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In order to avoid the dreaded “sophomore slump”, there’s often a lot of pressure placed onto artists to outperform their debut record with its follow-up. However, the only pressure The Aces felt while creating their new album Under My Influence was a self-inflicted push of artistic evolution. 

“We don’t want anyone to get too comfortable or too safe with the idea of what The Aces is, so we knew we had to do something kind of different,” says lead vocalist Cristal Ramirez over a Zoom call from Los Angeles. “Honestly, I think that I just felt really free to create and make whatever I wanted, and I think the girls felt the same way.” 

“I honestly think a huge part of that was our fans though, ‘cause on the first record we didn’t even have them,” adds bassist McKenna Petty, who along with guitarist Katie Henderson is calling from Orem, Utah. “We didn’t understand who was going to be listening to our music, but with this second record we know who it’s for.”

Cristal, McKenna, Katie, and drummer Alisa Ramirez––Cristal’s sister and the only member absent from our call––formed a tight-knit relationship with their young, diverse fanbase while touring in support of 2018’s When My Heart Felt Volcanic. Throughout a sold-out run of headlining shows as well as opening slots for 5 Seconds of Summer, the girls talked with their “Ace Faces” every day. While they hoped to reunite with their fans in-person on the road this year, the pandemic has forced the band to find other (virtual) ways to keep the bond intact.

Back in April they stationarily “embarked” on the Digital Wellness Tour, a string of Instagram Live streams promoting positivity, health, and wellness through cooking classes, workouts, and meditations with each band member. “It was really important for us to share ways that we were dealing with the pandemic being quarantined at home,” McKenna details of the series, which allowed the band to connect with fans leading up to the album’s original June 12 release date. But as the date approached, the girls quickly realized they needed to shift their focus from album to activism in support of the burgeoning Black Lives Matter movement.

The Aces then pushed the release of Under My Influence to July 17. Cristal and Alisa hit the streets of L.A. to protest, while McKenna and Katie did the same in the band’s home state of Utah. They also launched the Let’s Do Better Tour, a second leg of Instagram events featuring conversations with professional activists on how to practice anti-racism and social justice in their everyday lives. “We wanted to encourage our fans to do the work of having conversations like that, doing research, and educating yourself, and that was something that just felt really important to us as humans to inspire others to do,” McKenna says.

“It’s finding that balance,” adds Katie. “Life will continue to keep moving, but this is not just a one-time occurrence, and we carry that with us throughout our career [as we] push forward, but never let it slip.”

“We have so many fans who are Black and are a part of that community, and we want them to know that we are allies, and we will fight for them,” Cristal proclaims. “We will make our spaces––and anywhere The Aces is––safe for them, and that’s really, really important for us. 

Remaining connected with fans on a personal level has always been crucial for the girls, and it also inspired the decision to open up about their identities for the first time on Under My Influence. They all grew up as childhood friends in Provo, Utah and were raised in the Mormon Church, which didn’t leave much room for the acceptance of queerness. Cristal and Alisa both came out in their teenage years and broke away from the religion completely, but Katie, who just publicly came out in June, has struggled to find the balance between faith and sexuality. “I always felt like if I was gay, I couldn’t believe in God,” she confesses. “And I just realized that’s not true. I can be a spiritual person and still embrace my sexuality and be happy with it, and I think it’s just a journey for everyone.”

McKenna is still involved with the church and married her husband Kallen Roth last year, but she’s drastically restructured her approach to religion in order to support her queer friends and bandmates. “I think it’s just been a journey of self-exploration, and looking at how I was raised, and what I believed,” she says. “A lot of that has changed over the years, especially since I’ve had so many people so close to me come out, and I’ve seen how that has affected them. Growing up in the religion has been really hard, and I think a lot of change needs to happen for sure.”

While the group strayed away from references to sexuality on their debut, they lean into them full-force on new tracks like the heartache anthem “Kelly” and “801,” a song about growing up queer in their conservative Mormon hometown. Alisa first wrote “801” as a poem and showed it to her sister on a flight to Los Angeles, and the band then turned it into a song with the help of producer Christian Medice. “Growing up in the 801, there’s only one club, so we blow it up. Leave your church shoes and your Sunday clothes, but bring your guilt, and we gon’ let it go,” Cristal croons at the top of the track. 

“There’s really one coined ‘gay club’ in Salt Lake City. It’s called the Sun Trap, and it’s very gritty,” Cristal says as she recalls a particular night. “We looked around us and saw so many kids we went to high school with, like so many that we would have never known were gay. We were all living in this repressed hometown where we couldn’t really be ourselves, and then looking around, and connecting, and being like, ‘Oh my god, you’re gay too? Holy shit.’ It was this unifying, beautiful experience.”

“I think that ‘801’ is such a cool song, because it’s important. It doesn’t just talk about the culture. It goes really deep and talks about important things like guilt and shame,” McKenna adds. “I think it’s the perfect way that we could open up that conversation about where we’re from, and religion, and our experiences that we and so many other people have had here.”

As the girls gush over the song, clearly a favorite from the album, I suggest that it could become a mainstay on the Sun Trap’s playlist as well as a hometown smash. Cristal agrees, exclaiming, “Fingers crossed! That’s the one thing I always think about, playing hometown and ‘801’ starting. That first line is gonna be crazy.”

In addition to writing more personal tracks, the band got to flex their songwriting skills alongside superstar hitmaker and fellow queer musician Justin Tranter on “My Phone is Trying to Kill Me.” While the girls have become experts at using social media for good, they got to chatting with Tranter about how sometimes its negative aspects still get the best of them. “Like if you stalk an ex, and you see their story, and it bums your whole day out. That’s so petty,” Cristal says.

McKenna chimes in: “Everyone does that.”

“It’s so crazy that a little device has such a hold on your emotions if you let it, so it’s about learning to control it,” Cristal continues. “We just started talking about that and about how real that is for so many people, and that’s when [the song] kind of just came out.”

The Aces’ time with Tranter sparked quite the creative push as the explosive, chant-worthy track was written in just forty-five minutes––but that’s not all they accomplished in the studio. Any Ace Faces who have already played Under My Influence enough to thirst for more music should stay tuned, because another Tranter-penned jam is coming soon, and it’s one of Cristal’s favorites. “We can’t tease it just yet, but I did write the title on a piece of paper, and I have [a photo of it] in my camera roll,” she dishes. “I kinda wanna throw it up one day, so keep an eye out for that Instagram post. You’ll have to decipher if that’s the title or not. You’ll never know.”




Photos / Red Bull Records

Story / Jack Irvin

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