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Aly and AJ 3
Nine Songs
Aly & AJ

Ahead of the release of their fifth album With Love From, the Michalka sisters talk Pip Williams through the songs that defined them and the power of sibling dynamics in music.

24 February 2023, 08:00 | Words by Pip Williams

In his recent Golden Globe acceptance speech for best Supporting Actor in Everything Everywhere All at Once, Ke Huy Quan spoke candidly about the isolating nature of child stardom; the difficulty of carving out a career when your success will so often be defined by the achievements of your underage, former self.

Aly and AJ Michalka – known to many as simply Aly & AJ, and to most as the voices behind 2007’s earworm “Potential Breakup Song” – seem conversely unfazed by the benchmarks they themselves set in their younger years.

After a 14-year hiatus, 2021’s a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun showcased their more than considerable songwriting chops, with its lush arrangements drenched in the honeyed glow of the California sun.

It was the work of two musicians who have been careful never to take their success for granted, seeking to learn from every experience along the way. On its follow up With Love From, coming out this month, the sisters love of music is more pronounced than ever, embracing their love of Americana, songwriting and harmonies.

The Michalka sister’s eclectic choices for their Nine Songs selections reflects the breadth of their musical tastes; skewing older and more classic than one might expect from the writers of synth-pop sizzler “Joan of Arc on the Dancefloor”.

Their approach to their final picks was democratic, with each sister taking three choices each and three shared songs, but such is their shared love of music, they chip into each other’s individual picks.

More than once they nod to the intimacy of their bond as sisters, and how this relationship is mirrored by other siblings whose music they admire. With their sisterhood a sure foundation, Aly & AJ have shielded each other from the lonely narrative of former child stars and continued to share their undeniable talent as songwriters, musicians, and performers with the world.

“Barracuda” by Heart

ALY MICHALKA: We always listened to Heart growing up. They’re one of the bands our Mom was really a fan of. She loved that they were sisters, and that they were making rock music in a time where that wasn’t as accepted for women. We always looked up to them because we were in a duo band ourselves.

AJ MICHALKA: Heart were a duo rock group from a sister standpoint, which Aly and I had never had an example of. Not only does “Barracuda” have really intricate and interesting production, but that opening guitar line is so iconic and sparked our interest as guitar players from an early age.

We’ll never be able to play like Nancy [Wilson], but we can aspire to play with the intensity and energy that she brings onstage.

ALY MICHALKA: What’s cool is that we ended up actually writing songs with Nancy, and she became a mentor us. She’s now a dear family friend.

“I Should Live in Salt” by The National

ALY MICHALKA: The National were brought to my attention through my husband. He was a big fan of their music and kept bringing me to their shows. Over time I started to really appreciate their music on a melodic level, but lyrically especially.

“I Should Live in Salt” is such an amazing song from Trouble Will Find Me, which is one of their best records – even though I really do enjoy all of their albums, which I can’t say about a lot of bands! It’s hard to continuously put out music that fans will equally enjoy over and over again, because you’re going to have ebbs and flows in your creativity.

This song is incredible, and the sentiment is really special. I believe it was written about Matt Berninger’s brother. The band did a documentary that his brother directed, and Matt talks to him about being in this band; touring, being on the road, and leaving him behind. The sentiment “I should live in salt for leaving you behind” is so powerful and strong and visceral.

“I Should Live in Salt” is attached to an album that I’m very sentimental about. It’s a record that I would play in the car whilst driving to set in Vancouver when I was there shooting a show. I always had this CD in my car – it should be monotonous, having the same songs played over and over, but it was actually really comforting. There was something nice about the sameness of it. That’s why I chose this song.

AJ MICHALKA: I agree it’s one of their best songs. It’s also cool that not only is there a sibling connect to that song, but there’s two sets of siblings in the band! Not everyone on this list is singing or performing with their sibling, but as musicians we feel connected to Heart and The National because we’re sharing that spotlight with a family member.

It’s really neat to have a blood connection to someone onstage with you – or even for a brother who’s not in the band to inspire a song.

“Lilac Wine” by Jeff Buckley

AJ MICHALKA: Jeff Buckley only had one full-length album out, which is crazy – I listened to Grace so many times. “Lilac Wine” is one of my favourites because of his vocal performance. I’m someone who’s really drawn to the way someone emotes when they sing, because I look at my voice as my first instrument.

Jeff Buckley was probably one of the greatest male singers of our time, and there’s something about the way he sang the verses of “Lilac Wine” that draws me in immediately.

Grace has become one of those albums that no one will ever forget. Jeff Buckley made such a timestamp in history for such a short-lived career and a short life. His vocal range is really interesting and dynamic, but his endurance as a vocalist – his breathing quality, and the way he’s able to hold out and extend a note, and then do something at the end – is absolutely insane. He’s like an acrobat, vocally.

As an actor, we use music to tell a story. Sometimes you’re launched into a scene that might be extremely emotional, and I really rely on music to take me to a place that the actual scene can’t always take me fast enough.

The record Grace that got me through an emotional arc that I needed to tell on a specific indie film.

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by Beach Boys

AJ MICHALKA: We were born and raised in California, and The Beach Boys just enwrap everything we feel about California music, and being a really close-knit family we had to pull something from each parent.

Our Dad is not musical – he can’t sing, he has no rhythm – but he does have really good taste in music and introduced us to The Beach Boys at a really young age. It shaped the way Aly and I harmonise and come together as vocalists. I wish there was more of us!

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is one of those songs where in terms of production it’s a really happy song, but if you listen to the lyrics, it’s the best song written about nostalgia that I can think of. I don’t think nostalgia is always tapped into so well with current pop writing. There’s something about it that really speaks to Aly and I and the way we’ve grown up in this industry. It always makes me tear up when it’s on in the car.

ALY MICHALKA: The Beach Boys in the States are like what The Beatles were for the UK. They’re both bands that inspired each other over time, but they both very much stand on their own in their style and their music. I think Pet Sounds is a perfect record, and obviously has been able to stand the test of time.

“Gideon” by My Morning Jacket

ALY MICHALKA: My Morning Jacket are a band that AJ and I discovered in our teens. I was introduced to them on a movie set with a bunch of cool kids. I came home and was like, ‘This band is cool!’

We were living in Calabasas at the time, and I associate this song with being in our backyard at home; swimming in our pool, laying out, and reading. We would have on rotation on the CD player – we loved it!

Jim James’ vocal range is really unique. The vocal melodies in this song are really magical and feel so anthemic. I feel like we got on the train listening to them on this record. They make music that doesn’t feel like it’s era-specific. I think people will be listening to it and appreciating it 50 years from now. We’re big My Morning Jacket fans in general – we’ve gone to a bunch of their shows.

AJ MICHALKA: Jim James is a really powerful frontman for a modern-day band. It feels kind of throwback-y and timeless. He’s a really strong live presence – like a wizard onstage!

“Got To Get You Into My Life" by The Beatles

ALY MICHALKA: Damn, this is such a fucking great song! Front to back, great production, the instruments that are used, the vocal performances – it’s just great. I love the messaging of it too; it’s very defiant to say, ‘I’ve got to get this person back into my atmosphere and I’m going to do anything that it takes to get there.’

AJ and I didn’t actually grow up listening to The Beatles at all. We got a crash course in Beatlemania really late. Our musical director as young teenagers was a Beatles fan, and he was shocked when we told him that we didn’t really know their music. He was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m downloading all this Beatles music onto your iPods right now!’

We watched The Beatles doc that Peter Jackson did [The Beatles: Get Back], and I think it’s one of the best films of 2021. I was fascinated by the band dynamics. There’s only two of us – a lot less ego to cater to!

There’s a lot of politics behind it versus being siblings – you’re someone that is not related to me that I met and chose to bring into this circle. How do some of these bands exist having to cater to all these egos? The Stones, The Beatles, The Beach Boys – how did they not just kill each other at certain points in time!?

It’s very fascinating to see some of those relationships play out in a documentary; showing you with what the conversation was and letting you peek into this recording session.

“Cry Baby” by Janis Joplin

AJ MICHALKA: I’m a huge Janis Joplin fan, but her vocal performance in this song is what really keys me into her music. The funny thing about her career was that she had nothing to do with writing most of her big hits, but the way she performs and sings always feels so connected to the song. Aly and I have never really performed songs that aren’t written by us, only because we’ve never connected with them.

For Janis, a lot of her stuff was not original material, but she clicked into songs in a way that I don’t think many vocalists are able to master. Jeff and Janis are two of the strongest vocalists of our time, and to have lost them both at such a young age – at the same age – breaks my heart.

The Janis story is interesting. They’ve been trying to make a Janis movie for years. I had auditioned to play her years ago. I made an audition tape with my brother-in-law that actually got me in the room and pretty far along. The role ended up going to a huge name, and then it never got made.

I don’t think anyone can even try to emulate someone like Janis, but being able to throw my hat in the ring got me involved in a way that really connected me to her music. It introduced me to someone that will forever be a hero.

“Feathers And Down” by The Cardigans

ALY MICHALKA: We’ve always been big fans of The Cardigans, and I love that record Long Gone Before Daylight. They worked with Michael Ilbert, the same mixer that we ended up working with on our last album, who has actually mixed the entire new record that will be out this year. We were really inspired to work with him because of our love for The Cardigans.

I think The Cardigans are a great band. I wish they were still making music together. “Feathers And Down” is a really beautiful song with lyrics of wanting to be enveloped in love and kindness. It’s very comforting.

This song helped us writing “Hold Out”, from a touch of the beat gets you up on your feet gets you out and then into the sun. I can see little inspirations here and there from in the way that they both dive into that want for comfort, security, safety, and refuge.

I love the lyrics of this song. It’s subtle, it’s simple, and it’s very intimate. I’ve always really been drawn to it in times of feeling alone or sad or down. Being able to be that vulnerable in songwriting is a real gift. It feels like a real accomplishment, because I find it’s a lot easier to write a song about something that didn’t actually happen to you!

It’s a lot harder to write about something that did actually happen ­– a trauma or a break-up or a loss.

“Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel

AJ MICHALKA: I really love Genesis and care about them as a band. I don’t know if there would be solo Peter Gabriel without what Genesis did for his career first. When I was younger, I always thought Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel had to be related – what a perfect duo! But there’s no blood connection.

ALY MICHALKA: He’s such an eccentric performer. We got obsessed with watching live footage of him in the round performing. It’s so ‘80s and great.

AJ MICHALKA: We saw him live not long ago at The Bowl with our dad. We all went to a Sting/Peter concert – I would have preferred Phil/Peter – but it was incredible! Watching him perform live as an older gentleman – he’s actually magnetic, still.

ALY MICHALKA: His voice has really not changed, it’s crazy. Over time you might not have the same vocal range or stamina, and that’s normal. He still sounds just as great as he did 40 years ago, and that’s incredible.

I think Peter Gabriel was very much ahead of his time with his visuals and his albums being very concept-based and very art-driven. He was an artist that was willing to take risks and I think that’s why he had success: he was not the norm.

We don’t want to make music that is straight down the middle either. AJ and I want to expand our own personal music taste, go outside the box and continue to be curious. The second that you’re not curious as an artist, you’re going to fall into bad habits.

With Love From is released 15 March

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