For some artists, releasing their first blatantly queer track might come with some hesitance – how will fans react? But when The Aces, a four-piece indie-pop group, dropped “Kelly,” the lead single from their new album Under My Influence, on the first day of Pride Month, the reaction from fans was positive – and somewhat anticlimactic.
“For us, we’re like, ‘this is a big moment,’” lead singer Cristal Ramirez said of putting out the track, which details longing for a woman. “And for them [the fans], they’re like, ‘Yeah, duh. We knew.’”
In 2018, The Aces – comprised of Ramirez and her sister Alisa (drums), Katie Henderson (guitar) and McKenna Petty (bass) – burst onto the scene with When My Heart Felt Volcanic, an infectious alternative-pop debut that garnered the Utah-bred hometown friends a devoted group of fans (who, clearly, know not to be shocked by a queer anthem).
These fans will be delighted to know that Under My Influence maintains the same energy as their first album, but peels back the layers of the band members’ personal lives, addressing relationships to women, technology and ourselves. It’s anything but a sophomore slump.
We reached Cristal, Alisa, Katie and McKenna on Zoom to talk about coming into their own as musicians, their unbreakable bond with their fans and why Under My Influence is their most personal music yet.
How did your songwriting process differ when creating Under My Influence in comparison to your first album?
Cristal: We were just in such a different place when making the first record and this time we felt so much more grown up. We knew we didn’t want to make the same record twice. Alisa and I went to the studio and when we were writing the lyrics and melodies, it was very much like, ‘OK, how do we go deeper?’ We took this trip to Malibu and wrote about three songs that are on the album now, and I think that’s kind of what kickstarted everything. Also working with this producer named Christian Medice, who’s a really close friend of ours – all those little pieces and the reason why Under My Influence feels so special and kind of like an evolution is because we really allowed ourselves the space to say whatever we wanted. There were no rules as to what the music was supposed to sound like. We made sure the music is as authentic and real as possible, as far as the storytelling and lyrics.
What inspired you to explore your queer identities through your music now?
Alisa: It was kind of a natural evolution to this point. At this time in our lives we are more sure of ourselves and especially with those of us that identify as queer, we’re more sure of our identities. We write about our actual experiences and about our real lives so naturally they were about women. If the conversation ever came up to change that [pronouns], it just felt silly.
Cristal: The music is very heart on your sleeve and that’s what strikes me the most about Under My Influence: there’s really not much room for interpretation because it’s just very literal. With all the lyrics, you’re getting our stories full-out. If we wouldn’t have used pronouns or tried to censor ourselves in that way, I don’t know if we could have gotten that honest.
Alisa: We would never hide our identities. I have a girlfriend that I post [photos] with a lot, so I think people were kind of just like, ‘When are we going to get our queer anthem?’ I think they are just excited. We have a lot of LGBTQ young fans that are DMing us and letting us know that it helped them to have music that is representative of the LGBTQ community.
I read that you guys grew up in a somewhat conservative town. Were there are any queer artists you listened to growing up that made you feel the way that your fans feel with the songs you’re making now?
Cristal: Tegan and Sara changed my whole life forever. That influence of an artist that you can see yourself in, especially with something that you might be insecure about or something that might cause you a lot of internal pain or confusion, especially when you come from a small town or an unaccepting family or a religion that tells you that who you are isn’t okay, is so important. Seeing an artist like Tegan and Sara was a game changer for me because I saw myself in somebody for the first time. They’re still successful and they’re very openly queer. I figured, why couldn’t I be? But at the same time, there wasn’t lots of representation, so we also felt a big pull to be out.
McKenna: We sometimes get asked which female bands we listened to growing up and we didn’t have a ton, so that motivated us even more to do what we’re doing.
Cristal: We could look back at The Runaways and The Bangles, but it wasn’t in real time. For the most part, we were still seeing predominantly male bands. That was a big driving force for us to be like, ‘Well, there have to be women out there that want to do it too.’
How did the concept for the Under My Influence album artwork come to be? It’s very Matrix-esque.
Cristal: We have a voice memo of it. Around Thanksgiving of last year we were sitting together and we had all the music done so we were just brainstorming what the album meant to us visually. It’s kind of taking the piss out of a pop photoshoot and all these expectations of what a girl band is supposed to be and what you’re supposed to be as a woman; kind of wanting to do something really shocking and then just breaking it all down and going into everyday wear of ours with even more of a tomboy-leaning look. We worked with this amazing creative director named Maxime [Quoilin], who did the new Miley Cyrus stuff and a lot of stuff for Alexander Wang and high fashion brands, so he brought this really cool edge to it.
Your relationship with your fans is very strong. How do their opinions factor in when you’re writing music?
Cristal: We try to make sure at our core that we love what we do and then it all kind of stems out from there, but we always joke to each other [in the studio], like ‘Oh my god, they’re gonna love this.’ We think about them all the time. We’re so conscious when we’re designing merch, too. They feel like our friends and we just want them to love what we do as much as we are loving what we do.
Katie: I think that’s probably one of the biggest differences between the first record and this record. With the first record we hadn’t really toured yet. We hadn’t really built that fan base and now we have been able to meet fans through touring. Everything we create from the visuals to the music… knowing there’s a group of people waiting for it is such a big source of inspiration.
I get the sense that you are all so devoted to your fans because you’re also big fans of certain artists. Who are some of those people you guys are influenced by and look up to that have made you realize how you want to interact with your fans?
Cristal: We all have different tastes but a big band for us that we all loved growing up together was Paramore. Hayley Williams is so influential on our generation as an artist. She is just this powerhouse as a front-woman and that really translated into what The Aces is now. She will always be a bit of a blueprint for us.
Katie: As cliche as this is, I have looked up to the Beatles since I was six or seven years old. I have always been so infatuated by them and their success and their songwriting.
Alisa: Another one that really influenced us when we started making our last album, and since then, has been the 1975. They have just really reigned in the indie alternative world, and we’ve always looked up to them sonically as well.
Cristal: We’re hyperaware of how we interact with our fans because I want our fans to feel like they can like talk to us and have a relationship with us. I think some artists, depending on their level of fame and safety, keep their fans really at bay – and to each their own. For us, we really want The Aces to be this big open-armed family and we want people to find community in it. That’s been something that’s so important and amazing for us that we didn’t even realize was going to happen until we started seeing budding friend groups. It’s not even about us anymore. It’s about them finding friends and having a safe space and being themselves.
I imagine it’s strange gearing up to release an album with the future of touring still uncertain. What’s your relationship to performing like? Would you ever do a drive-in concert?
Alisa: I want to do it so bad. All of us miss touring so much. We were supposed to be on tour right now, which we never got a chance to announce because of everything that has happened.
Katie: It is such a fundamental part of our band. We started out just playing any show we could get in our hometown. One of our favourite parts of doing this is performing and getting that live reaction. Not being able to do that right now is probably the hardest part in my opinion.
You all have such individual yet coherent styles. Where do you get your fashion inspiration from?
Cristal: We’re all a bit different and I think that that’s kind of what makes up The Aces. I’m very influenced by English punk culture and very classic ’90s stuff. I basically only thrift my clothes for the most part, with a few exceptions of an ASOS item here and there.
Katie: I feel like I’ve never really looked up to a certain person or style. I’ve just kind of always gone with what makes me feel like myself – and that’s changed so much over the years. I’m still trying to push my limits.
Alisa: I kind of feel the same way. My style has evolved so much and continues to go through totally different phases, from being super feminine to then being super masculine to finding somewhere in the middle. Ultimately I just don’t want to ever get solidified into one thing.
McKenna: It’s always changing and I grew up being more feminine, always wearing dresses for every performance. In these past couple years, I’ve realized comfort is number one for me. I just always want to be comfy and when I’m shopping I love bright colours and fun shapes. I’m inspired a lot by art and looking on Pinterest and Instagram.
Cristal: We all share clothes too. We’re really influenced collectively by men’s fashion. To reiterate what Kenna said, it’s about finding something that, especially when you’re onstage, looks really cool and has an interesting shape that you can really perform in. We like to move a lot, we like to really perform – so if you’re in something that’s not comfortable or something that you could eat shit in… you gotta change [laughs].
McKenna: You’ll never see us clacking in heels on stage. There’s no way.
Under My Influence is available now on all major streaming platforms.
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