X Ambassadors: All About The Townie

“I’m a townie, and I’ll die a townie,” announces Sam Harris, the lead vocalist of the multi-platinum trio X Ambassadors, regarding the highly anticipated new album ‘Townie.’ Built around a sense of pride for Sam and Casey’s hometown of Ithaca, New York, ‘Townie’ will open your heart to feeling gratitude for your background, family, and the people who believed in you before you could. 

From his hometown studio in Los Angeles, Noctis talks to Sam Harris after five years since the days of ‘Orion,’ the 2019 X Ambassadors album. Harris describes this period as a chrysalis, where the lack of touring due to the pandemic turned into new experimental sounds on 2021’s project ‘Beautiful Liar,’ reflecting Harri’s sense of unease.

One of the standout ‘Townie’ singles, ‘Your Town,’ is a poignant homage to Sam and Casey’s childhood music teacher, Todd Peterson. Peterson’s influence was pivotal in their lives, instilling the importance of a strong work ethic. Sam attributes these principles as ‘the biggest source of his confidence.’

‘Townie’ resembles a series of full-circle moments for the X Ambassadors. Harris recalls dragging guitars to perform at pubs, and now he is able to stand on the stage of sold-out venues such as London’s Electric Ballroom. This album signifies the first project where the band is completely stripped back, self-assured, and utterly honest and vulnerable about unveiling personal and pivotal moments.

In our conversation, Sam Harris chats about the unpredictability of making hit songs, the importance of showing up, his struggle to enjoy the moment, building new adult friendships, and the heart and soul of Ithaca, New York, the show’s main star. 

It would be hard to summarize what you’ve been up to over the past five years, but could you maybe dissect it by mentioning a few highlights?

I feel like over the last five years, we have been in a bit of a chrysalis. We put an album out in 2021 that was very experimental – It was our last record on Interscope. We also started releasing a bunch of these collaborations with other artists under the (Eg) umbrella, and that’s been really fun to get outside of ourselves a little bit and just get into the habit of releasing music and not overthinking it. COVID was really tough with not being able to go on tour. That’s such a huge part of our livelihood and a huge part of why we love to do this. We’re really excited to be touring again, and are eager to put this new album out. 

Were there are any valuable lessons you picked along the way as a band?

I think the most valuable lesson that I’ve learned is to never expect anything. There have been a lot of times in my career where something thought a song of ours might do well, and then it didn’t and then a different one did. I think the only thing that you should always expect of yourself is to try and show up. Show up to the party and you might end up making some friends and hanging out and having a great time, or you might end up just sitting in the corner for the whole night. And that’s fine. Both are very likely. But continue to show up, it’s worth it. 

In 2021, you shared a new album ‘The Beautiful Liar.’ What chapter of your life was this project portraying?

We released this album in the middle of the pandemic. I was feeling so fucking crazy, and I wanted to make a record that reflected my sense of unease. I grew up reading a lot of comic books, and I got really heavily into graphic novels again, and I wanted to create this kind of darkly cartoonish world.

To look at the world through that lens was interesting to me. It felt very apropos of the moment. It was also a very theatrical experience. I grew up doing so much theater and I missed it. And during the pandemic, I missed moving my body, so I wanted to make something where the visuals were very physical. I was doing a lot of dancing, a lot of movement based stuff. Then the bit of touring that we were able to do, it was very physical for me and physically intense, which was a lot of fun. That’s kind of where my head was at.

You just finished off touring across UK, you’ve been performing in London since 2009. Looking back, how does it feel to have toured pubs to performing at the Electric Ballroom to 1500?

Wow, it was great. It was honestly at the tail end of the tour. So I was pretty tired, but that all went away when I actually was on stage and in front of all of those people. And it was a very full circle moment. Back in the day, I remember dragging guitars, amps, and keyboards to some small gig in the basement of a pub. And to come back years later and sell out a venue like Electric Ballroom was very satisfying. We put in the work, but it’s hard for me to feel it at that very moment. I’ve been struggling with this for a very long time – not really being able to appreciate the moment as it’s happening. I’m trying so hard to do that. It’s a practice and I am slowly getting better at it. It felt good, and I felt like we were in the right place. I obviously feel like there’s room to continue to grow, and I’m excited to see where we play next. 

X Ambassadors is also starting a new chapter with a new album ‘Townie’ out on April 5th. The first single ‘Your Town’ is an emotional tribute to your teacher Todd Peterson. Could you expand on what Todd has done for you and your confidence?

Todd was the first person to ever get me up on stage to sing in front of a crowd of people. I think that says it all, you know? The very fact that he believed in me before I believed in myself was amazing. That was the biggest and best validation that I ever could have gotten as a young kid, growing up in the middle of nowhere. 

That being said, as isolated as it is, it had a really wonderful artistic community. I was always encouraged to pursue my artistic tendencies and Todd was a big part of that. He also taught me a lot of my work ethic. He was a hard ass. When we were rehearsing choreography for a musical, he would drill it over and over and over again. If I couldn’t get something, I would give up and he would whip me into shape, and tell me to get back on my feet and do it again. I carry that with me now and I think that work ethic is the biggest source of my confidence because I know that I can outwork a lot of people. In a lot of ways, that’s kind of the name of the game if you want to make a career out of this industry. Because it’s so unpredictable and you have to not only have a crazy work ethic, but you also have to love it. And that was another thing – it was so clear how much he [Todd] loved the performing arts. That was passed on to me and to all the other kids that he mentored and taught over the years. 

When we’re at school, we rely on our parents and teachers to hopefully shape us into good people and direct us to the right path. What sort of an environment did you grew up in?

I had a wonderful environment to grow up in. My mother was a singer, and when she met my dad, she was singing in a bar in Los Angeles. It’s not too far from where I live right now. She had been a lounge singer for many years. She performs a lot of jazz and cabaret. Still, to this day she will do maybe one or two shows a year .My dad works in the film industry. He is a unit publicist – one of the many strange jobs that exist in the film industry that you have never heard of, but does exist. His job is essentially to make sure that any press that is involved, or that wants to cover the film, is monitored by him while they’re on set. Both of my parents were involved in the arts so they really encouraged me and my artistic endeavors.

I think seeing the two of them doing it gave me the confidence that I could do it too. It was never even a thought that I couldn’t make a career out of it. They both were very good at what they did and worked really hard at it. They weren’t millionaires, but they worked their asses off, and were able to make a living out of it. So, that was huge for me. Both my parents really loved me a lot. My dad was always away, and he would only be home for a couple months out of the year. My mom was the parent who was busy taking care of the two of us. My mom also had her hands very full with my brother being disabled and also being a very rebellious kid. I was the good kid who saw this kind of chaos around me. I wanted to always make sure that she knew I was good. I got good grades, and I never got in trouble. I think I put a lot of pressure on myself to be like that, and it forced me to kind of grow up very quickly. That’s been something I’ve been unpacking over the last five to six years. 

I especially like the lyric “Don’t forget about the pain of being young and forgotten”. What message would you like to give to your younger self and other young kids/teenagers who struggle with confidence?

I feel very irresponsible giving advice because I still feel myself struggling with confidence. I still feel like a kid in my brain, even though I’m 35. I would say that the best piece of advice that I could give my younger self, or other young kids who are struggling with confidence, is that everyone is scared and hopefully that makes you feel a little less alone. Everyone has different degrees of anxiety and self consciousness and we’re all still little kids desperate to be loved. If you can remember that, if you can carry that with you, and if you can acknowledge your fear and self consciousness, that helps to ease it a little bit. If you try to ignore it, or if you get mad at yourself for not being confident enough, it’s only going to make things worse. 

What is the heart and soul of ‘Townie’?

Ithaca, New York, my hometown, where I’m from. It’s a place that is seemingly out of place in time. Or at least it was when I was growing up there. It was very isolated and its own little world with its own little dramas, nuances, excitements and tragedies. I wanted to get out of there so badly. “Townie” – that’s what the college students call us. With Ithaca being a university town – it’s a very transient place. College kids are coming in and out all the time, and us townies were just kind of background noise. I desperately didn’t want to be the ‘background noise.’ So I wanted to leave as soon as I could. I got out of there when I was 18, moved to New York city and tried to start over as a band from Brooklyn with my boys. It wasn’t until we signed our first major label record deal and had to establish how we wanted to present ourselves to the world. “Who are we?” We kind of came back to the idea that three out of four of us are from Ithaca, so we should just say we’re from Ithaca and really embrace being from upstate New York. I think that idea has only grown over the years.

I think this album is the first time that we’ve really attempted to make something, sonically, that feels like where we’re from. In doing that, I think we’ve gotten the closest to who we are as a band. I definitely feel like this is the closest to who I am as a songwriter and as a human being.

While writing songs for ‘Townie,’ what emotions were you going through while giving homage to your town?

It felt very exciting to make something that was very specific to my experience growing up the way that I did and where I did. I’ve always been fascinated with the darkness that exists in upstate New York. I wanted to find a way to put that on a record that was also a coming of age story, and the feeling of so desperately to escape. Now, in retrospect, I know that you can never escape where you’re from. It’s a part of who you are. It’ll always be a part of who I am. I’m a townie, and I’ll die a townie. I think the biggest emotion was pride, probably. 

What would be the biggest blessings of your career so far?

My entire career is a fucking blessing, you know? I know so many musicians who are not able to make a living off of this industry, and we somehow have managed to do it. That is a huge, huge blessing. I would say that is second to the fact that somehow I’ve been able to devote myself to this wonderfully weird job. It is so strange, and I love it a lot. 

You also released a collaboration with Teddy Swims and Jack Ross titled ‘Happy People’. What inspired this collaboration and the birth of such a powerful record? 

‘Happy People’ – I just had that phrase written down for a while, and finally we created a song that felt like it matched it. As many other people do, I get caught up in the comparison loop of looking on Instagram or TikTok or just on the internet in general. Which makes you think, “Oh man, why am I not like this person? Or why don’t I look like this? Or why am I not doing this? Or this person’s doing this and they’re so cool or they’re so hot” That’s what the record is about in its essence, but it’s kind of flipped and more of a love song. Everywhere I go, I’m reminded of, or I am haunted, by all these people who are in love and happy. I took that sentiment of the comparison game and brought it into this context. I just wanted to have other singers on it, so I immediately thought of Jac Ross first, and he came in and worked on the second verse of me.

I just fell in love with Teddy [Swims]’s voice and asked him if he wanted to sing on it with us, and thought it’d be cool to get all three of us on it and be a powerhouse vocal performance, and that’s what it ended up being. I just like the way their voices sounded and I thought they’d sound great on this track and, and it was a very lucky thing that they both agreed to do it. 

Another one of my favourite over the years was your track ‘Friend For Life’ featuring Medium Build. Could you please tell us more about your friendship, adult friendships in general and what this songs means to you?

Oh, I love Friend for Life. Friend for Life is one of my favorite things that I’ve written in a very long time. Medium Build is an artist whose song came on a playlist of mine two years ago on Spotify, just like a Discover Weekly playlist. I instantly connected with his voice and his delivery and his lyrics – they felt so honest and so real. I was baffled that I had never heard of this person before. I went out on a limb and I DM’d him. I thought that he would never get back to me because he’s so cool, but he did. I just said, “Hey, I love your songs. I love your music so, so much. If you’re ever in LA, please let’s get together and write or just hang out.”

He replied back to me and he happened to be coming to LA soon. So we got together and when we were sitting down talking about songs, I said, “you write about friendship in such a beautiful way and such a way that feels like it’s rooted in a lot of pain. And I relate to that so much. I’ve had a breakup with one of my best friends, who I no longer speak to. That was a very brutal kind of friend breakup. I miss him so much, but I also know there’s just so much baggage there. I want to write about that with you.” He had a very similar experience with a close friend of his.

So that’s the genesis of that song. We wrote it in a day and it was just one of those days where he left, and I was just on cloud nine because we had written something from the heart. Something from the soul that really meant something to both of us. He’s a great guy.

And it’s very rare for me to find other people in this industry who I work with, but I’m also friends with. It’s hard to establish those types of friendships – we’ve done a pretty decent job of doing that. I love the guy so much, and making friends as an adult is really hard too. Speaking of adult relationships in general – it’s very vulnerable and you’re quickly reminded of feeling like a kid on the playground walking up to somebody and being like, “do you want to be my friend?”

So as an adult, I think it is very important to build community. I think with a lot of men in general, we tend to not seek out community. I don’t want to generalize too much, but I would tend to agree from what I’ve experienced myself and amongst a lot of my male friends that we tend to isolate ourselves by not reaching out, not asking for help, and not seeking out community. I envy this younger generation of men who are more comfortable being vulnerable. I think it’s really admirable, really amazing, and I’m glad that it’s starting to change. 

Over the course of your career, you’ve built a very loyal fanbase. What legacy would you like to be remembered by?

First of all, I am so grateful for our fans. It’s cliche, but we really couldn’t and wouldn’t be doing any of this if we didn’t have such a loyal fanbase. I definitely would not be able to do music full time without them. I love making music. I love being an artist. It’s the best thing in the world. So for that, I am grateful to my dying breath, and it’s really been cool to see our fans ride with us as we’ve grown and evolved over the years. In the beginning when we put out our first record and had two pretty big songs, there were some fairweather fans that came on board and some who came on and then dropped off. The people who stayed are the ones who I feel the most kinship with. There’s still quite a few of them and it’s very humbling. I’m so grateful to anyone who’s ever listened to our music and come to any of our shows. 

In terms of legacy – it’s bullshit. Legacy doesn’t really exist, you know? I have no interest in having a legacy to be remembered by, because any legacy that I do create will be forgotten. I would rather try and focus on the present. 

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Words: Karolina Kramplova