X Ambassadors Revisit Their Youth On Fourth Album ‘Townie’

There’s no place like home, and for brothers Sam and Casey Harris, the sibling duo behind X Ambassadors, there’s no place quite like Ithaca, NY. Growing up in Ithaca, all the brothers wanted to do was leave. “I was around a lot of people, Ithacans who were always there, who would just settle there, never leave. And I was like, I don’t want to be that. I want to see the world. I want my world to be bigger than this one place,” Sam shared.

Drawn by the bright lights of New York City and inspired by the glamor of Hollywood from on set trips with their publicist Dad, they did eventually leave to pursue their dreams of music. However, memories of meet ups at the Sunoco gas station and jam sessions in the basement always tied them back to the college town. 

After signing a record deal, releasing three successful albums, and touring the world, there was still an aching nostalgia to return back to the place where it all started. Their fourth album Townie revisits the pivotal moments and places that shaped their youth.

During the pandemic, Sam, Casey, drummer Adam Levin, and guitarist/bassist Russ Flynn quarantined in a remote cabin in the Catskills and wrote together between meals cooked by Russ. 

“We had never really done a record that was like that. We had never done something that felt almost like a destination record, but it really needed it,” Sam explained. 

The result is their fourth and most personal album yet.

In the past, Sam had tried to be “as democratic as possible” and wanted “something to feel like everyone [in the band could] connect to.”

However, after working on projects with other artists, he “realized that the more hyper specific I get the more universal the message I think can become.”  

So when Sam was confronted with an “identity crisis” after reevaluating his life as a thirty something who had been part of a band for more than half of it, he turned to music.

“It gave me some time to look back on myself,” Sam said. Part of that self reflection was revisiting those notable locations from his own story. 

Whether it was their Mom’s house, their childhood home, which Casey is now the proud owner of, or the Sunoco gas station, which “early on became a symbol for [Sam] of this place and this record.” 

Sam went on to explain, “Growing up, we always used to meet up at gas stations, specifically this one Sunoco downtown. We’d meet up and then go from there off to someone’s house or some place in the woods, a party or whatever…And there was somebody there who was leaving school…there’d be somebody in their car getting ready to go off into the big bad world. And, we’d watch this happen all the time and, and we weren’t able to leave yet.” 

Another notable haunt is the three Dams. In Ithaca, “First Dam, Second Dam, and Third Dam are places where people go to swim, drink, smoke, and, uh, you know, copulate. They’re important fixtures in Ithaca,” Sam said. 

First Dam is the location of one of the most pivotal moments in Sam’s young life and the inspiration behind the stripped back track “(first dam).”

“When I was 13 and I was hanging out with a bunch of my friends, this kid threw a rock and it hit me in the face…and instantly broke my nose. I’m bleeding profusely, and I’ve also just started smoking weed for the first time, so I’m high, and my nose is bleeding, so I’m freaking out…The ambulance comes, the police are there too. So I’m bleeding. I’m paranoid. I think I’m going to get arrested.” 

As Sam wrote about the notable memory, he realized that there was more than just the comedy of it. “I think at the core of it, I maybe kind of liked some of the attention that I had when I was hurt and I needed help,” Sam revealed. 

“For that one moment. I was a see through boy no more. It’s kind of maybe why I do this for a living, you know. It’s like I put my pain on display. Why? Because I’m afraid of being invisible, I think.”

This desire to stand out was beyond just injury. It was also in the way he dressed. With big dreams of New York, he figured he’d dress for exactly where he wanted to be. So as a 14 year old, he decided to start rocking “hipster” bell bottoms from American Eagle, or “Women’s Jeans.” 

The song by the same name is kind of a “sleeper” for Sam who still relates to that 14 year old today. “I still feel like I’m putting on a costume and pretending I’m this responsible adult and I still feel like a kid inside… I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to check off a lot of boxes in my life that I had when I was that 14 year old kid, but it’s not exactly how I pictured it, you know, and I don’t feel any different. I don’t feel any more stable or accomplished.” 

A standout, and Sam’s favorite track off the record is “Follow The Sound of My Voice,” a tribute to his brother Casey who was born blind due to a genetic disorder called Senior-Løken syndrome.

Although it was a struggle for Sam to put his love for his brother into words, for Casey, this was a “window.”

“It’s interesting because, to me, it’s less a song about me. It’s more of a song about you…it’s a fascinating window on how you felt while we were growing up, and how you felt about our relationship over the past, and it’s a surprisingly universal message too. I think it ended up meaning a lot to a lot of people because while it’s pretty specific to our relationship as brothers, it’s really just people needing each other, people depending on each other, people loving each other, That’s really what humanity comes down to.” 

Taking an intimate look back at their “home” has given them new perspectives on themselves as people, as well as artists. “I think we’ve definitely learned a lot about ourselves and discovering this new sound …I feel like we’ve just continued to progress as musicians and producers and Sam as a songwriter, just continuing to grow and sort of challenging ourselves to sort of unmask ourselves with all the production,” said Casey. 

Although Sam doesn’t regret leaving Ithaca and pursuing his passions, he has a new found respect for the people that never left, the “Townies.”

“Now looking back, I think that it was a little naive of me to think that the people who decided to stay in my town, were making a bad decision or were missing out on something,” Sam said. “I  actually really have a lot of respect for people who stay in the towns where they grew up. I wanted to get out and I thought that would kind of fix my problems and it didn’t.”

However, Casey encourages people to travel and see as much of the world as they can. 

“I think it’s important for everyone, no matter who you are, to get out and see the world. Because the world’s a big, interesting, and very diverse, wild place. It really is everyone’s job to just see as much of it as you can. Then decide where you end up, where you belong. I mean, it may be back in your hometown, it may be somewhere completely different. No matter who you are, I think it’s very important to get out there and explore and find that out.”

Until then, Sam hopes “that there’s some kid in Ithaca, in upstate New York who listens to this record where I’m name checking a lot of places and locations in Ithaca and gets to hear that and feel seen and be like, ‘Oh man, I can’t believe that this band wrote a whole album about my town.’”