By Anna Bulbrook
I met Alisa X for the first time, when her band, the Naked and Famous, and my band, the Airborne Toxic Event, were both playing a block party for Radio 104.5 in Philadelphia. It is standard practice for radio stations to ask bands to do a strange things with contest winners in exchange for “spins” on the station—I’ve played pickup basketball in Boston, eaten Thanksgiving dinner with fans in Scotland, and gone Go Karting in Arizona, to name a few—so our bands were doing a relatively trad signing for fans at bar and bowling alley during the day. Afterwards, we were sent off to bowl together, while fans hung out and watched us from behind stanchions about ten feet away. Which isn’t awkward at all. A big part of being in a band, however, is finding the fun in slightly awkward situations. You get used to being outrageously normal during a variety of surreal experiences.
That was one of the first times I had ever encountered another band on alternative radio that had a real, live, human woman in it, and I was so excited that Alisa existed! Since then, the Naked and Famous have written and released two new records, toured endlessly, moved to my neighborhood in Los Angeles from 19 time zones away, and even had my brother’s string quartet play on one of their records.
Now that they live in my ‘hood, I run into members of the band at funny places. Most recently, I heard someone yelling my name at Target right before this interview—and there was Alisa, waving and looking effortlessly chic in a loose-fitting sweater. (Don’t stress, we talk about her love for baggy knits at the end of this interview.) So in case anyone is wondering, we are all over here living the damn dream in Los Angeles, which includes easy access to all the home goods one could ever need at rock’n’roll’s most legendary Targets.
So, sincere question: it’s Tuesday, November 14, 2017. How are you? What’s going on in Alisa’s world, right now, today?
Right now, I am kind of freaking out, kind of excited, kind of scared—I am all of those things, because an acoustic version of “Last Forever [Stripped]” has been released today through Fender. It is my first foray in public on my own without my dudes in the band backing me up, and I feel very vulnerable today. I’ve never really done anything truly on my own like that, and [Fender] have been my big champions, reinvigorating my passion to play guitar again. It took a backseat for a couple of years because I was just focused on being the best vocalist I could possibly be … but now that I’m back in the saddle of writing, I’ve picked up my guitar again.
OK, speaking of the guitar… Talk to me about Bic Runga. I’ve been listening “Sway” non-stop for the past two days, and feeling super fucking 90s! But what does she mean to you?
Oh man! She is a huge part of me wanting to write music when I was younger. I often didn’t see anybody that looked like me, and it just felt like because there was no representation of me, I thought it was impossible to pursue a career in music. Until I discovered Bic Runga, who is part Malaysian, part Maori, and she’s a folk singer-songwriter. I just completely fell in love with her, and was like, oh my god, I want to be her one day. It is possible!
And so I got my first guitar when I was about thirteen years old, and I started learning all her songs. When I enrolled into music school, I had to audition for the contemporary music and composition course that I wanted to do. And I auditioned with “Sway” by Bic Runga, and that was the song that got me accepted.
That’s so fucking awesome.
It was really cool, because fast forward to a couple years later, the band got a songwriting award for “Young Blood” in 2010, and she was sitting at the table as one of the guests. So I went up to her and told her the story. It was really cool to come full circle and say that to her. I still wanna be [her] when I grow up.
As the girl in a manly man-band, what’s it like to play music with your tiny lady-brain? No, I’m just kidding. That’s literally the worst interview question, and I’ve gotten it over and over, in not so many words. But we do share the rare experience of being some of the few women-identified people in indie and alternative bands. What has that experience been like for you?
Everyone around me has always been really supportive. I don’t always feel my gender when I’m playing. I only ever notice it when I’m playing festivals, and I’m like, oh, there are all dudes on this festival bill. And that’s when feel like, oh, there are hardly any females in music right now where I am today. And that can feel pretty isolating.
The only really bad experience I ever had was in a board meeting, and the band was getting wined and dined by record labels before we got signed. The executive from this huge label didn’t look me in the eye once or acknowledge me or even validate that I’m a huge part of the band he supposedly wanted to sign. He just talked to the men. And I remember walking out of that meeting going no, there is no way we are signing with this label.
So I’ve heard a rumor. Is there a solo project in the works?
Yeah! No! Yeah! There totally is. Like I was saying before, this band has been going for ten years, and it’s not the only thing that I’ve ever wanted to do. And I feel the need and desire to make my own project and to be the driver and author of my own vision and world. It’s just been nagging at me and I can’t ignore it anymore. I started chipping away at it in March of this year. I’d work on it between playing shows, or when I’m not working on writing songs for the band.
It’s scary because I’ve been part of a committee for ten years, and now I’m all of a sudden individuating myself, and that transition is scary.
I don’t know if you feel this way, but when I started writing music on my own, and thinking about releasing it, every creative decision felt like a bigger deal because it wasn’t part of this group process that had a strong voice and direction that came from outside of me. Instead, it was like, who am I? Every small decision felt like answering this huge question.
Yeah. You’re, like, rediscovering yourself. Getting to know yourself in a whole new way. I’m in the throes of that right now. I, like you, like different types of music. How do you distill yourself down to one, singular vision? That is something I’m still discovering. I’ve written a couple songs, and when I put them together, I can see the patterns that recur in each production or song arrangement, but I still can’t pin it down to one thing. It’s a work in progress, and I’m really excited about it.
Well, congratulations! I can’t wait to hear it. I feel like we have a lot of shared turf here, because I have also broken up with someone I’ve been in a band with after dating for a long time (not in Airborne). You and Thom have an incredible musical dynamic, but you also dated for a really long time and then made a record together after you broke up. How did you transition out of your romantic relationship without sacrificing your musical partnership?
There’s a certain language that everybody speaks when you make music that’s really easy to understand. Not just isolated to the breakup, which was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to deal with, but I feel like when my world is falling apart, and I’m having a really tough time, the most reliable thing in my life is music.
I feel like we really worked hard, had all the uncomfortable conversations that we needed to have, because we really believe in and care about this band, and about the music. It’s always been the most important thing in our lives, and it would have been an absolute shame to just throw away the 8 years or whatever that we have invested into this project. So we both knew the value of that, and we made a pledge to ourselves that we would continue and carry on.
It’s really tough because I haven’t been able to sustain romantic relationships because of it. It’s like, I’m in a band with my ex-boyfriend, and our last record is kind of about that. Do you still want to date me? It’s got to be tough being my boyfriend! [Laughs.]
With everything that’s been going on in the political landscape here, you’ve been especially outspoken in support of refugees. I read about how your parents escaped Laos separately with two small children, and emigrated to New Zealand, where they later had you. How did their experience shape your family life?
I think that the fact that they chose New Zealand, and the fact that my parents and my sister and brother were able to assimilate to New Zealand culture with an amazing support system for refugees, was incredible. I don’t really know any other countries that have that same thing for refugees.
They just wanted to give their kids a better future. My mom grew up in a village where she had to fetch water for her showers. My dad worked in a medical unit and he was in the army, studying to be a doctor. They had no choice but to leave, and I’m so grateful and so lucky to be born in New Zealand, and given the same opportunities to get an education, to drink clean water, to have access to medical care—to have all the things that people should have growing up. It makes me really sad when I think about families in war-torn countries, and they don’t have access to to those same things. Everybody deserves a chance to have a normal life. Just basic human rights to just exist and live.
So, yeah, I’m super thankful to my parents for risking their lives in search for a better future. I can’t even imagine what it would be like growing up in a country like Laos, a communist country. My dad instilled the value and importance of education and making a living and supporting yourself, and I’m just so grateful that they came to New Zealand and gave their children a better life than they had.
And the story of how your parents got out is so insane. Just, wow. Your mom.
My mom is definitely my heroine, and I always think of her when I feel like I can’t do something. She’s so strong, so so strong. And I hope that I have inherited some of her qualities.
So, turning left into one of my favorite subjects… You’re a bit of a fashion plate, if I do say so! If you had to describe your sense of style in a couple of sentences, what would it be?
Well, that’s so funny. Somebody commented on a big jacket that I was wearing the other night. And I basically said… Anything that feels like a blanket, that looks kind of cool, I’m always going to be a huge advocate of those things! I love to be comfortable. When I’m not onstage, I dress like I want to be in bed all day. A lot of baggy jackets and tee shirts, and flowy things. I don’t know if that sounds very fashionable?
Oh my god, are you kidding me? That sounds great! My fashion inspirations are Donald Duck, because shirt/no pants is a lifestyle. A bag—like, if it looks like a bag I want to wear it. And a crayon: I just want to wear one color at a time! Preferably black or white.
Yeah, if you can look chic but feel like you’re being hugged by your clothes, it’s a winning combo.
Makeup, clothes, accessories, toiletries: what are 5 things you can’t live without?
Red lipstick. It’s a must-have!
Always have to have a baggy sweater or cardigan, because I’m often in a studio with AC on, and it’s freezing!
I always wear these little gold hoops. I never used to wear earrings but now I feel naked without them. So earrings, subtle and small.
Toiletries? Rose water. Can’t live without rose water. A good face mask. Like a nice, exfoliating mud. Sunscreen. Eye cream, ‘cause let’s admit it, we’re getting older. And Lucas Papaw, which is this lip balm that I have in my purse. It’s this red tube! And you can apply it to cuts and scrapes and your lips.
My last question is: can we run into each other at Target again soon?
Wait, is that one in Eagle Rock your go-to?
It’s the closest one to Echo Park!
Yeah, I just discovered that I should go to that one instead of to the one in Hollywood. I love Target!