Q&A | TNAF’s Aaron Short on winning a Green Card & moving to LA

The Naked and Famous are one of the biggest bands to break out of New Zealand and onto the international circuit in recent times, having cracked into stardom with their hit ‘Young Blood’ in 2010. Evelyn talks to keyboardist Aaron Short about his path to living in Los Angeles – from arriving on a P-1 artists visa after the band’s whirlwind first few years on the road, to ‘winning’ permanent residency via the so-called Green Card Lottery.

The interview considers the alternative paths available to migrants with particular skillsets, citizenship background and financial means, at a time that borders are becoming more restrictive globally, and the Trump administration has made it clear that reducing immigration is high on the political agenda in the US.

What took you to Los Angeles, and why you have been living there for the past five years?
In 2010 The Naked And Famous lifted off the ground and had us touring the world for the next two years non-stop. We were homeless that entire time, living out of vans, busses, hotel rooms. When it came time to stop touring, we were left in the unique position of choosing anywhere in the world to live. Quite weird to think about now – literally, pick a city and go make music.

At first we were thinking London as that was where our record label was based, but the USA had really taken to our music and we had already spent a lot of time in LA, so – after some collective convincing – we agreed to give it a shot. It was never intended as a permanent place for us to settle into, but five years later we’re still here.

What was it like arriving in LA as a young musician? What were your initial observations of life in the US?
After all the whirlwind travelling, nothing really hit us as too overwhelming, so adjusting to the place felt fairly natural. The thought of not being around each other after two years in each other’s faces was far too daunting however, so we got a big single storey 5-bedroom house together, tucked in the Hills.

The challenge with LA is finding your bubble. The place is so vast, and every area has its own subculture. It took us that full first year to figure out the things you do and definitely do not like about the city. The place almost felt excluded from the rest of the USA in many ways. A lot of those classic stereotypes didn’t really exist here – the food and coffee was, in fact, amazing!

It was also a really easy adjustment from NZ living. You’re still in a place that’s near to the beach, you drive most of the time because public transport sucks, and there’s a balance of inner-city living with extreme nature only ever 20 minutes away. Best of all, you’re only a single flight – 12 hours – away from NZ too, versus being on the opposite side of the planet.

Was the move to LA easy for you and the other band members? What visa did you arrive on? Did your management help smooth its process for you?
Yeah, it was pretty painless for us. To work as a band over here we needed to have US visas. Specifically, the P-1 visa for entertainers and athletes. This is a basic visa you can renew once a year indefinitely, that allows you to work in the US for a specific employer. Along with that came getting a social security number, California driver’s license, and a local accountant to help us with US bank accounts and tax. This was all set up by our managers, thank goodness for them.

Could you tell us about the Green Card Lottery system in the US, and what motivated you to apply?
The Green Card Lottery happens once a year, and is awarded at random to around 50,000 people. My main reason for applying was for stability. It becomes quite hard setting a life up here, when in the back of your mind you know that it could be completely taken away from you the moment your [shorter term] visa expires. Plus, having to renew that P-1 visa every year for seven years really sucked.

Is the Lottery open to every person, or are there certain criteria?
Its real name is the Diversity Visa Lottery, as it’s awarded only to countries that have a lower amount of immigrants coming to the US. The UK, for example is not a country that can apply for it. The application process is pretty minimal, you only need to to meet a few requirements such as completing high school. If you get selected, then comes more background checks to make sure you’re definitely eligible.

Was the Green Card Lottery the only way you could shift from temporary working status to being a permanent resident in the US?
Not the only way, but definitely the most easy and affordable. A huge amount of immigration and lawyer fees are cut from the Green Card Lottery. Your other options for a regular Green Card are through family or marriage, or – more applicable to our situation – we could apply for it based on “exceptional ability” in our field of work.

What happens once you ‘win’ the Lottery? Do you have to permanently stay in the US?
Once you get selected, you get given a number. This doesn’t guarantee you’re in yet! This fun number is basically where you are in the queue – the lower the number the better your chances, was what my lawyer told me. So you sit back for six months, and wait for your number to be called. Then comes the interview process – meeting with a federal officer, the background checking, the mandatory vaccinations and medical records. The list goes on.

Once you get through all that though, you are set! That Green Card isn’t going anywhere as long as you keep the US as your permanent place of residence, meaning you spend at least half the year here. That and staying out of trouble. If you want any more freedom than that, then you need to apply to be a US citizen, which can happen once you’ve had a Green Card for five years.

What does winning the Green Card Lottery mean for you? What future opportunities do you think it will provide?
The Green Card keeps a lot of doors open for me in the US. It has definitely allowed me to settle in here more, in terms of having a life, but also has allowed me to broaden my career by not being bound to one employer or specific type of work. I’ve been able to explore other avenues of the music world, which has become something very important to me as I’ve slowly grown up from the jet-setting 20-year-old.

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Aaron Short grew up on the North Shore of Auckland, and studied audio engineering at MAINZ – where the formation of The Naked and Famous began. After two years in the studio and touring NZ, in 2010 the band released their hit single ‘Young Blood’, which charted worldwide and has now gone platinum in the US. Aaron has recently completed the debut album for his electronic side project, Space Above.

Evelyn Marsters is a Berlin-based academic research consultant, and Deputy Editor at Impolitikal. She has a PhD in Development Studies from the University of Auckland. Read more by Evelyn.