We catch up with the vocalist of New Zealand’s biggest musical export, Alisa Xavalith.
The Naked and Famous were born in 2006 when vocalist Alisa Xayalith met fellow college dropout Thom Powers (vocals). Over time they recruited Aaron Short (keyboard), David Beadle (bass) and Jesse Wood (drums) and in 2010 they released ‘Passive Me Aggressive You’, which was followed three years later by ‘In Rolling Waves’. Their success has brought them across the world, playing at every globally renowned festival, including Coachella, SXSW and Glastonbury. They’ve also scored a number one debut album, seen their singles feature on Grey’s Anatomy, True Blood and Gossip Girl, while ‘Punching in a Dream’ became the theme tune for Made in Chelsea. Having recently finished their second world tour, we caught up with vocalist Alisa Xayalith, at her LA apartment, to talk about a new album, living the American Dream and eh, politics.
What have you been up to since you finished your tour?
The first time we came off a very long tour cycle in 2012, after having been on the road for something like 2 or 3 years off the back of ‘Passive Me, Aggressive You’, we decided to re-locate to Los Angeles. So we all held each-others hands as we experienced living in a new country for the first time. This time around, the five of us are living separately and I’m experiencing what it feels like to truly be alone with one-self, I’m learning to do normal things like learning how to use a lettuce spinner in the kitchen. And I have to organise my own schedule now that I don’t have a tour manager telling me where to be on a daily basis. I’m discovering more parts of Los Angeles and making new friends. Thom and I have begun working on new songs and once a week I go to a still-life art class downtown.
Any ideas what sound you are trying to capture for album no.3?
We’re still brainstorming a lot of ideas right now. I think we want to make an ambitious TNAF pop record. I know that sounds very abstract but I’m very excited about it.
There was a 3-year gap between your debut and sophomore offerings – quite a long wait in terms of the cycle of music production nowadays. Was this a conscious decision to not rush yourselves, and will you work at a similar pace on your third album?
When ‘Passive Me, Aggressive You’ came out in September 2010, we had no idea of the kind of momentum it would take. It gave us our first taste of a substantial international touring career. We crammed so many shows into our schedule and we could have kept touring beyond 2012 if we wanted to. But we felt this nagging that we needed to stop touring to write new music. We spent a year making ‘In Rolling Waves’ and a year touring it, we’re ambitious about writing this third LP, writing music takes as long as it takes so we’ll take our time, but not too much time I hope!
With five passionate members, are there ever heated arguments when it comes to sound or direction?
Absolutely! There are five people in this group who care about what kind of music they want to play. We’re usually all on the same page at the end of the day…after having it out with one another. That’s what you get when you have the temperament of an artist! I remember reading about the kinds of arguments that would happen in the studio between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. But when it’s great, we feel untouchable.
You live in LA and spend a lot of time touring the States. Would you say you’re living the American Dream now?
Yeah, you’re right. I wake up everyday thinking to myself, “this is my life now, I live in LA and music is my currency. The sole reason I am even in this country is because of music. What a lucky duck.” It sounds like an easy life, but it takes hard work and discipline. The first 8 months of writing songs for ‘In Rolling Waves’ I was caught in my own self-doubt. Most days I felt like a failure and that nothing I ever wrote was good enough for me. I brought myself to tears a lot because I can be really tough on myself. I always try to do my best. I know that when I write something I’m proud of, it makes me incredibly happy. There’s nothing else right now in my life that gives me that same happiness. Music is special to me.
You’ve also toured Canada, the UK, Europe and Australia. Is there anywhere in the world that you would like to play that you haven’t already?
Loads! We played Fuji Rocks in Japan a few years ago and we spent a week in Tokyo before the festival. We all agree that it’d be so fun for us to head back to Japan, but next time play a show in Osaka. It’s the most foreign place we’ve ever been to.
What are the perks and pitfalls of touring with TNAF?
Life on tour is what you make of it. It’s so easy to be lazy and hung-over every day, sleep in and not really do much before and after the show. I try and visit thrift stores and coffee shops, walk around and see if there’s anything to be discovered in whichever city we are in at the time. I got so used to living out of a suitcase and flying by the edge of my seat every day, it can be an exciting way of life. The major pitfall of the touring lifestyle is that it can be physically taxing, sometimes you’re in a venue that doesn’t have a shower and sometimes you can’t go outside because it may not be a very safe area and you can lose your mind a little because you get little to no personal space.
TNAF has had huge success, and it’s still early. How does it feel to be New Zealand’s most successful group export?
We worked really hard to be where we are, I’ve devoted 8 years of my life to this band. Thom and I were poor university drop-outs in those first years of writing songs together. I’m so proud of how far we have come, and to be recognised by our peers for the work we’ve done is a huge accomplishment.
You’ve previously said that you’ve all grown as musicians from the EP to ‘In Rolling Waves’. Do you think that there is still more growing to do or have you reached a level of capability?
Just as the universe is growing and ever-changing, I hope to always be learning and growing. Today, I feel capable in this present moment in time, but there’s still so much I want to do. One day I want to write a song as classic as ‘Stand by Me.’ No matter what you do in life, I think people should always be learning and growing and figuring things out.
Your name is sort of ambivalent about celebrity culture – what are your thoughts on the recent iCloud hacking scandal?
I think it’s really awful. I think it’d be awful if it happened to anybody. It’s a huge violation of one’s privacy and that sort of predatory behaviour is mortifying.
NZ Prime Minister John Key said recently that he would not rule out sending forces to help in the international fight against ISIS. How do you feel about this?
Politics, it’s a world I’m not oblivious to. There are people out there who dedicate their whole lives to politics and make a difference. I’ve read some devastating articles about ISIS and it makes me feel helpless and angry that such a group exists. I always feel pretty helpless whenever I read anything like this. I think that using the good in the world to fight evil comes from a place of love and compassion for the human race. I’d like to be on that team.
Words: Clarissa Waldron.