2020 is a milestone year for The Naked and Famous. The duo is putting out their fourth full-length album, and their breakout first album Passive Me, Aggressive You turns ten. For Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers, the decade has been full of ups and downs, but they’re not ready to step off the rollercoaster just yet.
As the New Zealand natives, The Naked and Famous started writing for their upcoming album, it felt as though every song they made would be doomed to haunt Powers’ hard drives like a wayward spirit with unfinished business in this realm. “I’m a person who has to finish things and put them out and release them to let them go,” says Powers. “If I don’t find a home for them they just sit around, jumping [between] hard drives across the years until they finally find a home.”
One of these rejected songs was “Monument”. Speaking of why it didn’t instantly make the cut, Xayalith reveals: “I was hell-bent on finding a way for us to evolve sonically and creatively, and ‘Monument’ just didn’t fall into that category.” By the summer of 2018, Xayalith and Powers were feeling tension in the studio as their sound wasn’t falling into place.
Xayalith didn’t feel like anything they wrote was ‘it’ and Powers’ frustration grew palpable. Everything changed when they eventually found that elusive ‘it’ and wrote “Recover,” the album’s title track. “That was the coat hanger that hung all the other songs,” recalls Xayalith. "We were able to bring “Monument” back into the fold and contextualize that in amongst all of those songs on the record.”
“Recover” itself was a eureka moment that came out of nowhere. Xayalith was driving home and then burst back into the studio with a song that came to her on the drive over. “It was one of those songs that was like a sneeze. It came out all at once,” says Powers. “That track was exciting, it was effortless, it was very personal, it was an exceptional lyric. The way we produced it was really enjoyable for us and it felt fun and creative and sort of set the precedent for how we were going to do the rest of the songs.”
The production method? Using a raw and organic recording as an instrument itself. For example, they would record a rough cut of Alisa playing the piano and then sample that, molding it into something entirely new on the computer. “We kind of approached every song like that. We’d have this big organic element and then we’d just go, ‘okay, we’re done with that, let’s just stay fully in the computer and use that as the instrument. We’re done with the organic sounds.’”
“Sunseeker,” is an ode to Xayalith’s Chow Chow/German Shepherd named Ginger. One morning, Xayalith invited friend/collaborator/keyboardist Luna Shadows over for breakfast. The writing session that ensued was a happy accident. Xayalith offered the word “Sunseeker” as a studio prompt, and the rest is history thanks to her four-legged muse.
At one point during our Zoom call I saw the little sunseeker herself as she walked behind the camera to the door; her fluffy orange tail curled up and bobbing around like a periscope. “I call Ginger my little sunseeker because she would be out in the garden just bathing in the little sunspots,” Xayalith explains. She says she never expected to have dogs in her life, but couldn’t imagine living any other way, especially having recently taken in a foster dog who had been rescued off the street and has never been in a house before. This newest member of the household is very sweet but often stares in wonder and confusion as Xayalith uses various cooking utensils.
“I don’t think we know how to write any other kind of music, to be honest,” says Powers on how the band is autobiographical in their lyrics. “Alisa and I aren’t very good at contextualizing from someone else’s point of view. Everything we write about is always very personal. I feel like it’s the only way we can motivate or focus. It’s such a hard task to try and write on behalf of a group of people or a social mentality or something. That doesn’t come naturally to us. We’re kind of private people.” However, they are able to open up in their music about all facets of their lives and draw inspiration from the strangest of moments.
“(An)Aesthetic” is about the time Powers nearly died from severe food poisoning. “We were playing a festival and an hour before I was supposed to get on the bus to drive to the festival across two days of travel, I was just violently, violently ill and then kind of lost the will to live,” says Powers. “An ambulance came and I got rushed to hospital and it had turned into blood poisoning. I became septic. I had sepsis, which was really weird,” he continues. “Just out of control food poisoning and I nearly died. That was fun, and I wrote a really good song about it, which was great.”
An older song that is of a special significance to Powers is “The Sound of My Voice,” which was written in collaboration with Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit. Hutchison was an idol of Powers’ and became a friend when Powers moved to Los Angeles. Hutchison’s suicide in 2018 was heartbreaking for Powers.
“Frightened Rabbit were a massive influence on us, on The Naked and Famous, so I was devastated. We weren’t best buddies or anything, we weren’t calling each other all the time but we were friends and he was a hero of mine,” says Powers. “You know that saying never meet your idols because they’ll just come down off the pedestal? Scott was awesome. I loved him, he was great, and we got along really well. I think that was the last hero I was ever determined to meet… I don’t need to meet any others just in case they suck.”
Recover discusses the concept in many different forms, whether it be recovery from illness or loss. It comes on the heels on big changes for the band. On Recover, Xayalith and Powers have returned to their origin as a duo, which poses challenges when you have grown used to functioning as a five-piece rock band. “It’s a return to form for us, but we’ve been a band for so many years and as far as the public know us we’re a band, so that part’s definitely been interesting because we’re taking all that experience and it’s back to basics now,” Powers explains.
“It was really interesting producing this record because we didn’t have the limitations of the band, but also for me, endless possibilities are harder than limitations. Sometimes it’s good to have creative limitations stopping you from endlessly experimenting. You know the saying: 'A song or a piece of art is never finished, only abandoned.' The constraints of the band kind of help with that but it was honestly a lot easier in some ways because we didn’t have to worry about delegating roles. It was just about ‘ok this part sounds good, this one sounds finished’ not ‘oh what’s everyone going to play on stage’ or ‘is this a single that we have to perform at one of our shows.’ It was just like ‘whatever, it sounds good, let’s roll with it.’”
Another major road bump for Xayalith and Powers was having to reimagine their relationship from something romantic to a purely creative partnership. “I feel like the most reliable thing in our lives is music and it was the one thing we could rely on. When our world is batshit crazy and we feel like we have no sense of control, the one thing that we do have control over is making music. That’s a language that Thom and I have always been able to speak to one another,” says Xayalith. “It was really tough, but in our own ways we were able to throw ourselves into making music because that was a common language for the both of us that we knew how to speak.”
"Sometimes it’s good to have creative limitations stopping you from endlessly experimenting." - Thom Powers
She admits that after eight years as a couple, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for their friendship, that sometimes criticism in the studio feels personal and inexorably linked with past arguments and grievances. They’ve learned to hit pause when things get ugly, in order to preserve their musical partnership and their friendship.
Xayalith reveals: “During the making of Recover, we suspended our friendship for about three months because he and I just couldn’t agree on anything. That was the best thing that we could’ve done because we were both questioning whether we would actually make a record. He had his own idea of what he wanted to create and I had my own idea of where I wanted to take us and we just couldn’t get on the same page.”
Powers affectionately quips that while Xayalith is a pain in his ass, he can’t imagine life without her and that through the years, they have become family. He adds, “I think we’ve missed a huge opportunity by not having a camera crew follow us around because The Naked and Famous internally is one of the most exciting and dramatic, stressful bands on the planet and I know this for a fact. I was complaining about the drama, the whirlwind that is Alisa and me, and I was complaining one day about her behind her back to someone who works closely with the Fleetwood Mac camp, and I told this person the story of all our drama and they go: ‘Woah, man. That sounds fucked.’ And I was like cool, if someone who works for Fleetwood Mac told me that my situation is fucked then we win. Take that Fleetwood Mac!”
Like Fleetwood Mac, The Naked and Famous found themselves navigating years of highs and lows, love and heartbreak, inspiration and frustration. But they weren’t alone. Xayalith explains, “The first three records were made in a very insular way. We were a five-piece band, Thom was producing everything. It was all very in house, in the box. With Recover, with us going through so many professional and personal changes and growing pains and losing band members and going through all these transitional phases to get to this point, it took a community of friends to help bolster us and support us through the process with the vision that we had."
She continues: "I think the main difference with Recover is that we opened the doors out to friends who understood who Thom and I were, understood our dynamic, understood the band and where we wanted to go, and then kind of helped support our vision with that. I think we really needed it because Thom and I have been writing partners for the last decade and sometimes we have such a default setting when we write songs and there’s no new ingredients happening in the mix when we try to cook something up. It was really integral for us to have these outside voices and minds just to bring a fresh perspective to our process.”
The transition from Passive Me, Aggressive You to Recover has been a smooth and subtle gradient, fading slowly out of an alt-rock driven sound and into a bright, punchy pop. They don’t surrender their signature synths, but as the duo has figured themselves out, their sound has become sharper and more intentional, a bit less chaotic but every bit as interesting. Xayalith turned to the school of pop music in the making of Recover in order to push her comfort zone, but also returned to her old favorites. Drake, Cautious Clay, Orion Sun, and Arlo Parks were all on heavy rotation throughout the making of Recover.
As The Naked and Famous enter their thirties, their sonic influences have become harder to pin down. Instead, they are inspired by random events and pieces of their lives. “It might just be the opening scene of a movie, or a mood, or something that happened, or your dog, you know? And that’s the main inspiration for the song,” explains Powers. Then, a decade of musical knowledge will bolster that motivation. “That’s probably my favorite state to be in, I think. When you forget your influences entirely and just trust yourself that you’ve got some influences that have made you who you are. You plow ahead blindly almost because I feel like that’s where a lot of genuine creativity comes from.”
Their breakout single “Young Blood” was made this way, without references or conversation. Xayalith was noodling on her piano and the track's iconic melody materialized. The rest was built from there, and when they couldn’t find a line for the chorus, they settled on the descending set of “yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah’s.” Sometimes it’s better to have no influences at all, to just throw yourself headfirst into the deep end and see what happens.
“It’s not a positive or encouraging idea but I feel like there’s a big difference sometimes between this notion of inspiration and incentive or motivation. I feel like nobody in music wants to admit that they feel motivated or incentivized. Everyone wants to be romantic about it and talk in terms of inspiration and ‘I just had to get this idea out,’” Powers reflects. “We’ve been doing this for such a long time so I don’t even question it. I’m just in The Naked and Famous. That’s what I do. I don’t question, ‘do I want to do this?’ or anything like that. I’ve committed myself to this. There’s no option to do anything else. This is everything that I am and everything I know how to do.”
When The Naked and Famous started over a decade ago, they had little incentive but they were faced with a choice: get a 9-5 job or be a dirt-poor musician. Their passion led them to the latter, their main incentive then to build a legacy of their own. They’ve come a long way since Passive Me, Aggressive You. Xayalith hasn’t listened to the record in a long time, but Powers is deeply nostalgic and still listens to it.
“The further away we get, the more amazing I feel,” shares Powers, likening the experience to looking at a photo of yourself from ten years ago and wondering how you could ever look so different. “I try and remember who I was from back then and I’m like oh wow, I don’t even have a single cell in my body that is that person anymore. It’s trippy. It’s this freakish feeling because it’s different from a picture. A picture is just one thing, it’s believable… the album is this huge thing, this huge accomplishment, and there’s parts of it where I’m like ‘how did I do that? How did we do that? What were we thinking? How did that come about? How did we have the motivation to figure that out?’ It’s becoming kind of distant to me in one way and of course, all my remembering self just sees all the good parts and has rose-tinted glasses looking back on it.”
Powers admittedly isn’t proud of himself from that time of his life. He was insecure, pseudo-intellectual, pompous, and overly confident to compensate. He wishes he could relive things again, that he could do some things differently. But when it comes to The Naked and Famous, he can’t see himself doing anything else. He jokes that he could write a cool book about how to keep a band together, “just a list of don’t’s.”
According to Xayalith, the making of Passive Me, Aggressive You was like: “Getting a driver’s license for the first time. I hadn’t been in a band before. I didn’t know what I was doing, just fumbling around in the dark and experiencing a lot of anxiety because I thought that I was going to fail every time I walked into a studio and had to do these vocal takes for these really big vocals like on “Punching In A Dream” and “Young Blood.” When I look back I just think about how young we were and how we had no idea what we were doing but we did it anyway. We were scared but we were willing to do it anyway.”
According to Powers, they have let go of a major concern of theirs - the authenticity of the live rock show. “Ten years ago we were very concerned with making sure it felt legitimately live. We didn’t want to have big backing tracks or anything like that. We just wanted to recreate our album in a live context,” he explains.
“I idolize groups like Radiohead… That was my romantic idea of a group. It was very important for us to do that and whilst that was really fun and we learned a lot of creative and musical lessons from doing that, I don’t think people care that much anymore. I think the ideas of authenticity related to bands is kind of gone, and if anyone’s still hanging onto that they need to kind of move out of the ‘90s. Welcome to 2020.”
In their live show and on their new record, The Naked and Famous embrace the soundscape of pop music. The people who wrote Passive Me, Aggressive You aren’t the same band that wrote Recover, nor do they claim to be. The making of Recover was far from effortless, but the resulting songs are an effortless conversation between analog and digital. While The Naked and Famous wait to be back on the road, Xayalith has Ginger to keep her company and Powers, like a true millennial, has taken up quarantine bread baking.