How The Naked and Famous got passed their biggest challenge yet
“The Naked and Famous might very well be the most successful thing I ever do. I like to think I’m realistic. I can’t imagine I’ll be flipping my hair around singing ‘E-yeah, e-yeah, e-yeah, e-yeah,’ forever.”
Thom Powers of The Naked and Famous possesses one of the most refreshing qualities a musician can boast: self-awareness. Awareness of the fragility of his career choice, and the increasing difficulty to stay relevant without entirely losing himself.
More than three years since the release of his band’s sophomore album In Rolling Waves, third release Simple Forms arrived. Though the break may seem somewhat long, the process behind creating the follow-up album has been anything but as easy as the title suggests.
“In reality Simple Forms began as soon as In Rolling Waves was complete, but the road was poorly lit and rather bumpy this time around,” says Powers.
Simple Forms is an album that very nearly didn’t happen. 2014 marked a hiatus for The Naked and Famous, after the breakup of the eight year romance at the centre of the band.
“Everything liquefied when Alisa and I separated. The future of the band was uncertain. And although we did go on hiatus, my nagging inferiority complex has never fully permitted me to relax. My ‘vacations’ are spent daydreaming, anxious to get back to my ‘real life’,” says Powers.
The five-piece, fronted by Powers and Alisa Xayalith, went eight months without speaking before making their way back together to create the album. The announcement of Powers and Xayalith’s breakup prompts a very personal kind of analysis of the album. But the relationship and subsequent breakdown is far more complex than lyrical allusions can accurately express.
“Lyrically The Naked and Famous albums are like diaries. I’m able to identify vague themes in hindsight but not while I’m in the thick of it. The title Simple Forms is somewhat a reaction to your question [about the album’s themes]. I don’t have a simple answer to anything. This album, like all The Naked and Famous albums, are about mine and Alisa’s thoughts, feelings and experiences,” says Powers
Sonically, the album is very authentically The Naked and Famous, reminiscent of their 2010 debut Passive Me, Aggressive You. They’re one of those bands with a distinctive sound, largely due to Xayalith’s exceptional vocals.
“I wanted it to be a vocal-centric album. This meant the song structures, production and mix needed to cater to more immediate pop sensibilities,” says Powers. “I’m not able to set out to write an entire album with a singular mission statement. I find that to be restrictive and unrealistic.”
Powers expresses that he probably sounds cynical, but the realist attitude that colours his opinions about himself and his work has allowed the band to challenge themselves. One such endeavour saw them publish visually stunning lyric videos for every track on Simple Forms, serving as an accompanying art piece to the record, rather than a separate entity.
“It’s a stark time to be navigating the industry. Being semi-independent for this album, we weren’t able to see the value in a singular music video. I thought if we’re going to do one, we’d need a brilliant concept because the reality is we would be losing tens of thousands of dollars,” says Powers. “Lyric videos are, traditionally, just a way to direct traffic. I thought it would be subversive and challenging to take that approach and make it art.
“These lyric videos have a Lynch-ian narrative. They’re stylized and conceptual. They represent what Ride Or Cry heard in our music. They tell a story and it’s up to our fans to put them in order.”
Powers almost always comes back to a few major themes, hard work and gratitude.
“We were living paycheck to paycheck back when we recording Passive Me, Aggressive You. I was headstrong, naive and had everything to prove. It was a simpler time, ripe with cognitive dissonance. My only goal was to make an album. I didn’t have a clue how to do it.
“Like my grandfather always says, ‘Talent is common. All you need in life, Thomas, is perseverance and determination.’ ”
By Claire Varley