When the other members of The Naked And Famous said they wanted to move to Los Angeles to work on their second album, singer Alisa Xayalith wasn’t entirely sold on the idea. “We’d passed through the city a few times,” she says, “but the only part of it we really saw was Hollywood, where everything is really tacky and touristy. It didn’t make a good impression, and wasn’t the kind of place I wanted to be.” She eventually agreed – in part, thanks to a book she had been reading called Girls Like Us, about Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Carly Simon living and working in Los Angeles in the 1970s. The band rented a house in the tree-lined Laurel Canyon neighbourhood, and as soon as they arrived Xayalith was won over.
The band lived and recorded in a palatial ’70s house – a five-bedroom dwelling fit for the most decadent of rock stars, with mustard yellow walls, red velvet curtains, a sauna and a chandelier by the front door. “There were speakers everywhere,” Xayalith says, “and old radios built into the walls that would crackle and hum when you turned the dials. There was a hilarious bathroom that we called the powder room – the taps were golden cherubs.” The house was insanely ostentatious, but when the band met its owner, the whole thing made sense. “She was this cool, crazy old lady, and the whole thing totally suited her,” Xayalith laughs. “I loved the whole Laurel Canyon area. There are coyotes and skunks and hummingbirds all over, and everything’s just trees and wildlife – it’s a magical place.”
The second Naked And Famous album, In Rolling Waves, arrives this week, and it delivers on the promise of the band’s debut, presenting 12 tracks of beautiful, gauzy electro pop. The songs are slower and dreamier this time around, with more of a sense of space and longing, and I ask Xayalith if the Los Angeles landscape itself influenced them in any way. “I don’t know about directly,” she says after a while. “There’s a lot of breathing room on this album, especially compared with the last one, which is quite loud and bright and fast. I feel like, when you compare the two, perhaps this record feels a bit more gradual … Los Angeles is a sprawling city, with a lot of space, and I feel like there’s a lot of space on this record, so some of that might have filtered in unconsciously.”
When writing the batch of songs that would become their second album, The Naked And Famous had the live stage firmly in mind. Following the success of their debut album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, the band found themselves on the road for nearly two years, and this experience greatly influenced their approach in the studio. “All that time we spent on the road for the first one was really valuable, because it made us work and it made us better musicians,” Xayalith says. “This time, we were all able to push ourselves a bit further. For example, there’s a song on the new album called ‘Reunion’, and if we end up playing it live, I’m going to be playing guitar and some of the percussion bits.”
“With the first album, we had some technical difficulties being able to play all the songs just right, so with the second, we wanted to make sure we could play everything live. That’s really how we approached the songwriting and production for this record.” The band wanted to be able to play every note of the album onstage, adamant about not relying on pre-recorded tracks for the show. “We figured, if we can’t play it then we won’t play it,” Xayalith laughs. “If someone wrote something we couldn’t play, then we’d go back to the drawing board and work on it until we could. We crafted each person’s part on each song so it was the best it could be – the best bassline, the best vocal performance – and we can play everything you hear on the record live.”
The Naked And Famous found success very quickly thanks to singles like ‘Young Blood’ – for a while there, it was everywhere you turned, on the radio and in TV commercials. Fortunately, the demand for the band and the subsequent touring brought them closer together. “We’re really lucky in that sense, because some bands can’t stand the sight of each other at the end of a tour, but by the end we’d really become a little family. We’re five Kiwis away from home, travelling the world, but we always feel like we’re back at home when we’re around each other. I miss my family but I’ve never had an extreme case of feeling homesick or anything like that.”
I have to ask – as a woman touring the world with four men, have the last few years been a crash course in all the gross things boys do when left to their own devices? “No, not at all!” Xayalith says. “I grew up with three brothers, so I’m used to being the only girl around. I have a sister, but she’s 12 years older, so she wasn’t really around when I was a kid. I spent a lot of time with boys, so I’ve seen it all, I’ve heard it all, and I’m not fazed by any of their gross habits. I think my early life trained me up for this kind of environment, for sure.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
In Rolling Waves out Friday September 13 through Island Records Australia.