Caught In Quarantine With The Naked And Famous
Just like the pavlova, Russell Crowe and one very savvy PM, indie electronic band THE NAKED AND FAMOUS is one New Zealand export that Australia would love to claim as their own. Forming in Auckland back in 2007 and later relocating to Los Angeles in 2012, the band has delivered a procession of genre-defining sounds over the years, with three studio albums under the belt and hit songs such as ‘Young Blood’, ‘Hearts Like Ours’ and more recent summer hit ‘Sunseeker’.
Following the departure of two founding members in 2018, remaining co-vocalists Thom Powers, Alisa Xayalith and bassist David Beadle have made new tracks, found new bandmates and continue to forge forward with their creative endeavors. Their fourth studio album Recover is finally out now (after a few pandemic-related delays), and with a glimpse of things to come in their singles ‘Sunseeker’, ‘Come As You Are’ and ‘Bury Us’, we know that the forthcoming album will be nothing short of magical, with a splash of nostalgia to take us back to when we first fell in love with these NZ superstars.
It’s not all fun and games for the band however, as recent world events have proven to throw a spanner in the works as they prepare for their newest release. We caught up in the digital realm with co-vocalists Thom Powers and Alisa Xayalith amidst the craziness of the COVID-19 epidemic, as they tackle issues of quarantine, cancelled flights and the hiatus of music industries all over the world.
I really want to talk to you about this new album you have coming out very soon. It’s called Recover… kind of a poignant theme for this day and age. Given everything that’s going on with COVID-19 and societies around the world right now, are you beginning to see your album in a new light?
Alisa: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
Thom: Yeah I definitely feel that. I think the messages feel more relevant than ever. I don’t want it to feel opportunistic. I don’t want to profit off anyone in an unfortunate scenario but as soon as all this stuff started happening, I was like, “Shit. What could we do to cheer people up or help people in this situation?” It definitely feels token to put out a song that’s gonna save the world. Like we all rolled our eyes at those celebrity videos of all of them singing ‘Imagine’. Like, what tripe, you know? But at the same time, it could be very cool to put out something that has a sense of resilience. We hear from fans about how our music helps them. There’s a really personal song Alisa wrote called ‘I Kill Giants’, which is in our second album, Rolling Waves. That’s about her mother dying and we just get told by fans all the time about how much that means to them. Anyone who’s lost someone will say how they find that song to be comforting.
It’s amazing how music can take on new meaning.
Thom: Right? You’re exactly right. I feel like it’s even more imperative now to put out an album about recovery. And it’s funny, there are so many medical references on the album. It’s unfortunately well timed.
And you know, musically listening through the album, I have been a long time fan so I’m getting mad nostalgia with vibes harking back to the Passive Me, Aggressive You days. Was that a conscious choice for you guys?
Alissa: I feel like Recover is our most consistently optimistic, romantic body of work throughout the whole album that we’ve ever made. Do you know what I mean? Like, that whole album Passive Me, Aggressive You was kind of more all over the place. So, I feel like when people think of Passive Me, Aggressive You, they think of nostalgia and a lot of colours and how different it can feel and I feel like Recover has threads of that in it. So that’s probably the correlation you’re seeing there.
I guess it’s such a homage to the human spirit and the need to persevere. That was the overall vibe I was getting from the Recover.
Alisa: Oh, absolutely. You totally nailed it.
I’m glad I interpreted that to your approval! So how is this whole process of releasing an album different for you guys right now during such a weird time? Of course, digital media would be a tremendously huge help, given that we’re even having this conversation right now. Do you think these technologies will be especially prevalent now as you roll out Recover into the world?
Thom: You’re totally right. I think what’s interesting is that nothing has really changed that much to be honest. When we began putting out music and we signed to a major label back in 2010, I remember hearing the statistics surrounding the industry that like, sales was 80% physical 20% digital. That was what the market looked like at the time which is bizarre to even think about. Now it’s probably like 2% physical. Like, vinyl aficionados only and everyone else streaming and it’s been like that for a while. Music exists online now and physical, old fashioned media is just becoming more and more redundant. So nothing has changed that much in that sense. I think the way that this current situation has affected the music industry, that maybe the public’s not aware of, is that whilst nothing has really changed about how we put things out, it’s put a massive pause on the industry. That might not seem that bad but in music it’s kind of the same as promoting a film or any kind of product really. You have to gain momentum. It’s like if you’re driving home and you see a billboard once and you might forget it, but if you keep seeing that billboard multiple times over a few months then maybe you start to notice it and pay attention. Promoting your album is kind of like that as well, you know? Like you put out the album, then put out a single and then a tour. You do all these things to try and permeate the social sphere and make your name pop up more than just once. You’re in an extremely privileged position if you have enough power and social sway to just drop an album overnight and have everybody pay attention and keep talking about it.
Have you ever had any huge promotional fails?
Alisa: Promotional fails? [LAUGHS] Yeah!
Thom: I think we’re put in the position of having to think like that now. The real difference that the current situation is going to have on us and the issue the whole industry is facing is that we’ve just had to push everything forward. Like, tours all have to be cancelled or they all have to be reshuffled. Some artists are even considering rushing their albums to be put out now or otherwise just delaying, delaying, delaying. Everyone’s in the same boat. We’re all in this slumped recession where we’re just sitting here going, “God, what do we do?” Like, we could put out all our music as quickly as possible but we had all these plans to make videos, and these plans have just flown out of the window because we can’t congregate in public. I think as much as the digital world is helpful to us we still have a lot of problems. It’s wonderful because we can still connect with people but it’s going to be hard to do that in a way that helps the story.
Alisa: It’s going to force everyone to get innovative with their content creation. Because that’s all we can do right now. Just become content creators in the digital sphere. It’s going to be an interesting time…
You can just imagine all those Tik Tok music videos… scary times. In Recover, there are a lot of personal references and references to health as Thom mentioned before. How have your personal experiences influenced your writing over the past few years?
Alisa: Funnily enough, for me personally, I think maybe it’s the same for Thom, we’ve allowed ourselves to be more honest. I feel like on other records I was always trying to be clever about lyrics and how I say things. Not that I’m not now, it’s just that making that such a big thing kind of impaired me from being truly honest in my writing. This time around on Recover, I wanted to allow myself to be really open to the writing process and be honest to what I was thinking and feeling. Part of why I became that way was because we had collaborators and co-producers come into the studio with Thom and I and, in order to create something great, you really have to be open to go with the flow of the greatest idea and open up so that people can find somewhere to hook in and develop an idea from there. In a lot of ways, I allowed myself to be an open book and that’s why the songs are so honest.
Did you feel anxious about doing that? Or were you feeling more confident?
Alisa: Maybe back in 2017, in the beginning when Thom and I were both new to co-writing I was super anxious about it. I felt very, very pressured. But I felt really confident going into these writing sessions after being really active about writing. The anxiety comes when I haven’t been writing for a while and I have to go into the studio when I haven’t been writing for like, a month. I’m like, “Am I going to fail? Oh my God am I going to have good ideas?” But once you’ve been practicing, like with anything, it becomes easier and you become better and better.
So it’s all about just getting back in the saddle then?
Alisa: Yeah, exactly! I feel like these songs come out of a period where Thom and I were both working really hard trying to fine tune all of the best ideas that we had. It was a really focused, disciplined output.
How many songs were you writing compared to what the final track listing is?
Alisa: God, I don’t even know. Thom, would you say, like, fifty?
Thom: I’d say like… well there’s fifteen songs on the album and I think we might have got up to maybe thirty ideas? Whether they were full songs or not I’m not going to comment… maybe some of them were a bit half baked. But we essentially doubled our efforts and it felt like a sufficient amount of attempts. In the modern writing sphere we have, this might be a very LA kind of thing, but people have their own writers circuit. So they’re either writing for themselves or other people and we know a lot of people have publishing deals where they are just writers and they just write songs for other people. Those people will just write, you know, a song a day every day for the bulk of the year, so like hundreds of songs a year. I don’t necessarily think that’s always a good idea, and you could apply that logic to a screenwriter or somebody who’s writing a novel, because exhausting yourself and potentially wandering into a sort of artistic malaise isn’t striking a good balance between productivity and creativity.
It’s not going to maintain authenticity in terms of what you’re writing about.
Thom: Agreed. Yeah, because you can just run out of steam if you’re trying to do it on more of a… I mean it’s helpful to get into a business mindset where you’re like, “I need to work. I’m going to work today and I’m not going to take any of my own bullshit.” I think it’s a really important skill to learn, but relying on this nondescript, imagined inspiration to ‘hit me’ isn’t going to work if that’s the way you’re doing it every single day. You can end up writing really empty things and no sense of direction or any sort of pace in terms of your artistic expression. I think it’s really important to strike a balance in terms of mindset.
Well you’re doing a good job. And how has that whole process different for you now versus over a decade ago when you started making music?
Alisa: I think what happens is you get older and if you put the work into your craft you just become more confident with the ins and outs. I feel really confident about my abilities and my skill set now compared to when I first started. I was scared and shy and precious about my ideas and would get hurt every time I was criticized for something I had written. Now I just want to learn. I don’t pretend I know everything and I feel like when you’re younger you often pretend that you’re all good and you have everything you need and don’t need anyone’s unsolicited advice or opinions. Whatever. I just feel more confident now as a person and more comfortable in my skin and that is very helpful.
Absolutely. Going forward from the release of Recover, how do you see The Naked and Famous evolving in the future?
Alisa: I don’t know! We’ll just keep doing what we always do. I feel like this new record is the beginning of a new era for us. It’s Thom and I returning to how we were when we first started the band with having band members that are new. I’m going to ride this wave and see where it takes us and just evolve.
Thom: At the moment, we’re just taking it day by day.
The Naked And Famous’s fourth studio album Recover, due out now. Buy/stream here.
Interview by CLARE NEAL.