Aly & AJ Say ‘Potential Breakup Song’ Was ‘Just a Big Fluke’ (INTERVIEW)
A lot can change in a decade. In the ten years since Aly & AJ released their last studio album, Insomniatic, the sibling pop duo and former Disney Channel stars have gone through quite the evolution, both as young women and as artists.
After releasing their sophomore record in 2007, which spawned the Billboard Hot 100 hit and fan favorite "Potential Breakup Song," the Michalka sisters found themselves exhausted from the pressures of the music industry. They tried re-branding themselves, changing their band name to 78violet in 2009 and departed Hollywood Records the following year, opting for a cooler, but more difficult, indie route. In 2013, they released a folksy new single, "Hothouse," but an unexpected album leak during the summer of 2014 devastated the pair and they decided to take a break from music altogether.
And so, the sisters made a pointed switch to television: Aly on shows like iZombie and AJ on series like The Goldbergs. For a few years, they immersed themselves in acting, but by early 2016, they felt the mystical pull of the music industry once more and hopped into the studio with producers Jamie Sierota (formerly of Echosmith) and Ryan Spraker to craft their first body of work in a decade: an '80s-inspired synth-pop EP fittingly called Ten Years (November 17).
Preceded by infectious lead single "Take Me," one of PopCrush's best songs of 2017, the shimmering, dreamy EP explores themes of loss ("I Know"), infidelity ("Promises") and introspection ("The Distance")—a far cry from the bubblegum pop-rock of the artists' Disney days.
Below, we catch up with Aly & AJ to get the lowdown on their nostalgic new sound, their thoughts on dating apps and the early 2000s, and to find out whose butt is on the single artwork for "Take Me."
Did you see that “Take Me” was on the U.S. Viral 50 chart on Spotify a few weeks ago?
AJ: That was crazy! I’m surprised that we were able to even reach that place on the chart because it’s not like we have the backing that some of these really huge artists have; the artists that are getting a lot of placement because of their label or because of their popularity. For us, it’s very grassroots style.
Aly: It’s also uplifting for other artists, who are just releasing music again or doing it digitally like we are. It shows there’s hope. It’s just a matter of: how good is the song?
The sound of the EP reminds me a little of early Madonna. What were some of your sonic references?
Aly: We hadn’t really gone into the studio with a set sound we wanted to create. We basically came into it with a completely blank slate. I think the types of music that we listened to combined with the people that we co-wrote the music with ended up bringing us to this point. We definitely listened to a lot of Peter Gabriel in the studio, I really think the production on his albums is just phenomenal. AJ and I didn’t want to be too heavily influenced by music we were listening to because we wanted it to be our own sound and we didn’t want to copy anyone’s artistry. But we definitely tapped into this kind of nostalgic ‘80s vibe. And also, it’s a departure for us because a lot of our past music was guitar-driven.
Your songs are still very emotive.
AJ: I think that has always been something that fans have connected with, which is amazing and very flattering and very generous. We definitely didn’t want to stray from our core fan base. I want our fans to be able to listen to and connect with our new music and be able to understand that this is still Aly & AJ, if you’re already a fan from the past. But a new fan might be able to discover it and be really shocked by how fresh it sounds. We’ve come a long way from being those two 13 and 15 year old writers!
I heard that “Take Me” was inspired by some pretty frustrating dating stories. How do you feel about dating apps?
AJ: I wasn’t really able to experience the dating app scene until recently. My longest relationship ended two years ago and I was sad for a while, but then I was really happy being single. And then I had moments where I was like, “Ugh, I don’t wanna be single. This isn’t fun! I wanna share this with someone, I wanna get to know someone!” So I did open myself up to one specific dating app.
A friend really encouraged me to get out there and try it and I did… But for me, it’s like, it’s all about visuals, and that’s why I’m a bit against these apps. It’s about the first picture you see of this person… It gives you this false crush, and I just think that’s weird. I’m not against it totally, because I’ve met people who have met soulmates on dating apps! For me, I’d rather meet someone organically because I like to go out and I’m really attracted to energy. It’s very weird for me to blindly meet someone that I met on an app based on a photo they posted or a song that they chose to introduce who they are. I’m not against it, but it’s not something I’m into. I really think these apps make it too easy, like, “Oh, we connected! You’re good looking! So are you!” And then the conversation ends there. It’s so shallow, so “Take Me” was really influenced by that. I’d way rather get to know someone on a deeper level than DM them and never really meet...
Aly: Which we’re all guilty of! Sometimes you end up with someone you may not have dated originally if it wasn’t through a shared experience you met them through or the friendship that you started initially. That actual physical, in-person connection is everything for a relationship. And it doesn’t mean you can’t have that with these apps, but it does sort of kill that moment.
AJ: I’m trying to stay open-minded but it weirds me out a little bit. I don’t want people choosing for me, like, here’s an app! I grew up in the ‘90s and 2000s. I know I’m still young but I didn’t deal with this stuff. And I don’t want to now. [Laughs]
When you guys are working on a song concept, are you usually on the same page, or do ever butt heads? If so, how do you navigate that as sisters and collaborators?
Aly: I’d say that AJ and I are usually in the same mindset when we’re in the studio. There was one song that I started writing that I ended up not loving that AJ liked a lot, and she was like, “Put it on the album!” Like, no! That’s not happening! [Laughs] Like, “I know you love it but we both have to be in agreement on this!” It usually works itself out. Obviously, a strong song is gonna stand the test of time. If it’s still being loved by not only us but by our friends after a while, then the song stays.
AJ: But I do secretly play that track for people and they love it.
Aly: It’s not happening!
AJ: We’re usually on the same page though. I don’t think we ever really fight. We’re pretty much in agreement when we’re writing music.
Is it weird that your childhood was basically spent helping define the childhoods of so many other mid-2000s kids and teens?
Aly: I feel like when you bring up that era, people who lived through it completely know what you’re talking about. There are certain visuals people immediately respond to.
AJ: A lot of people come up to us and that’s what they say now: "You were my childhood!” And you’re kinda like, “Yeah, but that was my childhood, too!” [Laughs] But we look at other artists the same way. I’m really flattered by it but at the same time I’m like, that’s a lot of pressure for people. I think Aly and I were able to be really honest about who we were. I think we were really straight up about what we believed in and I think our lyrics were really honest. Sometimes I’ll think, “Oh gosh, did we do anything that wasn’t good for this person’s upbringing?” But we’re actually very proud of [our early career].
Back then, when you two were on the Disney Channel, the media was so harsh on actresses and artists like Lindsay Lohan and Hilary Duff.
AJ: It’s gotten more accepting now, I think. Every year it gets a little better.
Aly: I think there’s more compassion now. When people were ripping apart Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan... I don’t know if they would have been treated the same way today if they were just breaking out now.
If you could resurrect one thing from the past for a sequel or reboot, which would would you choose? Would you ever do a Cow Belles sequel?
Aly: Phil of the Future is a cute idea! I think AJ and I will never live Cow Belles down, so I think it’s the last thing on our list we’d want to revisit.
AJ: Yeah, I wouldn’t wanna resurrect that. [Laughs]
Aly: But Phil of the Future was a really great experience! I’m still good friends with many of the people on it. I was actually texting Ricky [the actor who played Phil] the other day and he gave me a backstory on where Phil and Keely would be now. I’ll read it to you! He said, “I think we should play it close to real life. Keely is a huge pop star and makes incredible music and is married, which upon Phil’s return is heartbreaking, of course. Pim went to university...and Phil is a weird vagabond trying to make strange documentaries about space and time…”
AJ: I’d actually like to bring back the dolls.
Aly: Oh my gosh, I agree! I’d like to get better versions of our faces for the dolls.
AJ: Have you ever seen our Aly and AJ dolls? They’re so ugly!
Aly: Yeah, we have scary dolls out. I’d like way cooler dolls, like the dolls Gwen Stefani released when she was blowing up with her solo stuff. They’re beautiful! They don’t look like scary melted versions… And ours could have looked like that! We have the same doll maker.
I actually have the doll of Gwen from the "Look What You Waiting For" video. [Laughs]
Aly: So you understand! I’d rather have dolls that look like characters, like Bratz dolls — more fun and characterized.
AJ: They were cute. But I will say I was against the Bratz babies. They were really weird looking, like sexualized baby versions of the Bratz dolls!
While we’re on the topic of nostalgia… Can you please finally explain why “Potential Breakup Song” is so damn catchy and why, ten years later, I'm still singing along to it?
AJ: Oh my God, that was a total accident! We just happened to be in a downtown music studio one day and we were complaining about getting frustrated with a bad boyfriend, the kind who forgets your birthday on your actual birthday. And we started writing and saying, “This isn’t a breakup song, but a potential breakup song, where I could break up with him but not yet,” you know? And it just came into being what it is!
Aly: Honestly, fans just latched onto that song. I don’t know what it is. That song is really loved and I have no idea what resonated with people. I think the lyrics are really fun. It has a fun melody and you can sing it with friends in your car. It really was just a big fluke for us.
AJ: It’s like with our new EP. We didn’t exactly know what our plan was gonna be when we started writing, we just knew we wanted to introduce our new sound. We thought Ten Years would be a fitting title for a proper reintroduction to us.
Before I go, I would be remiss not to ask: Whose butt is on the cover of that gorgeous “Take Me” artwork?
AJ: Oh! Nobody has asked us that yet! Wow! Well... Let's just say it’s up for interpretation. We know whose it is, but we’re not gonna say! [Laughs]
Aly: Well, whose butt do you think it is?
I think it belongs to one of you two but, whoever it belongs to, I’ll say it’s a very cute butt!
Aly: That’s a very great answer! I gotta say, we’re both very proud of that butt. No Photoshop! There’s some stretch marks and lines but you know, we love it. It’s a real butt.