Just four years ago, Alisa Xayalith was a shy singer from Auckland, New Zealand, who had suddenly exploded onto the international indie music scene with her band The Naked and Famous and their surprise hit song “Young Blood.” Though it’s the power of her voice that drives the catchy electro-pop anthem, Xayalith didn’t have much experience performing live. She had stage fright, often hid behind her long black hair, and didn’t yet know how to act the part of a front woman.
“You have to look up this  video on KCRW of us playing ‘Young Blood,’” she says. “I was so timid! When I look at that girl now, I think, ‘Who was that?’” She laughs. “Performing feels like second nature now, but it’s definitely been a process.”
Her hair newly cropped and dyed into a bleached blond pixie cut, Xayalith, 27, isn’t hiding anymore. There is no secret to becoming more confident in front of a crowd, she says. It’s all about practice. In the last few years, The Naked and Famous has performed all around the world, most recently touring with Imagine Dragons and performing at Coachella, before kicking off the European portion of their international tour in June.
As a child, Xayalith grew up listening to a lot of Laotian folk music because her dad was a singer in a local Laotian band in South Auckland. But she also remembers her father introducing her to English-language songs. “He used to sing me ‘Mona Lisa’ by Nat King Cole,” she remembers. “And then when I got older, I became obsessed with Mariah Carey for a long time.”
Her mother passed away from breast cancer when Xayalith was just 7 years old, a personal tragedy that she finally got the courage to write about in “I Kill Giants,” a track on The Naked and Famous’ second album, In Rolling Waves, released late 2013. The saddest of days, she sings. Why couldn’t we save you?
“I had written these lyrics and Thom [Powers, her The Naked and Famous bandmate] really loved them,” says Xayalith. “He said, ‘Don’t change them. I’m going to use them for something.’ It’s the most revealing that I’ve ever let myself get, lyrically, and I was really apprehensive about it. But he really pushed me.”
Xayalith, Powers and bandmate Aaron Short met at Auckland’s MAINZ music college in 2006. (David Beadle and Jesse Wood joined the band in 2009.) Xayalith always wanted to be a singer, but she says her songwriting skills weren’t fully realized until she met Powers and they started writing together. Soon they formed The Naked and Famous. The band name is taken from the song “Tricky Kid” by English trip-hop artist Tricky, which has the line “everybody wants to be naked and famous,” about being ambivalent to the idea of celebrity.
Their first collaboration was a trip-hop song that Xayalith says she’d be embarrassed if anyone heard now, but their second song, “Serenade,” which ended up on their debut EP, gave them their first taste of success when it reached number one in New Zealand’s college charts.
“I remember Aaron, Thom and I were sitting in the living room listening to the countdown, seeing if we’d be on it,” she says. “Aaron has a recording of it actually. All of our friends were there screaming, ‘You guys are number one!’
“But international success didn’t come until we released ‘Young Blood’ in 2010,” she continues. “That song changed our lives. It catapulted us out of New Zealand.”
Xayalith still remembers fiddling with the melody that ended up turning into “Young Blood.” When she showed Powers what she was working on, he immediately recognized the potential behind those chords, and they came up with the music for the song together in two hours. “It was just a natural moment of inspiration that we harnessed,” says Xayalith. “Then I wrote the lyrics, and Thom said, ‘How about you sing it higher?’ And I was like, ‘Really? I don’t know about this!’ But I did it, and he said, ‘Alisa, we’ve got it.’”
At the time, the band members were still working day jobs — Xayalith was working at a record store and in fashion — and they were recording their first studio album, Passive Me, Aggressive You, on the side. When “Young Blood” blew up in New Zealand, they were suddenly wined and dined by record labels and eventually dominated the 2011 New Zealand Music Awards, winning everything from Single of the Year and Album of the Year to Best Group. American audiences eventually caught on after “Young Blood” was featured everywhere, from Chuck and Gossip Girl to American Idol and the 2013 film Carrie.
Soon after, the band moved to Los Angeles to pursue their music full time and recorded their entire second album in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Laurel Canyon. In addition to the vulnerable “I Kill Giants,” the songs on In Rolling Waves are moodier. The first single, “Hearts Like Ours,” is about being brave despite anxiety, while their second single, “A Stillness,” deals with rising above fear and learning to be calm. “What We Want” — their first collaborative effort with a singer-songwriter outside of their band, Max McElligott from Wolf Gang — is a melancholy duet. The somber tone throughout was inspired by the first song the band wrote for the album, “Grow Old.” “It’s one of those slow burn, sad, miserable songs,” says Xayalith. “It’s a Naked and Famous love song, so that means it’s not very happy.”
As Xayalith juggles an intense touring schedule, which means she’s only “home” in L.A. a few months of the year, she hopes that their sound continues to evolve. “Our early music had a punk attitude,” Xayalith explains. “We wanted to be pop, but also had a love for rock music, like Nine Inch Nails, Smashing Pumpkins and Queens of the Stone Age. If you look at our body of work, you can see that our music is multigenre and hard to pinpoint.
“But it’s important for us to develop and change,” she adds. “We don’t have to worry about consistency and continuity, because the music is always going to be written by us and sound like The Naked and Famous.”
– Story by Ada Tseng
This story was originally published in our Summer 2014 issue. Get your copy here!