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Posted on
Feb 10, 2022

Interview: Aly & AJ Are Taking Intimacy to the Next Level + ‘Way Way Back’ Live

AJ Michalka doesn’t want to go into detail about what happened that day in May 2020. Then again, she doesn’t really need to. Her song “Dead on the Beach” serves as a journal entry, its simple lyrics (“Dead on the beach / you’re on your phone”) and eerie, stripped-down chords capturing her shock and trauma such that a listener understands it through osmosis.

AJ wrote the song in “one fell swoop” at her dad’s house in Laguna Beach, and it appears intact on the deluxe edition of Aly & AJ’s latest album, a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun, out February 11. Once you’ve heard it, it’s impossible to forget.

There are other hints in the lyrics to “Dead on the Beach”—“A man lifts me up / he brings me to the shade” conjures a distinct image—and at one point in our conversation, Aly Michalka, who wasn’t with AJ when whatever happened happened, describes trying to understand what her sister went through. She recalls a duality: accepting AJ’s version of events wholesale, but also thinking, “Are you sure? Really? You really think that you died?”

At first, AJ didn’t think she’d write about that day at all. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I ever will. I don’t know if I ever can,’” she tells me. But over time, and with prompting from Aly’s husband, Stephen Ringer, whom they lovingly call “the most positive, beneficial version of Yoko [Ono],” she decided it felt right. Technically, AJ is referring to the sisters’ next album when she says this—the as-yet-unnamed record they just recorded in a five-day sprint at Los Angeles’s Sunset Sound—but the line fits here too well to ignore. “That’s the goal,” she says, “more intimate, more intimate, more intimate.”

“More intimate” has become something of a maxim for the sisters as the musical project they started almost two decades ago continues to evolve. And it takes a certain bravery, especially for two people who experienced commercial success so young. Both Aly and AJ spun their child stardom into acting careers, but they were slower to return to music, stalling out for a while after a break with an early record label. Then, in 2017, their Ten Years E.P. brought them careening back onto the scene, and they’ve kept up their momentum ever since, all while hewing closer and closer to what feels authentic. They’ve experimented, taking their sound in a darker, dance-pop direction, then relaxing it into something more country-adjacent. With every release, they feel more like themselves.

“We didn’t always have complete and total freedom in what we wanted to do,” Aly says. “Now that we have that, all bets are off.”

If you had to describe a touch of the beat in one word, it would probably be “California.” Coincidentally, that’s how you might describe its creators too. Aly and AJ were born in Torrance, and though they spent a chunk of their childhood in Seattle, California is in their bones. Both sisters are light-eyed and fair-haired, with the internal glow of people accustomed to absorbing large quantities of sunlight. They carry themselves with an ease that’s part West Coast and part innate self-assurance. They love road trips; sitting next to each other in Aly’s bright Laurel Canyon kitchen, they recall driving to “Palm Springs and Joshua Tree and Big Sur and Carmel,” even all the way up to Oregon and Vancouver.

“We’re very attached,” Aly says. “We’ve done so much exploring…but I’ve never felt like, ‘Oh, I could live here’ in the way I feel about—”

And here, AJ finishes her sentence: “California.”

Their devotion animates a touch of the beat, which is warm and expansive, even when it gets dark. “I want to look at the way we make records as the way [Joan Didion or Eve Babitz] would write a book,” AJ continues. “We’re not going to say the words Los Angeles, but this is how the record should make you feel when you’re driving down the 1.”

A perfect example: “Way Way Back,” which also appears on the album’s extended edition, still sounds effervescent, even though its subject matter—young love that wasn’t meant to last—is enough to crush your heart. The sisters wrote the song together about five years ago; their producer pushed them to resurrect its musical bones but to change its lyrics and core idea. Now it’s bittersweet, showing flashes of a relationship that might have gone the distance but, in the end, didn’t. “There’s this sugariness to the past that we can’t always get back,” AJ explains. “I wanted to reference it.”

That and the naivety of youth, which both sisters, who are now in their early 30s, know a little something about. “We’ll play these college shows and…I’m like, These fucking kids, they’re just living life,” Aly says. “They have no clue what’s coming.”

Like they have for everyone else, these past two years have been hard for the sisters: isolation, rescheduled tours, AJ’s beach scare, and then, over the holidays, an unexpected medical emergency for their dad. But it has also been a time of artistic growth and experimentation, of breaking new ground—together and apart. AJ wrote “Dead on the Beach” without Aly’s input, and it’s recorded that way. Actor and singer-songwriter Josh Pence, who cowrote the song and was with AJ during the experience that inspired it, takes over in the second verse, but Aly is heard only on some “oohs” near the end of the track.

Uncharacteristically, Aly and AJ weren’t together that day in May 2020. While AJ was at the beach, Aly had gone to pick wildflowers in an attempt to usher in some early COVID-era cheer. It was one of the first times the sisters can remember being apart for such an earth-shattering moment. “Usually every time I’m going through something, or Aly is going through something, the other one’s right there,” AJ says. “It’s easy to understand—it’s tangible. It’s like, Oh, I get that moment, I’m feeling that too.”

“It’s like, I can’t break up with this guy,” Aly jokes, “and [the other one will say], Okay, I’ll hold your hand while you’re on the phone.”

“We’ve done that,” says AJ. “I did hold Aly’s hand once through a breakup on the phone.” (This, they clarify, was when they were much younger.)

This time was different; the sisters agreed that AJ should be the protagonist of a song that focused so heavily on her unilateral experience. “We’re doing more of that,” Aly says, “being able to step back and say, This really suits her voice more. So if she’s singing 75% of it, maybe that’s fine. And we roll with that instead of having to be even on every single thing, which is what we were like when we were younger.”

“We don’t have to always be attached to the hip in every single moment or image,” she adds later. “And I think that gives us a little bit of freedom.”

It’s a freedom they’re still in the process of exploring. Speaking to Interview last September, Aly intimated that, over time, she and AJ hope to be seen as separate entities, even as they maintain the intertwined nature of their band. “It’s this fine balance of still asserting our individuality,” she says now.

“And figuring out who you are as a singular person, as opposed to a group,” AJ adds. “I’m still working on what that means…I think therapy is really important. I’ve only been doing it for the past year, but it helps me figure out who I am and what I need in this moment, as just AJ.”

“AJ has asked the question—she’s like, We know who you are,” Aly adds. “You love fashion. You love traveling. What’s my thing? And I’m like, ‘That’s for you to figure out.”

Aly’s influence is undeniable when it comes to the band’s touring looks, which they’ll debut on the road in April. Her friendship with the proprietors of the family-owned Giuliva Heritage, who she met in Italy, led to a pair of tailored vest-and-trouser sets that she and AJ wore for their Lollapalooza performance in July 2021. They liked the outfits so much that they commissioned an entire custom wardrobe of pants and vests and jackets.

“We feel powerful, in control, and comfortable onstage in suiting and pants,” Aly says. “It started during the Ten Years cycle…we looked at each other and said, What is our version of a uniform that’s going to be awesome onstage and feel pretty?… We’ve now set that as a rule: The suiting is how you should associate Aly & AJ in terms of the fashion of the band.” (They’re forthcoming on the topic of dry cleaning too: They go every two weeks on their day off, in whichever city they’ve landed. If there’s no day off, their tour manager helps wrangle a few-hour turnaround.)

Their tailored aesthetic might remain the same, or, like other aspects of the band, it might evolve over time. The sisters are already hard at work on their next album—the one they just recorded at Sunset Sound. At one point they were thinking about giving it a title related to the sun, but that’s since changed. They are confident, however, that most of the album’s final product will come from that whirlwind recording session: roughly two songs a day, four or five takes per song, a live band playing along with them. “It’s almost like shooting on film,” says Aly. “You know there’s this finite amount of time, and you need to deliver. It ups the stakes.”

Tonally, she says, this new album will feel different. But the impetus behind it remains the same. “We’ve never been the quote, unquote pop artists who feel far away from the fan base,” AJ says. “It’s very much like, We’ll probably see you backstage. We’ll probably hang out. We’ll probably go grab a drink. We’re attainable, and I think our records speak to that…. I love putting out a record that feels intimate because, to me, it’s the most authentic version of us. And I don’t really want to stop.”