How The Naked and Famous Fought Themselves and Won With New Album 'Recover'
Alisa Xayalith and Thom Powers already broke up once. Were they really about to do it again?
The pair met as teenagers in their native New Zealand; they fell in love and started a band all at once. The Naked and Famous had its first international hit four years later. “Young Blood” was upbeat, a screaming-from-the-rooftops fuzz-pop jam that helped define the early 2010s.
Their romance ended after two LPs, but the creative partnership continued. Simple Forms, released in 2016, was their breakup album, but it's the duo's latest -- out today, July 24 -- that does all the growing.
“Recover, conceptually, has been an album of recovery for her and I to try and keep this alive, to begin again,” Powers tells Billboard by phone of their new LP. “It's really been an honest and heroic labor of emotional distress. I think that was the goal for us, to create an album that felt like there was light at the end of the tunnel.”
It's had a messy birth, fraught with starts and stops, fights and joyous outbursts. Friends were lost, Powers almost died (more on that later), and six months went by where Xayalith and Powers didn't talk to each other at all. Music won in the end, and today (July 24), fans are gifted a 15-track package that dares to be cheerful in the face of sorrow while expanding the band's sunshine sound.
“It's really cool to have an album that isn't just about heartbreak, devastation, sadness and loneliness, which is basically the last two records that documented our mid-twenties,” Xayalith says. “It's cool to be able to be in your thirties and have written an album that's a lot more colorful and has a lot more hope and healing running through it.”
She and Powers have always been the musical brain, but The Naked and Famous was a five-piece band. Aaron Short, Jesse Wood and David Beadle didn't just conjure kaleidoscopic chords on stage. They had the important job of mitigating the band leaders' creative differences. Together since 2009, TNAF was a family. They toured the world together, grew up together, and even emigrated to L.A. as a band, but after the tour of Simple Forms, the background trio spread their individual wings and flew away.
“I just totally had a freak out and panic,” Xayalith says. “I fully support their decision and completely understood why they wanted to do it … but when they left, it was like, 'Wow, these guys have been in this band through all of my formative years.' What does this mean? What am I doing? Does Thom want to leave the band, too?'”
He wasn't sure.
“I had to do a lot of cost-benefit analysis of what the band means to me,” he says. “Alisa and I, we have to work everything out between the two of us, which means we have a democracy of two, which is a benevolent dictatorship of two. Any confrontation we have or disagreement can become a perfect stalemate, which doesn't go anywhere.”
The song “Easy” captures these slow battles. “It's just everything you make me feel,” Powers sings over an electric ballad beat. “It's not personal, every time you leave I have to heal.” The layered vocal chorus comes in bright over a tropical rhythm. Sonically, it glows with a warm, golden light even as their voices build beautiful tension by repeating the phrase “nothing changes.”
Some things did change. Xayalith took a trip to New York City to write with her friend Simon Oscroft. A fellow Kiwi and lead guitarist for the band Midnight Youth, he'd been close with her and Powers for a decade. The songs were meant for a solo project, but Xayalith heard TNAF in their hooks.
“I was a bit jaded by the process of collaborating with strangers,” Powers says. “There's a whole circuit of people doing it in L.A. -- meet a new person every day and write a new song. It's a great process, but it's very exhausting … and the vast majority of them are very uninspired. If we were going to work with collaborators, I wanted them to be with people that I had real chemistry with.”
Oscroft joined the band in L.A., and Powers' girlfriend, indie pop singer-songwriter Luna Shadows, got in the mix, too. They laid a lot of ideas down at Xayalith's Silver Lake home, but nothing was “it” until she sang about the mother she lost in childhood.
“There are moments I wish I could share with her, like buying my first home or introducing her to my boyfriend,” she says. “That grief is such a singular grief specific to me. It's something I'll always be recovering from, something I'll always be thinking about.”
Alisa's words cast a magic spell that shot Powers and Oscroft to action. In 20 minutes, they jammed out a folk-inspired foundation using an acoustic guitar and a grand piano left by the home's previous owners. They sang the hook in unison and stomped on the floor, then they fed that organic recording into digital production software. From then on, it was all electric, using the stems like samples to create a textured patchwork that “Recover,” the album's titular track.
“It was this perfect flow of creative positivity,” Powers says. “It felt like we had a new sound, and the bulk of the album came from that.”
They applied the same principles to the rest of the songs, recording themselves as a big group and sampling that. “Sunseeker” came next, a frolicking skip of friendly love inspired by Xayalith's boyfriend's dog. Ginger was a studio fixture, always wagging her tail and smiling in approval. “Come As You Are” is another track that bubbles and pops with computerized cuteness. It's an authentic exploration of new terrains, the same neon melodies with new, clean dimension.
“(An)aesthetic” brings that edge to ballad depths as Powers tells the story of his darkest hour. What started as food poisoning turned to sepsis, a potentially life-threatening illness caused by the body's own response to infection which can lead to organ failure. Powers was hospitalized and lucky to be diagnosed.
“It was just a monumental experience in my life,” he says. “I had a lot of PTSD from it and was really struggling for a while.”
Mortality comes into play again on the goth-laced synth single “Death,” though it's really a love song in the end. “The Sound Of Your Voice” is a love song of sorts, too. Powers wrote it with his friend Scott Hutchison, frontman of Scottish indie rockers Frightened Rabbit whom he always looked up to.
“Alisa and I had separated,” Powers says. “We landed in L.A. and I was very lonely, struggling with a lot of depression and suicidal ideation. Scott was there for me when I really needed a friend.”
The song sat in a demo folder for the next year and a half, until Powers heard the tragic news that Hutchison took his own life. Xayalith's verse adds that friendly spirit, reminding the listener that there's always hope.
“She's pulling the other singer out of that depression,” he says, “the voice of compassion, caring and love. I'm very happy with the way that the song came out, because it's not just a song about being depressed and feeling suicidal. There is a light.”
That's the dyanamic of TNAF. Xayalith brings the big laugh and the optimism, while Powers describes his personal sound as “much darker” and “somber.” It's the two of them together that creates the band's character. Xayalith calls it a real “yin and yang.”
After a summer spent writing from a place of love, there were disagreements over final touches pit the two against each other. Fall and winter went by without even a text. After Christmas, they forced themselves back to the table.
“We were like 'What do we agree on?' And we agreed on the songs that we did like -- and they were all the new ones,” Xayalith says. “Everything that you hear on this record, we fought about it. Every word and melody is super intentional. We really, really took the care and time to make this, and it's super special because of that.”
“I feel very proud of our achievement," Powers agrees. “Groups have ended for smaller reasons."