BEST OF 2020 #6: The Naked and Famous
Is it possible to actively become enamoured with two people instantaneously over a Skype call? While this may be the spores of some terrible straight-to-Netflix rom com that is 1000% in the works as we speak, it was also my reality when my Skype video worked at the last possible second to bring me face-to-face with the ridiculously lovely Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers of The Naked and Famous fame.
While the love affair with The Naked and Famous and Australians is undeniable (including the pair basically becoming the unofficial soundtrack to triple j late last year and early in 2020), Alisa and Thom have transcended beyond their local confines and established themselves as a significant presence internationally in the alt pop spheres. Their music may spout universal themes and resounding recognition, but perhaps the most impressive achievement for the pair is also the fact that the duo have continued on in a professional setting despite breaking up as an actual couple offstage. Who here can say they would readily choose to continue to work and create with their ex, especially in any sort of creative setting? Hats off to these dynamic and ridiculously likable humans, and we are all the better for their maturity and potent musical chops (and also for them not judging my un-brushed hair during our Skype call). Original interview below in full!
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: July 22 2020
For many, the thought of spending time with an ex-partner after a breakup is not something generally relished. But for Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers, aka the powerhouse duo behind the Kiwi alt-pop sensation The Naked and Famous, even a relationship breakup between the two wasn't enough to tumble the dizzying orbit the group have been mounting since forming back in 2007. Presently parked on three full-length albums (with a fourth just literal days away), as well as countless awards, critical acclaim and touring with some of the biggest names in the biz - it's safe to say The Naked and Famous are a group well-versed in surviving and thriving amid life and the industry's broader highs and lows. And it's this uniquely cultivated journey Xayalith and Powers have traversed together that ultimately comes to vivid fruition on the pair's upcoming fourth album Recover, capturing acceptance, love and inclusivity amid a neon-clad sonic world overflowing with pop fizzes, synthy plumes and a whole lotta charm.
Promising to be the group's boldest outing of their careers to date, Recover is an triumph of optimism and resilience, while also inadvertently offering an album fortuitously relevant in the current global climate. And while Recover had initially been pegged to drop in May this year, the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans for the release of this absolute gem - but now we are finally poised to experience The Naked and Famous at their absolute brightest this Friday July 24. And just before the album drops, Tiana Speter grabbed the divine duo Alisa and Thom for a chat about song awakenings, live music magic and more. Full interview below, read on!
TIANA SPETER: Hey Alisa and Thom! So awesome to chat today, how are you guys, have you been keeping safe during these pandemic shenanigans?
ALISA XAYALITH: Pandemic shenanigans, yes! We have been keeping safe.
TIANA: And I know the whole COVID thing has obviously made plans change a bit for the release of Recover...but obviously we are now finally poised on the brink of release now for this stunning album...due out in just a couple of days, it's so exciting! How does it feel to be so close to release now?
ALISA: Yeah, it feels good...I feel like it's hard to believe that it's happening. Because the last time we released a record was 2016 so, it's a looong time ago since we last released anything. So I'm just excited, and I'm thinking: "If you don't like this record - I don't care! I like it!" (laughs).
TIANA: That's the best possible way to be, and so 2020 of you! You just gotta go with what feels right. But I assume, based on your past experiences and your past releases...I'm pretty sure everyone's gonna love it.
THOM POWERS: Thank you!
ALISA: Thaaaanks! (laughs).
TIANA: And you guys are no strangers to album releases as we've touched on...but Recover does mark a particularly significant moment for the band...I mean, not only has there been previous shifts in the general make-up of The Naked and Famous, but there's also been a bit of a surge stylistically as well with this. But going back a ways to the start of this whole adventure...was there a solid game-plan for what you guys were hoping to achieve with this album? Or did it kind of all just beautifully and organically evolve as you went along?
ALISA: Well, like you mentioned, Thom and I went through a lot of personal and professional changes. And I feel like we're finally in a good place. And I feel like Recover reflects us finally being in a good place after all of the ups and downs of the last five or six years, Recover is very reflective of that.
TIANA: That is really nice to hear! And in the lead-up we have had a hint of what's to come from the album, I mean...well, you guys know this already, but Sunseeker absolutely destroyed some milestones over here in Australia, it even peaked as number one on Triple J's most played list..
ALISA: That was so cool!
SUNSEEKER (THE NAKED AND FAMOUS)
TIANA: Well, we are not so secretly absolutely digging it here! Now, I was also interested to read when you guys released Bury Us, in the press release it mentioned that the song captured the "essence" of the album, which was interesting to read. But! I'm kind of keen to know beyond that, what was actually the first song that you wrote for the album, was there one that kind of kick-started this whole adventure? Was it either of those two I mentioned, or perhaps one the world hasn't heard yet?
ALISA: Well, there's a song on the record...
THOM: It was Recover!
ALISA: But going way, way, WAY back. We'd written a song called Monument, and I was like: "this is a great song, but I just feel like we're missing something". And so, we kept writing, kept writing, kept writing...and we didn't really hit our "eureka" moment until Recover was written. And then that was kind of like the coat-hanger song that all the other songs hung from sonically...and mood-wise.
THOM: Yeah! It was really like the stylistic approach to the production and the tone of Recover. That was the first song we were like "oh cool! This is the way we'll take everything else". It was kind of interesting to actually put together both the writing and production for it, they were part of the same writing day. I was waiting at Alisa's house with our buddy, his name's Simon Oscroft, and he was kind of taking over for me in running the sessions. So, he being like a producer/co-writer, which was nice, I got to take my hands off the computer, which was fun! And so, him and I were waiting for Alisa to come back and she kind of like burst into her house, and storms into the room and she's like: "I've written a song on the drive over here". And then she sings the chorus of Recover. And we were like: "oh! Brilliant!". But then the way we actually approached tracking this idea became the way that we produced the album, we recorded a bunch of us singing, turned it into a fake sort of choir and then we recorded all of these instruments all around her house, like in her hallway, used her grand piano...and we took all of these really raw live recordings, faking big groups - and then we sampled them! And we used those samples in a totally electronic way, we were like: "cool! We're done with all the live instruments, now we're just gonna use the computer". And we took that approach with all the other songs, so Sunseeker sounds like that as well, there's a big kind of group vocal and then we perform the group vocal like a sample! But that song, Recover was like: "oh! This is it! Now we know which way we're going". And that song Alisa was talking about, we took some of those old demos and we were like: "ok, now we know what to do with them, now we know how to fix them".
ALISA: Yeah, or like contextualise them in this new sonic world where we were going.
pic: Larsen Sotelo
TIANA: Seriously amazing. AND, you're writing a song in the car, I always say to people I'm in the car just going: "do I have to pick something up?! What am I doing?! What's life, what's the point of my life?". And you're just casually writing a killer song, no big deal!
THOM: (laughs) Yeah!!
ALISA: Yeah, it was just that period of time, I was just thinking about my mum a lot, and she was just on my mind. And I was picking up my car from getting fixed, driving home and I just started humming a melody, and then lyrics came! I feel like when people are really tuned in and really present...I feel like so much magic can happen when you're an artist of any ilk if you're present and if you're observant. You'll always manage to find something somewhere that you can catch and turn it into something that means a lot to you.
TIANA: Absolutely! Well, I'm very, very glad that you were tuned in at that moment because look at what it's resulted in, it's a stunning song from a very stunning album . And I guess on the topic of songs...I know live music is kind of trickling back...but there's still a bit of a wait though potentially for fans to see you on a global scale and perform these new songs. But, is there a song you guys are particularly keen to bust out live when you can finally let loose and unleash onstage?
ALISA: Well! We got to play a show for Wine Machine festival in Australia before everything closed down. And Sunseeker was...
THOM: It went off!
ALISA: It was so fun to play!
THOM: I was really looking forward to playing that again and it was doing really well at triple j. And it's a genuinely thrilling experience, a very privileged and lucky experience to be in a position to put a song out, have it go to radio, know that it's doing well and then play it to someone...it's pretty wild! There are few moments that top that. I mean, we know what that's like, that's the foundation of our whole career because we close every set, and we will for the rest of our lives, with Young Blood. And that's because you see how a song can connect, and it's weird - for a minute you're like this puppeteer and you're just doing stuff to people, you feel like you're in control of them! It's a really trippy experience. So, I was really looking forward to getting that connection to Sunseeker, but unfortunately COVID came along and pulled the rug out from underneath us. But there's actually two songs I was really looking forward to for different reasons: Everybody Knows...
ALISA: Ohhh yeah!
THOM: I really wanted that to come out so we could play it, because it's an absolute banger (laughs). I really wanted to play that at festivals and I was super jazzed, but then...Recover, which is the title track...I was really, really looking forward to playing that at our shows, to just our fans who kind of know more than the singles, and who buy into the story of the band and stuff. I just feel really proud of that song. There's always two different approaches to live music, there's going out trying to promote it and be heard, and then the songs that you're really proud of that you know people are gonna love for a specific reason.
TIANA: Well, I think we have a lot to look forward to, and I think it's going to be incredible when we can all just let loose in a live setting. I feel like we're edging closer! I'm so ready!
ALISA: Yeah, like, remember concerts?! Remember getting dressed up to go and be in a crowd?! Live music is just so thrilling and - I miss it! I miss going to live shows!
TIANA: It's funny too, like what Thom said about the whole puppet-master thing...what's incredible is as much as you guys are getting out of it, your fans are too, it's just that beautiful...I don't know, for lack of a better word, uniting of everyone, and we're all able to come together in this beautiful moment. So - here's hoping this pandemic can just get the heck out of here so we can get on with it! And it's just going to be an incredible time ahead for you guys, I'm so glad you're at this point with the album, and I can't wait to see what happens next for you both! You're just going to take over the world, I'm sure of it!
ALISA: Oh! Thank you!! (laughs)
THOM: Wow, thank you for the boost of confidence, that's very kind!
TIANA: It's all true! That's the really nice thing is how your music connects with people, and with yourselves. And you're an inspiration for recovering, which is something I think we all genuinely need now more than ever! Thank you so much!
THOM: Thank you, you're way too kind!
ALISA: Thank you so much! It was so nice to meet you, Tiana!
THE NAKED AND FAMOUS:
BY TIANA SPETER