The four women who make up The Aces have been living physically apart lately — two in the indie-pop band’s home state, Utah, and two in the city many bands go to in order to succeed: Los Angeles.
The Aces are still tight — “We’re all best friends, we’ve grown up together,” said lead singer and guitarist Cristal Ramirez. However, the temporary distance, exacerbated by the need to stay home because of COVID-19, is representative of the conflicting emotions at work in the band’s sophomore album, “Under My Influence,” which will be released Friday, July 17. (The band delayed the release for a month, out of respect for the nationwide protests against police violence.)
The band set a goal “to make the most vulnerable and authentic, honest record we could possibly make at this time,” said drummer Alisa Ramirez, who is Cristal’s sister.
“We’re constantly pushing to do something that feels kind of nerve-wracking or different or scary, because it’s out of our comfort zone,” said Cristal Ramirez.
She said the difference between “Under My Influence” and The Aces’ 2018 debut album, “When My Heart Felt Volcanic,” is “life experience, honestly — maturation and growing into ourselves more as adult people.” (Cristal Ramirez, bass player McKenna Petty and lead guitarist Katie Henderson all are 24; Alisa Ramirez is 22.)
“When we were making the last record, we hadn’t even really traveled the world, or toured. And we didn’t know our fan base like we do now,” Petty said.
“Under My Influence” defies easy categorization. It’s a strongly guitar-driven pop album — fitting the amorphous label of “alternative pop” — but also features strains of funk, disco, ‘80s New Wave and rock.
How do The Aces define their sound? “As much as we can, we try not to,” Cristal Ramirez said. “With our generation … there’s this real strong desire to not want to identify with genre.”
The Aces toured extensively over the last two years to promote their debut album. They opened for the Australian pop band 5 Seconds of Summer on a 25-city North American arena tour in 2018, and headlined a tour of club dates in 27 cities in early 2019.
But they didn’t write many songs while touring. After the last tour was over, “we just dug in and wrote our asses off,” creating some 70 songs, Cristal Ramirez said.
The creative spark could come from anything.
The single “My Phone Is Trying to Kill Me,” a bouncy riff about obsessing about an ex’s online activity, came about from a meeting the band had with superstar songwriter Justin Tranter — whose resumé includes co-writing such hits as Selena Gomez’s “Lose You to Love Me,” Hailee Steinfeld’s “Love Myself” and DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean,” among dozens of collaborations.
“I was in this session with Justin, who I really admired and looked up to, and I was really distracted because I was waiting for a text back from somebody,” Cristal Ramirez said. “I remember having this internal fight with myself, of like, ‘Cristal, this text back from this person is not near as important as what’s happening to you in the present moment.’”
She told Tranter about the conversation in her head. “We just started talking about how social media, and our phones, are controlling of our emotions. They can really feel like they have this hold on us, where you feel like you want to throw your phone out the window,” she said. They put that into the song, and “I think we wrote it in like 30 minutes,” she said.
The band’s home cities — Orem, where the four grew up, and Salt Lake City on one end, and their new base in Los Angeles on the other — also served as inspiration.
In the single “Lost Angeles,” driving down Sunset Boulevard evokes memories of a breakup: “This used to be romantic, but now it makes me panic. Sometimes I love the city, then I remember what you did to me.” L.A., according to the song’s chorus, is “the loneliest city I’ve ever known.”
The song, Alisa Ramirez said, is about “our very first experiences in this city, and being here as artists and young people, and navigating the social aspect of being in Hollywood.”
Another song, “801,” was inspired by trips from Orem to one of Salt Lake City’s major gay bars, the Sun Trapp.
“Growing up in the 801, there’s only one club so we blow it up,” the song goes. “Leave your church shoes and your Sunday clothes, but bring your guilt and we’re gon’ let it go.”
The song is about “just feeling different from the culture you were raised in,” Cristal Ramirez said. She cites her experience, raised in Orem and taking part in LGBTQ culture in Salt Lake City, but “it applies to anyone who’s raised in a culture, or from a home town, that maybe is a bit more repressive, or doesn’t allow them to fully be themselves.”
Being themselves on the album means writing lyrics that are true to the band members’ gender identities. The Ramirez sisters identify as queer, and predominantly date women. Lead guitarist Katie Henderson also identifies as queer, “which I’m just starting to be public about, but it’s true to me,” she said. Petty is straight, and married, and “a really strong ally,” Cristal Ramirez said.
On the album, Cristal Ramirez evokes the second-person “girl” as often as Justin Bieber. On “My Phone Is Trying to Kill Me,” the ex she’s checking out online is described as “blue bikini by the pool.” On “Kelly” — released as a single in early June, in honor of Pride Month — she sings of nights of passion with “a girl with a smile that I liked.”
“We’re in L.A., where it’s very OK to be gay and queer — it’s just part of life, and a part of who we are, and how we go about in the world,” Cristal Ramirez said. “The more time we’ve been away from that [Utah County] culture, the more normal it’s just gotten for us to just talk about our experiences and just be more candid about them.”
She added: “At the end of the day, pronouns or not, these stories are love stories, and stories of relationships and stories of heartbreak. I think anybody can see themselves in them.”
Growing up in Utah, and within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has its advantages for a budding musician, though.
“Because we weren’t drinking and we weren’t partying, we were really disciplined kids,” Cristal Ramirez said. “I feel really lucky that we grew up in the culture we grew up in. It let us be kids, and make music together, and keep that youthfulness and innocence for as long as was appropriate.”
It also gave The Aces a place to hone their talent: Club Velour, still the center of the Provo club scene, and a launchpad for such global acts as Imagine Dragons and Neon Trees.
Velour, Henderson said, is set apart from other clubs because it’s all-ages and focuses on local music — not just touring acts. “That was so huge for us to create a fan base, and to just get onstage from a really young age,” Henderson said.
“It felt like anything was possible,” Petty said of Velour. “Like, ‘We’re going to sell out our next show. If Imagine Dragons did that, we can do that.’”
Velour’s owner, Corey Fox, was an early supporter, Cristal Ramirez recalled. “I remember him sitting me down after a show, and he was like, ‘You guys know you can have a full career in music if you wanted it, right?‘” she said.
Then in Provo, and now on the road, The Aces aim “to inspire future generations of females to get up here and take these spaces,” as Cristal Ramirez puts it. But they know that people still look at them, as an all-female band who play their own instruments, as an anomaly.
“There are still places, in middle America and in the South, where we still get really crazy comments thrown at us all the time,” Cristal Ramirez said. “They say, ‘I thought you guys were gonna suck, and you started playing and you were so good. It’s amazing that you’re so good.’ [And we say], ‘Why did you just expect that we were going to be bad? Because we were women?’ That’s very sexist, and I don’t even know if some people realize that’s not a compliment.”
Plans for a tour to support “Under My Influence” are on hold because of the coronavirus pandemic. In the interim, the bandmates keep in touch between Utah and L.A., and sometimes get together in person. (They shot the video for “My Phone Is Trying to Kill Me” in Orem and Salt Lake City, adhering to social-distancing guidelines.) They’re looking for a way to celebrate the album’s release — maybe an online show — and counting the days until they can perform live.
The band misses “getting to perform, and getting to see our fans, and see the reaction to the music, and see it in real life,” Cristal Ramirez said. “Hopefully we’ll get to do it soon enough.”