As a journalist, my first instinct while interviewing a girl group is to dig deep for any hint of scandal. So when I meet with the rising band The Aces at their Refinery29 shoot in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in May, I’m armed with questions that will help me discover who hates who behind the scenes and which member secretly wants to go solo.
But the band does not hesitate to shut me down.
“We don’t have any of that drama. It’s a whole different ball game when a group is actually, like, authentic, because girl groups are usually put together, and we’re not,” drummer Alisa Ramirez tells me. “When you just throw a bunch of kids in a group and they don’t know each other or who they are, they’re essentially puppets. But we’ve been doing this since we were kids. No one chose us for this band; we chose each other.”
Styling Tips: On McKenna: Off-set a slouchy pair of shorts with a form-fitting one-piece; On Katie: Choose a swimsuit with a special front detail to add interest; On Cristal: Skip the shirt and try a bra top under your blazer; Alisa: Add a pop of colour to an otherwise neutral look.
McKenna: Tibi Delancey Twill Flap Blazer, available at Tibi; Tibi Serge Suiting Shorts, available at Tibi; Onia Kelly One Piece Swimsuit, $195, available at Onia; Michael Kors Dakota Flip Flop, available at Michael Kors; Mulberry earring; Sunday Somewhere Piper Sunglasses, available at Sunday Somewhere. Katie: Derek Lam 10 Crosby Square Neck Lace Front Maillot, available at Derek Lam; Sandro Zipped Cotton Trousers, available at Sandro; ATP Atelier Canda White Vacchetta Sandals, available at ATP Atelier; L.G.R. Reunion Combo Sunglasses, available at L.G.R. Cristal: Tibi Cooper Silk Wool Blazer, available at Tibi; Tibi Cooper Silk Wool Shorts, available at Tibi; Solid and Striped The Katie Top, available at Solid and Striped; Mansur Gavriel Ankle Strap Sandal, available at Mansur Gavriel; L.G.R. Monarch Sunglasses, available at L.G.R. Alisa: Topshop Checked Jumpsuit, available at Topshop; Flagpole Lori Swim Top, available at Flagpole; ATP Atelier Allai Black Vacchetta, available at ATP Atelier; Sunday Somewhere Ems, available at Sunday Somewhere.
And that choosing happened long before any of them were even old enough to think about angling for their own solo gigs. Natives of Provo, Utah, sisters Alisa and Cristal Ramirez — now 20 and 22, respectively — grew up knowing they wanted to be in a band. But neither can pinpoint exactly when their visions of a music career began, other than the way their Honduran father danced salsa with them in the kitchen and their mother blasted '80s pop by artists like Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. When Alisa was in the fifth grade, they told their best friend, McKenna Petty, that she should ask for a bass for Christmas to balance out Alisa’s drumming and Cristal’s guitar skills. By that New Year’s Eve, two fifth graders and a third grader were a band.
The trio — all self-taught musicians — got their start jamming and experimenting in their neighbour’s garage. It was that neighbour’s older sister who swore that the best band names are a combination of a colour and an object, so they landed on The Blue Aces. They dropped the blue and just became The Aces in 2008, when Petty’s friend Katie Henderson joined the group as another guitarist.
After spending all of high school performing and building a name for themselves locally (the benefit of living in a small religious town meant they could play at grown-up venues, since they were alcohol free), in 2014 they had to decide whether The Aces had a real, professional future. With Cristal, Henderson, and Petty about to graduate from high school, they had a choice: Were The Aces going to become a childhood hobby and memory? Or did they have a real shot to make it out of Provo? All four teens were on the fence — until they watched an 18-year-old Lorde win two Grammy Awards on national television.
Styling tips: On Cristal: Layer a string bikini top over a simple white blouse for a two-shirts-in-one look; On McKenna: Let your high-waisted bathing suit bottom peek out from the waistband of your pants.
“After seeing Lorde win, like magic, McKenna and I both showed up at Cristal and Alisa’s house at the same time,” Henderson remembers. “We were all just like, Lorde’s our age, and she’s from New Zealand, which is the definition of a far away place...if she can do this, we can do this. And then eventually we got introduced to her manager at the time and started working with him, so it was like all of the stars aligned.”
Petty adds that while the dynamic of their lifelong friendships did indeed change once they inked a record deal with Red Bull Records in 2016 — they now work, travel, perform, rehearse, and live together — they’re confident in their foundation.
“I think if you can get through ages 14 through 17 together as friends and survive, you’re kind of set, because those years are insane,” she says.
While there really seem to be no secret attempts at solo careers here, it’s clear that Cristal, who favors grunge-y vintage tees and leather, is not just the guitar player and lead vocalist of the group, but also the leader. She often speaks up first, and she’s the one the rest of the crew asks for opinions about their photoshoot ensembles. She’s also responsible for crafting the name of their first studio album When My Heart Felt Volcanic, inspired by a line from the Edgar Allan Poe poem “To -- -- --. Ulalume: A Ballad” which she found on Tumblr.
Styling tips: On McKenna: Layer a darker, high-waisted bikini under a sheer dress instead of a slip; On Alisa: Play with proportions by pairing a simple swim top with voluminous trousers; On Katie: Let a one-piece act as a bodysuit by wearing it with pants; On Cristal: Hate bras? Wear a bathing suit top that blends in instead.
McKenna: Miu Miu Floral Print Dress, available at Miu Miu; Rachel Comey Revival Top, available at Rachel Comey; Rachel Comey Keena Bottom, available at Rachel Comey; Charlotte Stone Ama Shoes, available at Charlotte Stone. Alisa: J.Crew 1989 Scoopneck Bikini Top, available at J.Crew; Rosie Assoulin Rope-A-Dope Pants, available at Rosie Assoulin; Aurelie Bidermann Merco Necklace, available at Aurelie Bidermann. Katie: Topshop Taupe Striped Suit, available at Topshop; J.Crew 1989 Scoopback One Piece Swimsuit, available at J.Crew; K. Jacques Zenobie Sandals, available at K. Jacques. Cristal: Mansur Gavriel dress; Mansur Gavriel Linen Pants, available at Mansur Gavriel; Araks Myriam Bikini Top, available at Araks; Trademark Scallop Kidskin Sandal, available at Trademark.
From there, Cristal wrote most of the album with her sister, Alisa, a drummer who is mellow yet effervescent; her frequent usage of the word “like” and penchant for baggy urban streetwear gives her more of a California girl vibe than Utahan. Meanwhile, Petty the bass player is the quiet, calm, and wise current keeping the foursome afloat, with piercing blue-grey eyes and unapologetically feminine style that leans toward dresses and jumpsuits. And then there’s guitar player Henderson, a thoughtful, rosy-cheeked tomboy who likes pantsuits and sportier combos; with an almost mom-like demeanour, she gently keeps the girls on time throughout the day.
The Aces consider the way they blend their personal style nearly as important as the way they blend their personalities in their music. Each girl makes a point to individually tell me that it took them nearly a decade to really nail down their sound. That makes them all the more proud of When My Heart Felt Volcanic, which features mostly Cristal’s floating, raspy voice over a fusion of alternative rock-pop and lyrics that muse about love, growing pains, and heartbreak. With songs ranging from catchy upbeat toe-tap pop to moody aching tracks like “Strong Enough” which features Ramirez crooning, “I slept in, slept in too late/Burnt my tongue, missed the train/All because of the look you gave me,” the record is equally primed for shower singing, festival swaying, and jamming at your desk.
They do fuse alt rock and pop, and their band does include sisters. If that sounds familiar, Petty asks that you please not compare them to HAIM.
“We love HAIM, they’re one of our favourite bands...but the one thing that bothers us sometimes is that we sound quite different than them, so it’s like, are you just comparing us because we’re girls?” she says. “Being girls is not a genre. It’s a great compliment, because they’re amazingly talented, and we’re proud to be in the same girl band community as them. But there’s no need to pit or compare girl bands to each other; there’s enough music to go around.”
Styling tips: On McKenna: Layer high-neck one-piece under a sheer dress to create an interesting neckline; On Katie: If you're not into colour, try a simple monochromatic look; On Cristal: Don't be afraid to mix as many colours and patterns at once; On Alisa: Give the illusion of a bra top (without feeling as exposed) with a cut-out one-piece.
McKenna: Flagpole Kirat Swimsuit, available at Flagpole; Michael Kors dress. Katie: Gap Bikini Bralette Top, available at Gap; Sea Edie Eyelet Pant, available at Sea; Mary MacGill Travertine Drop Necklace, available at Mary MacGill. Cristal: Solid and Striped The Brigitte Top, available at Solid and Striped; Fendi top; Veronica Beard pants; ATP Atelier Allai Black Vacchetta, available at ATP Atelier. Alisa: Hunza G Lara Swim, available at Hunza G; Novis jacket and pants; Tibi John Flats, available at Tibi; Clyde Fisherman Hat, available at Clyde.
“Secretly feuding girl group” and “girl band that sounds like another girl band” aren’t the only descriptors The Aces are weary of. While the Ramirez sisters both proudly identify as queer, they do not want to be called a gay band.
“I definitely fear us being pigeonholed as a ‘gay band’ because, regardless of being queer, Alisa and I try to write music that’s universal, whether it’s girls our age listening to our songs or straight men,” Cristal says. “But that being said, we purposely try to steer away from using gender pronouns, because we want our songs to be open to interpretation by anybody. I’m proud to be queer. But our band has multiple identities. And at the end of the day, we don’t need to complicate gender and sexuality...we’re all humans who listen to music to connect and know someone else out there feels how we do about love.”
As a writer who has interviewed many overly-earnest new artists, I find The Aces’ honesty throughout their six-hour photoshoot with Refinery29 refreshing. So is their courageousness; they’re just as game to talk about their sexuality and dating lives as they are to rock bathing suit tops with wide leg pants or jump into a pit of rocks to get the perfect photo. And that confident fearlessness is perhaps what truly sets them apart from the girl groups who have come before them.
“We want to win some fucking Grammys,” Cristal declares with a shrug at the end of our interview. “Maybe female artists aren’t ‘supposed’ to say things like that, but I think there’s something really powerful in speaking candidly about what you want. We have no inhibitions. We want to be one of the biggest bands in the world. And we won’t apologise about that.”