Q&A: Alisa Xayalith from The Naked And Famous

Back in 2010, The Naked And Famous dropped their track ‘Young Blood’, from their breakout album Passive Me, Aggressive You. The song catapulted the band into the limelight and they gained critical acclaim from synth indie-pop fans across the world. Ten years on, the group have now become a duo with original core members, Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers utilising their talents to create a new studio album. 

Their fourth studio record, which released only last month, is called Recover. It’s a cathartic reinvention and rebirth for a band that helped trailblaze the synth-heavy indie-pop genre. The album includes the singles ‘ Sunseeker’ , ‘Bury Us’ and ‘Come As You Are’. We spoke to Alisa about Lockdown, music and their brilliant new album.

What’s your lockdown creative process looked like? Have you discovered different artists or been writing yourself? Or have you simply used this time as a well needed rest from chaotic everyday life?

My creative lockdown process has remained the same. The only difference is the ‘no new friends’ policy for obvious safety in these strange times. Any boredom I have becomes productive in one shape or form.  One thing I haven’t fully embraced is doing virtual songwriting sessions with new people. My boyfriend is an audio engineer, writer, and producer who has fully immersed himself in that process and, I haven’t quite gotten myself to that stage as of yet. I’ve spent my time learning how to use Logic, trying to keep my plants alive in my garden, singing more, playing guitar more, reading. I love how I have TIME to develop and cultivate the kind of progression I’ve been wanting. Hell, the whole world needs progress, and I think it all begins at home.

You’ve described your music as being heavily influenced by 80s synth, which bands specifically ignited the fire under The Naked and Famous and instilled that model sound?

It’s crazy to think that our music was a part of the 2010 zeitgeist of ‘indie-synth-pop.’ On a surface level, I get how people have pinned us with those tags. Our biggest songs are drenched in euphoric sounding synthesizers, and we’re not afraid of using reverb. But the truth is, the band’s DNA is born from our love of Alternative 90’s music: Bjork, The Smashing Pumpkins, Nine Inch Nails, Massive Attack, Chemical Brothers, and Tricky. When we were making our first record, we had some of these albums on heavy rotation:

‘For Emma, Forever ago’ – Bon Iver

‘The Midnight Organ Fight’ – Frightened Rabbit

‘Saturdays = Youth’ – M83

‘Sound of Silver’ – LCD Soundsystem

Thom and I both worked at a record store when we started the band in 2006, we were lucky to have access to so much music for massive consumption. It was called ‘Real Groovy,’ one of the only independent music stores in our hometown Auckland City. There were countless days where we borrowed CD’s and returned them, the store functioned as a library for the staff who worked there. Having that kind of access to music in our early twenties had a considerable impact on the types of music we were making.

‘Recover’ is an apt name for any album released in this post-quarantined world of 2020, but even more so in the sense of the recovery this album offers as musical healing after your hiatus (the lyrics ‘did you know I need ya?’ come to mind for fans here) But what was the creative inspiration behind the title (and or title track?)

The word ‘Recover’ is symbolic for both Thom and me on many levels. He actually pushed for the record to be titled ‘Recover,’ and I wasn’t sure about it at first. Eventually, I came around to it. I guess I was scared of having that kind of vulnerability strapped across my forehead on display when the heart of this record is already such a deep dive in that direction.

This record was a difficult one to make, little by little over two years, we chipped away at songs amidst so much changing not only around us but also within us. We were both growing into people who had very individual ideas on how songs should be finished and what kind of future we wanted for The Naked and Famous.

Compromise felt impossible. We took three months off from speaking to one another. During that time, we both contemplated whether continuing the band was worth the grief we were putting each other through. Fortunately, we both agreed on which songs we both liked and delivered the world our record ‘Recover.’

The title track ‘Recover’ is about the grief of losing my mother. Something that has had an immense impact on my life and on me as a human. I’ll always write about her, and to her, sometimes it comes out in song. I was thinking about her a lot the week we wrote ‘Recover.’ I reflect on our career and the milestones I’ve crossed, wishing she was around. The lyric ‘but I can regain myself and recover,’ couldn’t be a truer statement for the kind of grief one can carry around.

Honesty seems to be an important part of your music as well as your truth as a band. The vocalisation of your relationship is really commendable and translates as extremely powerful – was this hard to announce or did you feel like I went with the territory of the release, as if the subject matter of the latest album was hinting towards it anyway? (I hope you didn’t just feel like you owed it to your fans as I know in this waking age of social media people have grown to feel so indebted to do so)

When I’m writing songs, I am an open book. For me, making music is catharsis, I need to get the thoughts swirling around in my head out somewhere. It’s a natural reflex, and as a result, much of this record has spun out to be our most biographical work. I believe we’re our most universal when we are our most personal in the work we make.

Your music is definitely very emotive, lyricism and instrumentals build to create an overarching tone and general mood to the song, is this intentional in the writing of the track or simply a by-product of its creation?

I think that is just a by-product of what we gravitate towards artistically. Chord progressions that feel like they can pull something out of you. It’s the spark that lights the fire and carries us to the end of a working day with a song to show for it.

‘Everybody Knows’ has to be my favourite song off the latest release, perhaps because of its undeniable relatability which is most definitely a ‘bitter pill to swallow’. Yet the song is an upbeat and bouncy pop track which chants all our insecurities instead of dwelling on them and shrinking inwardly. Now all I want to know is just how cathartic it was to sing of those doubts so cheerfully? To create such a catchy song out of the subject matter of toxic thought processes and overthinking, that surely must be the very definition of positive thinking right?!

Haha, thank you! It was exceptionally cathartic! My boyfriend and I had a huge fight that week we wrote ‘Everybody Knows.’ Life inspired songs ya know?! Relationships are hard work, and conventional romance is overrated. The ones you love have so much power to build you up and break you down. They’re the sickness and the cure. Thom and I wrote this with our friends Simon Oscroft and Dani Poppitt; I have this baby grand piano in my living room and, one of the best moments from that writing day was singing the chorus at the top of our lungs after having just written it.

On that note, what’s your favourite track off the album and why?

My favourite song off the album is ‘Coming back to me.’

A moment of insecurity and anxiety, I felt like I had fallen out of love with everything around me. ‘Coming back to me’ is the blooming color drowning out the black and white. I was falling back in love after a drought. There’s a power in accepting your very flawed self and being loved for being exactly who you are.

The evolution from ‘Passive Me, Aggressive You’ to ‘Recover’ is so progressive and polished yet so seamlessly follows on from its predecessor, you maintain the same credibility even if the newer releases are more refined. The essence of The Naked and Famous is still very much there, and it’s that quintessential experimentalism, how have you managed to maintain this professional growth but keep the authenticity throughout your discography?

Thom and I are the primary songwriters, and as long as that remains, the consistency for the music is something we don’t worry about. We enlisted a few of our friends into the fold to help bolster and navigate our  vision for ‘Recover.’ With that kind of community around us, he and I were able to grow creatively. Collaborating with other songwriters and producers who understood our dynamic was paramount to the process.

If there was to be one overarching message that your music could spread (a mantra perhaps) what would it be?

The lyric ‘I can regain myself and recover,’ feels like an apt one for the times we’re living in.

I bet you’ve been itching to play a live show, especially after a long hiatus and what better new material to take on the road than ‘Recover’. But unfortunately, due to our current climate of uncertainty a lot of gigs and festivals have been postponed or cancelled all together. Do you have any updates for any The Naked and Famous future live shows? Or perhaps have you been partaking in the live streaming of gigs on social media?

Thom and I had put so much time and work into this record, it’s devastating we can’t take it on the road.  We did a special live-stream event for the release of ‘Recover,’ we set up a temporary film studio in Thom’s living room. Thinking about releasing them online soon… We’re doing what we can with the tools we have to promote our work, but it’s no substitute for the real thing. I miss playing shows, going to concerts, and connecting with people that way. We’re beginning to see a bit of fatigue with the live-stream performances. So curation means everything to us right now with what we decide to release on the internet.

Finally, to someone who hasn’t heard of The Naked and Famous [I mean have they been living under a rock?!] how would you describe your music to them in 3 words?

Emotional rollercoaster ready.

Recover by The Naked And Famous is out now.

Buy/stream the album by clicking here.

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Photography by Jori Teplitzky

Q&A: Alisa Xayalith from The Naked And Famous
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