X Ambassadors Frontman Sam Harris Unwraps the Rich History and Influences Behind ‘Orion’
X Ambassadors are a band that manages to get to the root of musical instincts usually restrained to bands of completely separate genres. Frontman Sam Harris is well versed in the tricks of the trade, with a knack for songwriting that transcends stylistic divisions seamlessly. He recently co-wrote and produced a majority of the songs from the “Game of Thrones” inspired album “For the Throne,” a compilation that covers many genres so fluidly, speaking to his remarkable versatility.
The band’s latest album, “Orion,” is a thoroughly touching work, largely in part to the story of Sam’s brother and X Ambassadors keyboardist Casey Harris, who is visually impaired. The lead single “Boom” has been presented with care, in a format that allows Casey to appreciate it at his visual capacity, and the record is full of stories about the two brothers growing up, that make for truly great songs. X Ambassadors have an ability to tap into the collective consciousness musically with an effortlessness that stands out, and the songs survey topics that delve into matters that are afforded the consideration they deserve.
The album covers a slew of subjects, including youthful bonding, gaining a mature perspective, debilitating shyness in a relationship, the absurdity of religion, and plenty more themes ripe with cultural resonance. In support of the record, Sam discussed the details of “Orion” with Entertainment Voice, expanding on the thoughts, stories, and processes behind the songs in an enlightening conversation that offers a deeper perspective on an outstanding album.
Your new album is titled “Orion.” Why did you decide to call the album this?
We called the album “Orion” because my nephew, Casey‘s son, was born last year, and his middle name is Orion, and it just felt right. I came up with the idea when I was chatting on the phone with Ricky Reed, who executive produced the record with us, and we both felt that it felt right. It’s kind of an album about looking forward — what’s next, honoring what’s come before, and that feels very much what my nephew represents, so it felt right.
Your single “Hey Child” sounds like an ode to youth, but also has lines like “Brother’s got a baby on the way…. I hope he don’t make the same mistakes we made.” Do you think youthful spark and recklessness come hand in hand?
I think yeah (laughs). I think most of the time they do, just to varying degrees. It’s funny, as a kid, I was always the good one. My brother was the really rebellious one. He had a rough time as a teenager, and just felt very isolated and angry, and my mom had her hands full with him most of the time, so I kind of held down the fort, and learned to keep my head under the radar, but I definitely was not an innocent kid. I don’t think any of us were.
There are innumerable love songs about feeling empowered in another’s presence, but your song “Confidence” takes a brilliant, different angle, focusing on the debilitating effect of being transfixed. How did you decide to explore this angle?
You know, that’s kind of how I’ve always felt. I was never the most confident guy around other girls, or other people in general. It took me a second to get past that, but I would always be so shy whenever I saw a girl that I was attracted to. I think it kind of came from that feeling of — oh my god, I just don’t know what to say. One minute I was hanging with my friends, and I felt super confident, and sure of myself, and then you step into the room, and all of that goes out of the window, and I’m just stumbling over my words. You know, that kind of feeling.
Your song “I Don’t Know How to Pray” is another song that explores a universally relatable, but largely unexplored subject. A striking part is its unresolved ending in which you exclaim “God Save,” and are abruptly cut off. What was your intention with this song, especially the ending?
Well, that song kind of came out of a real situation. My brother had a seizure, out of nowhere, and it was really crazy — and he’s totally fine, and got all the blood work and check ups done, but it was just really, really violent and scary, and came out of nowhere, and I was in the hospital with him, and he was still unconscious. I grew up culturally Jewish, but not a practicing Jew, and I haven’t ever really ascribed to any sort of religion, but I consider myself a spiritual person, and in the moment when I was just waiting to see what the doctors were saying happened, I just went to the bathroom, and I didn’t know what I was doing, but I just got down on my hands and knees, and just prayed, I was like “please, like god, I don’t like know how to do this. Just help this.”
But then the ending, I think it kind of speaks for itself, by not saying anything. Like life is what it is, and life unfolds how it unfolds, and it’s important to ask questions, and sometimes it’s hard to be faced with no answer, but that’s just life. Thankfully, everything turned out alright. But I was also, at the same time, going through some stuff with a close friend of mine who I hadn’t been speaking to, and I didn’t know if he was ok or not. He was struggling with his own demons. So, the song is both a recollection of what happened with my brother, and also something for my friend.
Effective singles often have a primal immediacy, and it makes sense that your killer single “BOOM” took form around a simple old clip of your saying, “My feet go boom, boom, boom,” with everything falling into place around the cadences. Take us a little deeper into the process by which this song came together.
Well, yeah, originally it was just a demo, and the song didn’t really mean anything, and didn’t even really have a specific sound to it, and then when we decided to actually write it, Ricky was the one who came up with the idea of “My feet go boom, boom, boom… walking away from you.” Making a song about that feeling of empowerment, getting out of a toxic relationship. And that changed the whole song. That flipped my head around, and made it something that I was excited about writing. And then everything fell into place, but it really started as a kind of nothing song. I was like this is never going to turn into anything. But it sure did.
The artwork for your single “BOOM” is written in Braille, and has been described as the first art for your work that your brother Casey, who has only 10% vision, can “experience visually.” From your experience with Casey, how has this factor influenced your perspective and career?
Well, Casey has influenced my life and career in every way possible, from the way that we interact with each other, the music that we make, to the lyrics that I write. He has been a very big inspiration to me, and I think to Adam as well. The artwork, we wanted to make sure that this was an identity of a record. We wanted to show people who we are. He does have a little bit of vision, in that with large text, with very high contrast, and reverse colors, like yellow text on a black background, the first thing he said to me was, “Oh shit, that says ‘Boom,’” and that was pretty amazing, so all of the rest of that artwork was the same, yellow on black — the way he sees the world. We want it to be inclusive of him.
Your single “Hold You Down” is a song about faith and dedication that might normally read as about a romantic relationship, but was largely influenced by your experience growing up with Casey. Did you mean to leave the song open-ended? Expand on its personal meaning to you.
Yeah, I mean at least the song was originally written about someone else. And kind of started getting more deeper. It’s been about a close friend of mine, We have been close for a while, and It’s kind of my way of reaching out to him. We made it a little broad, because I’m getting married in September, and she’s been my day one, my ride or die, so the song is for her, and for my brothers and family, so I want to keep it open-ended. And with the video, we had all this footage, and we hadn’t done anything with it yet, and the purpose of it is just to show people who we are, and the journey that we’ve gone on together. That’s what this whole record is about, just being us, and not shying away from anything.
You worked as a songwriter and producer on eight songs from the “Game of Thrones” inspired album “For the Throne.” There’s such a wide range of genre in those songs. How did you shuttle among such varied musical styles so fluidly? Also, there’s no shortage of opinions and creative interpretations of the “Game of Thrones” series finale. As someone who has obviously taken inspiration from the series, what’s your personal take on the ending?
Well, to speak on the genre-shifting, that’s kind of how I always operated in my band. I think most people of my generation also feel like we are all sort of genreless, in terms of what we listen to, and what kind of music we all like to make, and so it’s fairly easy for me to, kind of, adapt to different styles throughout the record, and a lot of credit also goes to Ricky Reed, who produced all the stuff I did, and co wrote a lot of stuff on the record, and it was so much fun too. It opened up a whole other side of my brain that I’m not able to tap into when I’m working on my band. It’s since given me an idea of what I want our next record to sound like, and we’ve already started working on that. And as for the show, I don’t really have an opinion either way. I love the show from beginning to end, and I thought that they ended it how it did, and it wasn’t, like, satisfying, but I don’t think that’s the point. I think the point is that things happen the way they happen, and the show was never meant to have a cookie-cutter ending, so that’s what I think.
“Orion” is available June 14 on Apple Music.