Aly & AJ talk 'Sanctuary' EP, returning to music after 10 years: 'We’re just elevating everything' (Exclusive)
Aly & AJ are back and better than ever.
The sister duo, who shot to fame in the early aughts with music that was heavily promoted on the Disney Channel, released their first substantial music together in over a decade with last year's EP, "Ten Years," reigniting their fanbase with forward-pushing pop music that showed undeniable growth.
Last month, Aly & AJ followed that up with the five-song EP, "Sanctuary," which took things even further and solidified their return to music in conjunction with a headlining tour.
During a recent sit-down interview with AOL's Gibson Johns ahead of today's release of the star-studded music video for "Star Maps," which they wrote in response to the #MeToo movement, Aly & AJ discussed the release of "Sanctuary," how they're approaching their new material, growing up with their fans from the Disney Channel era and balancing their return to music while still acting on their respective television shows.
Check out our conversation with Aly & AJ below:
How does it feel to finally have "Sanctuary" out? You've been working on this material for well over a year now.
Aly: It’s amazing. It’s funny to look back and think to when we were first writing this collection of five songs and not necessarily knowing that they’d end up on an EP or end of being a one-off release, but we do sit with the music for quite a while before it ever hits anyone else’s ears, which can be great, but can also be a bad thing because you can get over a song, when maybe that song was initially great. That almost happened with some songs on this EP: “Star Maps,” we wrote towards the beginning of when we started writing for the EP, we put it aside and then my husband was like, “I think that song is really great, I don’t know why you guys aren’t more stoked about it.”
AJ: A couple of friends had heard it and asked what happened to it, so we were like, “We have to revisit this.”
Especially if people close to you are responding to it on just that first listen…
Aly: Exactly, and it’s people that we really trust.
AJ: Yeah, and the response has been incredible. It just felt right to put out another EP, get on tour again and use this momentum that we have now. We’ve hit the flow of exactly the music we want to make, the imaging we want to put out there to represent us and it’s like, “Why stop a this point?” We want to keep moving the train, because it’s left the station. We really focused on getting back into the studio again to create this next EP.
You mentioned choosing which songs ended up making the EP. Are there, like, 20 other unfinished songs that you did for this project? Or did you really just focus on these five songs? Some people say that their process is to record 500 songs and then whittle it down from there.
Aly: It depends artist-to-artist, but we’re not the type to just write a bunch of songs, because I’d rather not have a huge collection of songs and only 20 percent of them.
AJ: Sometimes it takes a ton to get there, but we go song-to-song, and if we think something is great, we know it’s got a shot and then we’ll move on. Aly and I don’t sit on a lot of things, so we don’t build a collection of 100 songs just to release five.
Aly: When we are focusing on a song, we’re focusing on it with the intention of completing it. We want it to be a song that’s used. We have had records where we’d write 40 songs and end up picking ten or 12 from it, and I don’t even know if you get the best product that way, but with these we probably have another half a dozen songs that were really strong. Maybe they’ll be on a full album down the road. It didn’t fit into this world of songs, though. These flow really well together.
During your Build Series interview, you talked about how your previous EP, "Ten Years," was a lot about romantic relationships, but this is more about yourselves and your own personal journey as sisters. What ties these songs together for you?
Aly: They’re very self-reflective.
AJ: There’s a through-line of self-acceptance throughout this record and forgiving yourself for past wrongdoings that maybe you’ve lived with for a long time, and you’ve finally let them go. The concept of rebirth and finding out who you are as an adult all rings true with our music and our sound. Also, figuring out who we are as artists parlays itself into our subject matters, but I also feel like it’s very much an EP of the time. When we wrote “Star Maps,” it was right after the #MeToo movement had blown up with the Harvey Weinstein stories coming out and us really feeling like we wanted to create our own pop version of a statement, and I think we did that with that song. It’s nice to write a record that’s not all about relationships.
You recorded and wrote a lot of "Sanctuary" separately, which must’ve been a challenge, especially as a duo. Logistically, how did that work? Were you FaceTiming every day? Or were you working separately and showing each other what you’d been working on?
Aly: It was more of that second one, or we’d start something together and knew we couldn’t finish it together, so we’d have half he song and trust the other person to go in and finish some lyrics or melodies. We didn’t really FaceTime or anything, because we usually worked with another collaborator who connects it -- that’s our producer, so it was either us working with Ryan Spraker, who’s our producer and co-writer, or with another producer and co-writer by the name of Yves Rothman.
Is there a song that each of you connects with most on this EP?
AJ: It changes between the actual record and playing it live. Live, I love playing “Not Ready to Wake Up." It’s one of my favorite songs of ours to play live.
Aly: Same. People tell us that it’s the most fun to hear live.
AJ: It’s really fun to sing and there’s something it does to the audience that just triggers an excitement in Aly and I, and on the record I love it, but it’s not necessarily my favorite track. On the record, my favorite is probably “Sanctuary,” and melodically it’s really gratifying and as a songwriter I’m really proud of that song. It wasn’t even something that Aly and I originally started -- it was started by another artist a few years ago and then given to us to finish, and it just felt really right for our music. I’m really thankful that song came out, because it came about in such a bizarre way.
Aly: I would definitely agree that “Not Ready to Wake Up” is the most fun to play live, and I would say the one I connect with the most is “Don’t Go Changing,” probably, which is our second single. I also really love the visuals to that, and we shot it all over New York in March, and I really love that song and what it says. It touches on a subject matter that AJ and I had a lot of our past songs touch on, which is that self-reassuring, “you’ve got this” kind of message, and I know our fans are really looking to us for those kinds of lyrics.
AJ: And that type of affirmation. I really do think that people listen to music to be affirmed, and pop music can easily forget that. The more that you listen to a song that not only brings you back to your past but also affirms that you’re on the right path -- don’t go changing, don’t change who you are -- it’s a sentence that simple that can be really powerful for people to listen to.
I want to talk about the visuals for around this EP. You mentioned the "Don't Go Changing" video, which is just one example of how these new visual elements are highlighting you guys together with lots of cool colors and outfits. You're also pushing the envelope a bit with some slight nudity, which is a departure from what we've seen from you guys in the past.
Aly: We’ve never done it in the past, which is fun. I’m like, "I’m married now, who cares?" There’s also a message behind it that’s meaning well. That’s not to say that you can’t just be like, “I look great, I feel sexy this way and therefore I want to,” because it’s a free country. But, I do like feeling like it’s more of a celebration of who we are and stripped clean of all of the things that can hinder you as an artist. It shows us in a very real sense of ourselves. We also like to be naked a lot in general. [Laughs] Who doesn’t?
Are you coming up with these visual concepts together?
Aly: It’s really between me, AJ and my husband. We’re all the brains.
AJ: I wish more people were involved, because it would take some of it off of Aly, Stephen and I, but we also have such a clear vision that it’s like, “Why not?” We do have a couple of people who we work with on the stylist side who have been big influences on our creative direction, but we really do spearhead the look. Also, working with a director like Alex Ross Perry, who’s done our last three music videos, who brings a really specific vision to the videos, it kind of matches his independent filmmaking style.
Aly: Shooting on film has been a big difference in elevating the imagery, too. All of our covers and videos are shot on film.
AJ: Aly also has a true vision of what she wants things to look like. She very much, when it comes to our merchandise and album covers, has that vision, which really is its own gift.
Aly: And my husband has a talent for that, too, which has hopefully rubbed off on me, where he has a really great eye. He’s a really great photographer, so he helps steer us in the right direction. He was very hesitant about the “Sanctuary” cover, which he shot off of our roof, which is funny. That was just a creative direction that AJ and I came up with of us being in that milk-type bath, and he was very much, like, “I don’t know if we should release this. Is this too much? Are your fans going to freak?” Me and AJ were like, “No, we love this.”
AJ: We’re also 28 and 30, and we feel good about our bodies and are confident in who we are as women, and I do think there’s a time to embrace that, so why not now? It just felt right. I love it, because it’s not Photoshopped at all. It’s not -- we didn’t touch anything.
You guys really have been extremely open since returning to music: There’s no glossiness that perhaps your Disney era had, or would’ve given to this material. I feel like a lot of that just has to growing up and into yourselves, but it's also about your fans growing alongside you. Do you feel that you’ve grown with them?
Aly: At our earlier shows, the youngest people at our concerts were a lot younger than us, maybe by ten-plus years. But, right now, we’re not getting anyone much younger than 22 or so.
AJ: Our fans have been so patient and have grown up with us, and they’ve outgrown that glossiness, too. Getting rid of that facade, even though it was honest at the time, gives us a realness now that our fans really appreciate. There’s a lot of glossed over stuff out there right now to weed through, and I think it’s really refreshing that this is just honest. I think our fans want that.
In this Instagram era, this is some of the freshest stuff you can get in pop.
AJ: it’s funny, my mom said that, too, in her own way. She was like, “It’s interesting, you don’t do the FaceTuning thing or filtering and taking in of the body and that’s really refreshing, because I’ve scanned Instagram and been like, ‘What the hell?’” It’s true, it’s a different era right now and I think we’re doing the pop world in the realest sense that you can.
You have fans who have followed you from your early days, and you have fans who are discovering you now probably for the first time. How do you balance that mentally, knowing there are people who love "Potential Breakup Song" and "Rush," but also love you now? Surely, you want to please both of those groups.
Aly: We make sure that we play old and new songs at the shows. As we continue to make new music, it will be less and less old because our set will have more new songs, but we’ll always play songs that will be part of our catalogue forever. We’ll always play “Potential” and “Rush.” There are just songs that not only speak to our fans, but also show our journey as artists. It’s also good to put our new songs up against those songs to be like, “Hey, guess what? I know this was the song that blew your mind as a 15 year old, but it’s not nearly as well-crafted as this new song.”
There's also just something to be said about some of those older songs that are undeniably hits. They've really stood the test of time.
AJ: It’s so weird, because it’s like, "What makes a song do that?" It just hit at the right time and fans really just gravitated toward that music, whether it was a hook line or a lyric saying, “I want my stuff back,” based on the ending of a relationship, there is stuff that is just that simple.
Aly: By the way, us saying that we want our stuff back? We had not lived with a boyfriend or had probably never even had a boyfriend at that time. [Laughs] We didn’t have that needing my stuff back experience at 16 and 18.
AJ: I think that’s how a lot of young people write, though, because that’s the only way you can write -- expressing yourself in a character -- which is something that Billie Eilish said recently.
It's so fun watching you guys return with such incredible music at the same time that the Jonas Brothers are coming back, Miley Cyrus continues to release new material and Demi Lovato, Selena Gomez and more of your Disney Channel peers remain relevant. What do you think it was about that time at Disney that was able to produce so many lasting stars?
AJ: I think it’s totally luck and timing. The channel does have an eye and had a real moment. They know stardom. Not that there was a formula, but…
Aly: It’s like, “This person has something and we can mold them into what they could be in a few years.” But also associating these artists with your childhood immediately makes you feel safe and welcomed and understood. These are albums that you listened to growing up and while going through puberty, so it’s very personal.
AJ: Disney Channel was at the height, and somehow it just worked. It’s kind of like how “Friends” hit at the height of sitcoms: Sitcoms aren’t as popular anymore, but you’re always going to go back to Netflix and watch it again. Nostalgia is huge right now. That word is going to get old at some point, but it’s also sweet.
You both have TV careers outside of Aly & AJ. What's it like channel your artistic energies in such different avenues? Is this the perfect balance to scripted television, having this creative outlet in music?
Aly: They’re both very different art forms.
AJ: They really balance each other out, and I think that being an actor has made me really comfortable as a musician and vice versa. I play a musician on TV. and I’ve been able to sing as my character and, it’s weird, but I think about it and go, “If I hadn’t been a singer in real life, I’m not sure I would’ve gotten a spinoff.” In weird ways, the spinoff came about because I did a lot of music on "The Goldbergs," and the creator saw that and had my character come back ten years later as a music teacher. One can really inform the way the other one is going to go. I love doing both, and I can see us acting for years ’til we’re old and grey and wrinkly, and I can also see us being musicians for life. We’re not in a world where we have to stop.
What does an Aly and AJ show look like in 2019?
Aly: It’s super diverse.
AJ: You can expect a lot of songs, like 18 songs. We’re playing old, both new EPs, an acoustic cover… there are a lot of tears that I’ve seen in the crowds.
Aly: It’s very emotionally-charged, and the atmosphere is very loving and carefree and people are just having a great time, which is really cool. I’m the worst concertgoer, because I don’t really do that at concerts. I’m an observer, which is totally different, but I hate those type of people at our shows if they come. But that’s me at a show.
AJ: Our crowds are packed with energy. It’s a really great show, and it’s way better than last year, which I was really proud of because it was the first live setting in a long time. Here we are doing it again, and it’s better. Our looks are stronger, our lighting direction is stronger and we’re just elevating everything.
This interview has been edited and condensed.