A former Disney kid who’s determined to make her mark, Aly Michalka talks to Paul Byrne about grunge, girls and going against the grain.
It’s much smarter than your average teenagers-breaking-into-song offering, and it’s certainly a tad hipper than most, but for leading lady Aly Michalka, taking on the role of rockin’ ice queen Charlotte in Bandslam was definitely something of a gamble.
Having broken through on the Disney Channel before slowly gaining recognition – and major chart success in the US – as Aly & AJ, a double-act with her sister, Amanda, the 20-year old Californian singer/songwriter, actress and multi-instrumentalist had only recently decided that it was time to put away childish things.
For their fourth album (due out before the end of the year), Aly and AJ have changed their name to 78violet, determined to shake off their tween image. And now Aly is starring alongside naughty High School Musical queen Vanessa Hudgens and a Benetton cast of teenage misfits in, well, a high school musical.
“I know on paper it looks like a step back,” smiles Michalka, when I caught up with her in Dublin’s Morrisson Hotel recently, “but this is a really smart, really funny high school musical. We get to play songs like Steve Wynn’s Amphetamine and do covers of Cheap Trick and Ken Boothe hits. This is a lot more grungy. It’s not your average high school musical…”
She’s right, you know. In your average high school musical, you wouldn’t have someone like David Bowie running through your plot as a guardian angel to a young geek (Gaelan Connell) who dreams of managing a band worthy of playing New York’s CBGB.
PAUL BYRNE: So, what grabbed you here? Charlotte’s journey from cheerleader to honorary geek? The music? The script? Director Tod Graff?
ALY MICHALKA: It’s a combination, really. Todd, he’s a really great director, and a really cool guy, and he had a really strong vision about what he wanted to do, but at the same time, the script is just so good, it speaks for itself. It’s got heart, it’s got meaning; it’s not typical. It’s not just a teeny kid movie – the characters are really different. And Charlotte is a really strong character…
Playing Charlotte, you certainly get to deal with more complex emotions than you’d normally find in a teen musical – a challenge for you?
They definitely have some grit in there, some real-life situations. It’s not just sugar-coated, or real happy all the time, and I think that life has so many ups and downs, and this movie has those ups and downs in it, and that’s why I think a lot of fans can relate, because they’ve been there, or they’re going through this themselves.
Still, the love of CBGB, the references to the likes of Arcade Fire and Sly’n’Robbie, would suggest a band of some true grit – yet the music is far more Taylor Swift than Patti Smith. Did you have much say on the music front?
The music had to be really genuine here. If it was a case of just tricking the audience, and trying to be cool, or trying to be real or honest, you would catch on immediately. And it’s cool because some of these kids are going to hear songs and artists that they may not have known before, even though I grew up listening to these songs, but in this era, there aren’t that many kids listening to the classic music. They’re just listening to the pop stuff, that doesn’t have as much substance.
Our band is really all about our sound, and our style of music, and not fitting the stereotype of being blonde and having to be on the Disney Channel. It’s good to break out and not be in a box, to be a robot to the music industry. I think it’s good to have a voice.
You know it can be pretty darn tricky, getting out of that fickle tween market, right?
I’m definitely aware of that, and that was part of the reason why we wanted to change our name, and put out a record that’s a little bit older, but without turning our old fans away. There is that constant thought of, you know, you want to be able to maintain your fanbase, but you’ve also got to grow up. You’ve got to keep a level head about what you’re able to get away with, and what you can’t do. You can’t just jump into wearing inappropriate outfits, or suddenly spouting things that just make you appear much older. It’s really about being very careful, very cautious, about how you do it. You have one chance to do, and you don’t want to mess it up.
You come from a strong Christian background too – you debuted in a church, and your mum was a member of the Christian rock group, The J.C. Band. The entertainment industry is largely run by the devil’s minions. A tricky path…
It can be tricky for some people, but, thankfully, AJ and I are really grounded in our faith, and our parents are humble and good people. Not being stage parents, basically. There are so many people who will just take your money and lie to you, and I feel really bad for those people, because they don’t really have a fair shot.
Thankfully I’m not interested in, you know, going down that path of craziness…
Three years ago, you and your sister spoke out against evolution in an interview in Blender magazine that seemed very much a stitch-up…
Yeah, it was…
A hard lesson learnt?
It was so funny, because AJ and I talked about that interview, and we said that if we ever met that guy who did that interview, we would be so mad. First of all, we were so young – we were fourteen, or sixteen, whatever – and I’m twenty now. I know now how to control an interview – not in a negative way, but if someone asked me an interview I didn’t feel comfortable with, I’d just say, ‘I don’t feel comfortable answering that’. Or I would have a way to sidestep something. He just took advantage of the fact that we were young, especially being invited into our home and having dinner with us.
You can’t be ashamed of what you believe in, and if someone tries to twist something on you that’s negative, then so be it. Being young, we were excited, and wanting to share everything. And you don’t need to share everything.
You started out when you were five – is this life as magical as you imagined back then, or is it just a lot of hard work?
Totally two sides to this. There’s a side to the business that’s hard, and then there’s a side that’s so great, and so worth it. You have to make sacrifices sometimes that can be really a shame, but you love this so much, it’s not even a question. It’s just something that you have to sacrifice because it’s something that you love to do. So, you do it, and you’re cheerful about it.