X Ambassadors Brings Home On the Road with 'Townie'
Written by Michaela Stock. Photo of X Ambassadors by Tyler Jay Hanson

After three albums and five EPs, the X Ambassadors are finally ready to bring it home. Their fourth full-length record, Townie, tells a story about lead singer Sam Nelson Harris’ adolescent attempts to make it out of his hometown of Ithaca, New York. 

Released in April, Townie is a nostalgic collection of songs that yearns, observes, and then embraces Harris’ roots, resulting in a soundscape that swings between tension and reconciliation.  

“Upstate New York feels a little like flyover territory sometimes, but if you look closer, there's so much more under the surface,” Harris said. “It is a beautiful, majestic kind of place, but it's also very dark, and it can be fairly sad and desolate.”

Harris describes growing up in Ithaca like living in a cocoon. 

“It was my little chrysalis. A cold, gray chrysalis."

Part of what holds Harris’ sense of home together is the people in it, namely his late school teacher and mentor Todd Peterson. The track "Your Town" on the album Townie ends with a voicemail from Peterson saying how proud he is of Harris. 

With such a profound impact left on his career by his mentor, Harris has started to return the favor by mentoring younger musicians too. He currently teaches his cousin, who goes by the stage name SAINT KID. 

“I have had such a great time mentoring him through this industry…and giving him some infrastructure that I didn't have when I was first starting out in the business,” Harris said. “I think most of all, with young artists who I encounter, I just try to impress upon them how fickle this industry is, but not to let that be a downer. Know that that is the fact, and that if you're going to do this, it's got to be for the joy of it.”

Sometimes that joy is just a kind word from someone who believes in you.

“The work of being an artist, I think, is a really lonely business. To feel like you have somebody in your corner who's championing you and telling you, ‘Hey, you're on the right path, you’re doing great’ goes a long way,” Harris said.

“I had some people that pushed me too far. I think I could have benefited from [hearing] that a little bit more.”

Even in the face of criticism, Harris’ demonstrated success hasn’t stopped him continually seeking out new teachers to be mentored by.

“I think the best artists are the ones who are constantly looking for other people to mentor them,” Harris said. “I hope that I will continue to do that for the rest of my career, because I will never feel like I've learned enough, and I always feel like I will have something to learn from other people.”

In fact, lifelong learning is the backbone to Harris’ creative process, which is further proved by the studious storyline of his latest album.

“I love being a student. I always want to be a student,” Harris said. “That is the sign of a real artist.”

Though Harris feels that he still has a lot to learn, he’s certainly accomplished a career worthy of writing home about–and Townie does just that. 

“I'm very satisfied with [the album] because it was such a personal record for me. I really felt like I was emotionally going out on a limb,” Harris said. “At this point in my life, I'm looking for more things to get out of my way and be in service of something else, something greater than myself.”

Townie is an album that aches. Delicate piano tracks push listeners into swelling sentiments of time passed, while rhythmic guitar riffs and reflective lyrics bleed into an undercurrent of hope. With more than 13 million monthly listeners on Spotify, the X Ambassadors is inviting their global fan base to get a glimpse inside this chrysalis that raised Harris’ band. 

“I think the longer I've been making music, the more I try to make work that is really as personal to my own experience of the world as I can. I hope that the more specific I get, the more people are able to relate it to their own lives in a kind of backward way,” Harris said. “Having people say how much they connect to Townie on a personal level is really satisfying because that's always the goal.”

Though Townie is a tribute to his hometown, Harris is still grateful he has left Ithaca to go see the world. After moving to New York City at age 18 and trying to rebrand the X Ambassadors into a Brooklyn-based band, it took leaving it all behind for Harris to realize that his roots were exactly what he needed to fuel his artistry.

"Luckily I had the foresight to be like, ‘Alright, well, what is the most authentic form of ourselves? It’s the fact that we're these kids from upstate New York,’” Harris said. “So we re-rebranded as a band from Ithaca. That was my first step into kind of realizing how much I am shaped by where I'm from.”

Harris has also realized that in order to become who he wanted to be, he can’t leave his younger self trailing. In fact, Harris encourages everyone to bring their inner child along for the journey–even teenagers growing up in small Michigan towns who can relate to his story of wanting to leave their homes behind.

“I think people should leave. I think you should explore. You should live different, as many different places as you possibly can. Travel is such a big empathy machine,” said Harris.

“But I do think that there's something valuable with remembering that little kid who was growing up in that small town in Michigan, who is shaped by the places and the people around them,” said Harris. 

“You got to remember that kid and invite them into your world, too.”

First fueled by his desire to leave upstate New York, Harris is now traveling the world with an album that tells a story about the city that raised him. From writing to recording, and touring to mentoring, Harris is hoping he can help artists and fans alike connect with themselves by leading them back home.

“Listen to Townie,” Harris said. “I think everybody should go back home and breathe in that air when they put their headphones on and listen to this album, because it really helped me.”

X Ambassadors
The Intersection
May 22, 7:30 p.m.