Analogue Music | The Naked and Famous

The Naked and Famous

By Matt Conner

Some time apart was needed.

To be clear, neither Thom Powers or Alisa Xayalith knew at the time whether or not they would even return to further their work as The Naked and Famous. That much didn't even matter. The present was too painful, too frustrating and confusing to even think about the future. Three months would come and go before they would reconvene.

After several years together making music, it'd be easy to assume that their chemistry was settled and that such dramatic moments were long since passed over. However, the Auckland-based duo admits the opposite was true; the familiarity created the tumultuous environment.

When The Naked and Famous are clicking, there's no denying their infectious melodies. Fortunately the parties involved were able to work through their creative and personal differences enough to find a new round of inspiration. The songs on Recover are instant earworms, yet they're also symbols of how much they've overcome individually and collaboratively. Even the release of Recover is a true achievement.

We recently sat down with both Thom and Alisa to hear more about the arduous journey to release a new album and what they've learned about themselves in the process.

Analogue: Let's start with the obvious which is you're homebound. I'm homebound. This is not at all the sort of world into which you dreamed of releasing this album.

Thom Powers: You hit the nail on the head. It's hard enough for a band our age, where we don't have the hype surrounding us anymore. We're old news. We have to work a little harder to be heard and now it's just become even more difficult. I also don't think we're in a position to do what major label artists are able to do, which is push their releases indefinitely because there's a big marketing machine behind them. We're on AWOL which is an indie model, and so the marketing is us. It's our ideas and the best we can do, so we're fighting with giants when it comes to trying to be heard.

Credit: Larsen Soleto
Credit: Larsen Soleto

Alisa Xayalith: It's been really strange and weird trying to figure out the best thing and the best time to do something. If we push our album back, will we just jump on a trend that won't do us any good. It's taken Thom and I so much to get to this point. Will it just disappear into the ether? Will we have to just move on to the next thing? I don't really want to do that. I want to be able to release an album where people can listen to it and spend time with it. At the same time, do people even want new music now? Do they need it now more than ever? I don't know.

Analogue: Do you feel like some songs or themes from the album take on new meaning given the state of things?

Alisa: For sure. For example, the opening track for the record, "Recover," was written about grief, from me losing my mother really young as I was growing up and reaching milestones in my life—first heartbreak, buying my first house, playing the biggest show I've ever played, receiving awards at a music show in New Zealand. There are all these milestones in my life and career and people will have their parents and grandparents with them to share the moment and I've just never had that. I've always felt the absence of my mother. That kind of grief is something that you're always recovering from.

I've spoke to my sister about this as well, since she experiences the same thing as me, but when she had her first kid, she really felt the absence of our mother being there. So that kind of grief is just something we'll always be dealing with until the end of our lives. It's something we'll always be recovering from.

That's where the seed of the song comes from, but during the creative process of making this record, Thom and I went through so many challenges in our personal lives and battling with the idea of whether this band would even do another record. In the end, we were able to recover ourselves, recover the band, recover our creative process. We'd battled things out for such a long time, so that song has taken on a double meaning.

Now if you look at the track listing, there's all kinds of medical terms there. I'm expecting a lot of those to also take on new meaning in this climate.

Analogue: You've both referenced the hill you've had to climb to make this record.

Alisa: Yeah, Thom and I were having very heated creative discussions over emails to the point that we had to get out of the email world and meet in person. Every time we'd meet in person, every conversation was tumultuous. We'd get nowhere, so we didn't speak for about three months during the making of this record, just because he and I didn't know how to communicate with each other in a way that was constructive or peaceful. To go through that, anybody would feel like they're at the end of their rope and that a way through was possible.

At the same time, we'd gone through some professional changes. We'd lost three band members. We changed music management which was huge because we'd been with our managers since the very beginning. It was so many things changing and Thom and I had both changed through the process as well. We had different ideas about what we wanted for the band. So yeah, it was a really, really tough time. To actively not speak for three months, that could go either way. We could have come to the end of those three months and not wanted to speak to each other ever again.

Analogue: Thom, how is it hearing all of that and what brought it back around in this positive direction?

Thom: Alisa's description is pretty accurate for me as well. She speaks for the both of us there. When we came back to having a great moment in writing and we clicked, it was a "Eureka!" moment, which came from the song "Recover." So maybe there's a triple meaning for it. We'd been writing songs and working on demos together up until the summer of 2018. We were trying different things and working with different people. We even had a session with Finn [O'Connell] from Billie Eilish. We had two days with him, but nothing was clicking. Nothing was working.

Then we had this amazingly productive summer in 2018 with one of my old friends from childhood—a writer/producer named Simon Oscroft. We had a session booked and Alisa comes storming into the house and she says, 'Guys, I've written this song in the car' and sings the chorus of "Recover". That day, we had an amazing writing session and it kicked off symbolically this summer of abundant creativity and positivity and productivity. Right after we finished that one, a couple days later we finished "Sun Seeker." Then we wrote "Come As You Are." Then we wrote "Easy." So all of these songs came out of that season of high spirits and big energy.

"We were like, 'Okay, we've still got it. We're still together. We're okay. We've found it. This isn't a disaster.'"

So "Recover" kicked off that period. We were like, 'Okay, we've still got it. We're still together. We're okay. We've found it. This isn't a disaster.' So it's a very important song for that reason.

Analogue: I'm fascinated by the ability to make several albums together over so many years. From the outside, I'd think you'd have such chemistry that you could finish each other's musical sentences. Yet here you are not talking for a whole season. Were you surprised you'd hit that wall?

Thom: [Laughs] Yes and no. You might have your own version of this as well. You might have someone you have a long history with and you can say something to them and they'll interpret it in a way that's not obvious to people watching. It's like family. Your mom can say, 'How are you doing?' and you're like, 'Get off my back.' You can look at this on the surface and say, 'I don't understand what went wrong with it. Why are they blowing up at each other?'

Alisa: Yeah, there's just so much weight when we communicate. It can very easily or very quickly be misinterpreted. If I'm in the middle of something and Thom calls me, he could interpret that as me not loving the idea that he called me in that moment. He could get sensitive about it and say, 'Hey, why are you so grumpy?' But I'm not. I'm just trying to figure something out in that moment. So there's so many little things like that which can easily just erupt—these mountains out of molehills. It comes with knowing someone for a long time and there's a sensitivity in the communication.

If you take all of that and drop it into the creative language that we have to use when we make music. It can very easily turn into a complete mess. Thom and I really have to take a lot of time and care when we communicate things to each other. I definitely drove him mad, absolutely crazy, in the beginning. I was thinking about The Naked and Famous and what it means. How do we evolve? What does it sound like? What does it mean to other people and us individually or collectively? He'd write these ideas and asking me what I think and I'd just say, 'This isn't it.' I knew we needed to grow somewhere and I knew what I didn't want for us. So just imagine working with some who only says, 'This is great but this isn't it.' He'd write a song and we'd get to the end of the day and I'd say, 'It's fine but it's not good enough.'

Because we've worked together for such a long time, I can be very blunt and honest and sometimes forget that it's not always great. It's going to hurt somebody. [Laughs] It's a double-edged sword. We work really well together because we know each other so well, but because we know each other so well, we can be extra critical of each other's work. We're forever going to be a work in progress.

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