X Ambassadors, the Brooklyn-bred rock trio best known for crossover smashes like “Renegades” and “Unsteady,” will be forever indebted to the success of VHS, its platinum-selling 2015 debut. It was that collection that introduced the band born in Ithaca, New York in 2009 as a bonafide pop-rock hitmaker: both “Renegades” and “Unsteady” cracked the Hot 100’s Top 20, and “Renegades” reached No. 1 on the Alternative Songs chart.
Yet that all now feels like a lifetime ago to Sam Harris, X Ambassadors’ frontman. Since VHS’s ascendance, Harris has toiled away on the road and in the studio, working with keyboardist (and brother) Casey Harris and drummer Adam Levin on the band’s highly anticipated follow-up, Orion.
On Friday (Apr. 19), the band released the second track from its new album (due out June 14), a soaring and deeply personal tune titled “Hey Child.” The band is currently gearing up for this next chapter, which Harris says required three different album iterations — and two versions left on the cutting room floor — for the band to define alongside Grammy-nominated producer Ricky Reed (Twenty One Pilots, Halsey).
A handful of side projects were mixed in along the way, too -- the most epic being Harris’ producing and co-writing credits on eight songs off the upcoming For The Throne: Music Inspired by the HBO Series Game Of Thrones soundtrack. Set for an Apr. 26 release, the compilation includes tunes from Travis Scott, SZA and Ellie Goulding, as well as jams from Maren Morris and The Lumineers which dropped earlier this month.
We caught up with Harris earlier this week to discuss the origins of “Hey Child,” his work on For The Throne, and the road to Orion, which Harris assures is definitely worth the wait.
Let’s start with “Hey Child.” How did this song evolve from your mind to the final copy?
It started with a writing session with myself and a producer named Andrew Wells, and I had an idea for this chorus. I wrote these different verses to it that were bland and didn’t really say anything, but I felt the song had a good vibe to it and I loved the chorus so I brought it to Ricky Reed, who executive produced our new record, and he said, “This is cool but I don’t really know what you’re talking about.” So we decided to turn it into a love letter to one of my best friends growing up who I haven’t spoken to in a very long time -- we’d kind of become estranged. I wanted to write it to him and the message of the song is pretty clear: if you’re going through a dark time, don’t worry, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, everything is going to be all right.
How did you get involved in writing and producing for For The Throne? Are you a Game of Thrones fan?
Yes, I’m a huge fan. And it was different in a lot of ways and the same in a lot of ways. I’ve been in L.A. now for the last four years and in writing our own record we’ve done a lot of different writing sessions with people and started to then branch out and do some writing and producing on our own for other artists. The collaborative nature of the scene in Los Angeles was something we became accustomed to. [For The Throne] was slightly different because it was a concentrated period of time — it was ‘go, go, go.’ And instead of walking into a room everyday thinking “What are we gonna write a song about,” the show is so rich with thematic elements to write about. You can write about loss, undying love, revenge, power struggle and everything possible at the highest of high stakes, which makes writing so easy and fun. And the caliber of artists who are on the soundtrack is incredible, but also not surprising because so many people are fans of the show. The diversity in pop music represents the diversity in the fans who watch Game of Thrones, so we thought, why not serve that instead of writing a bunch of Nordic folk songs? Why not embrace the diverse fan base of the show and make a diverse project?
Like you said, the lineup for For The Throne is loaded, from Maren Morris to Ellie Goulding to A$AP Rocky. Which tracks are you most excited about?
There are so many fun collaborations on here. I had a great time working on our track [“Baptize Me”] with Jacob Banks, who we’ve taken out on tour with us. I’d been dying to work with him so that was incredible. I also got a chance to work with Chloe x Halle. From the minute I knew this was a soundtrack that Columbia Records was putting out, I was like, “I want these girls to be on a track.” We got in the room together and wrote such a cool song [“Wolf At Your Door”]. Those young women are very, very talented.
The new X Ambassadors album, Orion, certainly sounds like a more sonically daring record than VHS. How did you and your bandmates push yourselves in creating this big follow-up?
We pushed ourselves — a lot. This is the third iteration of the record. We had made an entire record called Joyful, with a title track and a bunch of other songs lined up with that. We took the whole thing to this soul, R&B, pop-leaning world that was a part of our DNA, and we felt like we needed to flex that muscle, but then when we listened to Joyful as a whole, it didn’t feel like it fully represented where we were at. And that was the second iteration of it -- the first one was just a collection of songs we had written while we were on tour. It was a struggle to get to this place, and I think we were kind of lost on our own and needed someone to come in and guide the thing home.
We had a couple of songs that really felt good and lingered around, but didn’t really hone in until we met Ricky Reed and did a bunch of tracks with him, and that helped focus us. Not to toot our horns, but our band can shapeshift a lot, we can take on a lot of different sounds and identities and go a lot of different places, sonically, and so can [Reed]. And because of that, when he was face-to-face with us, we decided we need to pick a sound and really hone in on something — let’s pick one thing to do. The music is looking forward to the future. It’s called Orion because my brother became a father this year and his son’s name is John James Orion Harris.
What did you learn about yourself, as a musician or just as a person, while making Orion?
What I think I’m left with at the end of this journey, and as we’re gearing up to release the album, is feeling a little more confident in myself as a creative director for this band. I’ve always taken on that role, somewhat reluctantly because no one else would, in terms of the overarching vision and the directions lyrically, thematically and sonically, and even down to the artwork and video visuals. But on this project we were successful in bringing in some other people on the creative side, like Ricky Reed to produce, and we brought on a team from New York called Stray Echo to help with some of the creative stuff, like visuals, and help create a sense of identity for this record. But then I was able to feel empowered by these people around me. I’ve started to trust myself a little bit more and trust the process. I’m able to embrace those different roles and know I’m not just the singer of this band.
Did you ever feel any pressure while writing this album, considering the grand success of “Unsteady” and “Renegades”?
Yeah. We were very lucky, but had also worked so hard and completely exhausted ourselves and I think that pressure of following [VHS] up with something equally as good was pretty crippling for a while. I mean, it’s taken us four years to make this follow-up. That’s longer than normal. And we scrapped two versions of the record. I know the pressure got to me, I definitely found myself writing songs because I thought they sounded like “Renegades” or “Unsteady,” and was purely writing them for that reason. And it turned into a whole pile of garbage. But if you’re patient and you don’t give into the pressure to just put that stuff out, then you’ll be okay. We were able to weather the storm, I think, and end up creating an album that felt like it paid homage to where we came from but also started to pave a path forward.
“Boom” is the single that you guys put out in January -- it’s got a great vibe, but something tells me people are hearing it without knowing it’s X Ambassadors.
That’s the unfortunate curse with a lot of our songs, that a lot of people don’t know that it’s us. (laughs) And that’s what I think we’re trying to change a little bit with this album, to create more of an identity. But yeah, we love to fuck with people and put different kinds of vibes out there. This one felt really right and good -- it was a demo that was sitting on my computer for a while that I’d worked on with a producer named Thomas Eriksen. Later we were in a session with Ricky and I was looking for a drum sample to use in a different song, and I pulled up [“Boom”] and he was like, “Whoa, what’s that? We should work on that right now.” Then we finished it in a day or two.
I’m sure you’ve read some of the articles that over the last few years have proclaimed that rock is dead. Your band is living proof of the contrary. Who are some of the modern rock and alternative groups that you’re proud to stand beside?
K.Flay is one of my favorite alternative artists out there. She’s so incredible and we’ve been lucky enough to collaborate with her a bunch. She’s featured on our new record. I love Donna Missal, she’s absolutely amazing. Again, Jacob Banks is incredible. That Fidlar record that came out this year — I’m a little biased because Ricky produced that as well — is so, so good. Oh, and Cautious Clay. We worked together on a song and he is the real deal, so talented.
The problem I see with alternative and rock in general is the lack of diversity. I’m not saying [X Ambassadors] isn’t part of the problem — a band of three white dudes — but it’s very depressing when you look at the charts and see all white men in this genre. You don’t see any diversity. It’s slowly starting to get better, but unless that’s something that’s talked about, it’s not really going to change. That is in part why these think-pieces are popping up, because the genre feels antiquated and boring. Why wouldn’t you want a bunch of perspectives making rock music?