X Ambassadors’ stadium anthems (“Jungle,” “Renegades”) gained them critical fame, but it’s the powerfully sorrowful “Unsteady” that currently has them reigning steady within the top five spots on Billboard’s alternative charts. The band’s third single from their studio debut, “VHS,” released last summer, is a departure from their introductory battle cries, but the emotional song, penned by lead singer Sam Harris, comes from a more personal place.
“It came out of nowhere,” he says from a diner in Missouri, where the band had a few hours of downtime en route to their next show. “I was in my apartment and came up with chord changes with my brother [keyboardist Casey Harris]. They were sad and vulnerable, like someone crying out for help. Alex, our producer, and I talked about family and what family means to us and my own relationship with my parents and their divorce and how uncomfortable it makes me to even think about it.”
Harris explains that the single explores his feelings at the age of 15, following his parents’ split and his own need for emotional support. However, divorce, he knows, is a common process many families to go through, and “Unsteady” has allowed the band to feel even more connected with their fans.
“I think the great thing about that song is that the chorus itself is what people latch onto, and that’s a universal sentiment: admitting that you feel vulnerable and unsteady,” he says. And while the song resonates with fans, Harris admits it can be hard to accept the transference of emotions.
“It can be an uncomfortable feeling knowing that your music has had such a hard effect on someone. It’s a good comfort because it means something, but there’s a weight to it that shouldn’t be ignored. It’s such a hard thing to fathom because there’s no way you can fully empathize with people when they tell you stories and it’s hard to do anything other than be graceful and grateful and thankful that this is happening. It’s incredible and hard to hear those stories, because at the same time you wish you could do more.”
On a similar level, Harris is also responsible for penning Rihanna’s “American Oxygen,” about the struggle of achieving the American dream from an immigrant’s perspective. Harris is a third generation American himself, but he felt the concept was an important one to explore, noting some parallels in the struggle of a newbie musician. “You’re constantly at odds with the world around you,” he says. “[The American dream] is a beautiful thing, but it can turn on you very easily. You can work so hard and put blood sweat and tears into something and still never be satisfied.”
“American Oxygen” with the help of Aex da Kid, who produces both X Ambassadors and Rihanna, took more shape once it was passed into the latter’s hands. Rihanna peaked at 34 on the Billboard Mainstream Top 40, while Harris recently released his own version of the song, noting it’s even made a few appearances on their setlist during this tour, which will hit cities throughout the U.S. through mid-June before the band heads off to Europe.
The tour supporting “VHS” is a far cry from the bands earlier days, during which, Harris admits he would pose as a tour manager in order to secure gigs.
“We couldn’t book a show for anything so I asked my friend, ‘How the hell do I do this?’ He said to make up a fake manager’s name with a fake e-mail address and e-mail venues with very terse, to-the-point e-mails asking for show dates. Before that, I would write these long e-mails explaining that I was the lead singer of this band and how we loved the venue and no one ever replied. So we booked some shows under the fake name, Paul Lewis.”
But what happened to Paul Lewis?
“We’d show up to a gig and people would be like ‘Where’s Paul?’ and we’d be like ‘Oh he’s sick,’” laughs Harris. “We did that for a while but when finally got our own manager. We fired Paul.”