Tucked into the corner of the BBC’s Maida Vale studios, The Aces are receiving a pep talk.
“When the red light goes on, we’re recording,” the studio engineer tells the band. “We’ll do a couple of passes of each song. You’ll know in your heart when it’s good.”
“We try to be good first time,” smiles singer Cristal Ramirez.
The US quartet are recording their first ever session for BBC Radio 1, who’ve made their single, Always Get This Way, the station’s tune of the week.
There are a couple of false starts: A drum sample isn’t firing and an autotune effect is misbehaving. Guitarist Katie Henderson commandeers a laptop from their sound engineer, swipes through two dozen menus and recalibrates the backing track.
“Autotune’s hella scary when it goes wrong,” she observes.
But once they rip into their three-song set, there’s no stopping them. Even when Cristal “chokes on my own spit” during the final chorus of Always Get This Way.
Spirits are justifiably high: A couple of hours ago, they released their third album, I’ve Loved You For So Long, and the reviews are trickling in.
“Seven out of 10 from The Line Of Best Fit,” announces their PR. “Eight out of 10 from Clash.”
This prompts a brief, animated discussion about how publications arrive at their scores; and whether a seven is positive or merely average.
“In the end, I don’t really care about reviews,” concludes Cristal. “But I want a 10.”
The release couldn’t be any more different to their last record, Under My Influence, which dropped a couple of weeks into the first lockdown in 2020.
At the time, the band were still confident they’d get to play those songs live when summer rolled around.
“We really were in denial for a while,” laughs bassist McKenna Petty. “We thought it would all be over soon.”
Instead, their plans were ripped out of their hands. The album was left in limbo. The pressure to build on the buzz surrounding their debut vanished, leaving bigger questions about their future.
“We were kind of mourning our career, not sure how that was gonna go,” says Alisa Ramirez, the band’s drummer and Cristal’s younger sister. “We went into a really dark place.”
Cristal started having panic attacks, knocking on her sister’s door every night at 3am. Alisa would try to comfort her, making her oatmeal and talking her back to sleep.
But her anxiety had deeper roots than the pandemic.
‘Something wrong with the church’
All four Aces were brought up in Provo, a deeply religious town in the US state of Utah, about 45 minutes away from the headquarters of the Mormon church.
“If you’re not familiar with Mormonism, it’s just intense Christianity, really,” says Cristal. “But it’s a way of life in Utah. It’s the world you live in. We didn’t know people that weren’t Mormon in high school.”
The sisters, who were “tomboys from the time we were little kids”, were “constantly reminded we don’t fit in,” says Alisa.
“The culture is super homophobic, super patriarchal,” agrees McKenna. “There’s a blueprint you’re supposed to follow, as women especially, of getting married young, having a family, not having a career.
“Just for some context, Utah has the highest suicide rate among LGBTQ youth in the whole country. So it’s a really big issue, how they isolate queer youth, especially.”
Cristal had her first crush on another girl in kindergarten but she squashed her feelings, believing they were sinful. She tried praying to be straight and dated boys in high school before coming out to her sister at the age of 18.
Alisa didn’t bat an eyelid before replying, “Oh, same.”
As soon as they could, they disavowed Mormonism and fled Utah for Los Angeles. But though their bandmates supported them, they were still tied to the church.
So when, in 2016. the sisters presented the band with a song called Loving Is Bible – a “grand declaration” that God is tolerant of all sexualities – it caused a certain amount of internal friction.
“That song almost didn’t come out because it was really upsetting to Kenna and Katie,” says Alisa.
“The church conditions you to be scared because your salvation is on the line,” McKenna explains. “I was really scared of what other people would think.”
Five years later, things have changed. Katie has also come out as queer and left the church. McKenna, the band’s only straight member, also stepped away from Mormonism despite getting married in the LDS Temple in 2019.
“I really didn’t have a good experience there [at the temple]. That was kind of the catalyst of me leaving.
“But my biggest issue was when the girls came out to me. I was like, ‘This feels real and what the church is teaching doesn’t. There’s something wrong with the church.'”
I’ve Loved You For So Long is the first album The Aces have recorded where they’re all on the same page. But it was only possible after the solitude of the pandemic forced them to confront their past.
“As sisters, it started clicking that we’d spent the last six years running away from our hometown and trying to not be associated with our upbringing,” says Alisa.
“We were ashamed about it and embarrassed about it. It deeply affected our mental state and and it’s still affecting us to this day.”