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Make yourself at home

03 April 2024, 15:00

X Ambassadors tell Jen Long how they learnt to embrace their Ithaca roots on new album Townie.

After leaving Upstate New York for the big city’s bright lights, X Ambassadors frontman Sam Nelson Harris refused to look back for a long time. On new record Townie, he confronts and embraces his formative years, creating a collection of songs that are full of rich reflection and a cohesive catharsis.

“I have not always been capable of writing like this. I’m growing and evolving as a songwriter and I’m very proud of this record specifically. I wanted to show people what we’re capable of,” smiles X Ambassadors frontman Sam Nelson Harris from the backstage room of Camden’s Electric Ballroom ahead of a sold out show.

On tour in the lead up to the release of their fourth album Townie, out this week, Harris is joined by longtime band member Adam Levin, as well as Russ Flynn who juggles guitar and bass duties. Co-founding member Casey Harris, Sam’s brother, is absent from the run due to a family emergency.

Known for their theatrical flair, embracing pop refrains and genre-fluid collaborations, Townie has the potential to take fans by surprise. An atmospheric, diaristic record, the songs take a raw approach, often driven by acoustic guitar with sombre, imagery-heavy delivery. “I was trying to figure out why I was so fascinated about making a record that felt like Upstate New York and why I had for so many years fought against this part of myself that was from there,” says Harris. “When we moved to New York, I was like, ‘We’re a Brooklyn band now.’ Even when I lived in Ithaca, I didn’t want to be from Upstate New York, I just wanted to be from somewhere else.”


Growing up in the city, best known for its Ivy League Cornell University, Harris saw the economic divide between his college town and the surrounding areas, the state itself a vast expanse of exquisite natural beauty. “Lots of room for sad, depressing towns,” he says, half-joking.

Forming a high school band, The Fuzz Brothers, with his brother and former band member Noah Feldshuh, Harris approached music with the utmost intention. “It was never just fun for me,” he says. “I was so determined, I had a death grip on this thing, like, ‘I’m gonna make this happen. This is gonna work.’”

Obsessed with bands like The Stooges and early classic punk, it was The Red Hot Chilli Peppers who caught Harris’ imagination, drawn in by the familial bond of the group’s core members. “By the time I got into them, they had already been around for so long. These broken men who had somehow stayed together despite years of substance abuse issues, members leaving, dying,” he says. “I just found that so powerful, even as a thirteen-year-old.”

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Shortly before moving to New York City, Harris was captivated by the city’s rising indie-rock scene, bands that have retrospectively been recategorised as indie-sleaze. “I so desperately wanted to be as cool as those bands,” he smiles. “I couldn't get a pair of skinny mens jeans to save my life, so I was just buying women’s jeans. Just all up in there.”

The band’s big break came when their self-released single “Unconsolable” began to pick up plays on a radio station in Virginia, catching the ear of Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds. A stripped back, percussive and vocally direct cut of acoustic pop, Harris was determined to prove to the labels showing interest that they weren’t another folk band. “That was me, so badly not wanting to be defined by the place I’m from and all the things that come with it,” he says. “I’m tired of running from that and I love an acoustic guitar, I really do.”

After releasing three records that embrace juxtaposed genres, imaginative concepts and star-studded collaborations, the inspiration for Harris to strip things back to his roots came after the loss of his old friend, mentor and school teacher Todd Peterson, who passed away in 2021. “That was a big catalyst for me thinking about this record and wanting to do something that honoured his memory,” he explains.


Todd was a queer black man from Upstate New York who’d been on Broadway and worked as an actor, singer, dancer and performer. Moving back to Ithaca to be with his family, he took a job at Harris’ school, Belle Sherman. He was the first person to put a microphone in Harris’ hand and encourage him to sing. “He taught me everything I know about performing, about being on stage,” he says. “Changed my life.”

Recent single “Your Town” ends with a voicemail from Peterson, left on Harris’ phone just weeks before he passed. “That was towards the very end. He had been suffering for a long time with various forms of health issues. He was having a really tough time at the end,” says Harris with the weight of regret. “When I got that voice note, he sounded so much more fragile than he normally did. I had, over the years, gotten a little tired of him always nagging me for not responding to his texts or calls or Facebook comments, not coming back to Ithaca more. I just started kind of screening his calls and texts and when he called me and left that voicemail, I listened to it and I was like, ‘Oh man, fuck, I feel so guilty.’ I texted him and told him I’d give him a call back and I never did. A couple of months later it was too late.”

For Harris, the making of Townie stemmed from a multitude of converging moments. Entering his mid-thirties, he began to find himself looking back on his life to date. Going through the pandemic and quiet lockdowns, like many he found himself with the pause for reflection. On top of everything, Harris’ brother Casey, who has been blind since he was a baby, had started a family. “My whole life has been in some way, shape or form helping to take care of my brother,” says Harris. “That really was a big thing for me. I was like, ‘Oh shit, he doesn't need me anymore? Who am I?’”

Sitting down to write in the bright heat of Van Nuys, Harris struggled to conjure the crisp air and fall colours of his hometown. “I had a full blown panic attack in LA, trying to work on this record,” he says. “I was trying to write these very introspective songs and trying to make something that felt like Upstate New York and it was so hot. Not the vibe.”

The band searched for a studio that could inspire the atmosphere they were trying to mirror, initially looking for options in Ithaca before casting their net a little wider. Eventually they discovered The Outlier Inn. A residential studio in the Catskills, it had recently played home to recordings by the likes of Big Thief and The War on Drugs. “That was one where a lot of records we liked were made, it had the gear we liked, it had the vibe. It was perfect,” says Levin.

Arriving with what they thought were the bones of their record, it didn’t take long before new songs began to find their way to the surface. “The second we got there, it just felt so good,” says Harris. “I felt like a kid again, which was so awesome. I think that I really needed to feel that joy in this record, which on surface level is very heavy and slow and very introspective. I needed to be surrounded by joy to do that.”

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Across the twelve tracks of Townie, X Ambassadors build a world that has the sepia-tinged feel of an Upstate New York which can never be discovered. Steeped in deeply personal nostalgia, it’s as much a postcard to 90s youth as it is a tribute to a physical place. Evocative lines and imagery take you to a world that felt bigger, where connection wasn’t so expendable and where dreams had space to grow.

Following on from 2021’s The Beautiful Liar, a concept album that played out in chapters, Townie eschews one distinct narrative thread for an encompassing theme. “I like approaching records like that. It makes it more exciting for me and for us to feel like we’re creating a world,” says Harris. “I think the longer we’ve been together, the more we’re able to take a step back and think about it and focus and follow our instincts. That’s why this record is the first one we’ve self-produced, and really curated the whole thing ourselves.”

Working together for two weeks in the Catskills to write, produce and record the album, the insular nature of the sessions shine through in the recordings. It’s intimate, direct and often strikingly raw. Working on the album alongside their new collaborative Eg project also meant that their desire to work with certain artists found an easy outlet. “A lot of times, collaborations and features, it’s on the more poppy stuff,” says Levin. “Because the record was so personal and not trying to be a hot record, I don’t even remember thinking about features.”

Townie is not only a vivid representation of the musicianship and capabilities of X Ambassadors as a unit, it draws an indicative line to their formative roots, albeit with the benefit of creative licence and hindsight. “From the outset, I was like, I think we should try and make something as cohesive as possible. I wanted us to challenge ourselves, because most of our records, it’s all over the fucking place. I think what’s driven us so far is that freedom to just make whatever the fuck we want to make,” says Harris. “From the outset, I wanted to challenge us to make something that was very linear. I think I fell back in love with the acoustic guitar. Upstate New York is so indicative of the fucking acoustic guitar.”

Stylistically, the tracks on Townie are still recognisably X Ambassadors - melodic toplines delivered in Harris’ rich and expansive range. It’s the sonics that have shifted, embracing the raw, American indie-rock of bands like Bright Eyes and The Gaslight Anthem.

Album opener “Suncao” sets the tone, all brooding nostalgia and the hope of youth. Recreating a gas station on the outskirts of town at night, it’s an instantly atmospheric introduction to a record that comes to life in its stark imagery. “I was like, how can I describe what a night with my friends in the middle of winter felt like?” asks Harris. “I was obsessed with this image of a gas station in the middle of nowhere. That’s so much a part of my childhood. I so badly wanted to leave and that gas station was this symbol of how transient a place Ithaca felt, and a lot of upstate New York feels. It was either your destination or the place you’re going to send off from.”

“A point of departure or a reminder that you’re not leaving,” adds Flynn.

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Quickly following is “Smoke on the Highway,” a haunting ode to the many juxtapositions that come with growing up in a place like Ithaca. Surrounded by natural beauty and meaningful history, there’s also the creeping realities of consumerism and despondent disregard. “You’re at a beautiful waterfall and someone’s left a six pack and there’s a shopping cart that’s flipped over. There’s that irreverence that I wanted to capture,” says Harris. “There’s some images that are pulled from real things. There’s one part in particular, a friend of ours used to steal steaks from grocery stores and he’d stuff them in his pants. I wanted to create this character whose friends would all laugh at him when he’d come out with his paints stained with blood from the bloody steaks. I think Upstate New York is so known for its beauty, but there’s so much darkness there too. It’s funny and sad, which is my favourite combo.”

On a first listen, Townie can feel like a heavy confession. Dark in places, it echoes the desolation and sadness it seeks to portray. But for every gut-punch of a line, there’s a bright pop hook. Songs like “Rashad” tackle regretful trauma with light production, while lead single “No Strings” closes the record with a driving refrain of hope. But it’s on album highlight “Follow the Sound of My Voice” that Harris clashes sentiment with delivery.

A soaring anthem of melodic pop balladry, he tells his story of growing up with a disabled sibling. As a child, their mother had often recounted the moment she first realised Casey was blind. Harris uses it as a starting point, the chorus’ hook taken from the many times he’d use speech to guide his brother. “I have never written something so quickly and have it be so hard to write,” he says. “I’ve never written so directly about my relationship with my brother and it’s such a big part of who I am, I’m very protective of him too. I think writing about it was just really scary. I’m always so scared of making my brother seem like a victim or in any way taking away his autonomy or power. But then I also have to talk about my experience and that was really hard too, because it's something that’s so ingrained in me. It was very hard to get to the point to write, and then once I sat down to write it, it was like, oh, that’s all right there.”

As deeply personal as the song is, the underlying themes and open delivery not only make it feel accessible, but instantly familiar. It’s a common experience listening across Townie, as vivid themes invite you into a world as if it’s shared. It may be their hometown, but with every listen you feel a little more comfortable.

Townie is released on 5 April via Virgin Music

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