifting and inspirational. Like, “You can do this. Speak up for yourself. Be every color that you are.” When we were writing them, I don’t think we understood the power that they would have to this specific community.
AJ: It’s funny going back to a song like “Rush,” which has been one that a lot of fans from the LGBTQ community identify with. We’ve had a lot of gay fans come up to us and say, “‘Don’t let nobody tell you your life is over/ Be every color that you are’ was like my mantra.” That’s incredible that at a young age, you can be writing material that can help shape and formulate the person listening to it. I have to say, Aly and I don’t feel like we deserve that much credit, and I don’t feel like there’s that much power that we’re given. It’s not like we’re healing people, it’s just that there’s something about the connection between music and lyrics that can be incredibly moving for someone who is suffering. That’s the coolest part about being an artist.
Do you have memories of specific encounters with an LGBTQ fan that really moved you?
Aly: On this last tour we did, we had so many great experiences with fans. I remember one in particular who came up and said, “Thank you so much for your music. It really helped me with my struggles with coming out to my family and my parents, and I feel like when I am at your concert I am myself, and it gives me the courage to actually be brave enough to tell them who I am.” That is incredible. As an independent artist, it’s hard to come back to the drawing board again and again without the backing of a major label or 15 million followers on Instagram. So it’s hard to say, “Are we going out of pocket to make this record?” and when we hear stories like that, it makes it all worth it.
AJ: Aly is right, and a big part of why we came back after a 10 year break before we released the Ten Years EP was really because of the fans. Obviously, we have this pure love for music, but hearing stories like that one, or kids telling us, “You are my childhood,” or “I was encouraged to come out because of your songs” …we were like, “You know what, there’s something we’re missing. If we’re not doing this anymore, we’re doing something wrong.” For not only ourselves, but for our fans.
What’s it been like to be back in the spotlight?
AJ: The experience proved to Aly and I that there is a creative career here, as adults, that we didn’t know we’d find because we were so young when we started. We have incredible material to write, we have the ability to perform live, and being on tour reminded us that that’s where we’re supposed to be. Singing the songs and hearing them scream the lyrics back at you is this refreshing thing. They cared about the new music, not just our old career. It proved to us that we have a long lasting career ahead of us.
You left Hollywood Records when you went on your hiatus and returned as independent artists. How does it feel to be independent after a career on a major label?
Aly: We have control now over every single decision — that’s really been the main difference. Other than having that funding advance you get from a label — which you end up having to pay back anyways — you’re almost forever in debt because of your label. AJ and I decide every single element of the release, from who we want to work with on the video to the imaging, concepts, the order of the songs — we had no say in stuff like that back in the day. It wasn’t nearly as all-inclusive as this is; we have so much control that it can also be overwhelming at times. There’s no middle man between us, which is hard, but it’s gratifying at the end of the day. There’s no bullshit behind it.
Your new single “Church” is out today. How does this tie into your upcoming EP?
AJ: It’s the lead single of our new EP, and it’s kind of the next chapter of Ten Years. That EP was such a strong comeback for us that led us to this new material, and we’re ready to release more music! The EP is called Sanctuary and it will follow our tour — we’re doing about 35 cities between May and June. We’re hoping that fans who saw us last year get a chance to see this new material, but also fans who had no idea we were even touring will get to hear about it this second go around, and go, “Oh my gosh, I’m not gonna miss it this time!”
Aly: Our show will be different than the tour we did last year, because we won’t be relying so much on our old material to fill the set. We only had a few new songs, and now, we have two EPs to fill our time, and two singles released in between them. That’s on top of our old songs that we always play for the OG fans. It’s gonna be a really fun set.
Tickets for Aly & AJ’s upcoming “Sanctuary Tour” are on sale now. Get your tickets here.