Like many others I was first clued into Utah-born, four-piece The Aces by way of their song "Stuck" – a track I couldn't quit that was quickly added to my summer playlists. With its retro-pop vibes a la The 1975, plucky guitar, and an urgent high octave chorus on par with Haim, it possesses the uptempo sounds we're programmed to love - but sharper, smarter, and amplified.
That track is the first off of their debut EP (out today) I Don't like Being Honest – a spunky acknowledgment of probably everyone's innermost dialogue. But unlike the laypeople, The Aces are artists and storytellers, and they have to tell the truth all. the. time. Recently, I was able to sit down with them for a few very real minutes before their first show in NYC, and they were happily the epitome of authenticity. So I owe it to them to do the same in attempting to package their effervescent essence into sans serif text.
Full disclosure, I was forty minutes late to meet the ladies of The Aces (Katie Henderson, McKenna Petty, and sisters Cristal Ramirez and Alisa Ramirez) outside of the venue Mercury Lounge. I had an appointment uptown that ran over and was stuck in midtown rush hour traffic; I texted their manager that I was in a cab but crawling. He said the band had to eat before they went on, but I was welcome to come – so I apologetically crashed their dinner at the proximate restaurant bar, Boulton & Watt.
I'm embarrassed to admit that walking in I expected to see a row of perfectly coiffed quadruplets daintily dabbing their lips with a napkin in preparation for their big show. Instead, I walked into a massive crowd with no conformity in sight. Eventually, thanks to the glory of cell phones, I found their manager who first introduced me to bassist McKenna, a bohemian blonde clad in a flowy white jumpsuit and Chucks. He gathered the rest of the ladies who were all partaking in different conversations, and we squished into a back booth to chat.
Right off the bat, they schooled me with their differences. Cristal - the lead vox/guitar, fittingly led most of the conversation. She was dynamic and her answers were direct and concise; her guttural voice carried into my low-tech iPhone recording device even over the din of barflies and knives scraping plates. Her sister Alisa, the drummer and the youngest of the group, would fill in the gaps adding precise insight at strategically timed moments, proving that wisdom doesn't always correlate with age. Katie, petite with long blonde hair wearing jeans and a tee, was eager to jump in and provide the bones of a story - like she must lay a guitar track onto an established melody. And McKenna, like her bass, kept the relaxed momentum going strong - supporting the narrative and adding in important elements where they belonged.
We talked about their small town beginnings in Orem, Utah and how they were all raised by strong women; I got the rundown on their eclectic musical upbringings (sisters Cristal and Alisa grew up on Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson while Katie and McKenna listened to The Cure and Depeche Mode) – and while these artists still find themselves in the band's inspiration set, The Aces are focused on honing in on their own sound. Alisa noted that they're always compared to other female but notably "dope" bands Muna and Haim (guilty - see above) but that they are different, and would like to be viewed this way, because you don't see a band of guys and say, "Oh they're like the Rolling Stones." When asked how they would differentiate themselves, Alisa imparted, "Once you stop chasing a sound, you start sounding like yourself."
The quartet can talk so sagely about music, because believe it or not, at this point they're veterans. They've been playing music together for almost 9-10 years now and they started performing live when they were 13. Senior year brought with it a big decision: go to college or continue music as a career? This question made more difficult by the small town mentality and people's inquisitions, "But what do you really want to do?" And also the fact there were different avenues veering off from the collective dream. McKenna had a full-ride scholarship, Katie was going to play college soccer, Cristal was going to try to figure out how to be in the music business solo, and Alisa was looking to enter into the medical field. According to Cristal, watching Lorde (who is around their age) win all of her Grammys in 2014 was the moment they realized they would pursue music full-time.
"We came together and we realized we have this energy and connection and it would be a shame to let this dissipate. If we're going to do it let's really chase it." Cristal Ramirez
Once they put that into the universe it all sort of just fell into place. They started getting more attention and eventually signed to Red Bull Records in 2016. "Stuck" blew up and their follow-up track "Physical" was called "more honest than most pop songs" by NPR; they played eight shows at SXSW this year, and today they release their debut EP.
The band can't agree whether the title I Don't Like Being Honest came about when they were walking dogs or laying out in the yard, but what they can agree on is the meaning. It alludes to young adulthood - a theme carried throughout the EP - when you're learning that in order to be happy you have to be honest with yourself and with others. Cristal explained,
"It's exhausting to be authentic but it's the only way to live. We have to write songs about things that we go through and people listen to those. It's not like it's just in a journal tucked away under your mattress. It's on Spotify."
I Don't Like Being Honest is about their lives – this emotional but vibrant time of young adulthood viewed through the lens of the unique situation they're in. But even though this EP is their diary and our front row seat to their formative years, the themes are also universal. "Stuck" is about trying to leave that toxic relationship you know is bad for you (been there) and "Physical" is an uptempo song about wanting more than that initial attraction (done that). "Touch" goes back into a very tactile territory, because let's be honest that's important. The chorus is a breathy staccato and stretches "touch" into three syllables, underscoring its significance, and the track strikes a 2000s-esque cadence similar to The Corrs "Leave Me Breathless." It erupts into a harder head-banging bridge before Cristal pulls back with the breakdown, an intimate moment when the rhythmic walls come down and her vocals hang in the balance, fully exposed.
"Baby Who" is my favorite off of the EP, and is a track the band wrote right after signing to Red Bull Records. It's about soaring over those hurdles and people that try to stand in your way, and the "Baby who?" of the chorus says so much with two words; it's a sassy passive dismissal of perceived control. One thing's for certain: The Aces are all grown up and they're nobody's babies.
I was annoyed at myself for having a misconception when I first walked in of what a "girl band" would look like, so wanted to get deeper and hear it straight from the source. I asked them to list superlatives. And even in listing their differentiators, they were all on the same page. Katie = most even tempered. Cristal = sleepiest. McKenna = granola AKA "most likely to go on a five-year hike and never return." And Alisa = at first called "bougie" but we changed to "classy," because she hates that word. And I do too.
Watching them onstage at Mercury Lounge, I was impressed the way they worked such a captivated crowd and commanded the stage like they had been playing music for most of their lives. And then realized: oh wait, they have. Cristal slithered down the mic and bounded about in her white Converse high-tops and slip dress like a pro, made eyes at the superfans in the front row while still being utterly charming with her admission, "It's our first NYC show!"
Earlier, between bites of grilled chicken and quinoa, they admitted that they can't keep anything from each other, and I acknowledged that this was probably good for their onstage communication as well. And I witnessed this synergy while packed in tight with 249 others on a balmy summer night. There's an unspoken coordination to their performance, like mental and physical thread strung through all four of them, a wavelength that ebbs and flows with the musical elements and the magnetic push/pull of their body language. Their recorded sound says pop but their live delivery says rock, and while they're cohesive, they're each bringing a contrastive vibe. They're kind of like how I would explain "fashion" today. An amalgamation of the best parts of the past with a fresh perspective, bolder colors, crisper lines.
They chose the name Blue Aces back in the day when they were playing their first show and a friend told them that the perfect equation was a color plus a thing, and tada! - you had your band name. But everyone started dropping the "Blue" and so "The Aces" stuck. And "Ace" means to do something really well. Check. And last, but certainly not least, Cristal noted the gender neutralness of it.
"The Aces sounds androgynous and you don't totally know that it's a girl band; you might expect for that to be an all-male rock band."
We've come a long way from the Brontë sisters having to utilize male pen names in order to get published, but I think we can all agree the music industry is still imbalanced to some degree. And while it's unfortunate, these ladies are right to preempt any potential misogyny by pandering to the masses' stunted comprehensions of gendered naming conventions. Because let's be clear: The Aces are more than just a girl band. After witnessing their perfectly separate but compatible personalities, God-given gifts and cement-sealed bond first hand – yes, they are four girls about to take over the world, but they're also just a damn great rock band.