It’s not surprising that Alisa Xayalith grew up and co-founded a band. With a surname that sounds like the kind of instrument Tesla might have invented, it was surely only a matter of time before Xayalith began making music. However, few could have anticipated the popularity The Naked And Famous would achieve so very quickly, with the single ‘Young Blood’ and album Passive Me, Aggressive You debuting at number one on the New Zealand charts back in 2010. When I speak to Xayalith, the band is wrapping up a US tour supporting Imagine Dragons and promoting latest release In Rolling Waves.
“Oh my God, it’s the most surreal experience,” Xayalith says. She has an easy-going manner and only the faintest trace of an accent. The singer seems genuinely surprised her band has made it this far, and genuinely distressed that I choose this moment to spill an extra large mocha into my lap. “You poor thing!” she cries while I try to salvage my dignity with napkins and old bus tickets, but the damage is done. One step closer to becoming the kind of interviewer who accidentally sets himself on fire while talking with the Pope.
Still, it leads me to ask how their US shows have been unfolding so far. No coffee-sodden debacles in front of unfamiliar crowds?
“Not yet, but it’s weird. When I’m standing onstage and speaking to the audience I find myself saying things like, ‘Sooo… we’re not really used to playing for this many people…’ Every night I’m just totally whelmed by it all. But, you know, people are there to see Imagine Dragons. We’re the support band, and I think we’re fortunate enough that when I do notice that there are some…” She considers the right word. “Some negative parts of the audience, it’s still cool because we’re connecting with people who wouldn’t ordinarily come across us. It’s generally been a really positive experience. But these arena tours, they’re really something else.”
It’s certainly a world away from their beginnings. Having formed in 2008 in Auckland, it wasn’t until The Naked And Famous started their own label Somewhat Damaged that things began to look up. ‘Young Blood’ was released, and suddenly the song was everywhere. It makes me think they must have done a tremendous amount of gigging in order to build such an eager audience.
“We had a great start, and we owe a lot to that song, it’s done so much for us. But in reality, we didn’t actually gig a lot in New Zealand. A handful of shows. There’s only so many times you can gig there, because it’s so small. I remember the very first time we played ‘Young Blood’; we were in a town called Hamilton and played on a night where the All Blacks were up against South Africa, and so we had nobody come to our show. There were maybe 20 people in the whole place. I’ll never forget that story [laughs].
“But because we started off in a studio, we started by writing and recording and then performing. We’ve all had to learn how to be live performers, and now I think we’ve reached a stage where we love studio time and love performing in equal measures. In the beginning I was just a nervous wreck. I used to hide behind my hair all the time, and you can tell! There’s this video of us playing ‘Young Blood’ on the [Californian radio] KCRW show and I look like the most awkward person alive, I’m just so self-conscious. But then you flash forward a couple of years and it’s so different. I wouldn’t change a single thing, though. Every band has to start somewhere, and every band starts off quite awkward. But then you grow, and your audience appreciates that because they grow alongside you. I guess that’s the beauty of being a fan of any band, you see them grow as you do.”
It strikes me, though, that growth doesn’t come without hazard. The stakes are that much higher, and the pressure to repeat success becomes more and more pronounced. Has the band’s popularity – including relocation to the other side of the world – had any negative impact?
“I think it only ever really affects me when I’m performing, when there’s so many more people watching than there were even a year ago. I feel like we haven’t really changed the way we do things, and as long as the same intention to make music is there, I think we’re going to be OK. I don’t really feel the pressure that so many more people are watching – I can’t, or I don’t think I’d really be able to write anything!”
Before we wrap up, I ask about the nuts and bolts of Xayalith’s writing; what kind of approach she takes to getting down lyrics, and if she sets out with a particular plan for an album.
“Well, my approach, usually… Sometimes when…” She falls silent. “OK, I’ll tell you. The best time to write is when I’m bored. I’ll open up a music program and just start fiddling around. I’d get up at nine, have my coffee, have breakfast, and then go to my desk. There’d be a keyboard and guitars nearby, and I’d just start. In ‘Stillness’, I remember writing the top line for that driving my way home from the supermarket. As soon as I got home I ran into my room and just notated everything that was going on in my head.”
“I don’t think you can really think about what people are going to think while you’re writing music. I think you just have to go back to your roots and make music for the joy of making music, and that’s it. That’s all.”