We had the pleasure of interviewing The Naked and Famous over Zoom video!
For over a decade, The Naked and Famous have delivered a boldly nuanced breed of pop that’s both effervescent and imaginative—a direct reflection of the sheer resilience at the heart of their collaboration. Founded in their hometown Auckland, New Zealand, the critically lauded act immigrated to the U.S. in 2012 after non-stop touring across the globe, then experienced major upheaval as their lineup shifted from a five-piece to a duo. Creatively re-energized and more fearless than ever, vocalist Alisa Xayalith and guitarist Thom Powers are now embarking on their most musically adventurous era yet with their new album Recover.
Originally from Auckland, The Naked and Famous formed soon after Xayalith (the daughter of Laotian refugees) crossed paths with Powers while the two were attending music college. The band put out the EPs This Machine and No Light in 2008, then made their full-length debut with Passive Me • Aggressive You—a 2010 release featuring their platinum-selling breakthrough hit “Young Blood.” As the album climbed the Billboard 200 chart and earned countless accolades (including seven prizes at the New Zealand Music Awards), they toured across the globe and finally landed in L.A., living together in Laurel Canyon. Arriving on New Year’s Day in 2013, The Naked and Famous’ sophomore album In Rolling Waves cracked the top 50 on the Billboard 200, boosted by hit singles like “Hearts Like Ours.” Not long after Powers and Xayalith’s breakup as a couple, the band documented the emotional fallout on Simple Forms, often recognized as their most complex and compelling work to date.
“Lyrically and sonically, Recover is our most optimistic body of work so far,” says Xayalith. “There’s hope and romance in every single track, and it’s really exciting to imagine what the energy exchange will be like when we play these songs live.” Powers adds: “We feel incredibly lucky to still be creating music together. It’s a big personal achievement, and this whole album is a kind of ode to our story.”
Although it took a moment for Xayalith and Powers to bounce back from the departure of their former bandmates, the duo found themselves reinvigorated upon joining forces with collaborators like Luna Shadows (a producer/multi-instrumentalist who’s previously played keys for The Naked and Famous), and Simon Oscroft (a childhood friend of Powers, who’s produced for artists like The Aces). Working out of Xayalith’s Silver Lake home, complete with a grand piano left behind by the former owner, the musicians converted that space into a studio and wrote most of the album there.
One of the first products of that charmed environment, “Sunseeker” strays from the guitar-driven dynamic of the band’s previous output and unfolds in a more electronically sculpted sound, brilliantly contrasted with frequent bursts of childlike sing-along. And in her vocal performance, Xayalith channels a soulful warmth that hints at healing from ennui. “‘Sunseeker’ was written in a time when I was covered in joy and positivity,” she notes. “It was inspired by my dog, Ginger. She came into my life unexpectedly, as did the boy who I fell in love with that found her. I started calling her my ‘Sunseeker’—she’d disappear into the garden, and I’d find her in various places basking in patches of sunlight beaming through the trees. The song is about something, or someone, appearing in your life that you didn’t know you needed.”
Another song sparked from the budding of new relationships, “Bury Us” sheds light on the fear that sometimes accompanies overwhelming attraction. “It’s about finding a potential new love and being afraid of that,” Powers explains. “The song is a message of encouragement to take that leap of faith.” Built on bright beats and airy harmonies, “Bury Us” bursts wide open at its massively anthemic chorus—a classic Naked and Famous element that also materializes in tracks like “Everybody Knows.” But with its jagged textures and urgent rhythms, the latter drifts into moodier terrain as its lyrics examine what Powers describes as “the difficulties of a new relationship, all the push-and-pull and waves of doubt.” Xayalith adds: “It’s about how the person who makes you happiest can also just devastate you.”
One of the most sublime moments on Recover, “Come As You Are” finds The Naked and Famous transforming an intensely personal lyric into something far more universal. “It started out as a song about how everyone comes into a new relationship with history and baggage, and how we shouldn’t let that stop us from making a connection,” says Xayalith. “But ultimately it’s about accepting people for who they really are, and recognizing that everyone deserves love.” Centered on Xayalith’s sweetly ethereal vocal work (sample lyric: “Embrace it, your somebody’s favorite”), the song essentially unfolds as a powerful anthem of inclusivity. “We want our fans to know how important inclusivity is to us,” says Powers. “Whether you’re in the LGBTQ community or an immigrant or in any other marginalized group, this band is a safe space for you.”
While Recover mostly embodies an undeniably joyful energy, the album also explores darker subject matter on songs like “(An)aesthetic” (an account of Powers’ near-death experience after suffering from sepsis) and “The Sound Of My Voice” (a beautifully tender track co-written with the late Scott Hutchison, frontman for Scottish indie-rock band Frightened Rabbit). “It was 2014, and we’d just come off the road,” says Powers in reflecting on the latter. “We didn’t know if TNAF had a future. I was on my way to recovery, but had been very mentally unwell. Scott was a friend to me when I needed one. I helped him track some vocals for his solo album, ‘Owl John.’ He helped me start ‘The Sound Of My Voice.’ It’s about my own struggles with depression and suicidal ideation. Given the nature of Scott’s death, I’m concerned that talking about it comes across as exploitative. My hope that any fans that are currently suffering through depression, can hear Alisa’s contribution—‘Follow the sound of my voice, come back to me.’ I hope the song serves as a beacon that, if you are struggling with severe depression, you are not alone. There are places to seek help.”
Meanwhile, “Easy” muses on the very specific melancholy of deciding to leave a relationship, tempering its heavy-hearted mood with shimmering beats and strangely angelic vocal work. “I don’t believe in catharsis through art, but I do believe in sincerity in writing—and I find it very satisfying to take a difficult experience and create some kind of art out of that,” says Powers.
As Powers and Xayalith reveal, Recover was born from taking some time to consider their path forward and the future possibilities for their musical partnership post-Simple Forms. “If we were going to continue, we needed to try something different,” says Powers. “Since Passive Me • Aggressive You, Alisa and I have written songs to be presented as a five-piece band, which helped create our sonic identity and gave us creative parameters. But those parameters have also been a limitation. We gently let go of our expectations, and avoided thinking about how we’d perform these songs as a five-piece rock band. Instead, we chose to focus solely on the songs as pieces of art. We centered on each song’s meanings, and how fresh they felt to us—how they made us feel.”
Through it all, The Naked and Famous have fully embraced their newly heightened sense of freedom, as well the singular chemistry that endlessly fuels their collaboration. “When things aren’t working, our worlds are severely devastated,” Xayalith says. “But when it does work, we’re both on top of the world.”
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