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Interview With X Ambassadors

X Ambassadors is a multi-platinum recording trio formed by brothers Sam Nelson Harris, the multi-talented vocalist who also performs guitar, saxophone, and bass within their music, and pianist Casey Harris while the pair were in high school in Ithaca, New York. Later joined by drummer Adam Levin upon moving to Brooklyn, the trio have gone on to dominate the alternative charts over the last ten years with multiple albums -their debut being Platinum-certified- countless EPs, and a plethora of hit singles, such as “Unsteady” and “Renegades,” amongst the many written specifically for blockbuster movies.

 

Outside of X Ambassadors, frontman Sam Nelson Harris has had a very successful career as a songwriter and producer for the likes of artists such as D4VD, 21 Savage, Rihanna, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, SZA, and Maren Morris. Now, on April 5, 2024, the wildly popular pop-rock trio returned with their new album, Townie, via Nyle and Virgin and shortly after the album's release, the band alongside their live guitarist Russ Flynn, sat down over Zoom to discuss the album in much detail.


Press shot for the wildly successful pop trio X Ambassadors.

How would you compare the ventures you went through with your lyric progression and different themes to your previous work? Sam: This one was an interesting one. I think on the previous three records the writing process always felt a little scattered. I was constantly writing stuff either by myself or we would all get together and write stuff together. I would be in sessions with other songwriters writing stuff for either other artists or potentially for us. It was a little disparate the way that those last three records were kind of written. But for this one, it was very concentrated. I'd say half of the songs were started off just me and my studio and my house in LA and working on those, and then bringing them to the guys and we fleshed them out together from there. Then the other half was done in a studio in upstate New York, where we all kind of quarantined for two weeks in a cabin in the middle of the woods in the Catskills in upstate New York. There's a picture on the front of you guys on the front steps, which I'm assuming that's your childhood home and then the Sunoco on the back that you sing about, I'd love to know the significance of why you chose those locations. What was the inspiration behind that cover artwork? Sam: That's our mom's house in downtown Ithaca. Technically, not the house that we grew up in, but that's the house that she lived and moved to when we left town. Luckily, Casey was actually able to buy back the house that we grew up in. So he now owns that house, which is very cool. That photo is of my brother and me on the front steps of my mom's house. The cover... the gas station kind of early on became a symbol for me of this place and this record. Growing up, we always used to kind of meet up at gas stations. It's specifically at this one Sunoco downtown that we'd meet up at and then go from there off to someone's house or someplace in the woods or, you know, a party or whatever. How did you feel lifting the veil on your own lives with an album with such hyper-specific lyrics detailing all of you, your own experiences, and your hometown? Sam: It felt really good. I guess it was hard in some ways. It was hard to kind of get to the point where I think, lyrically, I felt comfortable going there. But then once that barrier was broken it became really easy and it just really made sense for the record to feel so personal. I've always struggled a little bit with getting hyper-specific and hyper-personal with my own life in the context of the band because there's there's four of us and I'm generally the type to be as democratic as possible. I want to incorporate something to feel like everyone can connect to it. I realized that the more hyper-specific I get, the more universal the message can become. I've touched on it a little bit on previous records, but I was like, “Okay, that's cool for that one song,” but then let's bring it back to like a big, like a broader message for the rest of the songs. You're always reinventing your sound with every release. What made you write one of your most profound and stripped-back releases to date? Sam: I don't know. Personally, I feel like it was probably in reaction to the last thing that we did a combination of a bunch of things. It was in part a reaction to the last record, which was not personal, it was very much like a character that I created for myself, and that we created for the band. It was this very high concept, weird album, and I think for the next one, it felt natural to swing the pendulum the other way and do something that was very grounded and very real and personal. Casey: Let's be honest, you started listening to country music right around that time. Sam: Yeah, for sure. I've been really getting into, I mean, I've always been a big fan of the Americana space and artists like Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Patty Griffin, Chris Stapleton, Tyler Childers, and Sturgill Simpson. Around the same time, I started listening to a lot of like pop-country stuff and just needed something to take my mind off of like my regular work, which is focused more in like the indie space and the pop space. How would you describe your new album in three words? Russ: I always think of the record as being extremely dynamic, and I know that's been mentioned before, but I think that is a distinction with this record. Sam: So yeah, dynamic, personal, and nostalgic. What was your biggest challenge when recording your new record, Townie, and what was the most rewarding part of the recording process?


Adam: The most challenging part was just finding a place where we could feel inspired and where Sam could feel inspired to really dig in and write. When you're sort of working on a record in the early stages, you're not even sure necessarily what you're writing it about, or maybe you're trying to just come up with new ideas and then sort of after a couple of batches of songs, it starts to reveal itself, like, “Oh, maybe these fit together and these ones are something else.”


I would say the hardest part was getting to the point where we really could figure out the sound of the record. And then once we did, things really fell together nicely. I think the most rewarding part was just the process of recording at Outlier in New York, which is the place where we all felt inspired.


Casey: There are at least two moments that I remember, when we did, “Your Town” and when we did ”Start A Band,” those two just came together so quickly and so naturally, and everything in those was done in one take, each person took a single take and it's great, which felt so smooth.


Which song from the album do you think that your younger selves running around upstate New York would have played in the background of your everyday lives? Casey: “Smoke on the highway.” Sam: I was such a little emo kid that I probably would say “Fallout,” actually. I was just so heartbroken. I was constantly heartbroken when I was a teenager. Just like a walking broken heart. If I'm with the homies, we'd probably listen to “Sonoko” or “Smoke on the Highway.”

 

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