Eight weeks ago, The Aces were on a high.
The band had just stepped off stage at Florida’s Okeechobee music festival after playing their new single, Daydream, for the very first time.
“It was a brand new song, I don’t even think it was out at that point,” says singer-guitarist Cristal Ramirez, “and the way the crowd started moving to it was so incredible.
“You only see that every once in a while, so I instantly knew, ‘Oh, this song’s really special.'”
“We all came off stage thinking, ‘When we start playing the new album, that’s going to be the reaction,'” adds bassist McKenna Petty. “It was so exciting.”
But Okeechobee, which was the band’s first show of 2020, may also end up being their last, after the Covid-19 lockdown kicked into gear.
“It makes me sad,” says McKenna. “I’m just so anxious to play that new music live.”
One silver lining is that Daydream, which was originally written about a long-distance relationship, has taken on a second meaning in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, with fans using it to reassure each other they’ll meet again.
“I love that,” says guitarist Katie Henderson. “The song’s so happy and energetic and it says, ‘You know I’m coming back to you,‘ which is so relevant to what’s happening now.
“I love that sense of hope at the end.”
The four-piece are speaking to the BBC from Utah and Los Angeles, where they’ve spent the last few weeks constructing home studios, learning the Seinfeld theme tune and staging a “digital wellness tour” on Instagram (you can work out with Katie, meditate with Cristal, cook vegan pasta with McKenna or practise yoga with drummer Alisa Ramirez).
More importantly, they’ve been preparing to release the follow-up to their debut album, When My Heart Felt Volcanic – a hidden gem of stylish pop that ended up on several critics’ end-of-year lists in 2018.
The sequel, titled Under My Influence, is markedly more assured. The Aces are still cool, fresh and colossally enjoyable – but this time around the earworms burrow a little deeper, and the lyrics hit a little harder.
Musically, the album is more adventurous, calibrating the band’s exuberant choruses and feel-good guitar riffs with more intimate, thoughtful moments and some dusky sonic twists.
The biggest change, however, is the way Cristal and her younger sister Alisa write their lyrics.
Both siblings are queer, but they avoided using gendered pronouns on their first album. On Under My Influence, that hesitance is scrubbed out of existence.
“Met a girl with a smile that I liked and her name was Kelly,” sings Cristal on the album’s fourth song. “Golden hair in her eyes, of the kind makes you feel like heaven.“
“I remember having this moment where we were driving in the car and I looked at Alisa and I was like, ‘Hey, this is a step for us. Do we want to use pronouns… because we didn’t in the last record?'” recalls the 24-year-old.
“And Alisa was like, ‘Do you know what? I feel like if we don’t it’s starting to become untruthful.’
“And that struck me really hard. I was just like, ‘She’s so right’.”
“Also, the word ‘girl’ sounds so good in songs,” chips in Alisa. “It’s hard to avoid it!”
‘It won’t sell’
Nonetheless, addressing their sexuality took courage. The sisters grew up in Provo, a religious town in the US state of Utah, which was particularly intolerant of alternative sexualities.
“We really love where we’re from but it was a little oppressive in ways, especially if you’re queer,” says Cristal.
“It’s a very strong religious culture. There’s a way of life that’s ingrained there, so if you don’t want to follow that, it’s easy to feel like an outcast,” adds her sister.
It wasn’t just their hometown that proved to be conservative, however.
“In the music industry, you have people in your ear telling you, ‘Change the pronoun, don’t say that, don’t do that, it won’t sell,'” says Alisa.
“So if you have people saying that to you, and you’ve grown up in a place that tells you to not be yourself, it feels brave [to write about it].
“It’s a step you have to take and that’s something straight people don’t have to think about – but when you’re queer you have to be like [deep breath], ‘OK, I’m going to do this and I don’t care if it’s going to affect sales. I don’t care. This is me’.”
The band reference their hometown on a new song called 801 (the area code for Utah), which also serves as an anthem to the city’s underground LGBT scene.
“Leave your church shoes and your Sunday clothes,” sings Cristal over a trippy, charcoal-smudged beat. “Being ourselves can never be a crime.“
“There’s one gay club in Utah,” explains the singer, “and we went there one night, Alisa and I, and the amount of kids we saw from our high school… kids we didn’t know were gay. Or even if they weren’t gay, kids who liked going out to a gay bar and hanging out with their friends and drinking.
“And where we come from that’s really taboo. Drinking’s really taboo, partying’s really taboo, all these things are demonised and there’s a lot of shame and guilt around that.
“So for us it was like, ‘Woah, dude. Can you believe we saw those guys? They’re just like us!'”
The feelings of belonging and acceptance they discovered that night were a revelation. Up to that point, the band had been their only “getaway” and “place of happiness,” says Alisa.
“It’s probably not the healthiest, but I feel like the band’s always given me a sense of identity.”
“It’s so much more than even a band to us,” Cristal elaborates. “The Aces is like a family, it’s a community. Any time I was struggling or confused or going through heartache, I had my girls, my family, to rely on.”
Like many friends, the band have developed their own vocabulary of in-jokes and catchphrases. While promoting their first album, for example, Cristal started giving faux-motivational speeches backstage, dubbing her bandmates “the moguls”.
“It was a total gag, but then we started calling everybody a mogul,” says Alisa. “‘You’re a mogul! No, you’re a mogul! Channel your mogul-ity!'”
For the second record, the mot-du-jour is “clacking”.
“I got acrylics for Grammy week and I’ve never had nails before,” Alisa explains. “So I was messing around with them all the time, tapping on a laptop, and we started saying, ‘Gotta clack!'”
“It embodied the whole idea of an in-charge woman, getting stuff done. So now, whenever we announce something or put up a post, we’ll be like, ‘Everybody clack, We’re clacking’.”
The band are in clacking overdrive today, as they reveal the 12 June release date of Under My Influence.
It’s accompanied by the tangily-titled new single, My Phone Is Trying To Kill Me, whose opening line couldn’t be any more pertinent during the lockdown
“I’m gonna put down my phone,” sings Cristal with a sigh of resignation, “because it makes me feel so alone.“
“We’d wanted to write something about social media and your phone for a long time,” the singer says, “but we just weren’t getting it right lyrically.”
Everything changed when they went into a high-stakes session with hitmaker Justin Tranter (Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Selena Gomez) and Cristal found herself unable to focus.
“I’d been texting someone who wasn’t getting back to me, and I was so annoyed because I was having a hard time concentrating ‘cos I kept checking my phone.
“I was like, ‘This is so dumb. That person’s not as important as what I’m doing right now,’ so we just started talking about how we’re so addicted to checking our phones – and how, if you’re left unread by somebody, it can ruin your whole day and how powerful that is.”
“And the big tag line ended up being ‘my phone is trying to kill me,'” adds Alisa with a smile, “because it feels that way half the time”.
Intriguingly, they’ve discovered that quarantine has (partially) solved the phone problem by “forcing us to live in the moment”.
“It’s one of the positives: You have to be present,” says Alisa. “You can’t think about the future because nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
Which brings us back to those hastily abandoned live shows. Have the band asked when they might be allowed back on the tour bus?
“Only every day!” says Katie. “But no-one knows. Our agent doesn’t know. Nobody knows.”
“But as soon as we can, we’ll be on the road,” says Alisa. “First step small gatherings, second step concerts. We’ll do, like, a coffee shop tour first.”
The Aces new single, My Phone Is Killing Me, is out now on Red Bull Records. Their album, Under My Influence, follows on 12 June.