A couple years ago, X Ambassadors
had their big break when the song "Renegades," from their debut album VHS
was used in a Jeep commercial. Since then, the band has been steadily touring and working on their second, forthcoming album. I got a chance to talk with Sam Harris, X Ambassadors' lead singer, about the new album's first single, "Ahead of Myself," and Cayuga Sound, the festival that X Ambassadors have organized and curated as a way to give back to their hometown. We also got to talk about the recent events in Charlottesville, and the importance of speaking out against racism and oppression. You can read the full interview and check out "Ahead of Myself" down below.
OLIVIA LEWIS: A few weeks ago you released the first single from your upcoming album, "Ahead of Myself," and you mentioned on Facebook that it's a very personal song. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of writing that song and reflecting on the mistakes that inspired that song?
SAM HARRIS: Like with every very personal song that seems to come about for me, it kind of came out of thin air. I sat down in a writing session with a friend of mine, Scott Harris, and it was just the two of us around a piano first. We started coming up with melodies, and then lyrics started to form and those melodies started to take shape. In a matter of hours, the song was born. It started with that phrase, "ahead of myself" - "every time I get ahead of myself" - and then from there I went into my world and started writing some lyrics.
Scott and I both came up with this story about someone who's talking about how they always fall into the same kind of traps and get in too deep. I know many, many times in my life, I've found myself in situations where I've put my trust in someone before I was really ready to let that trust be real again. I know that I've been in situations very recently where I have committed to somebody and I wasn't ready. The song is about admitting to those faults and those mistakes that we all make by wanting to do something good and messing up.
OL: I also saw that the video for "Ahead of Myself" is coming soon. Do you have any good stories from shooting that?
SH: I don't want to give too much away, but it was really fun. We had a chance to go back to upstate New York. We shot in Rochester, NY, where my mom was born and my grandfather worked for years and years at the Kodak building - unfortunately no longer employing anyone. It was really cool to go back there, and also kind of unfortunate to see a town that used to be so vibrant start to fall victim to a loss of jobs and a kind of crappy economic time. The town has fallen on hard times, but you know, there's still some life there. That was good to see. But a lot of these upstate New York towns just weren't able to change with the times and have fallen on hard times themselves.
OL: What can we expect from your upcoming album, and how does "Ahead of Myself" fit into that?
SH: I would hope that our fans expect nothing but everything that we've got on anything that we put out, and this record is no exception to that. I think that we really pushed ourselves to be the best versions of who we are and what we are, and really tried to figure that out. The whole record is a lot more personal. I'm speaking a lot about experiences that I've been through in the last two years since VHS
came out. And I've been through a lot. There's a lot of joy, a lot of pain, a lot of heartbreak, and stories of coming out the other end stronger and better than before. We started writing this record in October and it just sort of poured out. It's not something that has ever really happened to me as a songwriter. I've always been the one that has to wake up every morning and bang my head against the wall for a couple hours until I come out with something that's sort of good. It takes a long time usually, but this record didn't take very long to come to fruition, which is pretty cool and scary and exciting all at once.
OL: Do you think that happened because of how much you've experienced lately?
SH: Yeah, and I think I was writing a lot on the road, and we all were. We were all creating while we were on tour in the midst of this chaos, the eye of the storm if you will. Then getting off tour and being able to be settled for a minute, the focus got sharper I think, and we were able to take all that we had learned as songwriters over the last year and a half touring and apply that into a concentrated environment. I just think that made it so that we were a lot better because we had worked under such strained circumstances for so long, and then to be able to wake up and be in the same place and go to the same studio every day, it was great.
OL: So Cayuga Sound, the festival that you guys are putting together to focus on giving back to your hometown of Ithaca, is coming up next month. How did the idea for the festival first come about?
SH: It was actually first mentioned to me through our manager Seth a while ago. I thought, "Who was gonna come out to a festival curated by X Ambassadors? Nobody, nobody cares about us enough yet for that to be a thing." But he was persistent and all of a sudden he came to me and said "Hey, we're really thinking about doing this, are you guys into it? I have all of this infrastructure set up, are you down?" And we were like "Alright, if we get a couple hundred people to come out I guess that will be fun." But we've managed to really make it a bigger thing. It really got real to me when we locked in The Roots to co-headline with us; they're a band that I've always loved. When I was a kid, I saw them when they came to Ithaca to play. We had played their Roots Picnic this year, and they agreed to play our festival because we played theirs.
Ultimately, the reason that I really wanted to do this and we really wanted to do this is when I was a kid we didn't really have any sort of music festival that was close by us that played music that I was into. There were lots of hippie and reggae festivals that happened around upstate New York, and jam bands and stuff, but I was into punk rock, alternative rock, hip-hop, and R&B. For me to imagine myself being a kid and hearing about this festival coming through with a bunch of cool alternative and hip-hop and R&B acts, I would be so thrilled. So I'm doing this for the 14 year old kid that I was.
OL: What part of the festival are you most looking forward to?
SH: I'm just looking forward to getting up on that stage and seeing all these local people, and people that came from all over upstate New York, and hopefully all over the country too, in Ithaca to share in the beauty of my hometown. We're also giving back to a lot of non-profits that I was involved with when I was a kid. I took classes at the CSMA, which is the Community School of Music and Arts in Ithaca. I was a part of the Vitamin L choir. I went to Stewart Park Day Camp, and was a counselor there. Now we're putting the festival on in Stewart Park. Ithaca Youths Bureau, the Friends of Stewart Park, we're giving back to a lot of these organizations that I benefitted from as a kid. So that feels really good.
OL: I think it's really cool that you guys are making such an effort to give back to the local businesses and non-profits. Was that a part of the plan from the beginning?
SH: I remember specifically saying to Seth and Dan Smalls, the people who are organizing it for us, "Look, I want to make this a priority, I want to be able to give back to my community in more ways than just putting on a festival for them and playing music for them. I want some of the profits to go to these organizations." And we came up with a list of organizations in Ithaca that I felt strongly about. We made it happen.
OL: How does it feel to be at a point in life where you can give back to the place you came from in such a big way?
SH: It's so cool, and I don't think it really will hit me until I'm there and talking to some of the people who are in charge of these organizations. But it feels so good. I am just so grateful, and honored to be in that position. I think we all feel that same way.
OL: I've noticed that you're also never afraid to speak up publicly about the issues we're facing in our country right now, and especially with what's happening in Charlottesville now. Would you say that speaking up like that is an important part of the band's identity?
SH: Yeah, we were just in Charlottesville, and it's a great college town; it's a very liberal town. The reason that these white supremacists are drawn to that town is because the city has made the decision to take down a lot of these Confederate monuments, which is a very, very progressive decision especially for a southern city. And it's horrible to see - I'm Jewish, you know - to see Nazi flags, it's disgusting. It's absolutely horrible, and I think it's because we obviously don't have a president who's calling out these white supremacist, nationalist groups for what they are. It's up to us to say something and to speak out against hatred and bigotry. It's a twisted, twisted side of the world. I know that we've gotten backlash on our social media for speaking out, but I don't really ever read those comments. I just say what I'm gonna say, and if you don't wanna follow us, unfollow us, I don't give a shit. I'm going to speak my mind. We are going to speak our minds and we are going to stand up for truth and for equality. That's really it - I feel like there's no other choice.
OL: So, you kind of touched on this, but what would you say in response to the people who say, you know, "artists should just stick to their music and not bother with voicing their opinions in politics?"
SH: I would say, honestly, you like our music and you like our art because it's a reflection of who we are as people, who we are as human beings. If you can't allow me to be a human being, then I can't make my art for you. I have to express myself how I'm gonna express myself. At the end of the day, people are more than one thing. I'm more than just an artist. I'm a citizen of this country and a citizen of the world, and I need to speak up for what I believe in. I also would say that as a white male in this country, it is also my responsibility to be a vocal ally for people of color, for the LGBT community, for disabled people, for veterans, for immigrants. It is up to me, because it's white males that are the most aggressive and have been the biggest issue. I have the privilege as a white person in this country that all of those people that I listed do not have. I mean, you probably saw the video footage of these white nationalists literally pushing up against the police officers in Charlottesville. If that were a crowd of Black Lives Matter activists, there would be people in the hospital, people would be dead. That would just never happen. But because these were white men they were treated with kid gloves. That's just an unfortunate reality, and it's my responsibility to be an ally and to be vocal and to put myself in the line of fire.
Watch our high energy concert with X Ambassadors below: