The Naked & Famous are a long way from their beginnings in New Zealand. Though the act is nominated for their second EMA award under the banner of that country, the core of the band – Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers – have lived in Los Angeles since the whirlwind success of their 2010 debut Passive Me, Aggressive You.
"I wish I was in New Zealand right now," Xayalith laughs to MTV Australia over the phone.
It's been ten years since two hazy dream pop singles from that album – "Young Blood" and "Punching In A Dream" – transformed the Auckland lo-fi kids into international pop stars in tinseltown. A celebration of that anniversary has been pushed to next year to mark the international release of the album instead. The pandemic-hampered release of their fourth studio album Recover this year consumed enough of the pair's emotional bandwidth for now.
The new record was intended to be a positive reframing of a dispatch from the brink – the departure of founding members Aaron Short and Jesse Wood and the near-breakdown of the creative relationship between (former lovers) Xayalith and Powers. But put out into a world on the brink, suffering through a global pandemic and government suppression of protest, the call for optimism struck a different chord – something they have mixed feelings about.
MTV Australia spoke to Powers and Xayalith about the band's reformed road to recovery, ten years of their debut album and "The Sound of My Voice" – a posthumous co-write with their late friend and Frightened Rabbit songwriter, Scott Hutchison. The following conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
MTV Australia: The making of the album was quite tumultuous for all of you personally, and the band. Do you feel like the process has resolidified your creative partnership for good?
Alisa: Yeah, I think it definitely has. In many ways, there was a lot that we learnt, a lot of growing that has happened. Thom and I are not the same people as when we started this band ten years ago. The dynamic has changed with band members leaving. I feel like it definitely set the path of how we move forward, knowing what works and what doesn't.
What do you think you've learned about your working relationships that you will use going forward?
Thom: That's a good question, but I think to be honest, it's a boring answer … I'd say that the hands-on lessons that we've learned from working and collaborating and just meeting people here in LA, particularly from the music industry – that has been a wealth of information and experience and knowledge that we will take forward into the future of whatever we do.
Which is such a stark contrast to how we cut our teeth and who we were when we started this band when we were like 19 year-old indie musicians, with no experience and no skill. Honestly, just really amateur at everything from the instruments, to songwriting to the industry and the studio – we were just completely useless. We were kids! Seeing that and comparing that to who we are now – it just feels like a lifetime ago.
Speaking of collaborations, one of the songs on Recover, "The Sound of My Voice", was written with Frightened Rabbit's Scott Hutchison before he passed. I wanted to ask what his family thought of that song, as it's probably going to be the last release he will have a writing credit on.
Thom: I was honestly so nervous about it. I reached out to his brother Grant, who Alisa and I had met before. We had a show in Glasgow in 2011 and we played at some theatre and Frightened Rabbit had a hometown gig – I think it was even a charity gig or a benefit gig – down the road. They started after us, and it was at a classic old Glaswegian bar called Nice and Sleazy – it's a tiny hole in the wall. You could fit 10 people in a line. We ran off stage right after our show, pushed our audience out of the way. "Excuse me, excuse me – we've got to go, sorry!". We got down to the show and watched Frightened Rabbit and met Grant, Scott and the rest of the band. We hit it off with both of them, but I became close to Scott when he moved to Los Angeles in 2014. We'd both come off tour and we were restarting our lives again. I got really close with Scott.
I wasn't sure how Scott's family would react [to "The Sound of My Voice"]. I hadn't spoken to them since he committed suicide. I have friends here in Los Angeles, like the band's ex-manager who I knew. When it happened she reached out to me and we got together, but I didn't really know now.
I showed Alisa and I was like, "I've written this song and Scott helped me with it, can we finish it off for the record please?". She was stoked to do that but it's a touchy subject with posthumous releases. The first concern we went through was "God, we really have to be careful that we don't seem like we're cashing in on a dead hero". Just this horrible thought that pops into your head straight away, like how do we do this tastefully? I think maybe not highlighting the song as a single was helpful for that. At the same time, I really did want to highlight it as a single because it's one of the more meaningful pieces of work that I've put myself into. Long story short, his brother Grant gave me the blessing and was totally stoked with it. And I reached out to management and made sure he had his writing credit and stuff. They were absolutely fine with it.
Now that you do have the blessing of the family, would you feel comfortable putting it out as a single?
Thom: I've always wanted to do something about it, but I think the only way to do that would be to highlight it in a way where the promotion of the song didn't just solely draw attention to the song or our band. I think if it was it directed towards Tiny Changes, which is the charity that the band's family started after his death; a Scottish-based suicide-prevention charity, named after a lyric from one of the songs. If we can pair it with something like that so that it has some kind of lasting positivity and it feels justified.
It was a really really terrible loss. Scott was one of my heroes. They say never meet your heroes, but I met mine and he was fucking awesome. We hung out and got drunk and shared stories. I loved being his friend.
A slightly different tack now, since you're nominated for an EMA Award as New Zealand artists despite living in LA for most of the band's existence, I wanted to ask what your country of birth imbued in your music?
Thom: I think we have a very unique attitude towards music that comes with being a Kiwi. And it's still there. It's both a blessing and a curse. There's a kind of down-to-earthness and a sort of realness that comes from being a Kiwi.
Alisa: And also a timidness which can get in the way being in America and being in this music culture that we are part of. That kind of cute, casual, timid, down-to-earth attitude can get in the way because you gotta walk into a room and be really confident and act like your success is guaranteed when you go to write a song. But it's really hard and it's been really difficult. I thought that maybe living in America, being around people and living in a culture where tall poppy syndrome just isn't in the vernacular here. I hoped that the American myth of celebrating successes and being confident about your success would rub off on me but it actually hasn't. So still trying to play that line.
This year also marked ten years since the release of your debut Passive Me, Aggressive You – how do you feel about that record, and period of your lives now?
Alisa: It feels very nostalgic. I realise just how young we were at the time. How very, very naive we were. Just how there's nothing that could prepare you for the kind of success that came for us during those years.
If anybody ever asks me to give advice to give to a young artist on the cusp of having a hit on their hands, I wouldn't have anything to say other than try to enjoy it. You're a new band – you'll never be able to experience what it's like to be a new band ever again. Once that period is gone, it's gone. It was a really weird, exciting time because being a new band is exciting. Everything is exciting and with that kind of spotlight comes an intense amount of pressure that you put on yourself. I feel like we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to work really really hard.
Perhaps we worked to the point where we didn't get to enjoy the ride as much. I have a lot of mixed feelings, a lot of mixed, nostalgic feelings when I think about that period of my life and making that.
And Thom, how about you?
Thom: Yeah, same for me. Gosh, it's almost a whole other interview in and of itself. It changed my life. And the further away I get from it, the more amazing and confusing and distant I feel from it. I'm not that person anymore. I'm a very different person. It's just an overwhelming sense of nostalgia, which is bizarre because the song itself "Young Blood" – that's the song that really carries that album and era – it already feels nostalgic, it's already a nostalgic song.
To then feel this double layer of nostalgia about it – yeah, it's bizarre. I worry that sometimes I dwell on it. Like I'm just sitting there milling over the ceiling all day – I need to sort of grow up, get a grip and move into the future. I'm concerned sometimes. But I feel very lucky.
The 2020 MTV EMAs will air live on Monday, November 9 at 7am AEDT (that's Sunday night over in Europe). If you're wondering where to watch the 2020 MTV EMAs, you can tune in to the show via all the usual places on Foxtel (channel 124) and Fetch (104). Follow along with all our live coverage right here at mtv.com.au.
Written by Josh Martin, a Melbourne-based freelance music and media writer with words in MTV Australia, NME, Junkee, Crikey, etc. Follow him on Twitter @joshuamartjourn.