Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

The complicated times behind The Naked and Famous' new album Simple Forms

The Naked and Famous: Alisa Xayalith, Thom Powers, Aaron Short, David Beadle and Jesse Wood.
The Naked and Famous: Alisa Xayalith, Thom Powers, Aaron Short, David Beadle and Jesse Wood.

"Oh my God!" Alisa Xayalith exclaims, shocked. "I remember that!"

We're reminiscing. I first met Xayalith and Thom Powers, the songwriting core of The Naked and Famous, in a small drafty hall in Devonport way back in 2009.

I'd like to boast that it was a debauched night of rock n' roll excess at an underground gig on the cutting edge of Auckland's music scene but that would be a big fat lie.

The depressing truth is we were all attending a week long course because our unemployment benefits would be cut off if we weren't.

I was there because freelance entertainment journalism is tough. They were there because they weren't rock stars yet.

Their chart-topping debut album Passive Me, Aggressive You was roughly a year away, but buzz already circled the band thanks to two critically lauded EP's This Machine and No Light.

"That feels like a lifetime ago," Xayalith sighs. "I remember catching the ferry over to Devonport to that little hall... I was working at Juliette Hogan in Ponsonby when our manager called and said, 'Alright kiddo, it's time to quit your job. We're going on tour'. And the rest is... history. How funny. I feel a bit old now."

We didn't talk much during that week but I do remember Xayalith being smiley and friendly and Powers being aloof and disinterested. They were also very obviously together.

Well, not no more...

Last month a press release announcied that after a two year absence The Naked and Famous would release their third album, Simple Forms, in October.

Bizarrely, it also announced that the romance at the heart of the band was over. Whether this was genuine naivety or a cunning PR master-stroke, I don't know. But it ties an inescapable narrative to the record. I ask what happened.

"It's really hard to sum up because that time was so layered with so many complicated emotions," Xayalith says. "Everybody had their own emotional dealings. But the thing that tore us apart is the very thing that brought us back together. We really needed the band and the music to survive."

It's no exaggeration. The band's been their life for 10 years. The global success of Young Blood, the rallying anthem to lost youth off Passive Me, Aggressive You sold over 500,000 copies and sent the band on tour in 2010. They stayed on tour until falling apart in 2014. Xayalith describes this time as "a very intense, hardworking, long slog".

"It would break anybody," she says. "I felt emotionally depleted. Just broken. Fragile. We needed a break from each other. From everybody in the band."

Heavy, I say.

"There was about eight months where we all weren't speaking to each other," she laughs.

She's laughing now, but it's no joke. That really could have been it for the band. But at some point an olive branch appeared when Powers put a new song file into the band's shared Dropbox folder.

"Thom opened the conversation of getting together to talk about what was going on and seeing if we could work together," she says. "It was the start. It wasn't easy. There were a lot of peaks and valleys throughout the process. But we chipped away and came out the other side of a pretty trying time as a band and made an album."

By now you've probably heard Higher, the album's lead single. It's the sort of rousing youthful ode to joyous melancholy that built the band's reputation. It sounds like the Naked and Famous. The rest of the album, however, pushes away from expectations.

"We set out to make a really competitive pop record," Xayalith says. "But in a Naked and Famous way."

Indeed, Simple Forms doubles down on their recognisable elements, the vocal interplay between Powers and Xayalith, their knack for earworm melodies, and those soaring singalong choruses, while introducing an on-trend, high glitz, pop-production style.
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Xayalith describes it as "amplifying" the band's sound, saying they were inspired by recent albums by pop artists like Taylor Swift.

"It's a very poppy album, a very vocal album." she says. "Our poppiest to date. We love pop music and wanted to create a pop record. We hadn't done that on our previous records."

She tells me the band is much more ambitious now and it's apparent that Simple Forms is gunning for chart success. Even so, it's not bubblegum.

The album is peppered with lines like, "I'm learning to live with ghosts, the skin I miss the most" (Laid Low), "Promise you will rescue me" (My Energy) and "I never quite forgave you" (Falling), and, of course, the telling verse on Higher that goes, "To form these hearts in stone, rewrite this pain we own".

They sound incredibly personal, dripping with meaning and directly related to the break-up. Are they, I ask.

"I feel like everyone's always trying to find meaning to everything in the world. All the time," Xayalith says. "When I write music it's a reaction to something that has affected me in a really deep and personal way. Whether it's intentional, or not, subconsciously something personal will be threaded into anything you create. These songs are really personal but they might just be a creation of a consequence of a situation that we've gone through. I never set out to be like, 'I'm going to write a song about this'.

"But the songs have some origin rooted in personal experience," she concedes. "There might only be tiny snippets of it left, but it's there. It's the essence that carries that song. People can see that and feel it and hear it, so all our personal experiences are weaved into this entire album.

"Historically," she continues, "most bands that have had relationships usually break up and that's the end of the story. That didn't happen to us. We went through a really, really tough time, and we were able to come out the other side stronger, better friends and we created an album we're very proud of. I feel very grateful we got through it all."

Our conversation has been largely about love and loss and break-ups and make-ups but Xayalith is never maudlin. Instead, she sounds happy and relaxed.

"The vibe in the band now is awesome," she says. "Nobody hates each other. Everybody has their own lives. Everybody's in a healthier mindset."

So, you're good?

"We are ALL good," she says, adding emphasis. "It's a new era for this band. It's like a rebirth."

THE LOWDOWN

WHO: The Naked and Famous
WHAT: New album Simple Forms
WHEN: Available on digital, CD and vinyl on October 14

- NZ Herald

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