The Naked and Famous Share Tons of Details About Writing, Growth, Positivity of ‘Recover’

Los Angeles-based indie electronic band, The Naked and Famous, which was founded by Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers, makes music that turns the paint on your walls to candy. The band, which released its latest LP, Recover, today, makes big, oceanic compositions with bright crests and at-times chilling sonic valleys. But, due to their years together and the close relationship that time has engendered, the band’s music can also be pared down to its bones and stand sturdy with simply two harmonizing voices and an electric guitar. From head-to-toe, The Naked and Famous, which was originally formed in Auckland, New Zealand, but now resides in the City of Angels, has created a formidable body of work.

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On the latest album, songs like “Bury Us” and “Sunseeker” snap with crispness. The titular track, which became something of a moment of newfound freedom for the band (as you’ll read below), is a communal chant, buoyed by pop prowess. In total, Recover is a collection of songs that propel, energize and push the listener toward a better place, which is no small feat in today’s changing, often chaotic reality. We caught up with both Xayalith and Powers to talk about the new album, how they met and came to music and what they appreciate most about their new record.

How did you first come to music as a young person?

Alisa Xayalith: I first discovered the joy of music as a young one listening and watching my dad sing in a Laotian Community band in Auckland, New Zealand, where I grew up. Singing gave me so much joy. I was continually looking for ways to participate in school musicals, talent shows, choirs, and vocal groups – anywhere I could be singing. I was obsessed with Mariah Carey by way of my oldest brother. He owned all of her records and concerts on videotape. I’d sit in my room, listen to her CDs, learn her runs, read lyrics in the cd booklets. My brother, who is just two years older than me, gave me my first acoustic guitar when around 13. I learned how to play songs from my favorite artists and how to write my own. I thought I’d like to be a solo folk artist. Little did I know I’d be fronting a rock band in my early twenties!

Thom Powers: My father is a folk musician, and taught me some guitar when I was very young. My stepfather is still a big music fan, and my teenage house was literally never silent. I went home for a month recently, and there are still always two radios on, one at each end of the house. I came of age in the great era of Tony Hawks Pro Skater. There was lots of nu-metal. The Matrix had just come to theatres, and my skater gang and I all wanted to be in Korn. I terrorized my middle-school talent show with an impassioned performance of, “Blind.” My earliest favorites were Tool and Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails. I still love those bands.

How did you start to invest in your singing, musicianship and artistry?

Xayalith: I think it was a combination of perseverance, determination and discipline. Everyone in my family tried to persuade me not to pursue music after they saw me drop out of music college, struggling to pay bills and rent and living off a government unemployment wage for artists. When Thom and I dropped out of music college, we dedicated all our time between various part-time jobs and used what little resources we had to write and record our songs. In hindsight, it seems so crazy that I was so bold and had this blind belief in myself and us that we would succeed. When the truth is, nothing is for sure in pursuing a career in music. 

Powers: I had a usefully-ignorant do-or-die attitude. I’m convinced that being young and not having a fully formed prefrontal cortex really helped. Apparently, that’s the part of the brain that allows you to inhibit impulses and plan and organize your behavior to reach a goal. It isn’t fully developed until we’re around 25. I had so much energy and drive and wanted nothing more than to be a musician: perseverance and determination – perhaps more than I have now. I had idols but I didn’t know who I was in relation to them. I was learning on the job. The Naked and Famous has been one long search for identity. The small wins along the way helped me realize who I and we were, or could be. There was no one point when we decided to invest. We were always invested, we just became less clueless along the way.

How did you two meet and decide to sit down and start making music together?

Xayalith: We met through some of Thom’s friends who took the same class as me. We bonded over our favorite bands. The Smashing Pumpkins, Massive Attack, Portishead, TV on the Radio, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Bjork, Tricky, and Radiohead. The first song we ever wrote, which will never see the light of day, was actually a trip-hop song. The next one after that was called “Serenade,” which is off our first EP This Machine. It was 2006 and our first song that garnered national success. It went straight to number-one on college radio and the alternative charts. It was the first EP to be reviewed in the New Zealand Sunday Paper. This early success was encouraging and we continued to keep doing our thing. We released a second EP called No Light in 2008 and begun working on our first album in 2009.

The band is fundamentally a duo. So much so that you two share singing responsibilities often. Why do you think this chemistry works so well and has been so fruitful?

Xayalith: I think it’s been fruitful because it adds an extra dimension and dynamic to our collection of songs. Exploring our collective vocal-range has kept things exciting and worked for us. Our audience has resonated with that throughout our careers. Thom has lots of ideas about vocal arrangements for us. Some tracks, we’re singing in unison, some we’re taking turns. We harmonize wherever it makes sense – it’s second nature to us.

Powers: This aspect has actually made me very self-conscious at times. I’ve put a lot of effort into arranging our vocal parts with care. I never want it to feel distracting. It’s something that has made us less accessible, as there’s never been a single persona for people to latch on to. We’ve always been an art-first group. Recover is our most lyric-open album and we are finally comfortable enough to attach the music to our faces.

The Naked And Famous often creates big, swelling, produced music. But you’re also capable of playing together with a single guitar. Is that a goal for the group – to write songs that fit in both big and smaller contexts?

Xayalith: When we write songs for the band, we often start with a guitar or piano. I think it’s natural for us to strip these songs back during the process. It’s a good way for us to check in with our ideas. We were averse to playing acoustic versions of our songs early on in our career because we were busy trying to establish our musical identity. Performing a Mumford and Sons version of our songs made zero sense to us. I don’t think we have to worry about that anymore ten years later! It’s been a lot of fun revisiting old material in this context; it makes us both feel really nostalgic. 

Powers: We’ve often started with a guitar or piano in a classic singer-songwriter fashion. If we start with a musical bed, stripping down to an acoustic performance can be a helpful litmus test for our songwriting. It’s a way for us to check the core of our ideas. We were opposed to playing acoustic versions early on in our career because we’d just established our musical identity, with “Young Blood” and Passive Me, Aggressive You. Performing a folk version made zero sense. We don’t worry about that anymore, though. It’s been a lot of fun revisiting old material in this context; it makes us both feel really nostalgic. We feel established enough to perform acoustically.

You’ve said Recover is the most positive record for the band to date. Why do you think that is – what put you in that mental space to create optimistic, bright, colorful music?

Xayalith: Thom and I had spent a good two years on and off writing the fourth record. Our creative process was fractured, band members left, we didn’t know how to communicate our ideas to one another without disagreeing. There were countless days in the studio that ended abruptly. At one point, things were so contentious that I suspended our friendship for three months. At that time, we both seriously questioned whether we wanted to continue. Was it worth all this bullshit we were putting each other through? We had our closest friends and loved ones getting caught in the middle. 

The day we wrote, “Recover,” with our co-writer and co-producer, Simon Oscroft, was the catalyst that opened up a new way of working together. We found our rhythm and the creative process seemed to flow that made sense to all of us. That same week, “Sunseeker,” “Easy” and “Death” were written. Given this new artistic and sonic evolution, we were able to revisit older songs that had been written and we were able to contextualize them with new attitudes. As a whole, the album is a reflection of us recovering ourselves and of how we found ourselves in a much better place since our falling out. 

What have the past few months been like for you as you’ve tried to prepare for a major record release in quarantine as the ethics of the globe seem to fundamentally be changing?

Xayalith: The past few months have kept us busier than ever. We thought it was essential to engage with the socio-political climate of the Black Lives Matter movement. We believe Black lives matter. We’ve not been a very outspoken band in the past for fear of saying something without having the whole picture and anxiety of being misinformed. We’ve made an effort to educate ourselves and we wanted to let our audience know where we stand and what we stand for as people. This is why the message behind our song, “Come as you are,” is a song about inclusivity to let people know The Naked and Famous welcomes people from all walks of life no matter the color of your skin or ethnicity. We wanted to let people know that we are a safe space. 

In terms of preparing for a major record release during a pandemic. Thom and I live five minutes away from each other and we’ve been lucky enough to keep a tiny bubble of people in our circle to be able to continue working together. The quarantine challenges have pushed us to think outside of the box with what we can achieve technically in support of its release. We’re making music videos and recording live stream performances in a way we haven’t done before instead of being able to go out on tour. We’re lucky to have spouses who don’t mind if we need to turn our living rooms into makeshift film sets! 

Was there anything about writing or producing the record that surprised you – meaning, did you learn anything new this time around or lean into anything specific?

Xayalith: We used to be very precious in our creative process. I guess that was a product of coming from New Zealand and not really having any experience with a collaborative writing culture. Los Angeles is brimming with people wanting to collaborate. We decided to give it a go, speed-dating with other writers and producers to make a genuine connection. It’s a lot – trying to fast track a stranger on our history and where we wanted to go next, while simultaneously writing a song together.

There were some bad days during that process that lead to nothing and it felt a little discouraging. It wasn’t until we started working with our old friend Simon Oscroft where that all changed. We got into a flow, found our rhythm and found that extending our creative process to new people rejuvenated us. We found confidence. I let go of the pressure that we needed everything to sound anthemic and ironically we wrote a bunch of anthems! It was refreshing to explore a more modern architecture of sound that wasn’t solely led by the guitar like our other records. 

Do you have a favorite achievement on the album – a song, lyric, idea?

Xayalith: I’m most proud of our song, “Recover.” We spent two years casually writing on and off, not feeling very excited by anything we were writing until this song came about. The timing of that song couldn’t have been better. Thom and I were having a tough time getting on the same page about the vision for the future of the band and “Recover” led us back to where we needed to go. The heart of this song is about recovering oneself from personal hardships and that means everything to us right now – “I can regain myself and recover.”

Is there anything about your growth or popularity that surprises you? I mean, not every band that gets together has such success?

Xayalith: I’m surprised we have endured our dramas of the past and carried on with resilience! No matter what is happening in the world, we have the ability to speak the same language, and that is music. We know how to make it; we have the blueprint embedded in our psyche. Here we are today, nearing the tenth anniversary of our first record, Passive Me, Aggressive you. And I’m proud of how far we’ve come.

The song was obviously important but why, in the end, did you choose the album name, Recover – that seems especially specific?

Powers: “Recover” stood out as a clear title towards the end of summer in 2018. We’d written the bulk of the album and were sitting around the table with some friends and our manager after a session one night. We all blurted out “Recover” at the same time. The album named itself. We’d spoken a lot about how the new music ought to be, roughly, about healing. Perhaps all that pep-talk had primed Alisa’s subconscious to write a song like “Recover,” or maybe it was just a happy coincidence. It was also the song that created a path forward the band; I feel it’s a perfect band song for 2020.

What do you love most about music today?

Xayalith: What I love the most about music is how it connects people. We’ve been lucky to read stories about how people fell in love listening to our music or became friends at one of our shows, our songs playing at someone’s wedding. Hearing about the different fandoms doing some heavy lifting in socio-political spaces and making a difference. That’s inspiring! That kind of reach is priceless, and I’m here for it. 

Powers: I don’t know if I love it for any one reason. It’s more than my life is tethered to music. It’s like a family member – the connection is implicit. Maybe isolating reasons even feels a bit rude. Music raised me, and I’ve raised some of my own music. I’m just not able to imagine my life without it.

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