The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Aly & AJ on their new album, the pitfalls of growing up Disney and why they haven’t gone solo

Aly Michalka, left, and her younger sister, AJ, have performed together for years as the duo Aly & AJ. The latter says she could never imagine either one of them going solo: “We’re very much in this together.” (Amanda Charchian/Shore Fire Media)
Placeholder while article actions load

For those who grew up alongside Disney stars of the aughts, the opening notes and light scatting of the “Potential Breakup Song” intro evoke an almost Pavlovian response: Stop what you’re doing, it’s time to rock. Nearly 15 years after its release, the pop-rock single remains the biggest hit from sisters Aly and AJ Michalka, who perform together as Aly & AJ and witnessed the track’s resurgence on TikTok last year. In late December, they dropped a reimagined explicit version.

The resurgence was timely, given that Aly, now 32, and AJ, 30, would just months later put out their first studio album since 2007′s “Insomniatic” (which houses “Potential Breakup Song” and followed their successful 2005 debut, “Into the Rush”). Released Friday, the new record — whimsically titled “A Touch of the Beat Gets You Up on Your Feet Gets You Out and Then Into the Sun” — goes for a different vibe; it’s a bit more laid-back than both the guitar-driven music they released as teenagers on Disney’s label and the synth-pop of the two EPs they released in the intervening years.

Below, the Michalkas discuss the inspiration behind their new album, the drawbacks of their Disney launchpad and how they choose to use their platform as artists with a broadening fan base.

(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Q: If I had a car, this is what I would be playing all summer while driving. It’s chill. It flows. Tell me about the sound you were going for.

ALY: When we got into the studio with Yves [Rothman], our producer, it was very much a goal of ours to make a record that felt timeless and classic, and that it was very much rooted in Americana music. Of course there’s songs like “Symptom of Your Touch” and “Paradise” that are a little more pop, but ultimately we wanted to just create an album that didn’t feel like any specific genre necessarily, that just felt like good songwriting. We didn’t involve a lot of cooks in the kitchen.

Q: Are there any songs on the record that really capture the emotion of what you’re looking to put out at this stage in your careers?

ALY: “Pretty Places” and “Don’t Need Nothing.” Those songs are very much the heart and soul of the record. It has to do with the subject matters, the fact that “Pretty Places” is an ode to the open road, saying yes to adventure, not being afraid of change. And then “Don’t Need Nothing,” which I love so much not only from a lyrical standpoint but a melodic standpoint. It’s a reminder that we don’t need all these physical objects we cling onto. It’s more about an experience we’re missing.

Q: Aly, you mentioned something earlier about not having too many cooks in the kitchen. Some of your earliest reviews pointed out how authentic the music felt, especially for teenagers. It felt like you were really guiding the writing process. Tell me about being in control of your music.

ALY: We have always been those kids. We’ve been very outspoken about our music from an early age, and we got lucky being paired up with the two producers we worked on with “Into the Rush,” who were very nurturing to us as young artists. They were like what our age is now, making the record with us as 15-year-olds, which is really funny.

AJ: Yes. Oh my god, that’s so weird.

ALY: Even with “Insomniatic,” it was mainly all written and produced with another set of producers, who were a couple. Sticking with one producer for a whole record just feels right for us. It’s very much a pop genre thing to have a bunch of producers in and out on different tracks over a whole album, but I find it so strange because it’s almost like directing a movie with six different directors. The story line can get kind of blurred. It’s funny because the one record that never came out under Hollywood Records was actually made with a bunch of different producers.

Q: There are a lot of ideas floating out there about what it would have been like to make music as part of the Disney scene. What was that like for you two?

ALY: We happened to be artists on a label who were writing our own music, and there weren’t a lot of artists who were at that time. Miley [Cyrus] and Demi [Lovato], they had kind of come in right after us and I know they write their own stuff or at least collaborate with people. But we were kind of our own thing. We were a bit of an anomaly over there. And I think that’s why our time there was hard, because we were women, writing music, very young, asking to collaborate with people outside of our genre. The label was confused and taken aback by our brazen ambition. We had a lot of difficult conversations with them over the years and ultimately our partnership had to end because we just weren’t on the same page. But we’re very grateful for the launching pad they did give us.

People don’t want to see their childhood idol grow up, and that can be really hard to navigate. Because you do want to grow up and you do want to spread your wings, but you’re trying not to do it too fast. Aje [AJ] and I were able to do that a little bit more in the privacy of our own homes, and it wasn’t quite as exploited as it was for others. I’m grateful for that.

Q: Tell me a little bit about the growing pains there. For me, what came to mind upon hearing the explicit version of “Potential Breakup Song” was that you probably couldn’t have written it that way because of your audience at the time.

ALY: We never even played with the idea of having those lyrics in there because we knew that would have been completely killed. There were times, especially on the “Insomniatic” record, where we had a lot of censoring happen, which was very upsetting for us. When I look back on it, I’m like, “I can’t believe that’s what they thought that meant, or that they were censoring that.” It really was a bunch of men censoring young women, and when you look back on that era you’re like, “Wow that was really problematic.” And I’m sure it’s still happening today, in different ways.

Q: What went into the decision to enter the industry together as a single act? That was one you guys made pretty early on.

AJ: We’re a very tightknit small family, only two siblings. We’ve done everything together since we were kids and just knew at an early age that we wanted to entertain, and we wanted to do it together. We didn’t know this would ever lead to something professional. Our music really started when we picked up the guitar and piano, and that’s when we started writing songs. I can’t really see us ever having a solo career or working on something alone. We’re very much in this together. And there’s something really special about that, sharing this with someone who gets it.

Q: Looking back, do you have any thoughts on how the Disney scene has changed over time? I’m thinking about Olivia Rodrigo, for example. What she’s doing now is so different than what Disney stars could do in the past. I honestly didn’t even realize Radio Disney shut down last month. It just feels like a completely different landscape for the kids coming up now.

ALY: It’s changed in a huge way. I think social media has changed it more than anything.

AJ: One hundred percent. Aly and I were talking about this recently. It was so uncool to be Disney back then. Even though it launched a ton of careers, you weren’t getting played on major radio —

ALY: You were not on a major magazine.

AJ: Yeah, you would never be on the cover of a cool magazine. You wouldn’t get an SNL performance or an NPR Tiny Desk or whatever it is. And now, if you blow up on social media and you happen to be connected to the Disney machine, it doesn’t really matter if Disney is involved. You’re probably going to get those cool opportunities.

It seems to still be connected to Aly and I — not in a negative way, but we still have this Disney persona that isn’t always looked at as cool because we came out in the early 2000s. There’s a world where we’re trying to shed that, and it just has to happen naturally. You can’t force that.

Q: Have you felt that shift with the EPs?

ALY: The fans have always known who we were, but how media has viewed us definitely shifted with doing those two EPs. Getting some credibility from outlets we look up to and that we actually read or listen to ourselves was definitely a big moment for Aje and I.

Q: You’ve been very open about social issues and your own mental health, even writing that into those EPs like on the song “Attack of Panic.” I was wondering if you could speak to that a bit — not only writing it into your music, but being open and just using your platform in this way.

ALY: It’s something that Aje and I have grown to become more and more outspoken about. We’ve always kind of been those girls. Even when we were making music back in the day, we had songs that felt like they were meant for that kid that just needed a boost of self-confidence, or who just needed to be reassured that they weren’t alone.

Attack of Panic” is a great example of a song where we just felt like, wow, this is a perfect opportunity to talk about our own mental health struggles and the fact that everyday isn’t perfect. To just let our fans know that we’re going through the same kinds of trials and tribulations.

Q: This is a pandemic release but it feels a little different than earlier ones, like we’re on the cusp of being able to go outside and really hang out and listen to music with other people. What is it like for you guys to be able to put the record out right now?

AJ: The whole reason we didn’t release it in 2020 is, we knew that was a really hard year for a lot of people. We didn’t want to release this joyous, upbeat record during that time. … Coming out with a record where we can show positivity and light, 2021 felt like the year to tell that story.

Read more:

Demi Lovato is confronting her demons in real-time

Can an Internet phenomenon work on cable? ‘Ziwe’ just might.

Japanese Breakfast’s Michelle Zauner is fighting for joy through grief