In the two years since rising alt-pop band The Aces unveiled their debut album When My Heart Felt Volcanic, fans and critics have praised the quartet’s slick pop melodies and clever modern lyrics. They’ve toured all around the country, seen chart success with their early singles and managed to break through the indie-pop bubble.
But as songwriter and drummer Alisa Ramirez tells it, the band still felt like something was missing in their music. When it came time to begin recording a new album, the group came up with their own mission statement: “More than anything, we are trying to chase an energy and attitude of being as authentic and soul-baring as possible,” Ramirez recalls.
Through that philosophy, The Aces created Under My Influence, their hotly anticipated sophomore album out today (July 17) via Red Bull Records. While the album retains a few sonic similarities to their debut, the lyricism of their new work is direct and to the point; when the band wants you to learn something new about them, they spell it out for you directly.
Take, for instance, their latest single off the album, “Kelly.” While both Alisa and Cristal Ramirez have openly and publicly identified as queer for years, the synth-heavy track marks the first time the band have focused a love song on a woman. “I didn’t want anybody to question whether or not that song was queer, and say like, ‘Kelly could be a guy!’” Cristal explains. “Like, no. This is a woman.”
So how did that new approach to writing take form on each of the band’s new songs? Billboard caught up with Cristal and Alisa Ramirez, McKenna Petty and Katie Henderson to break down their new album track-by-track. Find out which single almost didn’t make the album, which track made Cristal take several crying breaks while writing, and which song Alisa wants to see a drag queen lip sync to below.
Cristal Ramirez: “We wrote over 60 songs for this record, and ‘Daydream’ was really the last song we did. We didn’t even think it was gonna make the record — we had already finished all of this music we were super in love with, and ‘Daydream’ just didn’t fit. Ultimately, we forgot about it and we went to Europe to finish the record.
“I was sitting on the plane, scouring every corner of my phone as one does on an international flight, and I found the song again. I was like, ‘Wait a minute, this song is so good!’ I probably listened to it 10 times in a row on the plane, and I went up to Alisa on our layover and said, ‘Have you listened to that “Daydream” song? Listen again, because it’s really good.’ I sent it to everybody, and the entire time we were in Europe, we were listening to ‘Daydream’ non-stop. And then it became the perfect opener for the record!”
Alisa Ramirez: “‘New Emotion’ is bop city, it is quintessential Aces. The funky guitars to that four-on-the-floor banging rhythm, it is just such a name of the game song for us. I think it’s gonna be a total fan favorite. It’s really the kind of song we grew up listening to, that funky disco music. Lyrically we were exploring when you start falling for somebody that you just shouldn’t be into — a best friend, a coworker, whoever you didn’t think about like that before, and then something happens, and you’re like, ‘What the hell is happening?’”
“My Phone is Trying to Kill Me”
Cristal: “We wrote this with Justin Tranter, who is absolutely amazing. It was the first song we ever wrote with him, and it was us exploring the frustration of living in the social media age. We didn’t get iPhones when we were babies or anything like that, but we are very much a part of the generation of Instagram and Twitter and read receipts and all of these things that can keep us so connected, but can also be so misleading and so frustrating. There’s so much communication, that there is ultimately so much miscommunication because of it. It’s weird how we can be so connected to each other and yet feel so different from each other. It can become really toxic at a point.”
Alisa: “‘Kelly’ was probably my favorite song to write. I remember that day, when we first started writing about an experience about one of Cristal’s relationships with a girl. When we got to writing the chorus, it was originally gonna be much more generic and we were not gonna put a name there. I distinctly remember us just being like, ‘No. We have to put a name there. We have to tell this like it is.’ Once we wrote it all and we were listening back to it, people were looking at each other like, ‘This is sick.’”
Cristal: “I think there’s a lot of songs that can be light on queerness — for us, it was like, ‘If we’re gonna go there, then let’s go there.’ That’s why we have very queer, upfront sexual lyrics. We’re queer. We’re talking about real relationships we’re having. This is the word for word journal entry of what that relationship was.”
“Can You Do”
Cristal: “We wrote ‘Can You Do’ in Malibu, and we wanted a song that was going to be a crowd banger. What makes it so interesting is that I think the song is the first real embrace of our sexuality — as in us being sexual beings and grown women. We wanted to take on the perspective of the stereotypically masculine side. It’s this badass moment of owning being a sexual person. It felt very grown to me.”
Alisa: “The first draft of those lyrics was a lot more chill, and one morning we pulled the song up and were like, ‘Let’s be way more sexually intense.’ So we refined the lyrics to be way more direct with what we wanted to say about being in that dominant position. It’s so fierce — honestly, I want to see a drag queen do a number to this.”
“All Mean Nothing”
Alisa: “This is one of the only songs I wasn’t involved in writing! I was actually really sick this day, and Cristal just moseyed over to the studio by herself, and she sent me this song after. We never write like that, we always write together, so it was exciting to kind dof be on the other side of this. I remember turning it on, and being so thrown.”
Cristal: “Simon [Wilcox] has this uncanny ability to take what you’re saying and really tweak it into a beautiful story that feels like you never said that before. She is so unique in the way she approaches lyrics. We were sitting on the couch, and I was going through this really bad breakup from a toxic relationship — we talked about how, when you’re in something that’s so full of mind games, it leaves you feeling like, ‘What just happened? Did any of that mean anything?’ That confusion is really captured in this song, to me.”
Alisa: “Being from Utah, we as a band had a very unique upbringing, especially because three out of four of us identify as queer and come from such a small, religious community. ‘801’ started from a poem I wrote on a plane — the night before we had gone to a bar called The Sun Trapp, which is Salt Lake City’s main gay club. Me, Cristal, and our friend Monica all went to this club for the first time, and I remember just being so stunned and amazed to see so many people I knew from my high school and my hometown. We all saw each other and came together and it was this incredible night of dancing and talking. It was such a euphoric experience that 15-year-old me never thought I would have with those people. So I felt inclined to put that in a poem.”
McKenna Petty: “This is one of my absolute favorite songs on the new record. My experience growing up in Utah was so different than the other three here, being straight. But I can relate to this song so much in the energy — I’ve definitely felt alienated or guilt or shame, and that’s what’s so amazing about this song is that the story of it is something everyone can relate to, whether they’re in the community or not.”
“I Can Break Your Heart Too”
Cristal: “It was written pretty early on, and I remember Alisa had that melody stuck in her head. I would start singing over it, and then it was like, ‘Okay, let’s get something down.’ We took it in the studio and played that melody on a guitar loop, and the song just came together really quick. It’s a towering sad song — You’re upset over someone who seems to be kind of self-centered, so you’re saying, ‘Don’t get it twisted, I’m fine.’ It’s petty, but in a fun way!”
McKenna: “I think the first time I heard ‘I Can Break Your Heart Too,’ it was, lyrically, so amazing to me the first time I heard it. I think Cris and Al were so clever in how they wrote it. In the bridge, especially, it’s such an accurate representation of a thought process you would have about someone, or about a relationship. It’s so good.”
Cristal: “Honestly, we were just exploring the tortured relationship I think everyone has with L.A., and even past L.A., just with big cities in general. I mean, we’re suburban girls, we’re from Utah County, and moving to L.A. was so challenging because it’s such a loaded city with so many types of people — when you come from a small town, that’s kind of maddening because you’re encountering things you’ve never encountered before. But it’s also exploring how much we love L.A., and you hear that in the chorus with the back and forth of ‘Take me home, I don’t wanna be here,’ but also ‘you can find my heart here.’”
Alisa: “To me, this is one of the most heartbreaking songs on the record. ‘Not Enough’ and ‘All Mean Nothing’ are both songs where you can really hear the pain coming through. One of the most heartbreaking things you can go through in life is being deeply in love with somebody, but realizing that it just isn’t enough, you guys are just not right for each other. That realization and coming to peace with that has been a big part of my personal maturation. So this was kind of just like, ‘I can’t do anything about this, f–k your expectations of me.’”
Cristal: “An emotional banger! It was such a turning point when we wrote this song for me specifically, because I was just going through a lot relationship-wise when we wrote this record. I was just in the heat of this breakup — it had happened a week before we left for Malibu to write and record. I was riding the line between wanting to not be creative and wanting to pour my heart out. Alisa was like, ‘Dude, we’re in Malibu, just write. Tell me how you’re feeling, and we’ll write a song about it because you clearly need to talk about this. We don’t even have to use it, let’s just get it out.’ So I gave in to the vulnerability, I had to take breaks to go outside and cry, and I remember just purging it and feeling this massive weight off my shoulders.”
Katie Henderson: “‘Cruel’ has always been one of my favorites, since I heard the first demo of it. We actually ended up going to London and Amsterdam to finish some of the songs on the record, and I think that made the song mean even more to me, because I loved that time so much when we finished the record. You can feel the emotion so deeply, not just in the lyrics and melody, but also in the instrumentation, and it just felt very cool to be creative with those sonics.”
“Thought of You”
Alisa: “I remember talking with Cris about what she wanted for a relationship, having come out of a more toxic one. Realizing from that what you do want, and what you’re prioritizing, and what you’re willing to hold out for. ‘Thought of You’ is really a love letter to that future person you haven’t met yet, but that you know is out there. I love the idea that the perfect person, your soulmate is out there for you, and whether you meet them sooner or later in life, they will come around. Holding on to the thought of them is really what that song is.”
Alisa: “We wrote this one toward the beginning of the record, and it felt like new territory for us, not just song-wise, but also thematically. Until now, we haven’t written a lot of love song, like genuine love letter love songs. That was the first time we did that, and that’s because it was the first time I ever truly had fallen in love. It was the first few months I was dating my girlfriend, who I’m still with.”
Cristal: “I was skateboarding around in my neighborhood, and I was like, ‘Whoa, this is how I feel about our fans!’ The deep relationship and connection we have with them, it felt like this song really accurately expressed that.”
Cristal: “‘Zillionaire’ is just a real good throwback song, and it felt like the right note to end on. So much of our culture and the music we listen to now is flexing wealth and money and all of these things. At the end of the day, that means nothing.”
Alisa: “Yeah, there’s no joy, it’s just void and materialistic. We kind of just wanted to write an anthem saying ‘F–k money! It about relationships and friends and everything else, that’s true wealth.’”