The Naked And Famous
Photo: Larsen Sotelo
The Naked And Famous Talk New Album 'Recover,' Covering The Weeknd & Allyship With The Black Community
New Zealand electro-pop act The Naked And Famous were big in the golden era of the indie/alt scene, thanks to their powerhouse 2010 debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, and survived to talk about it, with creative energy to spare. After their romantic relationship ending in 2014 and the other members leaving the band in 2017, Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers recentered and reinvented the project's creative flow, even shifting the sound to somewhat sunnier territory.
The result is Recover, their fourth studio album, released today, July 24. Across its 15 tracks, the duo explores themes of death, mourning, heartbreak, recovery and identity, all with an unwavering sense of honesty and lightness. Throughout the project, there is a powerful feeling of the pair exploring and creating space for all emotions. There's even unbridled gratitude and joy, with an ode to Xayalith's dog on the effervescent "Sunseeker."
Ahead of the album's drop, Xayalith and Powers called in from New Zealand and Los Angeles, respectively, to chat with GRAMMY.com and dive deep into creative process behind it. They also spoke candidly about staying grounded during a pandemic and how the music industry can better support Black artists, among other important topics.
Your new album Recover comes out in July. What are you most looking forward to about sharing this project with the world?
Xayalith: I think I am just really excited to get it out there. I mean Thom and I have gone on a journey the last two years to get to this point. For me personally, I'm just relieved to just finally get the work out there so people can listen to what we have been working on. And I really hope that during this time it helps people escape from the current state of the world. I also hope people can see it and enjoy it.
When did you finish working on it?
Xayalith: We finished everything around December.
When did you start the album and what was the seedling of the beginning of the album? Also, what was the creative process like along the way?
Powers: We began recording this one around 2017, which is right about when our other band members left. Alisa and I began doing what we usually do; we start writing songs and we make demos. Regardless of what we are doing, we are often making demos. But we didn't really hit our stride, really figure out what we were doing until the summer of 2018. Everything up until that point was trial and error, we were trying writing positions, working with other people. Some of them came out okay, but we were looking for a new sound, a new direction, a new framework. We had this exceptionally productive burst of creativity in the summer of 2018.
The first song that was written for the new album was "Recover," which is one of the reasons we advocated for it to be the name of the album and the first track because it was really symbolic. It was this turning point. The way that song was written, I was waiting at Alisa's house in her studio with a friend of ours who was doing some co-writing and co-producing with us, his name is Simon Oscroft. He's an old friend of mine from childhood and he does songwriting and producing in L.A. now. Alisa was out, running an errand. She comes storming into her house while we're having coffee, like "I've written this song in the car." She burst into the room with "Recover," with the chorus already written. That was the moment when we hit our stride.
The bulk of the album was written then, in summer 2018, I want to say two-thirds of it. And the remaining third, was the good songs from the time prior to that that we hung on to, but we had to wait until we had the new direction to re-approach and re-conceptualize them. That is the short version of how this came about.
I would love to hear a little bit more about what finding that new sound felt like.
Powers: Yeah it was definitely a eureka moment with that song. It was an obvious turning point, and right after "Recover" we dove right into the album. There were a handful of other songs like "Sunseeker," "Come As You Are," "Easy," "Everybody Knows," that we were just churning out over the course of the month. In the first two weeks most of them came out. It was very clear to us when we had "Recover," that we had something new. And then "Sunseeker" followed it up very promptly, we knew we'd found our new direction. We had found our new way to complete this album, which was great.
Xayalith: When we wrote "Recover," originally it was very traditional sounding, kind of a soft folk song. We recorded it with guitar, some piano and vocals. And Thom was like, "How about we record it this way and then reverse engineer it, drop it into a session and then add some electronic production." So the scene would change quite rapidly in the song and you're not expecting so. How Simon and Thom produced it prompted how they would continue to work together on writing in the days after. I think that alone added some evolution to the production of the songs that you hear on the record.
Where did the idea for the "Bury Me" video come from? And was as fun shooting it as it looked.
Xayalith: Thom has been wanting to direct music videos more, and it was like the perfect opportunity for him to jump in. The minute I read [the treatment,] I just cracked up, I thought it was absolutely hilarious. We finished it out with our creative director, who helped us organize everything and put it together, but it was Thom's hilarious brainchild of the video treatment.
Powers: I came up with it one night at a bar. I had the idea that Alisa just kept killing people, and then I would cover it up. I got worried along the way that it was going to be sort of a male savior complex. It made more sense to have me equally as responsible for all the catastrophes in the video. We tried to combat that [complex], I cover up her mistake and I am driving the car and the first thing I do is run Luna [Shadows, who co-wrote and co-produced the track with them] over. So hopefully I got rid of that angle and parodied it a bit.
I loved making that video, it was a lot of fun. I don't usually have fun making videos per say. I do enjoy being on set and there is a joy that comes from doing it, it is exciting with all the drama and fuss of making videos. But it can be kind of anxiety inducing because it is very difficult to make something satisfying on a low budget. We don't have millions of dollars to spend on a video. And fortunately, that video had so much planning that went into it that it came out really well for not having a massive budget. We are really proud of it. We had an amazing team on it as well that made it come to life. They are all in the credits on YouTube, we always want to direct people to check them out.
Xayalith: If we go back and look at the music videos, we've never really gotten in them as much. We really took the opportunity to make music videos to tune in on an identity that wasn't really there before. And this music video, I feel like it gave Thom and I a chance to not take ourselves so seriously and so people can see another side of us that they have never seen before. I think that has been something really fun and new for ourselves and people who have been a longtime fan of the band.
The one scene where I have blood splattered on my face, we only had one shot for that, one shot because we only had just enough blood for one squirt, so I had two people on either side of me on their knees with their hands held up to my face and they squeezed it and I was like "Okay, I cannot laugh." It was so funny, after we cut everyone erupted into laughter.
On the album, the messages on "Recover" and "Death" feel especially poignant during these trying times. Can you speak to the story behind "Death," what it meant to you recording it then and how it feels listening to it now?
Powers: Thank you, that is such a flattering question. That song has an interesting story about how it was put together, and the starting point particularly. But the line that I stole, again, stealing more of Luna Shadows' creative content. We live together and she has this gorgeous, secret solo project which she just keeps on voice memos. She sent me one of them and it has that line "We both like the idea of / dying by the ocean side / maybe there is nothing more?" It is a love song but I wanted to steal lyrics from her own song and sing it back to her.
And then Alisa, Simon and I wrote this love song and it was fun for me to get an opportunity on this record to be a topliner. For that song, I got to switch roles. Usually I am the one sitting at the computer and doing the tracks. Like on "Recover," and you can hear it is very much Alisa's story, her lyrics. You couldn't create that on a committee, which a lot of Los Angeles songwriting is like—very impersonal and without a universality to it, weirdly, even though it is written that way. With "Recover," Alisa is the topliner, and Simon and I were the producers and the co-writers, so we might fill in lyrics and suggest melodies and lines, but the narrative is coming from one person. My belief is you really need that in a song. I got the opportunity on this album to do that, where Simon was running the computer and Alisa was my co-writer. I haven't had an opportunity to do that on other albums because we haven't worked with someone like Simon who I trusted enough to run the session.
I am not a happy person, I am someone who is consumed by thinking about death and ethics and mortality and the pointlessness and meaninglessness of existence. I wanted to try and write a song about that. But it ended up being really—I don't want to say fun, but it's groovy and it has a gentle quality to the song which is really beautiful and satisfying.
The song is kind of challenging ideas that people have about finding meaning in life. There is this silly idea that if you don't believe in a higher power, or something superstitious, or don't have magical thinking, then why do you get up in the morning? I think there is a deeper meaning in that this is all you have, this is it—it is even more precious. All the meaning you can get in life is right in front of you. "Death" is both a love song but also a love song to that idea. I am really proud of it.
Xayalith: I am a huge fan of The Weeknd. So when he released it, it was just something I was listening to a lot. Out of a few choices we had, it was the one that made the most sense. If you listen to the song, and the album, he's taken a lot of '80s pop and synths on this record. It was kind of exciting for us to take that. Thom just nailed, just whipped up the demo really quickly.
We turned it around pretty quickly. In the history of the band, we normally go over everything for a while. It was just like, "cool, the music is done, let's go." It was a really fun challenge for us to do that. We have never done a Triple J "Like A Version" before, so we wanted to make sure it was a song that we enjoyed.
If you could record any other cover, what would it be?
Xayalith: Well, I am a huge fan of Caroline Polachek and "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings" was another one of our choices. I absolutely adore that song. If we were to record another, that would be the next one.
So, it's now been a decade since you released your dreamy debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You. If you could go back and give that version of yourself any advice, what would it be?
Xayalith: Don't fight the process.
I really fought with myself. I put a lot of pressure on myself when I was younger to get things done, without realizing that part of the process is the work and going through the motions of coming up with an idea. I would get frustrated at myself because I didn't like the pace at which I was creating. If I could go back in time, I would just tell myself to not fight the process and to just flow through it.
Powers: Oh my god. I feel like it's things I would correct myself on. We've been talking about this a lot in interviews lately because of the time period. I guess for some reason it's a symbolic check point. And it feels long enough as a measurement to want to ask "What is different now, how do you feel now?" I think I regret so much of who I was.
I am a person who is self-loathing by nature anyways. I think that looking at myself 10 years ago, I hold myself responsible for so many things that I am unhappy with about my life now. I think I can really see the faults in myself and in the life I have and the things that I am unhappy about as being a product of me. So I really do wish I could go back and correct and adjust my attitude.
I think I could teach myself a few things that I am really happy our culture has created. I am a fan of PC culture. I think it is better than what we had before, better than being able to say something casually sexist, casually racist. I think for all its faults, at which I do believe there are many, I am really happy that words like toxic masculinity exist now. They shine a bright and important light on human psychology. I think it's helpful in our daily lexicon. I think if I could give myself an insight into the way our culture has changed, I would be a better person for it earlier on.
I am sure everyone feels this, but the older you get, the wiser you get; the more you realize how ignorant you are. With wisdom comes the sense of the extent of your own ignorance. I wish I could've taught that to myself earlier on. I would've made some more well-informed decisions and some less-arrogant ones.
I would love to hear a little bit about each of your musical backstory; how you got into making music initially and how you two met.
Xayalith: My mom and dad immigrated to New Zealand, and I grew up listening to Lao music. And my dad was in a Lao community band, so I would often go and see him play. And I love singing, and really loved it at a young age. Music was something that I found myself finding so much joy in compared to anything else. I found ways to be a part of it; I was in the talent competition, choir, I would join a vocal group and drama classes so I could participate in the musicals. I was always searching for some ways to be a part of it.
I also took up guitar, I taught myself how to read music. I fell in love with alternative 90's rock music; PJ Harvey, Smashing Pumpkins. Then I enrolled into this musical college where I met Thom and Aaron, who was in the band, and we started making music together.
It was my first band ever, and it's been the only one. It was pretty unreal. Bu my search for wanting to pursue music I think I really followed my instincts and didn't give up on it. I think my instincts are pretty spot on most of the time. I was pretty tuned in to what I found joy in, and I felt it without knowing.
Powers: I mean, my musical history, is pretty standard to be honest, it is not super interesting. My dad played guitar, he is a musician. I think it runs in my family; we're very musical. I became a guitar player, a little metalhead at age 12. Little white suburban kid gets a guitar and you know, gets dreadlocks by 14. I was a typical—we would call them like a bogon down in New Zealand, which is like an Australian version of Bevis and Butthead. When I hit about my teenage years, about 15, I started getting into more alternative music.
And then I met Alisa, we were both still discovering alternative music culture. So the early Naked And Famous songs, they are somewhat a reflection of the things we were listening to at the time, the bands we were obsessing about. When we started making music we were still discovering ourselves as musicians and discovering what we liked and the kind of music culture that we wanted to participate in.
2006 is when Alisa and I started making music and going to gigs. We both worked at a record store and we were so involved in the music scene back then. Every gig that would come to Auckland, we would go to see. It is funny because I was just writing a list before of potential covers that I want to do. I was trying to put down songs that were influential around that time. There is a Bloc Party song, a Yeah Yeah Yeahs song, a Fyfe song. It makes me feel very nostalgic.
With all the craziness going on in the world right now, what has helped each of you feel most grounded these days?
Xayalith: Getting enough sleep. I know it sounds really silly, but when I don't have enough sleep I don't feel like I can focus or perform to the best of my ability. But in times where I need to feel grounded I usually just exercise.
Powers: Alisa is a very grounded person.
Xayalith: Actually, you know what I do? I cook. That helps me feel grounded. I was on tour earlier in the year, so I hadn't been able to do that very much. But cooking and baking is something that helps me feel super grounded. Which is why I have gotten into making sourdough bread and I have things that I love to cook. Just the process of preparing everything, cooking everything, and the end product is going to be delicious. It always feels good to me.
Thom probably just plays video games.
Powers: I don't really have one thing that I do to stay grounded. Maybe reading. I think I am a grounded person by nature just by being very critical, by working on my critical thinking skills as a hobby. I am not a very smart person, I didn't go to university or get a degree in anything. Critical thinking is probably what keeps me grounded and realistic. Also, my partner keeps me very grounded when I get delusional, or worried about things.
I think when I am least grounded, I have a very unrealistic view, a very envious, jealous and comparative view because of the way music culture has shifted to this online content provider paradigm. Some days when I wake up and I feel negative, I just feel this immense pressure to be this content provider, which is something that does not come naturally to me, it's difficult. But some people, it just comes so naturally to them to put their unedited selves up on the internet. Some days I want to participate and it is really fun and I want to be a person who can get into TikTok. But other days I'm like "this is just empty narcissistic sh*t."
Xayalith: I feel like maybe it is just today. Today you're just not in the mood. Tomorrow you might feel differently. I think everybody feels the same way about social media. We fluctuate between wanting to engage in the conversation and then feeling like you can't keep up in the conversation and we don't want to be a part of it. Social media is this ongoing conversation and there are days that I don't want to participate in it, I can't be bothered. I feel like the mood you're in Thom is probably one that will fluctuate.
Powers: Yeah, you're right.
As a non-Black ally, why is it important for you to speak out and join the Black community in solidarity?
Xayalith: I think it's essential for us to be vocal and to use our social platforms to help amplify Back voices that need to be heard. Learning about anti-racism is necessary to implement change on a global scale, and we're learning every day. It requires a long-term commitment. We want the Black community to know that we stand with them, and we're listening.
Powers: I don't feel it's about whether it's important to us, but whether it's morally and ethically necessary. I don't mean to sound grandiose, but we feel (happily) obliged to participate. America has been good to us—we've made this place our new home. I think we feel a growing patriotism, although it's clear that this is still a global problem. We're under no illusions about the limits of our reach or social clout, but we can pile-on to the conversation and direct people towards the organizations leading the change; places like blacklivesmatter.com and www.naacp.org.
In your opinion, how can the music community at large contribute to dismantling racism?
Xayalith: I think the music industry at large is homogeneous. Perhaps we can change that with outreach programs to Black communities. This may create more opportunities to work at record labels, music studios, music management, concerts and events—careers in music that would apply to young Black adults who might otherwise be denied those opportunities. Action speaks much louder than words, and right now, action is needed.
Powers: Uneven business models continue to earn the music business millions of dollars while passing on only a small amount of that wealth to artists. For example, the royalty split on an average major-label deal is 82 percent to the label, 18 percent to the artist. The music industry has been benefiting from and exploiting Black artists for a long time. Adjusting these antiquated models would help all artists, but also result in a considerable redistribution of wealth to Black artists—a tide that would lift all boats.
The music industry is corporate America—its goal has always been to grow and maintain its wealth. It knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. For the music industry to change, it needs companies (as well as individuals) to prioritize art, culture, social equality and redistributing wealth, over unbridled capitalism.
I don't think we should underestimate the power of political correctness, i.e., the recent jettisoning of the term "Urban." I'm old enough now to see what a difference political correctness can make. There are plenty of words and ideas that can no longer be approached or used with casualness, which is a great thing.