The Naked and Famous have been through a lot since their inception in 2008.
Frontwoman Alisa Xayalith met instrumentalist/vocalist Thom Powers in Auckland, New Zealand back when they were in their early 20s.
They released two EPs before their 2010 debut album ‘Passive Me, Aggressive You’ introduced them to the masses with ‘Young Blood’, the euphoric electro pop smash that many of us associate with the hedonistic first taste of freedom, partly due to it heavily featuring in promo for TV show ‘Skins’.
The song hasn’t aged in eight years, even if the band have. (“The one thing I chuckle about now because we’re like 10-11 years on is the first lyric in that verse is: ‘We’re only young and naïve still’ and in my head I’m like, ‘Nope, I’m definitely not young anymore!'” Alisa laughs.)
Back then, Alisa and Thom were a couple, but it was the end of their eight year relationship that almost broke up the band after second album ‘In Rolling Waves’ in 2013.
While most people can’t stand the sight of their exes, the pair managed to work through it and regroup to make 2016’s ‘Simple Forms’, which featured comeback single ‘Higher‘.
Since then, the band has lost two founding members (drummer Jesse Wood and keyboard player and co-producer Aaron Short ), leaving Alisa, Thom and bassist, Dave Beadle. However, there’s no animosity, with the band wanting to see it as a positive opportunity, enabling them to branch out and take advantage of working with people from the music scene in Los Angeles, where they’ve been based for the past six years.
Moving forward, they recently released acoustic album ‘A Still Heart’, featuring stripped back covers of some of their past tracks, which they’re now touring in smaller, more intimate venues.
Is it more nerve-wracking playing acoustic songs live?
Thom: Yeah, there’s a lot less to hide behind. It’s a lot more about your skill and delicacy than being in a rock band which is about being as loud as you possibly can.
Alisa, you’ve only just started playing guitar live, how’s that going?
Alisa: Nerve-wracking but really cool because I’ve always admired guitar players. I play guitar when I’m at home in my room writing and I feel pretty untouchable playing an instrument like that on stage in front of hundreds of people, but also feel the pressure of people watching me and trying my best not to mess anything up. It’s been so fun! It’s empowering.
‘I Kill Giants’ [a song about the death of Alisa’s mother, who died when Alisa was 17] must be intense enough to sing live – but even more so when it’s stripped back?
Alisa: Oh yeah. We have a piano player in the band called Luna Shadows – and she’s an amazing artist in her own right, and producer and multi instrumentalist – and she actually helped us compose and arrange the piano part for the acoustic ‘I Kill Giants’. I came to the studio and Thom and Luna played me the piano and I tried really hard not to cry. It’s like the song in this arrangement is its truest form.
Thom: Each night I keep nagging Alisa to tell the actual story behind the song to the audience but she often doesn’t want to and gives a euphemistic explanation, and I’m like, ‘No just tell them what it’s about!’.
Alisa: It’s too much, it’s too much.
Is it hard trying to follow up early smashes like ‘Young Blood’?
Thom: It’s like a blessing and a curse. It’s definitely something that follows you around, it shapes everyone’s expectation of you. No-one will see you as anything other than your hit if you don’t ever follow it up and write a bigger smash; it’s the first thing people will say and criticise you for.
You recorded ‘A Still Heart’ at home – when most people work from home, there’s a lot of procrastination involved…
Thom: The studio’s outside in the garage and also Alisa’s round here so we’re only as bad as the procrastination we will allow one another to indulge in. You need someone to watch you. But to a degree, we’ll still definitely procrastinate a lot. You need to work in a space where everyone can see you through the windows. So you can feel judged and watched.
Noted. Social media is bigger now than it was when you started and everyone’s a critic – how do you cope with that?
Alisa: When we were in our early 20s I definitely took it personally. Somebody once Photoshopped me singing into a penis and it’s funny looking back but at the time I felt humiliated. I was so heartbroken, I’d never experienced that kind of cyberbullying. But now that I’m older, I don’t give a shit. If people don’t like your music, who cares?
Alisa, I read an old interview where you said you had anxiety about putting your music out there but the guys in the band didn’t. Why do you think that is?
Alisa: There’s a lot of pressure on women in music. Even if we’ve done the most incredible things, there’s always that smidge of insecurity. It’s like trying to train yourself to groom your ego a bit and tell yourself that you are enough.
Thom: Having a female-fronted band, I can see how that affects our career. Rock radio in the states is predominantly male voices. We have a harder time getting press – the industry is really geared towards dudes.
Alisa: It’s really unfair. The merit of the music should be based on music, not the way people look.
Thom: Right. There are many guys fronting musical acts who can dress like a pile of rubbish and still be taken seriously.
‘A Still Heart’ is out now. The Naked and Famous are playing Bristol’s Trinity Centre on 15 July and London’s Union Chapel on 16 July. Buy tickets here.