Whether you know 'em from bopping along to their songs in the 2000s or from their recent TikTok fame, it's clear that Aly & AJ are here to stay. We caught up with the sisters via Zoom ahead of their upcoming album — A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun — about their songwriting process as independent artists, what it's like to release a studio album after 14 years away, and what it felt like to have "Potential Breakup Song" go super viral on TikTok.
What's the first album you ever bought?
Aly: You and I bought Shania Twain's Come On Over and that was the first CD we ever owned.
AJ: Yes, it was — and it was used many times over. We rehearsed the words, we rehearsed choreography to it in our bedroom. Aly and I, for a while, shared the same room and that's where we listened to all of our first-time CDs.
Who's your dream collaborator?
Aly: We have quite a few. I'm going to shoot high, and I'm just going to say Jim James because I think he's an incredible artist and producer. AJ and I have been fans of My Morning Jacket for many years. I think that his production is so special and you just know that it's him when you hear his songs, which I think is really fantastic — when you are able to identify immediately with an artist's DNA through their music.
AJ: I have to agree with Aly; that would be my number one. I also think his work that he's done with some female vocalists in the past few years has been really special. I think that there could be kind of an amazing spark that happens if we all were to work together — either in a writing sense or performing together on stage. I think it would be pretty magical.
Who’s an artist that you’re loving right now?
AJ: I love Angel Olsen, St. Vincent, War on Drugs, My Morning Jacket, and Ray LaMontagne. These are all people that kept me sane during the pandemic, listening to their records.
Aly: Yeah, AJ and I have the same musical taste. But an artist whom AJ actually introduced me to that I think is really wonderful is Patrick Watson. AJ saw him play live and she kind of turned me on to his stuff. I love the piano parts that he plays on his records.
Have you had a moment where you’ve been starstruck and a total fan?
Aly: We hide it well, I think, because we're actors. We don't really have freak-out fan moments but we definitely have them with each other after the fact.
I think musically, a really cool moment that ended up leading to a mentorship and friendship was meeting Nancy Wilson of Heart. I remember us going to dinner and meeting her for the first time. We were pinching ourselves, like we are having sushi with Nancy Wilson — this is wild! Now, almost 10 years later, we're still good friends. She even lent her guitar skills and her voice to one of our last singles called "Listen!!!" It's cool that we're able to actually collaborate with her and that we've written many songs with her in the past. And hopefully there's more to be created in the future, as well.
AJ: I think another moment, and this person became a collaborator as well, was meeting Rivers Cuomo from Weezer. He's a fan of our music and had listened to "Potential Breakup Song" when it first came out, and commented about it in a magazine. It was extremely flattering for Aly and me, and I remember being starstruck the first time meeting him.
Being open about who you're a fan of can lead to collaborations in very weird ways. Aly and I are always proponents of putting it out there, listing people that we care about and people we respect, because you never know who's gonna read it.
Describe your album in three words.
Aly: I definitely feel like "California" should be one of those words, because it was made on the West Coast and we're California kids. I would say "sisterhood," because it really is the two of us when it comes to the band. And then what would you say is the third, AJ?
AJ: I would say "freeing." The record is really freeing. This past year has been, obviously, a year with incredible hardships. None of us have ever lived through a pandemic. Realizing that creativity and the arts are so important, missing out on live music, getting to meet our fans and being up close and personal with people. Our way of doing that was making this record. It felt really freeing for Aly and me. It was very therapeutic. I feel like people are gonna listen to it and really feel captured by it.
Aly: So California, sisterhood...I would say "freedom," not "freeing."
AJ: Yes, that's better.
Aly: It's all good. It's morning.
Can you talk me through your album name A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun? I noticed the lyrics pop up on “Don’t Need Nothing.”
Aly: Yeah, nailed it. That song was one of the first that AJ and I felt gave us the official start on making this full album. It was among a couple others that were in this beginning process of collecting songs that really stood out to us as special tracks. It was "Don't Need Nothing," "Paradise," and a deluxe track called "Get Over Here" that really helped set the tone for the album along with songs like "Pretty Places" and "Way Way Back," which were songs that we had already written and we just did major rewrites.
For some reason, we just kept going back to that long sentence and we just loved it. It felt like it captured the essence of what this record is. Looking back, I think we really nailed it because we all are in desperate need of getting back into life, into our daily routine, into nature, and seeing our friends and family members. It just speaks to such a deeper level now than it did even 10 months ago.
What’s your favorite lyric on the album?
AJ: "All the pretty places pull us away from where the pain is." Especially now, it just feels so honest, authentic, and true to what this current moment is. I think people want to be pulled away from the pain. Sometimes that means traveling, escaping, even if it's a road trip, getting in your car, and going somewhere. When I listen to that lyric, especially when I'm playing it live, I'm like, "Yeah, this one gets me."
If I were to listen to the first time you played through “Pretty Places” versus what we hear on the record, what would be different?
Aly: Mainly, the lyrics [changed] from the demo version — not necessarily the chorus lyrics but all the verse lyrics. The bridge was a little bit different. There was no post-chorus that comes after the second chorus; that didn't even exist as a melody. It definitely would be a big difference. I know my mom has those demos, which is kind of hilarious.
AJ: Usually, it's a lyric thing for Aly and me. A lot of times, the melodies will stay the same. We'll live with them for quite some time and then we'll revisit.
What inspired “Listen!!!”?
Aly: I don't think there was one specific event that inspired "Listen!!!" but I think we wanted to write a song about somebody feeling like they were being held captive in a relationship, which I definitely have been in the past and it does not feel great and you're just desperately trying to figure out a way to get out and break up.
The more AJ and I talked about it, the more we realized that it wasn't also just a relationship, but wanting to break out of the old identity that you hold to or the society that you're living in.
How has the past year affected your workflow? Would you say you're closer to feeling like you can't accomplish anything or more like you want to "Taylor Swift" it and release a ton?
AJ: I think somewhere in the middle. This is really the first record back for Aly and I in years and we've really taken this past year and beyond to really shape it and craft it in a way that we feel is a perfect representation of where we are as musicians. At the beginning of the pandemic, it was a bit of a moment where Aly and I asked what we're going to do next. We can't tour. We can't film. The only thing we can do is work on a record.
We always planned on making a record in 2020. We didn't necessarily know when it would come out but the pandemic slowed so much down for us and it gave us a moment to sit and hit pause on so many aspects of our life — get to know who we are as musicians, as adults, writers, and singers. I'm really proud of this record and we've been able to pair up with some really beautiful visuals and music videos that really fit each song.
Aly: I would say March and April  were the hardest for me, in terms of just my mental headspace. I felt really lazy; I felt depressed. I was watching the news a lot and then something really shifted when we were able to get into the studio.
I'd love for us to go right into making another album right now if we could but we are still independent artists. We don't have the backing of a label. We don't have infinite funds. So a lot of the time it's figuring out what the next move is with how much money we have or what we're available to invest in. I know that the touring is really our next major goal hopefully; from now until then, we're writing the next album. Even if we're not recording, at least we're stacking up a bunch of songs in preparation.
Are there any Easter eggs, perhaps lyrically or production-wise, on the album that people might not notice at first?
Aly: There's a cool Easter egg on our vinyl packaging, on the back right edge. It's just a line that we really love. So if you can find it back there, then you did it!
It’s been 14 years since your last studio album. How have your attitudes changed toward releasing music?
Aly: We were not nearly as involved in the release strategy as we are now, almost to a point that is kind of surprising. I think part of it is that just the music space has changed so much from when we first put out music. The only platforms that we were utilizing at that time were MySpace, the beginning of YouTube, the very beginning of iTunes. They definitely didn't hold the power that they hold now. There were no streaming platforms; buying a CD at a Tower Records was the way people listened to music.
It was definitely a major learning curve for me and AJ, in terms of what was needed from us as artists and how much content we needed to provide — as opposed to the old days, when it was one photo shoot, the album packaging, and then you're kind of done. I'm glad that we have the control now.
I think a lot of it just has to do with the fact that we're older now. And we're being looped in on conversations that we wouldn't normally have been looped in on because we were 16 and 14 years old.
AJ: I miss the tangible excitement of running to a Tower Records and getting the record the day it comes out.
Do you ever write things into your music with specific platforms in mind? Like, for example, adding a click track to make it easier for people to make TikToks?
Aly: Anything that's happened accidentally, we've obviously rolled with and we're thrilled by it. But it's never like a strategic move to write a song for this specific demo or this specific platform. I think it's happened naturally, which is nice because so much of being an artist is planned out and mapped out for you that when those happy accidents do occur they're great. You're popping champagne. It's awesome.
AJ: I couldn't agree more. I think the excitement of "Potential Breakup Song" came in such an authentic way, 14 years later, just from people feeling nostalgic and getting excited about that song — maybe going through a breakup, who knows! But once one video took off, it just seemed to lead the pack for so many to follow. Aly and I would never have thought, Let's bring the song back.
Was it enjoyable to record and release the explicit version of "Potential Breakup Song"?
Aly: We looked back on that song and we can now appreciate what it did for the culture — and the fact that it brought new fans to our music that we're putting out now. So we're very grateful for that. I think more than anything, it was funny to pull apart the song and see all of the insides of the production, the things that we wanted to keep within the production, versus the things that we were like now we're throwing that out. It felt good to update the song. I think that we'll enjoy playing it live more than we ever have because of doing the update.
AJ: I agree. It gave us a new love for the song.
What do you think of the whole TikTok millennial/Gen Z divide? Have you seen the videos?
Aly: No, I haven't. Gen Z really rules that platform. I just feel like I'm like a bystander just trying to catch up and learn.
BuzzFeed: It's pretty innocuous stuff, like side parts and skinny jeans are supposed to be a millennial thing.
AJ: I'm such a fan of the middle part. I love it.
How do you manage your work/life balance, working with a sibling?
Aly: We share a calendar. That helps.
AJ: We live really close to each other.
Aly: That, honestly, I think is the game changer: the fact that we literally live a seven-minute car ride from one another.
We try to say no to things that we know aren't going to bring us joy or are going to stress us out. Every once in a while, we have to do something and we begrudgingly agree to it, via our manager, but it's also probably because he has a great reason for us to be a part of it. We're like, "Okay, we understand this is just like part of life." Not every single aspect of your job is 100% enjoyable.
A lot of the times, it's just me and AJ knowing when to kind of say no, but, for whatever reason, we don't really fight that much. When it comes to the business side of Aly & AJ, we're usually pretty much on the same page. I think because we've been doing this for so long, it just comes easy to us, which I can only say is a blessing. I'm curious how other bands deal with all the politics of different personalities but I'm glad it's just the two of us.
BuzzFeed: Plus, if you throw in the sibling dynamic, it can be extra difficult because you want to make sure that you're having family time that isn't also business time.
AJ: That's a good point because sometimes Aly and I will realize that we haven't really had a moment to just check in as sisters. Sometimes that means leaving town for a couple days and just going somewhere that's a two-hour drive, or Aly spending the night at my house and putting on a movie. Just getting away from the industry demands.
One of the things that I’ve noticed about artists who were famous at a young age is that there really is a pressure to stay that age forever in the public consciousness, which can make it hard to move on. Is that something you feel? How do you deal with it?
Aly: I think we did feel that way for many years. I think with creating this record, we feel like we've kind of broken free of that. As a young artist, there's a lot of pressure to give the audience what they want. But you also are growing as an artist and, especially if you're a teenager, you're going through so many emotions. It can be really confusing and hard to please other people, but also please yourself at the same time.
We've learned that you don't really ultimately need to prove yourself to people. You need to just do your best for yourself. It's a lot easier said than done. Ultimately, if you're following your truth and your path, that's going to lead you to a good place, even if other people don't really see how or why you're going that way.
AJ: I think it's important that we're not frozen in time. I know, people see us as one thing — oh, the girls that were in Cow Belles and Phil of the Future. And that's great! I love that a new generation can discover that stuff because of Disney+ and TikTok.
But I also feel like it's my and Aly's job to move forward. We're artists, we're creators, and it's not about living in the past. It's about creating a new future and adding to the career we've already started. I think you have to be cognizant of not freezing at the highest popularity moment you had in your career, moving beyond that and saying, "Okay, this next chapter might not be as popular as that last chapter but it's what's keeping things interesting for me and my family." Down the road, your fans listen to that record as a discovery and go, "Oh, they didn't just make Insomniac 2.0. They made something I wasn't expecting and I'm really happy they did!"
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time to when you were first starting out in the entertainment industry?
AJ: Understand that it can be a fast road for others and yours can look like a very, very snail-paced process. But really, everyone just deals with time in a very different way. Some people might release one song that becomes a huge hit for them and then it takes them a long time to figure out what's the next song. For other people, it's a very slow build.
For Aly and me, we've always maintained this very steady pacing of popularity. I think it's what's kept our fans around for so long. There wasn't just this insane skyrocket moment; it's been very much a "slow and steady wins the race" kind of thing. I think it's important to just tell our younger selves it's not always going to happen as fast as it might happen for someone else in the industry and, by the way, it might not have been fast for them — it just looked that way.
Aly: I would agree with that. I would probably just say to my younger self to be more patient. And even to my older self. I'm a very impatient person in general! I think that's the lesson that I can always learn, especially with the technology that we're given, which is so ready and at your fingertips at all times. Your satisfaction is immediately delivered and sometimes that's just not life.
Thanks for speaking with us, Aly & AJ! A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun is out Friday, May 7.
Note: Quotes have been condensed for length and clarity.