“This is actually my second con I’ve ever done,” said A.J. Michalka as she took her seat on the stage (with Starbucks coffee in hand) during Saturday’s panel at MCM Birmingham Comic Con. “I’m really happy to be here and I appreciate you guys for sitting in.” Actress, singer and songwriter, during the panel A.J. talked about voicing her character Stevonnie on the animated series Steven Universe, her role on the 1980s set sitcom The Goldbergs, and as one half of the duo Aly & AJ, the new album that they will be releasing next year.
Since it was only her second time at a convention, A.J. was asked what it felt like being in a room full of people talking about her work. “To see the reaction of how it’s moved people is really satisfying,” she said, adding that she loves being in the studio, writing music and doing voice work. “You don’t really know who’s going to react to it and how they’re going to react. Then you go to something like this and then you see the passion of the fans, people dressing up in costume, telling you how they’ve been moved by a certain episode or storyline and that’s really moving for me. It’s really fulfilling to not only do the work, but to see that come to life and see how it affects people.”
Conversation moved to The Goldbergs, in which she plays Lainey Lewis, Erica’s best friend, and girlfriend to Erica’s brother Barry. She was asked how it felt being born in the 1990s and to be starring in a show that’s set in the 1980s. A.J. noted how there was something really nostalgic about that particular decade.“I definitely did some research before I started,” she said. “I grew up in a household where my parents were really involved in the 80s. My mom rocked the 80s hair for years.” She then mentioned that the coolest part of being involved with the show was getting used to the music and films of that period. “I’d already seen a lot of John Hughes work, a lot of those great classic 80s films. But now every time there’s a new episode written, I go and do research for that movie. Like, we did a Breakfast Club episode recently and it was really neat to go back and see that film again. I’d seen it ten years ago, but to watch it again as an adult and to know that I’m going to be re-enacting Molly Ringwald’s character, it’s really cool.” She noted how the show was bringing back a point in time that a lot of today’s kids are not familiar with at all, saying, “Now kids are coming up to me saying, ‘Oh, I really enjoyed the 80s and I’d never even known what it was like.’”
When questioned about what she draws upon when it comes to creating music, A.J. mentioned how next year would mark ten years that she and her sister Aly have not released a record. “We got signed at such a young age and we started writing at such a young age,” she said. “I think we felt that we had to grow up quickly, in the sense that we had to figure out material that we can then put to paper.” She then said how they are now in their 20s and given that they’ve been through so much more, it makes for more material that they can draw upon, be it about relationships, friends, the industry, growing up and moving apart. “There’s so much to draw on, so we just try to take a lot of real things that are happening in our personal life, as well as things that are happening in general. Without being too preachy, I really like writing about current events, what’s going on. I mean, everyone can relate to what’s happening right now in our country. I feel like it’s really fulfilling to be able to have that skill, to not only write great material, but to get things out through awareness is really special.”
A.J. was then asked about working with her sister, and how they were able to keep that bond going. “We do everything together and we’re super close,” she responded. “I think having just one sister and growing up in a house where you’re really inspired to spend a lot of time together helped a lot. My parents always really encouraged time together instead of spending a lot of time with outside friends.” She added how being siblings there are the occasional fights, but ultimately they have a lot in common. “The way we approach music, acting, the way we look at business, and the way we look at everyday life is really similar…I got really lucky having an older sister that I look up to and just have a lot in common with.”
Talk turned to Steven Universe as A.J. explained that the coolest part of being involved with the show was being able to play such a multidimensional character in Stevonnie. “The combination, the fusion of Steven and Connie is such a special thing,” she said. “It really is an original role that I don’t think has necessarily been done in the cartoon world.” She also had high praise for the creator Rebecca Sugar, calling her a “talented writer” that created something special. “I think the show has so much depth and the writing is so purposeful. Everything is really thought out and has a really beautiful arc.” She then explained how Rebecca wrote the song Here Comes a Thought, in which A.J. and Estelle (who voices Garnet) got to sing a duet. “I got to harmonise with her in the studio and that was really neat.”
She then added how the most fun part of voicing Stevonnie was learning the laughter, calling it “such a specific thing when it’s merged together.” She mentioned how she would usually stand between Zach Callison, who voices Steven, and Grace Rolekm, who voices Connie, which allowed her to pull inspiration from the both of them.
Asked about her favourite line from the show, she said, “I think my favourite line, not only in regards to being able to deliver it, but also hearing it back later with the animation, is ‘I’m a fusion,’ because it was the first time we ever really saw Stevonnie.” She said how the line was like, “the beginning of Stevonnie’s life.”
When asked about her initial reaction to playing the role of Stevonnie, A.J. said, “I loved it. I think Rebecca’s doing something that’s so specific and never really been done before. I know fusions are a huge part of the show, and a lot of people come up to me [saying] that they’ve actually really favoured Stevonnie as a fusion, which just means the world to me. So when I saw that it was going to be two best friends, I just put myself in the position of, ‘Oh, what if I merge with my best guy friend, what would that be like for me?’ With that in the back of my mind, I was able to fully deliver that character.”
Someone from the audience also asked A.J. what her favourite episode was with Stevonnie in it and her favourite episode without Stevonnie. “I would say my favourite Stevonnie episode would have to be Alone Together,” she said, citing that it is the one that introduces Stevonnie. She then said that her favourite episode right now was Onion Gang.
A question from the audience asked A.J. about her experience working with director J.J. Abrams on the film Super 8. “I had a blast,” she said. “That movie is just so visceral, and moving, and beautiful. To be a part of something that marks J.J. Abrams’ childhood, by running around with a Super 8 camera with his friends, that really meant something to me.” She also had a lot of good things to say about Abrams, calling him, “an amazing visionary, he’s talented, he’s kind, he’s soft and he works so well with children. I saw him with those young boys and he just really knew how to handle that because I think he just saw himself in a lot of them.”
She was then asked about her leading role in the film Grace Unplugged, and the similarities to her personal experience. “I loved Gracie,” said A.J. of the character she played. “I felt that I had a lot in common with her.” She went on to describe the message of the film, saying, “To me it’s all about not sacrificing who you are to make it. That’s kind of what Gracie’s going through.”
Asked if there was anything she would like to make a film or write a song about, she responded, “For me, it would be amazing to score a film. That would be something that my sister and I would be really passionate about; falling in love with the screenplay and falling in love with the story and being able to write the score to it.” She then explained that she and Aly had recently produced the film Weepah Way for Now, in which they also star as two sisters who are about to embark on a music tour and so visit friends as well as planning a party before they go. “It’s centred on our relationship as sisters…Aly and I really drew from a lot of personal experiences in that film. A part of me felt like making that movie was very therapeutic and really nostalgic.”
A.J. was then asked what she felt was the biggest change she had seen in the music industry in the last ten years. She cited the growth of social media. “When we were first out, I think Myspace was just taking off. There wasn’t a Twitter, Instagram, or… I don’t even think Facebook started when we first released a record.” She highlighted how she and Aly now have a core fanbase on Twitter that have followed them since the beginning. “It’s been really cool to see that online because we didn’t really have that access when we first went into music.” A.J. then mentioned the popularity of streaming music and that she and Aly are looking towards releasing their future work on Spotify. But the important thing is the music itself. “For me, it’s all about the songs, I think that’s the most important thing, writing music that people connect with, that people love, that people feel inspired to listen to.”
She was then asked about what fans could expect from their new album. “I think you can expect a lot of heart,” responded A.J. “It’s a really, really cool record.” She explained that the few friends and family members that had heard it used the one word ‘nostalgia’ when describing it. “To me, that’s kind of the word that sums up the record. It’s kind of like you’re listening to an old friend. And I think that Aly and I are back in a new way that I’m really happy with.”
Being at MCM Birmingham Comic Con, she was finally asked which character she would like to dress up as at a convention, which resulted in A.J. picking a certain magical girl. “I’ve been wanting to do this for Halloween for so long,” she said. “I feel like maybe I should test it out as a cosplay at a convention, I should probably do that first. It’d be Sailor Moon, but I really want to do it right. I grew up watching Sailor Moon, I love her, she’s my favourite character out of all the girls, I do love Sailor Mars too…I really want to do it right and for some reason I’m just scared to go for it. I should really test it out at a convention, then do it for Halloween.”
By Shalimar Sahota