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Interview: X Ambassadors frontman Sam Nelson Harris

31 May 2024

Photo by Tyler Jay Hanson

X Ambassadors frontman Sam Nelson Harris is in an upbeat mood as he calls from his tour bus, which is currently in Pittsburgh for the band’s latest tour stop to support their fourth studio album, Townie, which was just released in April via Virgin Music. Although the album still has the kind of infectious, arena-ready hooks and catchy lyrics that fans have come to expect from this band thanks to their previous massive hits (including “Renegades,” “Jungle,” and “Unsteady”), this time out, they’ve made a quieter, more introspective record. As the band’s primary songwriter, Harris uses these songs to work through his thoughts and emotions about the recent pandemic, the shifting dynamics in his life, and embracing his upstate New York roots. It’s a deft move that demonstrates the ever-increasing depth and maturity of his songwriting capabilities, and it undoubtedly will resonate with listeners who are experiencing many of the same kinds of life changes.

How has the tour been going so far?

SAM NELSON HARRIS: Good. You know, the tour is definitely kicking my ass a little bit, but I think in a way that I’ve come to expect. My body is always just really putting me to the test. I’ve got a hip thing that’s been bothering me for the last week or so, and that’s been a journey – but other than that, can’t complain. It’s really been so awesome to see all these people coming out to the shows. The show themselves have been great. We love this new album, and we love playing these new songs.

What can people expect when we come to one of these shows?

SAM NELSON HARRIS: It’s going to be a little bit of a different show than I think most people come to expect of us. Normally, our shows are this high octane start to finish show. And this album is definitely more introspective. It’s just a bit quieter of a record. So the show itself takes you in a little bit more of a journey. I mean, we can’t put on a show and not put a lot of energy into it. But it’s definitely got a little bit more storytelling going on in it, and that’s something that I’m really, really proud of with it.

When a band like yours is always expected to play certain hit songs, how do you keep that fresh for yourselves so you don’t get burned out when you perform them?

SAM NELSON HARRIS: First of all, it’s really hard. I don’t really know if there are any other careers in the performing arts other than music where you are constantly having to go back and revisit your past self and re-embody your past work. I don’t think Picasso was going back and repainting his paintings from his Blue Period all the time. And an actor may go back and reprise a role every once in a while for a sequel or something like that, but that’s not a constant thing. But for us, we have to literally go back in time every night and revisit those former versions of ourselves, and where we were at the time emotionally when we wrote these songs. It’s an interesting kind of social experiment, I think. Sometimes it doesn’t faze me at all, and sometimes it really gets in my head and I have to do something to try to be as present as possible. That practice of being present with all the different versions of yourself that exist, and have existed, accepting them as a part of you and a part of your journey and owning up to it, I think in a way it can get a new life if you just be with it. It’s hard. Well, it’s not always hard. Sometimes it’s a joy. But sometimes it’s difficult.

On the flip side, what’s it like to play songs for audiences for the first time like you are with these new album tracks?

SAM NELSON HARRIS: The same. It’s both really exciting and scary. This last show, I had something clicked in me. I was playing all these new songs, and I think there was a part of me that was half expecting everyone to know all the words to them already. The album’s only been out like a month. I was always disappointed when I would finish these songs, a little bit. I mean, not always. But often, I would leave feeling a little like, “Oh, we should have gotten a better reaction.” And it wasn’t until the last show that we did where something just clicked in me onstage and I just like, “I’m just telling a new story, and I can own that, and perform this new song in front of this crowd of people with no expectation of them knowing it, and really go through the journey of it with them.” And that just helped so much, just that little mental shift. I’m not expecting you to know exactly how this story ends. And it’s kind of more fun that way. It still is definitely daunting sometimes to play new material live, and hope that people like it, but I’m also really proud of these songs. I think that I’ve grown so much as a songwriter, and I love this album so much. So 99% of the time, it’s just really fun to play these new songs.

How did you know it was the right time to do a new album now?

SAM NELSON HARRIS: I think I’m constantly working, constantly being creative, just because that’s what I love to do. This record, [I] started kind of thinking about it around 2021, while we were on tour supporting The Beautiful Liar [2021]. That record had been so high concept, and I basically created this other persona for it – that was so fun to do that and kind of be someone else for an album, but I wanted to be myself again. And this record is very much me and my story. I feel very fortunate that I am in a band where these guys really want me to write my best and most honest stuff, and personal stuff, and not worry about whether or not it’s something that they can necessarily relate to on the deepest of deep levels. Although my brother [keyboardist Casey Harris] relates to a lot of it because he also grew up in upstate New York [with me], I wanted to do something that was personal. I was, at the time, having a bit of my own identity crisis and trying to figure out, “What foot do I put forward now that we’re solidly adults?” I’m 35, my brother is 37. I had spent so much of my life, I feel like, half in a brother role and half in almost like a parental role with him, even though he’s my older brother, because we lived together and I helped him out with a lot of things. [Ed.: Casey Harris is blind.] I think it’s very common with siblings of folks with disabilities to feel like that. He’s doing great on his own. He’s got his life, he’s raising two kids, he’s taking care of them. I didn’t need to take care of him anymore. So then that left me kind of looking at myself like, “Where do I fit in in this world now? Who am I?” And I think that question had to be explored by going back in time a little bit. Going back to the beginning. And that felt very urgent to me at the time. Then the pandemic magnified everything, too. Those feelings of, “What do I actually want, because the world could end at any second, and who am I, where am I going?”

That all definitely explains why it’s more of an introspective album this time.

SAM NELSON HARRIS: Yeah, and also I think a big part of it is embracing where I’m from. Because I came from a small town [Ithaca, New York], I wanted to make big records. I wanted to be loud. I wanted to make as much noise as possible, and that’s why we became the kind of pop alternative band that we became. I didn’t want to make small music. I didn’t want to make small town music. And this record is me embracing that part of myself, and telling these smaller, intimate stories and making a record that felt very specific to upstate New York. Leaning into it rather than trying to get away from it.

What do you think it is about your work that’s connected with people as strongly as it has?

SAM NELSON HARRIS: Good question. I can’t really say definitively, but I know what I try to do. And what I try to do is write stuff that feels genuine and authentic – and hope that the more specific that I get, and the more open I’m being, the more people will want to listen to what I have to say. Because I think we’re all really desperate for truth and honesty. Because it’s scary to tell the truth: I’m always looking for that in other artists, and I hope to do that myself in my work. I would like to think that that’s why people are drawn to what we do.

How did you know you had the talent and the right frame of mind to do this job in the first place?

SAM NELSON HARRIS: Growing up, I had a lot of people tell me that I seemed to have a knack for this song and dance man thing, and that was really encouraging. I don’t know if I could have done it without those little bits of encouragement that I got from people back home. I remember my high school band, we weren’t very good, but I thought we were really good at the time. I wanted to move to New York, and there was a guy who worked at the music store that I would always go to – I would just hang around there and they’d let me play every guitar in the store and mess around with every pedal, and I asked them a bunch of questions. He used to work at Electric Ladyland [recording studio] in New York. Before I graduated [from high school], I gave him my band demo, and he listened to it. I came in the next day and he was like “Yeah, man, your CD is great!” I was like, “Really? We’re thinking about moving to New York [City].” He was like, “I think you guys would kill it in New York.” That went so far for me. I was dining out on that sentence for years. Also, I think I would be lying if I had said I didn’t have ambitions of being a famous rock star someday – I definitely wanted that. I wanted to make myself very, very loud and present in the world. That was just my way of being front and center. I love the act of performing. Oh, God, this is so cringey, but I do love telling a story. I hear this phrase thrown around sort of willy nilly all the time about being a storyteller – I just always roll my eyes at it. But I do really love that, and I love creating something out of nothing. You get such a thrill out of it. I love feeling things. I was an actor before I was in a band, and being onstage and putting on a different costume every night and embodying a different person every night was such a thrill to me. I think I get a lot of that from my brother. My experience of growing up with this kind of inherent knowledge that my experience that I take for granted, I shouldn’t ever take for granted, because I was born sighted, and my brother was not. Something that a lot of us take for granted, our vision. I had, and he didn’t. I think that created such a big sense of empathy in me as a young person, and that’s only grown. And I think, too, finding the humanity in everybody and trying to figure out what it is to be a person walking around on this clump of dirt.