“It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, it’s just a story of unrequited love,” says Cristal Ramirez. The singer slash guitarist of The Aces is talking with GAY TIMES over Zoom about the band’s latest single, Kelly, a reggae-pop hybrid that sees the beloved indie quartet publicly fly the rainbow flag for the first time. While the band garnered massive critical acclaim with their debut album, When My Heart Felt Volcanic, a 13-track collection of optimistic, summer-ready pop-rock anthems, the band refrained from using gender pronouns to ensure their songs had a universal quality – until now, that is. “Half of us are queer and proud to be queer. We’ve been out in our personal lives for years and never hidden it, but it’s something that we never necessarily put at the forefront in our music. With this record, it felt natural.” The band, which consists of Cristal, her sister Alisa Ramirez, Katie Henderson and McKenna Petty, let go of any prior inhibitions with their excellent sophomore album, Under My Influence, another infectious body of work that still retains their signature pop melodies, but delves deeper into their personal relationships – straight and queer. “In the past, we understood that The Aces was representing all four of us, so we kept it a little more vague,” admits Alisa. “It just felt really important to tell our stories to their fullest, to be truthful and to put it in the music because so many young fans need it. It’s us doing our part to represent.” To commemorate the release of Under My Influence, we spoke with Cristal, Alisa, Katie and McKenna about how they’ve progressed as artists since their debut and how incorporating their queer identities into the music made the band stronger than ever.
So, what is it like to do an album campaign in the middle of a global pandemic?
Alisa: So crazy! A lot of changes to our plan, a lot of planning being completely unravelled, but it’s been really fun because it’s exciting to put out new music and to give that to fans during this time. People really need something, so it’s nice to share with fans and put things out into the world. It’s also been like, really weird, because we would normally be in the UK doing stuff right now, travelling around and doing all the promo for it. That’s all nixed, and promo is like… post on TikTok?
If we can put out a record during a global pandemic, there’s nothing we can’t do.
Cristal: I’m not gonna lie, it’s really challenging! But at the same time, I think we’re trying to see the glass half full, you know? I do feel really proud of our band because I think that we’ve remained positive even though it feels like, ‘Wow, we didn’t expect this at all and this is really challenging as an artist.’ I think that if we can put out a record during a global pandemic, there’s nothing we can’t do. Honestly, I feel a lot of confidence built throughout this process because I’m proud of us for being able to adapt and change and not let this be like, ‘Whatever, this record is not gonna…’ know what I’m saying? Throwing the towel in or being pessimistic. A lot of ups and downs. Some days, I don’t feel this way at all. I feel frustrated. For the most part, I think we’ve remained pretty positive.
How would you say you’ve progressed as artists since your first album?
Cristal: In so many ways, honestly. When we were writing When My Heart Felt Volcanic, the writing process started when I was 17. The other two girls were 17 as well and Alisa was only 15. That’s when it started. We were writing it over the course of graduating high school and we weren’t even 21-years-old. We’re still really young, but the difference between writing a record when you’re 17 versus 23 is so huge. You’re a whole different person and you’ve experienced so much more and you’re an actual recognised adult in the world. There’s so much that comes with that, so I think there was a natural progression and growth of us as a band and as people; figuring out what we wanted to say and how we wanted to say it. Our voices are much stronger and sure on this record, and I think that’s from age and experiencing life.
Katie: The other day actually, I was on a run and listening to our first record. When you tour it for two years and you’re playing every song every night, you’re not listening to it as much? It’s crazy the memories it brings back of being in the studio, making that record, and how young we really were. After seeing the world, travelling and touring, I feel like we’ve grown so much as people and our relationship together is so different. This feels like the perfect next step and the perfect next chapter for The Aces. I was saying this in the last interview, but I just feel so much more confident as a person and as a musician.
McKenna: When we were writing and recording the first record, we had our fanbase in Utah, but we hadn’t really toured at all yet. We now know who our fans are. We’ve done meet-and-greets over the past three years, met like 200 people per night and really gotten to know them over social media and stuff too. Being able to write and record this album with them in mind has been so huge, just knowing they’re going to listen to it and love it. Working on the second record, that made me feel a lot more confident.
This feels like the perfect next step and the perfect next chapter for The Aces.
The album definitely feels a lot more confident, and there’s a variety of different sounds. Was it your intention to explore new genres or did that come naturally?
Cristal: I think… both? We were really conscious of the fact that we were not trying to make When My Heart Felt Volcanic again. We really wanted to make something that was obviously still The Aces, which are those funky guitars and bass-lines, those elements of really dance-y, rhythmic music, but we knew that we wanted it to be its own journey and a progression since the last record. That’s the main thing that we knew, and we didn’t want to be scared of exploring other means of production and sounds. There’s a song on the record called Going Home which I think is the most, like… The beat in it sounds very polished programmed pop with drums, the whole thing. That was one of the first songs we wrote for the record, and I remember writing it and feeling really excited by this idea, that there were no limits or boxes that we were trying to fit in. ‘What could The Aces be? Could The Aces be on a song that sounds like a Halsey song?’ To us, The Aces is whatever we feel inspired by.
Katie: It’s what feels authentic to us.
Cristal: Yeah, so we really wanted to push those limits. It was a conscious effort to make sounds and change it up but at the same time, it did happen naturally. It felt really good to do so.
Alisa: Part of it was our environment too. We wrote this entire record in Los Angeles and a good bit of it in Malibu at a beach house. There are definitely songs that took on that environment – 801 particularly. That was inspired by being on the beach and having drinks and cigars – living that life! We wrote the majority of the last record in New York and it gave it a bit of a different edge. It was cool to see how an environment can really affect what music you’re making. It was allowing us to go whatever and if we started making something and it was going that way, just giving us some space to explore it.
The album is a whole lot more queer thanks to songs such as Kelly, which tells the story of a same-sex romance, and 801, which is about a gay club. Alisa and Cristal, was it important for you to be more open about your queerness with this record?
Cristal: Yeah! We’ve been out in our personal lives for years and never hidden it, but it’s something that we never necessarily put at the forefront in our music, as far as using pronouns or anything. With this record, it felt natural and like we were just writing music and our relationships.
Alisa: Katie and McKenna also trusted us and gave us the space to do that as well, because obviously, not everyone in the band is queer. It was cool for them to be able to say, ‘Yeah, of course. Sing about your true side.’ In the past, we understood that The Aces was representing all four of us, so we kept it a little more vague. Now, it just felt really important to tell our stories to their fullest, to be truthful and to put it in the music because so many young fans need it. It’s us doing our part to represent.
Cristal: I know for me, coming up as a young queer person, representation was so limited. It wasn’t bold representation. It was more like it could be up for interpretation. It was super important for us to grab our identity by the neck of it and be like, ‘This is who we are. This is what it is. There is no interpretation here. Half of us are queer and really proud to be queer.’ We wanted to tell these stories and like Alisa said, it felt really important to do.
This is who we are. This is what it is. There is no interpretation here. Half of us are queer and really proud to be queer.
Has this made the band stronger?
Cristal: 100%. I don’t think this record could have ever been made if our relationships weren’t stronger than ever. There’s so much trust that has gone into making this record, to have each other’s backs, to push each other, to be better, to say more, to go deeper. That relationship that we have been cultivating for so many years now has really allowed us to make this music, music where we’re really tapping into deeper and deeper parts of ourselves.
McKenna: I feel like vulnerability in new relationships makes it stronger. This next step, us being vulnerable with each other and everyone listening to our music, builds such a strong foundation for The Aces.
Cristal: We just wanted to tell these stories and let them be what they are, and not necessarily have them be a huge coming out story. To us, like I said, we’ve been out in our personal lives and never hidden that and never been afraid to talk about that. If we were ever asked about it, we would never shy away. It’s just a part of our lives. It’s who we are. These are just love stories and I think that you can replace Kelly with whatever name you want it to be. The story is there and it’s something that a lot of people have gone through. It doesn’t matter what your sexuality is, it’s just a story of unrequited love where you’re really into someone and they are playing with your head. Everyone can relate to that. The stories in all of these songs, even if they don’t have pronouns in them, they’re just stories of life, love and relationships.
Katie: I think it’s really cool that the message is already coming through to you and to other interviewers that we’ve had, they’ve been relaying their feelings to us about different songs they’ve listened to. It’s really cool to see the messages that we were trying to send are being received, and to hear you talk about different songs because the album isn’t even out yet and it’s always resonating in the way we hoped it would.
New Emotion is my standout at the moment. Bad Love was my absolute favourite on When My Heart Felt Volcanic, and probably one of my favourite songs ever, but it’s challenging that top spot right now.
Katie: It’s so funny that you said that because we’ve always called New Emotion the part two of Bad Love!
Stop it. Seriously?
Cristal: That’s what we always called it!
McKenna: Musically, too. Just recording it, it felt like the same as Bad Love to me.
Katie: That’s so funny.
It just felt really important to tell our stories to their fullest, to be truthful and to put it in the music because so many young fans need it. It’s us doing our part to represent.
Cristal: The storyline is like the extension of Bad Love too, a little bit. It’s the same kind of vibe about this secretive love that you’re coming to terms with. I love New Emotion. It’s one of my favourites as well, and it was the weirdest song because it was, for some reason, the hardest to finish?
Alisa: It’s so simple, but it took us so long to get done.
Cristal: I love that it starts the record right after Daydream because it sets the record off on the perfect note. I’m glad you like that one. I think it’s an underdog!
We have to talk about My Phone is Trying to Kill Me. It’s very… topical. What was the process like for this song?
Cristal: We were sitting in the studio last summer, so we wrote this song a while ago, which is quite interesting to me because I’ve been curious to wonder if people think we wrote this because of quarantine, which we did not. We wrote this so long ago and it’s funny that it’s so applicable now, particularly because of what is going on in the world. We were just chatting about what we wanted to write that day with Justin Tranter, who is an amazing songwriter and written everything interesting in pop in the past few years. I remember texting someone and they were just taking so long to get back to me, and it was really distracting and annoying me. I then felt annoyed at myself for being invested in this enough for it to take me away from this present moment, where we were writing with someone we admired. Having this internal battle of, ‘Cristal, what the hell? Put your phone down. This is so dumb!’ but then I also kept checking it. It was crazy and I started venting this to Alisa and Justin, where I was like, ‘My phone is out to get to me. It has this control over me.’
Alisa: We started diving deeper with that too, with how social media has made it so different for kids growing up right now, coming into the social media age full-force. Their childhood is going to be so different and the way they perceive things is going to be so different. Having these phones on us all the time is really changing how we connect as humans and how we function. We were like, ‘How do we talk about this in a song?’ and also from our own experiences.
McKenna: I remember the first time you guys showed it to us, we were in the LA house last summer. After we listened to it, we were like, ‘This is crazy. We have to put this out!’ It felt so different to anything we had ever done before. It’s an important message that everyone can relate to.
Cristal: It feels like this crazy reality, where the only way we’re connecting to people we’re not living with is through this screen.
Katie: I read this article about how, even though we’re all at home, it’s like we constantly need to be FaceTiming relatives that we don’t even talk to. It feels like everyone is so exhausted.
Is there a particular song on the album that resonates with each of you the most?
Katie: Personally, and I know Cristal feels the same way I do, I love Cruel. I don’t know what it is but I love the melodies, the production and I loved recording that song. For me, it resonates so well. I love it.
McKenna: One that’s really special to me is Thought of You, just because me and Cristal are always talking about relationships and we always check in weekly. When I heard this song I was like, ‘This is her.’ It was very sweet and special.
We love creating music, it’s just something that we do regardless if we were signed and making records.
Cristal: McKenna has comforted me through all my crazy woes of relationships! We’re always talking through them, so that one for sure. I would say, for me, Kelly. It’s special and important because it’s a very upfront, overtly sexual relationship that’s out there and queer. It’s so important for me as a person and our band to share that side of us. Thought of You, as well.
Alisa: For me, I really love Going Home because that was the first time we’ve ever done a really beautiful love letter of a song. It’s very vulnerable and sincere, and that day in the studio when we wrote it, it was so easy to put our hearts on a piece of paper. I was very inspired six months into the relationship that I had my girlfriend… No, I’ve been with her for almost two years now, so it was more towards the beginning of the relationship that we wrote this song. It feels sincere.
Is it true you’ve started work on your third album?!
Cristal: Yes of course, we never stop! We love songwriting, honestly. We love creating music, it’s just something that we do regardless if we were signed and making records. We went in and wrote a song that we really love that isn’t on the second record, like a week after we had finished writing the second record. It’s all in the very early stages! We don’t have a full third record by any means, but we’re working towards it…
Will I get Bad Love 3.0?
Alisa: We can’t break the streak!
Katie: We have to.
The Aces’ fantastic sophomore album, Under My Influence, arrives 17 July.