Ten years can seem like a long time, but not if you’re Aly & AJ. The sisters spent the decade since their most recent album as a pop duo, 2007’s Insomniatic, establishing acting careers outside the Disney machine that helped launch them. When they independently released the aptly titled EP Ten Years in 2017, it was easier to get back in the saddle than they expected.
“It feels kind of like we’ve never left,” Aly Michalka, the eldest sister, says. “AJ and I went into this reunion of sorts wanting to make music that our fans would connect with, but at the end of the day we want to make music that if we heard it on the radio or streaming, we would be like, ‘Wow I wish we had written that song.’”
Their new EP, this month’s Sanctuary, offers another elevated take on their synth-pop sound, this time with more Eighties inflections and even tighter harmonies. Recording this time around came with brand new challenges: the duo had to make almost all of its five songs separately while filming their respective TV shows (Aly stars in CW’s iZombie, while AJ leads ABC’s Schooled, a spin-off of The Goldbergs).
“We weren’t able to be with each other as much as we would have in the past,” Aly says. “We had to be open to the idea of not having the security of each other being in the room at the same time, which we rely on a lot.” Instead, the sisters wrote and recorded during breaks from their shooting schedules in different cities and exchanged notes on their work.
Exploring this process helped Aly & AJ learn something important: They’re really good on their own. As AJ puts it, they’re both “natural-born leaders” when it comes to their music, but they still trust each other completely. AJ is thankful that her older sister stepped up to make sure the new music was completed in spite of their schedules, which came in handy when the trigger needed to be pulled on production and lyric decisions.
“It’s hard when you have one foot in music but you have one foot in television and you’re trying to make both careers work,” she continues. “Aly really spearheaded a lot of this record. She made some executive decisions that were important and led to the sound of this music. We’re great together, but we’re also great apart.”
As the album was finalized, Aly & AJ noticed an important through-line: Much of this EP is about refocusing on the self. Their love songs this time around are about their relationships with themselves as individuals and as sisters, moving away from the romance-based writing that was the focus of Ten Years. As Aly says, Sanctuary focuses on “self-analyzing, rebirth and redemption,” with the pair addressing struggles with depression and forgiveness. The title track turned out to be the ideal way to sum up the EP’s theme, and was brought to them at the very end of the process by their collaborator Ryan Spraker. Originally written for the pop singer Totem, “Sanctuary” tied the EP together and even ended up replacing a track called “Eyes Closed.”
“A song can come about in your life in an unexpected way,” AJ says, adding that the song’s origin for someone else’s project didn’t deter them from feeling a very personal connection with its subject matter. “It’s rare as a pop writer to feel that way about a song that you didn’t initially start.”
For Aly & AJ, making Sanctuary confirmed that they’ve chosen the right path for their career in music, even if it’s not the most standard one.
“There’s a lot that we’ve said no to that I think would’ve launched our careers in a different way had we said yes, and we don’t really have any regrets,” AJ says. “Aly and I have really come into our own when we could have been easily molded into something that would not have been us at all.”
On May 1st, they launched a headlining tour in support of Sanctuary, playing theaters bigger than their last trek. For the sisters, building a touring career that can help them connect not only with fans who have been there since the beginning, but also with newcomers, has become their primary focus.
“We would love to ultimately be able to be out on the road every year or every other year,” Aly says, hopefully. “We’re still earning a place for ourselves in this specific genre of music, but AJ and I know there is room for us and we’re ready for this new chapter.”