The Naked And Famous Tell Us All About 'Recover'
Chatting from their adopted home of Los Angeles, Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers of The Naked and Famous caught up with TCI ahead of releasing their new album Recover.
Their debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You gained them rightful and immediate success, propelling them into massive world tours, and earning them countless accolades including seven prizes at the New Zealand Music Awards. Now, after releasing three studio albums, The Naked and Famous are back, more creatively energised and fearless than ever.
The Creative Issue: I want to dig straight into talking about the album, but firstly The Naked and Famous have such an interesting history, you’re originally from Auckland and you’ve been based in the US for the best part of a decade. You’ve had a stack of massive albums and world tours, and now you’ve even reshaped from a five piece to a duo, so much has happened. Sitting here right now, with the album release just around the corner, how does it feel to think back to where it all began and the journey that has been your lives in The Naked and Famous?
Alisa Xayalith: Oh gosh that’s such a hard one. I mean it’s a strange thing to be in a band in your formative years. I feel like it’s a really unique experience that not everyone gets to have. There have been a lot of ups and downs and all I can say is, through all of the hardships that we’ve endured, we’re finally in a good place, and I feel like Recover is a reflection on where we’re at with that.
TCI: How long ago did you start working on ‘Recover’. How did it all begin?
Thom Powers: Honestly in 2017 actually. That was when we began working on it, but not with a huge drive if you know what I mean. We started working on it and we were taking it as slowly as we needed to.
AX: We were doing it in between our stripped record.
TP: Yeah. We were working on the stripped record and then making demos and writing new music. We did a few writing sessions with strangers which was interesting for Alisa and I just to dip our toes in. So that was interesting, but it didn’t really go anywhere and it was quite a slow year. We hit our stride on Recover in 2018. In the summer of 2018 we had a big eureka moment with the actual song ‘Recover’. That was the first track where we were like “Oh my gosh we’ve got it. We know what we’re doing now.” and then everything was completed within the next six months basically.
TCI: Sonically the album sounds stunning, both the songs and the production are amazing, it reminds me of the sonic version of sunlight shimmering on water. Can you set the scene for us and tell us a little about where and when it was recorded?
AX: Thom’s house was completely gutted and under renovation and we had no studio, so we ended up doing a huge chunk of the writing and recording at my house. I’d just gotten this house and the previous owner had left this grand piano in my living room. She said “Do you want this? My daughter used to play piano but she doesn’t play anymore. Would you like to keep it?” So I’d just gotten this house and had this piano and it ended up being the place where a lot of the writing happened. It’s where we wrote ‘Sunseeker’ and ‘Recover’ and ‘Easy’ and about 70% of the record was written there. My hallway in my house was where we did a lot of the group vocals that you’ll hear. All the piano that you’ll hear was recorded in my living room.
TCI: Recover is a great collection of songs. Is there a typical writing process behind The Naked and Famous or does it vary from song to song or album to album?
TP: It varies from song to song and album to album and a lot of the time it’s based on either mine or Alisa’s lyrical idea. So a song like ‘Recover’ that’s a very, very obviously personal message of Alisa’s and then a song like ‘(AN)ESTHETIC’ is one that is a very personal message of mine. But then there are songs where we can come together and write the lyrics together. There’s a song on the record called ‘Count On You’ and that very much Alisa and I encouraging each other. That’s a The Naked and Famous song for the members of The Naked and Famous. So in that one we could join the narratives as one, but otherwise usually one of us has to have a lyrical idea that they want to write about, and then the other one has to run alongside and be the supporting member, and fill in the blanks.
AX: Basically it’s like, who ever has the best idea in the room we just run with that. That’s usually a sure winner for having something at the end of the day that we can be proud of or dig.
TP: We’ve actually written songs in quite a few different ways which is quite interesting because not a lot of artists do that. We’ve done a lot of writing to a track. So I might have a bed of production, or a fake band that I’ve written, you know just drums and bass and guitar or whatever, and we’ll write a song to the pre-existing band. ‘Young Blood’ was written like that. I gave Alisa the song, which was just the band, and she wrote all of the lyrics and melodies over the top. But then there are other songs where Alisa has just had a line, or just had the lyrics and the melody, like ‘Recover’ and we’ll build the band around her idea. Or an old song like ‘No Way’ was just Alisa on the guitar, noodling around sort of half writing a song, and I ran up and captured it, then we built the rest of it together. So yeah we don’t have one process. I think just whatever…
AX: …feels good.
TP: Yeah whatever feels exciting.
TCI: That makes sense. I mean in that way you’re always doing what’s right for the song rather than just following a routine. And it obviously works.
AX: There’s definitely days, oh my god, there was one day where Thom and I were in the studio for seven hours and we were putting out as many ideas as we could think of and none of them were sticking. It wasn’t until like hour seven that something actually made sense to the both of us that we liked. It was like “Oh my gosh!” That song didn’t make it onto the record but there are days where we just show up to work to write something and nothing sticks, and we have to search and search, and mine and mine, and you leave at the end of the day with nothing. There’s like a 90% chance that you walk into the studio coming out with not a single song written, you know, so those days suck! And there are plenty of those days sprinkled in throughout the entirety of our career, but, there was a golden day that happened during the writing of this record and it was when we wrote ‘Sunseeker’.
That was like, the most perfect writing day. It started with some breakfast [laughs]. I cooked breakfast for Simon Oscroft [a childhood friend of Powers, who’s produced for artists like The Aces], for Luna Shadows [a producer/multi-instrumentalist who’s previously played keys for The Naked and Famous] and Thom and we were all eating. I was standing at my door looking at my dog Ginger bathing in the sun, and I would call her my little sunseeker, because I would just find her lying in the sun in the garden. I was like “Guys! I have a word! Sunseeker. Let’s go into the studio and chat about it.” It ended up that everyone’s ideas were firing and connecting and, you know, a song was born. So, yeah, that was a really magical day and I hang onto it as a prime example of how good songwriting sessions can actually go.
TP: Yeah that was fun.
TCI: That sounds beautiful. I was actually going to ask whether Ginger is the dog in the ‘Sunseeker’ clip? What kind of dog is she? She’s very cute!
AX: Yes. She’s very cute. She’s a Chow Chow/German Shepherd mix. She’s very, very sweet.
TCI: I hope you don’t mind me saying…I read that one of the songs on the album ‘The Sound Of My Voice’ was co-written with Scott Hutchison. I sort of froze when I read that because, I don’t know if it sounds weird, but it feels a bit like anything he touched is kind of sacred, it was unexpected to come across something like this two years on, but so lovely to have that on the album.
TP: Thank you.
TCI: That does also bring me to my next question. You mentioned a little earlier that you’d done some songwriting sessions with other people, as a band are you pretty open to co-writing or do you prefer to stick together?
TP: I think we’re pretty open…
AX: …as long as the vibe is right, you know.
AX: You know when you meet people and you just instantly connect with them and you just know that you would feel safe creating something. And there are those instances where you meet people and it’s like “No. Nothing is connecting here. We don’t speak the same language. We don’t have anything in common. Nothing could possibly come from this.”.
AX: I feel like with co-writing, Thom and I didn’t really do a lot of that until this record. When we told our people “Hey, we’d love to work with other people.” there were some early writing sessions with people that went so terribly.
TP: Yeah. It’s funny because people do it a lot in L.A. There’s a whole industry of songwriters and topliners and producers and whatever, and they’re just churning songs out every day and working with new people. And there’s a lot to take away from those sessions, and they’re fine for some people, but they don’t really work for real artists I don’t think.
AX: It depends.
TP: You have to really make them work in a specific way for you. But when you’ve got two of us going in, as a band, to one of those it can often be a bit of a flop. Those sorts of sessions usually cater to someone who is a songwriter who needs to work with a producer, you know what I mean? There’s been some stuff that we’ve learnt from them, but one thing we learnt is that the core of The Naked and Famous is our ownership of our creativity, and that self generating is where we get the things people can join us on. So, it’s a really cool experience but it’s not something that is easy to do if you’re in a protective, creative group where you want a lot of say in what you’re doing. A lot of artists get starry eyed about L.A and all of the opportunities to work with people here. Then they do it for a little while and it’s exhausting. They end up settling on the handful of people that they really like, and really trust, and enjoy working with, and have more chemistry with. Then the idea of the big name producer, or the big name songwriter, really doesn’t mean anything at the end of the day because it’s pointless if you have no chemistry. You won’t write anything good. You’ll just have an awkward eight hours of forced socialising.
TCI: You’ve spoken about wanting The Naked and Famous to be a safe space for people who are marginalised. I think it genuinely means something to people when a band comes out and says something like that? What does it mean to you to stand up and promote inclusivity in this way?
TP: I think Alisa and I liked the idea of speaking in a more societal manner, without wanting to sound cheesy. Like making a political statement. It’s something that I think everyone wants to do but we’re very hesitant, we don’t want to embarrass ourselves, or put our foot in our mouth, or say something we don’t feel fully informed on. But ‘Come As You Are’ was very naturally inclusive in it’s content. It came from a very personal place and we were like “Oh this is really cool. We can angle this towards a more ambiguous lyric that people can interpret in a very easy way. We could make it more universal.”. So we just kind of leaned into that. I’ve felt really compelled, over the last few years, to let our fans know that this is a safe space because, I feel like it’s not been a thing in music and now it is. The intentions, and the ethical code of creators, is really important to people now. You know, I’ll get turned off. I’ll stop listening to someone when I hear their bat-shit crazy political views. So it was important to us to plant a flag in the sand and be like “Hey! Everyone is welcome here!”
TCI: The Naked and Famous fans seem like a great bunch that would really share that feeling. And speaking of your fans…It really feels like this is an album that will translate incredibly into a live setting. Are there any plans in the works to be able to come back to tour Australia? Have you been able to make any tour plans at all yet?
AX: Yes. The minute we can! The minute that the number of cases has gone down. I am just DYING to play a The Naked and Famous live show. It’s the fun part of the process. But we can’t right now, so…
TCI: Well I’m sure your fans are dying to see this album on tour.
AX: Yeah. I’m excited for that.
TP: Hopefully we’ll have another album out by then as well.
AX: For the love of concerts everyone wear your masks!