Interview: Sam Harris of X Ambassadors

X Ambassadors

Recently I was able to schedule a Zoom call with Sam Harris, the lead singer of X Ambassadors, to check in about the band’s latest single called “Alcohol.” I also asked Sam about his creative songwriting process for writing for X Ambassadors as well as stepping out into his recent solo work, and artists in the scene that he and his bandmates admire. X Ambassadors will be finalizing plans for their new album soon.

So thank you so much for your time today, Sam! Let’s first talk about your great new single, called “Alcohol,” that features BRELAND. Can you walk me through both the writing and recording process of this song?

Well, you know, originally, I wrote it with another artist in mind, just because I was looking for something that felt reckless and fun. And I love a good drinking song. I’m a big country music fan. And that’s just kind of where I it’s a it’s one of my many biases. And so I was working on this chorus, I happened to have a trip down in Nashville, and I got in the room with Dan and BRELAND. And we were just kind of, you know, shooting shit figuring out what to write that day. And I said, I have this idea. All I have is a lyric, which was just the, <singing> “Give me all your alcohol.” I started to laugh, and I am singing it for everybody. And everyone kind of got that look in their eyes like, “okay, well, this is cool!” We can roll with this! And I got to see BRELAND in action for the first time. And he’s so talented. And just really, really quickly between myself, him, and our great producer, Dan Fernandez, we had a 75% done version of the song at the end of that day. And I was thinking that maybe it would be for BRELAND or maybe a different artist would cut it. And it’s funny, the more I played it for people, they were like, are you guys gonna put this down? I think I’ll be honest with you, I think sometimes I have a hard time allowing myself to have fun. And this was me having fun. And, and so that’s probably why I had an initial hesitation…

It can’t be serious all the time, right?

I can’t be serious all the time. And it’s been really, really nice. And honestly, for me, I am such a huge country music fan. And to be able to not only put out a song with a country artist, who’s really up and coming is really cool. But to put out a country song, and have it on the country playlists, it’s really cool for me. I am from upstate New York., in central New York, and you’d hear as much country on the radio as you would hip-hop and, and there was barely any pop stuff, actually. Mostly, it was just like hip-hop and country that’s played in central-New York. I’m from Ithaca, New York, near Rochester, Binghamton, and Syracuse. And, yeah, that’s kind of how the song came to life.

That’s really cool, and it has a country tinge to it. So I’m glad you’re kind of branching out, artistically, on that one, too. And the other thing was that your last few singles were collaborative efforts, as well, I believe. Is that an indication of your band wanting to try to get new styles into your sound? Or, was it a more organic process of talking with other artists you admire, or wanting to work with them to see if they’d like to join up to make collective art?

So “Alcohol” is part of this project called (Eg), that we started in the pandemic. And it’s just an on-going thing that we have, where it’s a way for us to collaborate with artists and release the music without there being any sort of pressure attached to it in terms of myself and the band. Oftentimes we have found ourselves in situations where we are writing and producing for other artists, and we love to do that, for their projects, in addition to ours, or a collaborative effort. And everyone’s so wild that you find yourselves in a position, and I’ve been in this position too, where I made a really cool song, but I’m like, “No, it just doesn’t fit with this next EP that I want to put out, or the next album I want to put out.” Or it’s just so far left from where I want to try to bring things creatively to our audience or go creatively next. I don’t know if I can put it out this time. And then, two years go by, and it’s time to do something else. And maybe there’s a new project there. So the songs just ended up sitting on the shelf, these great songs. And we wanted to have the ability to put those songs out in the world, even if I’m not singing on it at all. If we’ve worked on it in some capacity, as producers, then we want to be able to release it. And (Eg) gives us the platform to do that. And also, at the same time, we work with so many up and coming artists who we think are brilliant, any chance we can. We want to try and showcase these artists to our fans and tell them, “Hey, listen to this. Aren’t they so great?” So that was the purpose of that project.

That’s cool. I think you also recently really released a solo album called Why does everything make me cry?  So what was this experience like stepping out on your own, for one, and also, what did you learn about yourself as both a songwriter and vocalist during this process?

So much. I mean, I had such a great time doing it. I love collaborating, and I love feeling like I’m part of a family. I love feeling like I’m part of something. I also am a caretaker. I love to take care of people. And I think I realized that I haven’t done anything strictly on my own yet, as an artist, and even though I’m very lucky with my situation in the band, they really give me creative license to do whatever the hell I want. And this time, I wanted to just do something completely on my own. And I worked with some new folks, and I really loved doing that. I think one thing that I realized about myself as a producer and a songwriter is that the stuff I gravitate towards, I really liked. I just love songs that hit you in the gut. I really do. I know sometimes it’s hard to listen to a whole album full of sad songs, but that’s my dream…

Hey, The National got away with that for a while now! <Laughter>

<Laughter> It’s like where I exist, I think in my soul. I also realize I love to work very “scrappily” and can <do things> quickly and not overthink things. I did that with this project because there was so little pressure on it at the time. And it felt so good to work like that, <where>I would do no more than two takes of a vocal and I’d run it all the way from top to bottom of the song. And I wanted to get every kind of squeak on the floorboards, every bird chirping outside, every sneeze, every click of the mouse or keyboard…I wanted all of that. So that was really fun to learn that about my production style. And I already knew <parts of that where> I had started to implement a bit into the band stuff, but now I’m encouraged to do more of that.

That’s cool. X Ambassadors have been creating music since 2009, I believe. So are there any tentative plans to do an extensive tour as you guys celebrate almost 15 years as a band?

So we’re starting our tour next February, and we’re going to do a long run in Europe. And then we’re going to come back and do a long run in the States and Canada. And then the rest of the year, hopefully try to get to some other territories where we’ve never been to. South America, for one, and then go back to some areas where we haven’t been in a minute, like Australia and Asia. So yeah, it’ll be a big year of touring for us. 

Awesome, that sounds pretty comprehensive. And obviously, to that same point of your band’s longevity, how has your songwriting process evolved since the early stages of X Ambassadors?

Oh, man, I mean, I feel like I’ve become such a better songwriter. I used to listen back to stuff and cringe. But recently, I’ve been listening back to stuff and hearing a bit help the younger person younger, younger man, I was at that time. I’m 35 now, and when I wrote the songs that were on VHS I was 26. And I don’t know, I have a lot of compassion for that kid still. So I think it’s nice to listen back and see how I’ve grown. I do think that some of those songs came from such a raw and vulnerable place, you know? That’s where I was learning to write like that. I think that I’ve learned to continue to do that, whenever I think of something that makes me uncomfortable. I have to write about it.

I think the first time I saw you guys just heard that VHS tour. I think it was probably at the 9:30 club, if I remember right….

Yeah, we love the 9:30 Club!

That’s cool! Can you think of a key moment in your career where you realize your band has really arrived? And what continues to keep you all motivated?

I think that honestly, I will always be there, there have been a lot of incredible milestones that we’ve reached as a band. We’ve had number ones, we’ve been nominated as producers and writers and won Grammys. But I think that the moment that felt like we really arrived was when we stepped on our first tour bus after having toured in a 15-passenger van for six or seven years. And now we finally got our bus in 2015. Our tour manager at the time said, “that was the happiest I think I’ve ever seen you guys, ever.”

Yeah, everything was kind of fresh and new.

The big moments never feel as good as you want them to feel. They never feel like you’ve you want them to. But moments like that, you remember.

The last question I have for you is what can fans of X Ambassadors look forward to as we turn the page on ‘23?

We have a new album that’s going to come out next year. Around March, or April. I mean, I feel like I say this every time, but it’s maybe my favorite thing that we’ve done. And I think it actually is some of my best songwriting. And a lot of it is about my hometown. Casey and I grew up in Ithaca, in upstate New York. This place without its identity, that is recognizable to anyone who doesn’t live in that place. And I think it has such a strong character to it. And I think a big part of my search as an artist ,and as a human being, is to try and continually try to find myself and figure out who I am. And questions around identity have always kind of dogged me. And I bet, shit, so much of who I am is where I come from, and who I come from. So the story of this record is about our hometown, and about the people I grew up with, people that raised me, people that mentored me, nurtured me, and loved me. That’s what the record is about. And I think it’s really good, and I’m really excited to put it out.

Awesome. Yeah, it obviously fits the theme well, and I can’t wait to hear it myself. Just as a fan of your guys’ band. And it sounds like it’s gonna be very personal too, so I think a lot of people will connect with that.

Thank you. I’m really excited for it to be out there.

Great. And like I said, I live just outside the DC area. So hopefully if you guys hit anywhere near Baltimore or DC, I’ll be able to come to a show. 

Nice, looking forward to it!

Enjoy your evening!