If you grew up watching Disney Channel, sister duo Aly & AJ were superstars, releasing music as teens that now define mid-2000's nostalgia. Breaking out with sunny covers of "Walking on Sunshine" and "Do You Believe in Magic," the pair eventually graduated into original songs, from 2005's guitar-driven "Rush" to 2007's synthesized singles, "Potential Breakup Song" and "Like Whoa"--two tracks that still sound exciting and experimental today.
Like many performers who reached international celebrity at such a young age, Aly & AJ decided to take a break from the music industry when songwriting began causing more stress than creative fulfillment. Now, a full decade has passed and the Disney alums are ready to reclaim pop radio with a new single, "Take Me," and EP, aptly titled Ten Years, due later this year.
Whereas before, Aly & AJ were micromanaged within the corporate Disney machine, Ten Years sees the musicians--now 26 and 28--operating as newly independent, mature artists. "Take Me" is a strong introduction, with a euphoric '80s-inspired instrumental and explosive hook that asks a promising lover, "When you gonna take me out?" It's accessible, but there's attitude--a winning balance that's remained constant since Aly & AJ's start.
We recently caught up with the Disney darlings to discuss their long-awaited comeback and taking control.
OUT: With tracks like "Potential Breakup Song" and "Take Me," you've always been experimental with pop music. Is that the goal?
Aly: We've never felt like the music we make is right down the middle. I don't think we've ever made straight up glossy pop. It has always been a bit weird in its format, and I think that comes from our writing skills. Right now, we're feeling the most confident and focused we've ever been. Over the years, there were so many people that would help us produce songs to be more radio-friendly, and now we're just making music because we want to make good music.
What is the collaborative process like between you two?
AJ: We're both really different and have different strengths, weaknesses and voices we bring to writing sessions. We have different things to say, and that's why we're a great band--we've always had that. If you had two girls who offered the same thing, it wouldn't make anything interesting. I feel like our contributions to lyrics and melodies and how we work together make for a really interesting team. We're more defined now that we've found our voices as adults.
Aly: We have co-writers, Jamie Sierota and Ryan Spraker, that AJ and I have been working with over the last year. They helped co-write and co-produce our Ten Years EP. We were able to collaborate with them in a way that was so natural and easy. They brought a lot in on the musical side, like a melody on the piano or guitar, and AJ and I would go in with a lyric or melody that's sung. From there, it was this dance of us throwing ideas back and forth, and the best ones end up winning.
Did you have the same amount of creative control 10 years ago?
AJ: No, not at all. I think that's what's so exciting about making music now as independent artists. We have the control in regards to who we work with and how we want things to sound. There's no day-to-day A&R whose office we're walking into and trying to please, which, that brings its own wonderful thing because when you're working with a label, you have access to so much that you don't as an independent artist. At the end of the day, being able to establish this sound not under a big umbrella is really a blessing.
Also, we were never absolutely in love with the imagery of our record covers in the past. We always had an issue over them. Now, we went out and shot our image for the EP cover and we finally got to choose it. No one else had a say, and then we took it to management and our digital marketing guy.
Aly: Don't get us wrong, we love opinions. We're not two people that can't hear ideas from others and have to choose everything. But at the end of the day, who wants a 50-year-old suit telling them what's going to look great on their cover? Even the music videos--we wasted so much time and money on them. Now we're doing it independently and our videos have never looked better. The freedom we have today is really exciting.
The visual aspect of our band is really important. The fact that my husband is able to shoot all the images for us is a huge plus, and it's amazing because it's all in the family. The fact that AJ and I are able to choose our own merch, design our own t-shirts and posters--we weren't doing that when we were 14 and 16. Nobody asked us if we wanted to at that point.
Photography: Stephen Ringer
What's the story behind "Take Me"?
AJ: Getting into the dating scene, I was inspired to try a dating app for the hell of it. But the process of matching with someone is so ridiculous because it's based on a photo, their age and where they live--that's about it. It's not the energy of the person when you're meeting face-to-face. I had just ended a longterm relationship and was discouraged, so I went on and matched with people, but there was never any follow-through. In the studio, I was like, I'm uninspired by the lack of getting to know someone face-to-face. When the hell are you just going to take me out? The song originates from that idea.
Do you think your lyrics and sound have matured over the years?
Aly: The love songs we were writing at 14 and 16 were about either a brand new relationship that we had no experience in or it was an idea of what we thought a relationship would be. We were so young and hadn't experienced anything. Now, AJ is dating and we're women--we're no longer teenagers. I think that in of itself changes things completely, and with this new sound, we're listening to everything from Chvrches and St. Lucia to Beach House. It's across the board, but we're inspired by really fantastic '80s-sounding pop music.
The "Take Me" chorus is really that explosive instrumental. How did that develop?
Aly: That was one of our co-writers. He really pushed us to let that chorus breath and not fill it with lyrics, which we normally do because that's the formula for pop music: the verse, the pre-chorus, the chorus. You usually don't want to let much time go by without singing. For some reason, it worked not having that much of a vocal melody over the chorus, and that was us really trusting his instincts.
You've said that music became the enemy for a while. How did you work through that?
Aly: It took time away from music and also seeing artists release music that we were incredibly blown away by or music we thought was trash. We would look at each other and say, We need to fill this void in pop music that's at times really weak. Over time, AJ and I realized that if we have the patience and had the song, we could come back and actually make great music again. It really came down to us reaching out to Mike Elizondo, who is a collaborator from our past when were at Hollywood Records, and saying, We need your help and guidance.
Photography: Stephen Ringer
How do you think taking a break from music helped?
Aly: I think writing great music means you're living life. If you're not living life, you can't write great music. The more we were living life, the more we were stocking up on memories, events and experiences that we would eventually write about. But for AJ and I, it wasn't a matter of us taking a break, because we didn't really take a break--we took a break from music and continued with our acting careers. We were just tired and uninspired.
AJ: I agree. I think we felt like we'd done so much as young kids that we didn't know how to top ourselves. We were like, Is this where it ends?Is this as good as it gets? Maybe we're done. Throw in the towel. During those 10 years, there was a time when were like, Maybe we won't put out music again.
Aly: I don't think we ever thought we reached success. We were actually frustrated we didn't reach higher success. We never really celebrated those moments, and maybe we should've celebrated some more than others. But I don't think we ever looked at each other and thought, We're here. It was more like, We're 50 steps behind. Part of that is comparing ourselves to other people that were coming up at our age, but we also had another path. We were songwriters at our core, which not a lot of young artists can say. That was a huge thing for us to take pride in, and when it wasn't coming naturally, that's when we stopped.
Are there songs from the first two albums you're still proud of today?
Aly: There's definitely songs I'm still proud of, especially on the Insomniatic record, because we were a little older doing that. Songs like "Flattery" and "Closure" and "Division" really stand out to me as solid pop tunes that weren't so obvious--they were different. "Division" has a bit of soul that we weren't really accustomed to. We played with that one a bit and I thought it had a really beautiful vocal. "Closure" stands out to me because it's a song we opened our tour with. I remember every night on stage starting with that song and feeling so empowered by the lyrics.