The original core of the band was three musicians who met in 2006 at audio engineering school, MAINZ: Thom Powers, Alisa Xayalith and Aaron Short. Powers learnt guitar from his folk musician father and played in metal bands during high school, but he became increasingly interested in electronic music and recording his own ideas. He bought himself a secondhand Mac, though this required borrowing the school’s audio interface and the machine could only do a limited amount of parts before it froze. Both he and Short had attended Rangitoto College and they had bonded over a shared love of Nine Inch Nails.
Xayalith also grew up in a musical family, with a father who sang in his own band back in his homeland of Laos, before the family fled to New Zealand to escape the civil war there (Xayalith was born in New Zealand). At age 13, Xayalith was inspired by Bic Runga to take up the guitar and she expanded her vocal ability through appearing in school musicals. Her perception of where her music could go was further expanded by listening to acts such as Karen O and Fiona Apple.
After a year at MAINZ, Xayalith and Powers left to get jobs at Real Groovy Records in Auckland, but Short stayed on so they still had access to the recording studio and began working on material for their own band in 2007. They formed the first line-up of The Naked and Famous with Ben Knapp on bass and Jordan Clark on drums. They took the phrase “naked and famous” from the Tricky song ‘Tricky Kid’ which expressed an ambivalence about striving for celebrity. It was a fitting moniker since they would eventually have to consider how to deal with fame themselves.
The Naked and Famous hit the ground running in 2008, releasing two EPs through local indie label Round Trip Mars and performing at CMJ and SXSW. Their first EP, No Light, still showed the heavy influence of Nine Inch Nails, with heavy guitars over pounding beats and synth parts fuzzy with distortion. Xayalith and Powers tended to sing the vocal parts together, though on the final two tracks (‘Part 2’ and ‘Bells’) there was a hint of the beautiful vocal sound that could be achieved with her voice pushed forward, while he provided perfectly matched harmonies underneath.
Their next EP, This Machine, was even more of a revelation. The heavy guitars found a counterpoint with a catchy chorus hook on ‘Meeting People Sucks,’ and there was even more of a potential hit in ‘Serenade’, especially with the accompanying clip by rising music video directing duo, Special Problems: Campbell Hooper and Joel Kefali.
The following year, the band realised they needed fellow musicians who shared their drive to make a career in music. Auditions were held for a new rhythm section, but Powers and Short ended up being most impressed by two of their former schoolmates from high school: Jesse Wood (drums) and David Beadle (bass). Fortunately Xayalith signed off on the decision and the five-piece was ready to move forward.
To get a fuller sound on their debut album, the band went to The Lab recording studio.
When it came to working on their debut album, Powers now had the equipment to record at home, but still wanted to get a fuller sound for crucial elements such as live drums and vocals, so they hired The Lab Recording Studio and worked with in-house engineer Olly Harmer. The album was also mixed by Billy Bush – the US sound engineer who had made his name working on four albums by Garbage (including Version 2.0, which sold platinum in the US).
The first hint of their full-spectrum new sound was the three-song All of This EP. The title track was again given a video by Special Problems and the song hinted at the group’s future direction, with dreamy melodic vocals underpinned by an expansive band sound.
The Naked and Famous then released the song that would become the bedrock of their career, ‘Young Blood’. The seed of the song came from a chord progression that Xayalith was playing to herself at home, using a synth echo setting on her keyboard. When Powers heard it from another room, he hurried in and suggested they should build a song around it. From the first line, the lyrics focused on the excitement and unnerving nature of being a young person entering the wider world – “We're only young and naïve still / We require certain skills / The mood it changes like the wind / Hard to control when it begins.”
‘Young Blood’ was initially released through the band’s own label, Somewhat Damaged, but they had experienced management behind them: entertainment lawyer Campbell Smith of CRS Management. His CV includes large scale jobs like running the Auckland leg of the Big Day Out music festival. CRS Management would work with the band until 2017.
The band’s hard work in building an audience paid off, with ‘Young Blood’ debuting on the local charts in the top spot, the first local artist to reach No.1 in three years. It was helped along by atmospheric video created (again) by Special Problems, this time shot in locations in Sydney, Los Angeles, and the UK, which ensured it had a worldwide appeal.
In August, their next single ‘Punching In A Dream’ reached No. 11 in the New Zealand charts and prepared the groundwork for their album, Passive Me Aggressive You (2010) to debut at No.1. It stayed on the chart for nearly a year, also reaching No.25 in Australia. Other tracks off the album also became perennial favourites – ‘Girls Like You’ showed Powers was equally adept at fronting a catchy track and ‘No Way’ pushed the quiet-loud contrast of the band’s sound to new heights (when the streaming era began, each would surpass 20 million plays).
Around the same time, The Naked and Famous undertook a national tour with rising local stars Kids of 88. The power of their new songs soon became obvious, after spending night-after-night faced by large crowds who knew every word to their songs – ‘Young Blood’ in particular. The song also received the coveted local songwriting award, the APRA Silver Scroll.
Meanwhile overseas, a 7” of ‘Young Blood’ was released by cult label Neon Gold, based in Brooklyn and London, which gave the song a new chance to reach some of the most important tastemakers in the world. Its reach was further extended by featuring in an ad for TV Show Skins. A rep from British label Fiction Records took a 30-hour flight to New Zealand in order to meet the band and see them play, before heading home two days later with plans to sign them immediately.
The band’s momentum continued through 2011, including a GLASTONBURY performance.
The band’s unstoppable rise continued through 2011. In the UK, they played Glastonbury, received NME’s Phillip Hall Radar Award for a hot young act and were nominated for the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll. In the US, they had signed to Republic Records (a subsidiary of UMG) and managed to sneak into the top half of the Billboard Top 200 album chart, reaching No.91 on 2 April 2011 (while playing big festivals like Lollapalooza).
It was therefore no surprise when they did a clean sweep at the NZ Music Awards in 2011, winning album of the year, single of the year (‘Young Blood’), best alternative album, best group, breakthrough artist, best music video (for ‘Punching In A Dream’ by Special Problems), MAINZ best engineer award (for Powers, Short, and Olly Harmer) and the MAINZ best producer award (for Powers and Short).
In little over a year, the band had gone from local indie faves to being a band with a sustainable worldwide career. The song ‘Young Blood’ had now reached nearly 10 million views on YouTube (with ‘Punching In A Dream’ at 3.5 million), which was a remarkable figure at that point in time. It would eventually be certified platinum in the US, Australia and New Zealand, while reaching the Top 30 of the singles chart in other large markets like Germany and Belgium.
Beyond this, every song on Passive Me, Aggressive You had been licensed for commercial use and many had appeared on smash shows such as Gossip Girl, Grey’s Anatomy, and True Blood (as well as countless ads and video games). The Naked and Famous had achieved their breakthrough, but now the hard work would really begin.
The ever-building success of their debut album meant that The Naked and Famous were on tour for most of the two years after it was first released in mid-2010; the band eventually performed over 200 shows in 24 countries. They knew life would be easier if they were based overseas and decided on Los Angeles, since it was somewhere they regularly performed and was seen as the centre of the US music industry.
Initially the band shared a home in Laurel Canyon, where they began writing and recording demos for a new album. They also continued to play regular live shows and decided their new album should be less reliant on sounds that they couldn’t play live (since performing to backing tracks felt restricting).
In Los Angeles the band shared a home in Laurel Canyon, and began working towards a new album.
On 18 March 2013 they released a concert film, One Temporary Escape, recorded at a show in San Francisco the previous year. The free download kept the word out there about the band, though ‘Young Blood’ was continuing to show its popularity: views on YouTube surpassed 25 million by end of the year (‘Punching In A Dream’ passed 10 million).
They were impressed by the work Billy Bush had done on their previous album and decided to do a month of recording with him at Sunset Sound studio, though it was subsequently mixed in London with Alan Moulder.
The first single, ‘Hearts Like Ours’, started with a pulsating slow build, before breaking out into another epic chorus line that made best use of Xayalith’s vocals (though matched by an equally catchy backing vocal in response). A music video was shot by Joel Kefali of Special Problems at their Laurel Canyon home, where they also took promotional photographs for the album. However, by the time it was released they had all moved to separate accommodation, with most of them around the Echo Park neighbourhood.
A month later, on 16 September 2013, they released their album In Rolling Waves and showed the power of their US fanbase by entering the Billboard Top 200 a couple of weeks later. It reached No.48, as well hitting No.14 on Billboard’s Top Alternative Albums chart. It did even better at home, debuting at No.4 and picking up two categories at the following year’s music awards: best music video and best group (their count was somewhat hampered by the arrival of Lorde on the scene!). More surprisingly, it also reached the Top 40 of the album charts in Switzerland and Austria.
The next single, ‘I Kill Giants', was less of an obvious hit but would go on to become a much-loved fan favourite. The lyrics had started out as a poem by Xayalith about the death of her mother when she was still only 17. Thom pushed her to make it into a song and, to complete it, they worked together with co-producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen; it was one of two songs he helped with on the album, alongside ‘The Mess’. The song starts with 30 seconds of atmospheric build-up before rising quickly to a thumping, yet evocatively sung chorus – a perfect track to enrapture live audiences. They soon put this to the test with another extensive world tour, which included a slot at Coachella in April 2014. The band seemed unstoppable, but they were about to face their biggest test.
By mid-2014, The Naked and Famous had been touring and recording constantly for three years. Their efforts had achieved dividends, but also driven the group members near to burnout. The pressure on the group also bled into Powers and Xayalith’s personal lives and undoubtedly helped lead to their relationship break-up: they had been seeing each other for eight years, since before the band formed. The band members spent some time apart and considered their options, with no certainty that the group would continue.
Yet the love of making music together was too strong a draw to keep them apart. In November, they finally met up again in the studio. Things quickly began to fall into place and they spent the next year writing for the new album. Their spirits were also buoyed by a new wave of New Zealand songwriters who had moved to LA, with Lorde, Joel Little, Sam McCarthy (Kids of 88), Broods, and Chelsea Jade all taking up residence in the city and becoming an informal community of musicians.
Recording sessions for their new album began in earnest in September 2015. As usual, much of the album was recorded in Powers’s home studio (now in Echo Park), but they also hired a bigger studio for live drums and vocals. Some of the songs were older ones that they were now re-working, the prime example being ‘Higher’ which they recorded for the previous album, but weren’t happy with. Powers’s friend Brad Hale (from US band, Now Now) helped him rearrange the song to make it work.
‘Higher’, released in 2016, became one of their most popular songs online.
‘Higher’ was released as a single on 7 July 2016 and went on to become one of their most popular songs online, surpassing 25 million streams. Their third album, Simple Forms, came out in October and hit No.15 on the New Zealand charts. Many listeners perceived it as somewhat of a break-up and rebirth album, though Powers and Xayalith reject the idea of it being about their own relationship. Nonetheless it was hard not to read into the downbeat, evocative mood of tracks like ‘Falling’, with its call-and-answer chorus: “How can I stay? / Not that I want to / How can I stay? / Not that I want you / How can I stay? / Not to get closer / How can I stay? / Now that it’s over.”
The band was not able to match their previous commercial success with the album, but still managed a respectable spot at No.110 on the Billboard 200, a placement that most New Zealand bands would die for. They still remained a hugely popular live act, reinforced by the fact that they were picked to support Blink-182 for their Spring tour in 2017 (higher on the line-up than rising indie stars, Wavves).
New challenges came in 2018 when Aaron Short and Jesse Wood announced they were leaving the band. However they all remained friends, and the occasion was marked by the release of a video for a stripped back version of ‘Young Blood’, which showed the remaining members watching old footage of the band in its earlier days. This accompanied a full album, A Still Heart (2018), of reworked and pared back versions of their earlier songs.
By this stage, it was clear just how far-reaching the success of ‘Young Blood’ would turn out to be. It now had over 140 million streams, without even counting the 53 million views across the two versions of the song on YouTube.
It was a time of reflection for the group, but they came back reinvigorated with the energy to try new things. Xayalith filled the gap in the band’s live sound by taking up the guitar for live performances, despite the stress of re-adopting the instrument after many years of minimal use. They also gained a new keyboard player, Luna Shadows, who was a solo act they worked with in the past – for example, remixing her song ‘Waves’ in 2019.
A new album, Recover (2020), was announced and along with Luna Shadows, it also had contributions from Simon Oscroft: Powers' old Rangitoto College schoolmate. He had spent time in Midnight Youth before moving to the US and playing in bands there (including Mothxr, whose members included the actor Penn Badgley of Gossip Girl fame).
The album was preceded by a three-song EP, Come As You Are, released in February 2020, and kicked off with lead single ‘Sunseeker’: an upbeat song with a bouncing drumbeat and a sweet chorus hook. The video was equally playful and shows Powers looking like a real LA local, with shoulder-length blonde hair, while Xayalith exuded as much laidback cool as ever. No longer young or naive, they could now look back on 14 years surviving in the music industry and, with this hard won experience, look forward to many more years of success ahead.
Alisa Xayalith - vocals, keyboards
Thom Powers - vocals, guitar, keyboards
Aaron Short - keyboards
David Beadle - bass, synth bass
Jesse Wood - drums
Luna Shadows - keyboards
Ben Knapp - bass
Jordan Clark - drums