By Molly Barber
Photos By Catie Lafoon and Molly Barber
I’m constantly on the prowl for music and I find it EVERYWHERE. I’ve found songs I love in movies and tv shows. I’ve found new music from friends and the radio. I’ve even found songs to add to my library from listening to commercials. The band that I’m about to introduce, you might have heard on a commercial. Or maybe you heard their song on a tv show or movie. Either way, I’m sure you’ve heard some of their music, even if you didn’t know it at the time.
The X Ambassadors have had their platinum-selling Renegades on a Jeep commercial and their double-platinum Unsteady featured in the motion picture You Before Me. Band members Sam Harris, Casey Harris and Adam Levin are hitting the road in February to kick off their tour and are getting ready to drop their new album. I was lucky enough to catch up with Sam before the holidays to talk about the upcoming album and tour (along with my fangirl questions!)
Okay, so first off and this is more of a personal question for me, when does the new album drop?
Well, that is a great question. We are probably going to drop it around April. We are trying to keep things pretty fluid right now because we have a bunch of songs we want to release before hand and as you know, the new way that the industry is- you can plan things very far in advance but those plans always change. So as of right now, we are banking on like around March-April for the album to be out. It’s done. We’ve finished it like 3 different times already. The third time, I think is the charm. It’s been actually nice to have, you know we put VHS back out in June 2015 and so it will be almost 3 years that we’ve been touring that record and writing new material and amassing all this new material and I think we have a pretty incredible record on our hands. I’m so excited for you to hear it.
Oh, I’m pretty excited too. I love everything you guys have done. I really like “Home” and a lot of your collaborations. The one you did with Alexdakid and Elle King, “It’s Not Easy”- that was just amazing.
When you’re doing a collaboration like that with Machine Gun Kelly or Alexdakid, do you get to go in and work with them on the track or is it just like get in the box and record it?
Honestly, I didn’t even record any of that in studios. Not Easy was recorded and written on the road, Home I just recorded at my home. I recorded it in my little office in our little TV room, I have some speakers set up
there. A lot of the work that is done now, is done remotely but yeah that’s not to say that it still doesn’t happen in the room. It’s funny the day after we shot the video for Home, Machine Gun Kelly and I went into the studio together and wrote a brand new song together. So you know, it does happen organically still but those songs in particular and for most of our collaborations that we actually have put out have been done remotely.
Do you have any other artist in mind as someone you’d like to work with?
There’s so many of these cool new artists that I’m excited to work with. Actually I have a session coming up with a guy named Davie. He’s a new young artist. He has an EP out called Black Gospel Volume 1. There’s a song called Testify that’s doing pretty well right now. He’s great. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this artist her names Lizzo, she’s out of Minnesota. She’s incredible, absolutely incredible. A soul-singer. She raps a little bit too. I love that new HAIM record. I would love to do something with them.
I have yet to see you guys in concert but I’d love to get to the show when you guys are playing in the Bay.
Oh yeah. You gotta come. You gotta come. It’s a whole different thing. X Ambassadors live is a whole different thing.
Do you guys have a favorite cover song you enjoy playing?
No, we don’t really do covers.
You and your brother seem pretty musical, you write all your music and lyrics, was that something that was influenced by your parents?
Oh yeah for sure. My mom was a singer and songwriter herself for many years. She mostly did standard and covered other people’s but she wrote some of her own songs. And our dad he’s a writer too, He’s written a book and he was a screen writer for a while and he did a stint as a song-writer for like a year in Nashville and he wrote one song that he sold to someone. So yeah it’s definitely in the family and you know, we always wanted to write our own stuff from the get go. I always respected artists who wrote their own material and then got into
the art of song writing. It’s one of my favorite things in the world to do and it’s so fun.
You play multiple instruments too, what one did you start out with?
I started with saxophone. Saxophone was the first instrument I played. I picked that up in school, I went to public school and that was part of our public school program. We had the ability to rent an instrument for a year or two and I loved saxophone. I got real lucky and I booked this voice gig in LA when I was like a kid, I must have been like 12 or something like that and that gig paid me enough money I was able to get my own saxophone. I bought a horn and I’ve had that horn ever since.
So I assume you are a big proponent for arts in the schools?
Absolutely. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now if it had not been for the arts program at my school. I had a teacher, Todd Peterson, he was the disciplinarian at my elementary school and he was also the choreographer and director of a few of the plays I did in middle school and high school. He encouraged me to sing in public for the first time and taught me how to preform and he taught me everything I know. I owe everything to my teachers in school and that environment was really great for me. I was in school band, I was in Jazz band, concert band and I did all that. That was the nitty gritty musical education. Before all the other stuff.
So I’ve been a fan for a long time and I think I’ve noticed this trend you guys have with songs like “Renegades”, “Hoping”, “Torches”– they’re kinda like the underdog’s anthems. Would you say that’s true?
Yeah absolutely. I think that we tend to gravitate towards those kinds of stories, stories about the underdog and stuff. We try to bring a little hope and positivity you know? But not masking it in anything other than reality. Life is hard and it has it’s challenges, constantly, but we are all very lucky to be here on this planet and I think that’s a message we all really want to continue to purvey in our music. There’s also an element to our music… That’s kinda the bigger picture stuff but we also really try to come from the heart, try to be as intimate as possible and as revealing as possible with who we are with people. I’ve watched my brother overcome a lot odds in his life, being blind since birth. Having a disability has challenges to say the very least but watching Casey approach everything in life with such positivity, grace and poise is just really inspiring. He’s my brother and he’s in the band so I’m constantly surrounded by that energy. We’ve all been through some s*** and we try to write about it in our music in the most specific way to tell people our story and hopefully it helps them.
Definitely and I think that’s one of the main things people can actually feel in your music when they listen to it. You guys are very raw and vulnerable and not just in the music but in the lyrics itself. Is that something we can look forward to with the new album?
More so than ever before. This next record is very, very personal and it goes pretty deep. A dear friend of mine is struggling with addiction right now and is in and out of recovery; that’s had a huge impact on our friendship and on my life and on their life. So that’s kinda what was going on this whole time while we were writing this new record. And this is one of my best friends since I was very, very young and I haven’t spoken to this person in a very long time now-almost two years. So this in kinda my attempt to go through my emotions surrounding that and to reach out to them.
Wow, that’s really cool.
Yeah it’s pretty heavy s***.
So as a lyricist yourself, as you’ve matured and grown with that art, have you found a musician that you find really resinates with you?
Well recently I’ve become OBSESSED with this woman who’s name is Patty Griffin. She’s an Americana artist. She does kinda folk-country-blues music and she writes these devastatingly beautiful songs. It’s hard because I relate to many different song writers, so many different lyricists but she’s just been so on my brain lately and I’ve been listening to a lot of her music. Another song-writer, Justin Tranter, you know Justin Tranter?
Yeah I do.
So we wrote a song together and he turned me on to her, to Patty Griffin.Both he and I write pop-music and alternative rock music but we both have this passion for Americana-country and folk. So he turned me on to her and her song writing is so strong and powerful. She gets really specific and is such an old soul, it’s always just so amazing to listen to her music. I cry and I cry and I cry.
That’s awesome. I’m getting good insight and I’m seeing you like all different kinds of music.
So if I was to look in your music library what would I find that would just blow my mind?
Well you’d find Chris Stapleton right next to Kehlani, next to Rage Against the Machine, right next to let’s see what was I listening to the other day- Future and Young Thug. There’s this rapper named Buddy. He’s got a EP out called Magnolia that’s incredible, I can’t stop listening to it. I honestly listen to a lot of Hip-Hop and I also listen to a lot of soulful Americana kinda country stuff. I’m a HUGE Bruce Springsteen fan. Yeah, my tastes kinda run the gamut. They’re all over the place.
So if you could have someone cover anyone of you songs, who would do it and what song would you choose?
Well since I mentioned Bruce Springsteen, I’d love to hear Bruce Springsteen do a cover of one of our songs. I wrote a song for Rhianna a couple of years ago called American Oxygen. I was really proud of it and worked really hard on it. The song didn’t do very well but I still love it and was listening to it earlier today and I was thinking it has a very Bruce Springsteen sense to it. I would love to hear him do like a blues rendition of that one. That’d be cool.
Ok, so someone challenges you to a lip-synch battle, what song do you choose?
Oh definitely Kiss by Prince. I’d slay. I’d slay.
I was just curious because you’re very active in social issues and I was wondering if any of those fueled or inspired you during the album?
I mean I think it’s unavoidable to anyone writing songs nowadays to not have the feeling seep into their music. I wasn’t directly writing about anything political on this record. For us, you know I like to go specific with my life, what I’m experiencing on a personal level and then when you do that it can be translated on a bigger level. You can go macro with it on your own just by listening to it. It can apply to anything. The other thing often times for me the less specific I am and get, the easier it is for other people to appropriate that sentiment to their own lives or to the world in general….I hate to sound cliche but I hope that the work is just very personal and revealing for me and that people can take what they want from it.
Yeah I think that’s one of the awesome things about music, it’s so completely subjective
Yeah, you know I wrote a song about my parents divorce on the last record, Unsteady, that’s what that song’s about. But people have told me that they played that at their wedding or that they walked down the isle or that was their dance. So it could be a fly across the board to so many different things. People will take what they want from a song and it will remind them of something else that happened in their lives or makes them think about it in a different world. That is the beauty of music.
The X Ambassadors are going to be playing in San Francisco at the Fillmore on February 26th and you should be there. I know I will. They have other tour dates online that you can check out on their website xambassadors.com. Lester Bangs once said, “Music, you know, true music- not just rock ’n’ roll- it chooses you.” The more I listen to music and reflect on the effect it’s had on me, the more I realize, this quote is so true. The music that the X Ambassadors made chose me and I am so glad it did.