By Rachel Jones | Photograph from Catie Laffoon
With great success, comes great responsibility. But X Ambassadors has the work ethic and raw talent to follow up its phenomenal first album, VHS, with even more hits. “There’s always that fear of the ‘second album slump,’” says Sam Harris, lead vocalist of X Ambassadors. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, since it’s the second album. I feel like this record represents our musical tastes more and who we are more.” Sam and his bandmates — his brother, Casey Harris, and their friend, Adam Levin — will be treating fans to songs from the new album, including “Don’t Stay” and Joyful,” along with current hits like “Renegades” and “Unsteady,” during the “Joyful” world tour. Before the band plays Stage AE on April 21, we chatted with Sam about everything “Joyful” the group has in store.
WHIRL: Let’s go back to 2015, when your first album, VHS, became a breakout success. What was that like for you guys?
Sam Harris: When we released our first album, we had already been a band for eight or nine years. It felt really good to finally break through and reach a wider audience. It was really exciting and really stressful. (Laughs) When you have success with that first record, you are taking every opportunity that you possibly can and you’re working yourself down to the bone. It was wonderful, but it was hard. With anything great, there’s a lot of work and blood, sweat, and tears that go into it.
WHIRL: How did that experience prepare you for the creation of your new album, Joyful?
SH: We’ve always had a really good work ethic, so we’ve just tried to amplify that. We’ve been writing and writing and writing, pretty much since we put our last record, VHS, out. We’ve probably written three albums worth of material for this next album, which will only be 15 tracks.
We decided to do a lot of this album in one place. VHS was made primarily on the road. We recorded in bathrooms, hotels, back stage — wherever we had a space to set up our computers. This time, we were between tour cycles. We had a lot of time in L.A., where we are all based now, so we recorded a lot out there in various studios. We decided to do a lot of co-writes with other songwriters, too. The last record was pretty much exclusively us and Alex da Kid, who produced the record. It was so fun collaborating with other people on this one. Our first single, ‘Joyful,’ was all us. Our other single, ‘Don’t Stay,’ was co-written and co-produced with Ryan Tedder and his team. He’s incredible, so I’ve been wanting to work with him for awhile. We worked with [James ‘Malay’ Ho], who produced Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and Blonde. We worked with Rodney Jerkins, who did ‘Stay With Me’ by Sam Smith and like every single 90s and early-2000s song you could possibly think of — Whitney Houston, Mary J. Blige, Destiny’s Child. We worked with S1, who is an incredible hip-hop producer. We just recently got into the studio with Boy Wonda, which is really cool. It’s fun collaborating with a lot of different producers and writers.
WHIRL: How would you describe the end result?
SH: It’s a very personal record. It’s kind of a story about the end of a relationship that went sour. And a dear, close friend of mine, who’s been struggling with substance abuse issues. The album’s kind of focused on that, and forgiveness and frustration and anger and all of the emotions that go into a situation like that. But it’s got all the elements of optimism underlying everything, like our music’s always had. Our stories are about hardship and heartbreak and how the trials and tribulations you go through in life make you who you are. You have to embrace that.
WHIRL: What are you most looking forward to with this tour?
SH: We’ve been able to play a lot of this new stuff on tour. That’s kind of been the purpose of this ‘Joyful’ tour, to play the singles that we’ve released so far — ‘Joyful,’ ‘Don’t Stay,’ and ‘Ahead of Myself’ — but also new songs that people haven’t heard to give our audience of a taste of what’s to come. The response has been really great. It feels good for us to put these songs out into the world in whatever way, shape, or form we can and see what clicks with people.
WHIRL: Do you have anything special planned during your time in Pittsburgh?
SH: We’ve spent a lot of time [in Pittsburgh], and we love it. We feel obligated to go to Primanti Bros. every time we’re in Pittsburgh. My fiancée’s brother goes to Carnegie Mellon, so we’ll be sure to say hi to him. I love the campus up there. It’s really beautiful and inspiring to me because I was a theater kid when I was in college and high school.
Listen to X Ambassadors’ singles “Don’t Stay” and “Joyful” at xambassadors.com.