Sister duo Alyson and Amanda Michalka, best known by their on-stage moniker Aly & AJ, erupted into the music scene 14 years ago with their debut studio album, Into the Rush — and have been constantly providing us with bops since then.
As the OG double-double-threat, both Aly and AJ have had a longstanding acting careers in Hollywood with credits ranging from Disney Channel’s Phil of the Future to Six Feet Under, Two and a Half Men, iZombie, Steven Universe and even Netflix’s animated queer hit She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. But, with their Disney days long behind them, the pair has patently blossomed into confident women and their highly-anticipated new EP, Sanctuary, is the perfect testament to that.
The EP’s first offering, “Church,” already heralded a new era for the duo — one that’s superbly mature, sublimely upraised, and subduedly fervent — and the second, “Don’t Go Changing,” only reinforced that. With Sanctuary finally dropping today and the duo currently immersed in their headlining tour across the U.S. — that will shortly also be touching European soil —, we catch up with the sisters to talk about their past, future, their influences and finding sanctuary.
First of all, happy belated birthday to you both! I’ve been following you guys since your Disney and Into the Rush days so it’s only fair to ask: having stepped into the industry at such a young age, how do you feel you’ve matured both professionally and personally?
Both: Thank you! Hopefully by a lot! It’s crazy to think it’s been 20 years since we started in this industry. We feel like we’ve never been surer of who we are and what communities we want to find a way to support. This applies to our musical taste, our political beliefs, our skin care routine! We feel very fulfilled artistically right now, more so than ever before.
When did you know it was time to trade 78violet to Aly and AJ again? Do you regret the decision to ever change your name or do you feel it was part of finding yourselves?
Both: It was a necessary experience for us to go through as artists but I’m glad we’ve returned to recording under our names. It helps people find the records, even if some people dismiss the work before they hear it because they associate it with our teenage records. Although we’re still proud of those albums and think they’ve aged fairly well. We will always have very fond memories of making that music and it forms part of our growth as songwriters. Some of what we wrote has found new life among the very devoted fans. One of the songs forms a key scene in a film we made called Weepah Way for Now. We’re hoping our new songs will please old fans and gain us new ones. 78Violet may become something long term that fans can always unite around.
You came back after a ten-year hiatus. Music being such a big part of your life growing up, how did it feel to not work on music over that period of time? Was there an exact moment you realised you wanted to come back?
Aly: We did a lot of co-writing during that time with our dear friend and surrogate brother Mikey Einziger (of Incubus) which kept us in touch with the feeling of writing and being in a studio. Ultimately we would shy away from releasing anything because we were either too precious about it or just unsure how we would support the release. Mikey kept encouraging us along the way to get back out on the road, which AJ and I always missed but didn’t want to admit to ourselves. My husband was actually a huge part in us coming back to music. He saw how passionate we were about it still and that we really just needed to commit. We chose to seek guidance from Mike Elizondo who was a past collaborator on an unreleased record of ours. He’s wildly talented and his work speaks for itself. He set us up with two co-writers we just clicked with. We wrote all of Ten Years with the two of them and that started it all.
What can you tell us about your EP, Sanctuary? You’ve been working on it for quite some time now, how’s the process been?
Both: Honestly, it’s been equal parts stressful and rewarding. We really stretched ourselves emotionally and financially on this one but the songs have proved worth it to fight for. It was incredibly challenging trying to balance our television schedules, with one of us having to fly in from Canada for sessions — and the other filming five days a week on another show — while writing and recording this EP. We mixed our last song for the record on April 22, so every day has been a deadline of one sort or another. We’ve had our hands and ideas behind every single part of the release from the songwriting, recording, and mixing/mastering to the art direction, music videos, merch, tour design, set/lighting design. There’s no part of the release we didn’t work on. We’re ready for it to be out in the world and for us to perform these songs in a live setting because we have such pride in how hard we’ve worked to provide something worthy of the incredible fans we have listening to our music.
“Church” was the first offering off the EP. Where does the seemingly religious inspiration come from?
Both: Church doesn’t necessarily have to be a building or institution, it can refer to a special place, a familiar memory, the feeling of coming home or going back to your roots. A respite. The themes of looking for one’s Church and Sanctuary came organically. It wasn’t something we were chasing. We felt very strongly it was resonating with us as a through line which is the first positive sign we were headed in the right direction. Our last tour felt like a sanctuary to us when you were in the room. It was buzzing with likemindedness, healing energy, reflection on the past, hope for the future. It’s only one night of entertainment but we hope the people who saw the shows had those feelings inside them as long as we did. It’s more rewarding for us than for them and we wanted to give back as much as we could this year.
How would you say this new music differs or picks up from Ten Years?
Both: Ten Years was a relationship EP, whereas this one touches on depression, redemption, rebirth, shattered dreams. We tried to expand our ambitions with the production as well and we believe we accomplished that.
It’s no secret you are sitting on a bunch of unreleased songs — like “Ten Years” — do you ever see yourselves putting those out?
Both: I know fans want all the unreleased songs but I promise you there’s a reason those songs sometimes never see the light of day. We have quite a few and their DNA is inside of the songs that are in the world. There will definitely be songs we one day end up releasing but we need to fit it with the right collection of songs. Sometimes it’s appropriate for that body of work and sometimes it’s not. We also try to be cognizant of the financial investment that taking a song across the finish line involves. We like to feel certain it’s the right time.
This new music signals an even more seasoned, and somehow sombre, era for you guys — sonically and lyrically. How did you come to hone this new sound?
Both: We obviously hoped to challenge ourselves to grow beyond Ten Years but there’s truly no formula to accomplishing that so we just went with our gut instincts. We tend to write sombre but hopeful songs. Or songs with a dark side lurking around the corner. We asked ourselves what themes we wanted to touch on along with imaging and video concepts that would bring a whole new level of artistry to our work. We always want and hope for new fans to discover our music, and if “Church” can be that introduction for them then we’re thrilled.
Can you give us an insight into your creative process? Do you work together on everything from lyrics, and melody to production?
Both: We usually work on everything together but strangely this EP was not made like that due to our filming schedules. Often songs will get started with one of us working without the other. A lot of our vocals were recorded at different times and then we’d make notes on the session and re-record or change lyrics after the fact. It gave us the freedom to take risks that we may not have taken if the other person was in the room because we know each other so well and can shoot an idea down quicker than anyone, being that we’re family. Sometimes you need room and freedom to go in the wrong direction to find the right one. We almost always start with a musical line and then a melody is formed that’s hummed out until we settle on lyrics and figure out what the song is ultimately about. Our instincts are something we intuitively understand so the other person is always in the room whether they’re physically there or not. We’re extremely connected.
You mentioned in the past you wanted to release a full album. Is that still the plan? Or are you playing it by ear and releasing stuff when it feels right?
AJ: Aly and I have the ambition to put out full records. It requires time and a significant financial investment. We develop a timeline and release strategy well in advance of release and those timelines inevitably shift because we’re juggling two careers. It would be illuminating for many of our fans to see how hard we work just to put out one song and perhaps there’s a way to tell that story someday. It’s that way for every band. We have a lot of respect for anyone who puts out music independently and tries to build an audience for it. We considered putting out ten songs but couldn’t find the time to complete everything before going on tour due to our shooting schedules. We just managed to record and produce the five songs on Sanctuary, especially given that Aly was shooting in Vancouver and would fly back to L.A. on days off to write or work in the studio and I rarely had days off.
Do you see yourselves as fitting into a particular genre?
Both: Not necessarily. We’ve always had a hard time trying to describe our sound to people. We’d almost rather have someone else describe it to us. I think our music is very much in the synth-pop world, but it’s not straight up pop and never was. We write by our instincts and this is how that sounds.
You are back on tour! Are you excited? What’s the best part about getting to play live?
Aly: Our favourite part would be meeting the fans and hearing their stories of how they were introduced to our music. AJ and I get so teary eyed at our meet n greets every night. We have so many deep and touching encounters with fans who share so much with us. One fan shared that they had first started listening to us as a closeted kid and was now proudly out at our show with their boyfriend! If only I was a better diary keeper… I’d have an unbelievable book of short stories by now. Our fans are great storytellers and are very soulful. We’re very lucky in that way. Perhaps that’s why the dark undertones in our work you mentioned earlier resonate with our fans.
You’re also headed to Europe soon…
Aly: Yes! We’re actually playing five shows in Europe and we could not be more proud to bring this tour to our international fans. It’s been a long time coming and we are so grateful for their patience! I feel so at home in Europe, I swear I’m going to live there one day and just take AJ with me. Every time we travel to Europe it’s my secret laying of the groundwork to convince her.
AJ: Oh, the convincing has worked. My love for Europe runs deep and I do believe we could escape there one day.
The visuals surrounding for this EP are stunning — and pretty different from those of Insomniatic. How important is imagery for you at this stage? Do you have any more video releases on the horizon?
AJ: Oh goodness, who could forget that moon cover of Insomniatic? Seriously though, it’s very important. And very challenging to get right. We’ve failed at it, certainly. We’re in full control of the visuals behind every release now. We chose to shoot the videos for our first two singles on 16mm with Alex Ross Perry (who directed our Take Me video) The reward when shooting on film can’t be understated. It’s one of our collaborators in a way because all of our covers are shot on film as well. It really adds this magical element you just don’t get from digital. At the same time, we’re always looking to maximize what we can with the resources we have access to. We shot the cover of the EP in one of our back yards with the camera on the roof. It didn’t look terribly elegant in person but it created a magical cover. We have some great collaborators helping us who see how badly we want to get it right. They are our eyes and ears. Our stylist Chris Horan has helped us with creative direction in collaboration with Aly’s husband who’s had a huge hand in our look. Our close collaborators Elissa Ruminer and Andre Sarmiento have been behind our hair and makeup on almost every shoot. The Collected Works completed our single covers and EP graphic design. We even got to shoot a third music video directed by our dear friend Amanda Crew. It’s a dream team that we have.
Apart from music, you are both actors. It’s great that, as multihyphenates, you don’t have to choose between the two professions at all — but do you see yourself as musicians first and then actors? Or vice-versa?
Aly: I think we see ourselves as musicians who are actors, even though we technically broke as actors first. We were singing ever since we could talk. However, there’s no need for us to put them in order of importance. We like working on whatever creative project is in front of us at that moment, they both bring us joy.
Have you ever considered trading one for the other? How do you manage to juggle both?
We get different satisfactions from both. The only thing music has over acting is the creative control we’re given. We’re really just a tiny puzzle piece when we sign on to a project as an actor. As a musician, you are the whole puzzle. We are aware of how lucky we are to have the opportunities to work in both. Our musical output would increase if we only did that but hopefully our acting work helps people find out about our music and vice versa.
AJ, you’ve been doing a lot of voice acting recently on Steven Universe and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power. How’s that experience been? Is it something you’d considered in the past before doing it?
AJ: I had wanted to do voice work for a long time and finally made it a reality with the help of my team. There’s something about giving your heart and soul over to an animated character that’s really rewarding. The fact that I get to establish who a character is before it’s even animated is crazy. It takes a lot of attention to detail being that you can only express your thoughts and feelings through the nuances of your voice.
You’re also starring in The Goldbergs’ spin-off Schooled as a music teacher. How is it getting to somehow merge your two world on-screen? Also, any words of a second season?
AJ: Season two is looking really good however, we won’t have the official word until May. I’ve been so blessed to have this spin-off. I love the people and I’ve adored playing this character for the last six years on The Goldbergs. It’s rare that an actor has the opportunity to shape a role for this long. I felt like a kid when I first started playing her and now we’re both women.
Aly, you’ll be wrapping up iZombie for good after more than four years and five seasons. Is that bittersweet? What are you most excited for fans to see in this last season?
Aly: So incredibly bittersweet. In fact, I initially thought I wouldn’t cry on our last day on set and then, of course, burst into tears when they called that’s a series wrap! These were all people I had come to know so intimately, it was weird to think that I’d never work with them in those circumstances again. We all became so close as a cast over these five seasons… a family of sorts. I’m just excited for fans to see those friendships play out on screen and to get a final ending to these beloved characters.
What other acting gigs do you have lined up?
Aly: I’m actually unemployed at the moment, which is scary and exciting but mainly scary. Music was my main focus coming off the show, but once our tour wraps up I’ll be back to the grind of auditioning. I’m really ready for a project that pushes my boundaries. I’ve been close on things that would certainly fit that description so hopefully, it’s coming soon.
This Schön! online exclusive has been produced by
photography + art direction. WOLFE & VON
talents. Aly & AJ
fashion. Amanda Lim
make up. Caroline Hernandez
hair. Matthew Collins
photography assistant. Angel Castro
studio + equipment. Milk Studios Los Angeles
interview. Sara Delgado