Interview: Aly & AJ Talk ‘Sanctuary,’ Touring & Their New Sound

Mike Nied | July 5, 2019 6:16 pm

Aly & AJ embarked on an epic adventure upon relaunching in 2017. After taking some time away from music, the Michalka sisters returned with a very distinct sound on the ’80s-inspired “Take Me.” The synth-drenched anthem served as a fitting reintroduction and ushered in a new era for their sound. That was perfectly displayed on last year’s Ten Years EP and once again on May’s Sanctuary. Comprised of 5 songs including gems like lead single “Church,” “Don’t Go Changing” and “Star Maps,” the latter release catapulted their artistry to a whole new level.

While carving out a niche as some of the coolest indie-pop divas on the scene, Aly & AJ have spent a good deal of time on the road. This year they embarked on The Sanctuary Tour. On it, they treated fans to live renditions of beloved classics and newer material. But that’s not all. They also used the tour as a vehicle to enact positive change. How? By partnering with The Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to serving at-risk queer youths. “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,” AJ explained to Billboard.

A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity to chat with the sisters while they were in Cleveland on The Sanctuary Tour. Mid-way through the North American leg, they shared some insight into how they stay energized between sets. We also talked about the development of their new sound and dove into several of the songs on Sanctuary. But that’s not all. The hitmakers opened up about why they feel touring has been so important to them, talked about dream tour mates (Carly Rae Jepsen), working with the Trevor Project and plans for a new album’s worth of material.

Next week they kickstart a European leg of their tour. In the meantime, dive into the interview below to learn more about what they’ve been up to

Right now [in May], you’re halfway though the tour. How do you stay energized at this point?

AJ: It varies for sure. The biggest thing is sleep for us. And taking care of our voices and making sure we stay rested. Taking days to just try to stay on vocal rest, binge watch TV shows. Eat as good as we can, which has been really hard. And trying to stay active is one of the main things that I think is really important and something we have not been great at.

Aly: I guess we’re active on stage at least. That helps a bit.

AJ: But I do have to say, these first… we’re almost at 20 shows, have been really fun. And they’ve kind of flown by. We’ve been healthy, and we’ve met a ton of fans. We’ve had some great days off in some great cities. We’re on a positive roll.

I wanted to talk about the Trevor Project. How did you guys partner with them?

Aly: Honestly, it was through our best friend Raymond [Braun]. He does a lot of LGBTQ+ work in general, and we were talking about wanting to partner up with an organization for this tour. And he suggested Trevor Project, which AJ and I already knew about. He ended up hooking us up with them, and we just took off from there. It’s obviously meant a lot to our fans, which is really cool. We’ve seen so many tweets and messages per night that are specifically talking about The Trevor Project, which we love. And we’ve raised a lot of money so far just doing these shows and having fans donate and sign a petition that’s been incredible.

It’s such a great program so it was so great to see you mention them

Aly: Yeah, they’re doing amazing things.

Also speaking about Pride… “Good Love.” You released that almost a year ago exactly. How does it feel to perform it now as you’re getting ready to go into Pride again.

AJ: I think there’s a really great energy surrounding that song live and I think it’s so refreshing to come back on the road and hear people sing those lyrics back to us.

Aly: Especially because people now know the song. When we were playing it last tour it was so new, so people were just maybe listening to it for the first time. Whereas now people have had a year to sit with the song. It’s kind of got it’s own little following. It’s really cool.

AJ: It’s a really special song. As soon as our stage lights turn into the rainbow color people know it’s coming. So it’s really become an inside thing now. People bring out their flags, and it means a lot to us.

Speaking about the setlist. How do you strike on the perfect balance between the classics and your newer material?

AJ: It’s not easy. We took the set into consideration for a long time before going on the road. It was very much a matter of what songs are going to flow well. And what’s the order going to be? And how many old songs are we going to play. And what hits should we play that we know the fans are going to want. Wanting to include the new music too is very important to Aly and I. So, it is that fine balance.

I don’t feel there’s a rhyme or reason, but you just know it’s going to work. You always want to play the classic hits that people want to hear that have kind of sustained our career for this long. And give ode to those songs, but we also really want to make sure our new music is introduced. I think it’s a delicate balance. And I think we found it. We played with it in rehearsal quite a bit and then took it on the road.

Aly: I think the longer that we make new music and put out records and release even just one-off songs, I think the less we’ll play from the past. Because those new songs we’ll want to play live. And I know that they’ll have their own following. But I think we’ll always play songs like “Rush” and “Potential” in our set up. They’re just staples, which is fun for AJ and I to play because they get such a great reaction from the crowd.

I mean they’re bangers. And you almost expect the audience to be loving the classics. How does it feel when you see them doing the same to “Sanctuary” or “Church.”

Aly: It’s really cool.

AJ: It’s amazing. Like it gives me chills. Hearing people knowing the lyrics and seeing their face light up when they start hearing the first couple chords of a new song. It’s amazing that people care about the new music this much. And it’s something that really has sustained Aly and I on the road. Seeing and hearing our fans respond to this new stuff. It’s really empowering to know that people care about the new and the old just as much. It’s really neat.

How would you describe your new sound? Because it’s so distinct. And it really has been since “Take Me.”

AJ: Definitely in the direction of ’80s-inspired synth pop. It’s less singer/songwriter acoustic guitar driven and more synth driven. And I really think that this era of pop right now has a lot of the same kind of happening. I feel like a lot of what I’m hearing on Top 40 is kind of… Some of it’s great. And some is like “I’ve heard this.” I really think these two EPs really stand out. They’re timeless sounding, but they’re also modern without being too much of a throwback. So I think the combination of ‘80s throwback and modern is a delicate balance, and I think we’ve touched on that really well these two EPs.

When you were putting together your sound and getting ready to come back, what was inspiring you at that point? Who were you listening to that helped you get a better sense of what you wanted to do?

Aly: There wasn’t specific records that we were listening to. It would be more like we’d go on YouTube and pull up a Robert Palmer song that we thought fit what we were working on at that moment. A lot of things like, maybe it was a vocal performance that we liked. So we’d kind of try to mimic that but within our own artistry and how we sign. A lot of Peter Gabriel and Genesis. Just great ‘80s hits from the past.

AJ: Vocalists. And writers.

There were a couple songs I wanted to talk about off Sanctuary. What made you think “Church” was the song to open the era with.

Aly: I don’t know what specifically made us choose it.

AJ: Yeah, it’s a good question.

Aly: Do you remember what was the…

AJ: Like knowing this was the first one? I mean, initially when we looked at the collection of five songs, I don’t know if “Church” was going to be the first one we released. And we really sat with it for a while and said “look. It’s going to really depend on what song leads the pack lyrically and melodically that we think is going to be kind of the ‘Take Me’ of this new generation of our music.” And to me there was just something about it.

Aly: It’s so different from “Take Me” too. As a song. And it’s not like… It’s not nearly as fast. And it’s not nearly as in your face as “Take Me.” It’s like chill vibes.

AJ: Yeah, it’s kind of the rebuttal of “Take Me” in a weird way. And I just think the content behind it structured the EP in a great way. Lyrically, it just felt like “yeah, this is the first thing we want to bring out.”

Then “Don’t Go Changing…” In my writeup for the EP when it first came out, I noticed that in a way that the song worked like you were singing to someone else. But it also worked like you were singing to yourself. Did you think that at all when you were writing it.

AJ: Very much so. We looked at it as singing to each other. Singing it to ourselves. Singing it to our fans. I think that is such a simple sentiment. You know, “don’t go changing.” Those three words are really powerful, and I think so many people feel like…

Aly: That they need to change themselves for society or whoever.

AJ: And like no. Whoever you are is who you are. It kind of goes back to the whole thing of “be every color that you are.” I kind of think it’s a full circle from “Rush.” But I do think it’s very much to ourselves and others.

Aly: You’re right actually. In past interviews I’ve said that “Don’t Go Changing” is like our “On The Ride” but for each other now. But “Rush” is almost better actually. It’s not only self-affirming for your own being but for other people that might be searching for acceptance. And saying “look you’re great just how you are. There’s no need to go and change for society or for whatever the norms are out there. You should just be your wonderful, unique self.”

That kind of leads into my next question. In your press release for the collection you mentioned that you felt you should be speaking about things that were more socially conscious than just doing breakup anthems and things like that. Why did you feel that way?

Aly: I think pop music in general doesn’t tend to… There are some, obviously, pop artists and songs out there that are socially conscious or political. But there’s not many. Especially on Top 40 radio. It’s all very much love-based. And AJ and I just wanted to go back to our roots in terms of the subjects that we were writing about when we wrote Into The Rush and Insomniatic, which were very self-reflective albums. And obviously had love songs in them but it wasn’t the whole, entire focus. And I think it’s our job as story tellers to not just tell one story again and again in slightly different ways.

I think AJ and I in our next batch of songs will hopefully dive even deeper into social matters. We would love to write a very political song that is kind of an anthem for this generation. Anthems that women can feel empowered by. That men can feel empowered by. And hopefully we’ll continue to do that as time goes on. But I also love that you can listen to a song, and maybe it has a specific meaning to the artist. But as a listener you might not necessarily know that story. And it might be a different story for you because you hear it a different way. Or you see that story differently. Or maybe you’re going through something, and it fits your personal experience. That’s kind of the beauty of music and lyrics that can kind of morph per listener.

That kind of leads back to “Don’t Go Changing,” where I had found those different meanings because I’m looking at it from a different angle. Another song that worked that way on the EP was “Sanctuary.” Where it felt like it could have been a love song or it could have been a message to your fans. Which was kind of the vibe you got when you were playing it tonight.

Aly: It totally could be a love song. And we talked about that in the studio. I think it initially was always kind of meant as a love letter to our fans. And thanking them for being this safe place that AJ and I can come to. And knowing that in a way we are also that sanctuary for them, which is really cool. Just knowing… It’s just this mutual understanding where you’re here for me, I’m here for you.

AJ: Yeah, it goes both ways for sure.

You mentioned in the press release, too, that concerts were a sanctuary. And I feel like that’s such a powerful concept. Can you open up about why you felt that way?

AJ: There’s just something about being in a live show that should be very transcendent. I don’t know if it’s that often where you go to a pop show and feel you’re really taken over by an experience. And Aly and I really hope that our music live, whether it’s the Ten Years EP, whether it’s the Sanctuary EP or the old stuff… that our fans really feel that this is their sanctuary for an hour and a half.

Aly: And that it’s not only just a fun night out for them to let loose. But maybe it’s a night for them to come to terms with something that’s been holding them back of bringing them down. Or a relationship that they are still not quite over but these songs are getting them through it. We would love to be able to be a part of that healing aspect of our experience.

AJ: And for Aly and I, a lot of it… The undertones are religious based. We grew up in a Christian family, and we feel very vocal about our beliefs. But also very responsible for what we need to be writing about. So I do feel like the undertones for us are all-inclusive for sure. But I hope that our fans feel like it’s a sanctuary and a safe place. Even though it’s obviously not a church, but it can be anywhere. It can be the House Of Blues or a random venue in Philly.

It can be wherever. You know, as citizens, we don’t always feel that comfortable or safe going out late at night. You might go to a party, or go to a concert. And you might feel anxious. And we just hope that our fans feel safe here. We pray about that every night. That our fans are safe, and that we’re safe. That our shows can bring peace.

That’s a vibe that I think I’ve seen more and more in concerts in recent years. And I love that people are kind of embracing that and the safe space concept. Changing paces a bit… Something I always think is interesting to ask family bands, how does it feel to work together as sisters?

Aly: It’s so normal for us.

AJ: It’s really normal for us now. Especially that we’ve done this for so long. But I love. Working with your family is great. Our taste is the same. We agree about the same stuff. We have the same love for pop culture. We both work very hard. We are very driven. But we keep each other driven. I really think that we’re a good fit. And I think it helps working with family.

Aly: I think it’s actually easier in a weird way. I’m always amazed by bands that stay together over the years without being related. I’m always like “how does that work.” It takes a massive commitment.

With family it’s easier because there’s a connection. And if you don’t like something I feel like there are less feelings hurt when you want to respond.

Aly: Totally. Whereas you might not ever talk to someone who is outside of your family that way. But you can with your sister because it’s your sister, and she has to just be like ”OK, I’m fine with that.”

She has to love you.

AJ: Yeah.

I had asked on Twitter if any of your fans had any questions. Something I saw a couple times was asking if you’re going to Australia anytime soon. I know you’re hitting Europe. Any plans after that?

AJ: We really want to play in Australia.

Aly: That’s our next international goal.

AJ: It’s not lined up for this year, we have to say.

Aly: But we’d love to make that happen for next year.

AJ: Small steps, we’re getting there.

Aly: We want to first start in Europe. I know a lot of fans are like “there’s so many more places in Europe than the five that we’re going to.” And we very much know. But a large part of it is “do we have a fan base there.” Is there a venue that works for our capacity?

AJ: Because social media can only tell us so much… Obviously yes there are fans that are constantly saying “come to Brazil.” “Come to Australia.” But is there really a market there for our music that we can play a successful show for?

Aly: Are there like a thousand people that would care enough to come to our concert? And maybe back in the day there was but who knows now.

AJ: We’re still kind of re-introducing ourselves.

Aly: I think a lot of the international playing in our future would be neat with us opening for a band just to get our feet wet. It’s coming. Australia is on our list, and we know that we have a fan base there for sure. Our data shows that that’s kind of the next place that would make sense going to outside of the UK.

Another question that I had seen… Do each of you have a favorite song on Sanctuary and why?

Aly: We both kind of feel like maybe “Sanctuary” is our favorite.

AJ: Yeah.

Aly: It’s funny. We almost always have the same answers.

AJ: It’s so weird. That song came about in such a funny way. And it wasn’t ours originally.

Oh. Who’s was it?

AJ: His name is Totem. Kind of indie artist with a really great voice. A great songwriter. And he ended up starting this song a couple years ago with a producer of ours.

Aly: It was like halfway finished.

AJ: Yeah. It wasn’t done, but it was started. And our producer was like “Hey I wrote this song. I really think it could be great for your EP. It really works hand-in-hand with ‘Church.’ I think it’s up your alley.” And we listened to it and fell in love with it and ended up finishing the song. It really feels like it was born and bred by us.

Aly: It feels like it was meant to be ours.

AJ: And it’s our favorite to play live. It’s really fun.

You mentioned that you’re already kind of thinking about what’s next musically. Do you already have plans to start recording again?

AJ: We are going to get in the studio when we get home. Probably starting like end of July, August.

Aly: We would love to release something in September.

That’s so fast.

AJ: Yeah! Just drop a song or two before the end of the year.

Aly: Yeah. Maybe something in September and then another something in November.

AJ: But the goal is to release a full record in 2020.

Aly: That would be the full goal. But I would say like late 2020 not early 2020.

AJ: We need the money. We need the time.

Aly: We need at least six to eight months. Eight probably, to make that full record.

It was a quick turnaround between Ten Years and Sanctuary even.

AJ: It was, and that’s because our break was so long.

It gave you that time to really work.

AJ: Yeah. And we wanted to make sure our fans were really fed as quick as possible before the next thing.

What would you say over the course of the years has been your biggest accomplishment so far?

AJ: I would say getting back on stage. Getting back out on the road was kind of a step in the shocking direction for us to land onstage again after 12 years of touring. It was very scary for Aly and I to prepare the Promises Tour. And then as soon as we jumped in it was like “This is what we’re supposed to be doing.” Which is why we went on the road again a year later. We love being onstage and we hope to expand our live audience even further. But that was a huge accomplishment.

ALY: I think our latest, greatest.

Last question. What would you say are your biggest professional goals moving forward. You’ve mentioned an album and expanding touring and hitting more markets. What would you say is what you really hope to achieve musically.

Aly: We’d love to get more fans interested and aware of the music.

AJ: People who don’t know.

Aly: Being an indie act you only have so much marketing power when you’re not working with a label. So we just hope that word can spread as quickly and fast as possible.

AJ: I think for us that means festivals. That means co-headlining maybe with someone else. Maybe opening for a big pop act. So it really involves again live performances, but I think that would help us expand our audience.

Are there people who you’d consider touring with?

AJ: Oh for sure. We have a dream list.

Who are people on that list?

Aly: We’d love to tour with Carly Rae Jepsen.

AJ: We think that’d be perfect. A trio. A lot of people have tried to spear head that online, which is kind fo funny.

That’s an awesome idea.

Aly: We’d love to do… a girl tour would be really cool. Female power.

Yeah! That would be great! Thank you so much for talking to me!

Aly & AJ: Thank you!

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