Sam Harris has a special connection to Central New York. In 2009, he formed the band that would take him around the world, indie rock quartet X Ambassadors, in his hometown of Ithaca, NY. X Ambassadors began as the union of lead singer Harris, his brother Casey on keyboards, guitarist Noah Feldshuh and drummer Adam Levin, and for a while it was just four friends having fun in Ithaca. But after several EPs and opening act gigs, X Ambassadors released their full-length debut VHS in 2015 – an album that would change the course of the band forever.
The next two years saw the band obtain a high-profile spot on a Beats by Dre commercial, two Platinum singles in “Renegades” and “Unsteady,” and headliner performances everywhere from Madison Square Garden to Mexico City to Prague. Harris has seen himself transform from a local staple of Ithaca to a global figure, and has gotten used to the rigorous fitness regimen and diet restrictions mandated by life on the road (excepting the occasional Wheat Thin or Tostitos binge).
But on September 23, Harris is returning to Ithaca with a brand new music festival, Cayuga Sound, curated and headlined by X Ambassadors. To Harris, this festival is his way of giving back to the town that raised him.
“To be able to bring a music festival like Cayuga Sound back home feels like a big win for the music lovers in town,” said Harris. “I hope that, at least for a brief second, the people of Ithaca feel like they’re at the center of something special.”
Ithaca is a town that fosters young creativity and learning. Ivy League giant Cornell occupies its Northeast corner, while Ithaca College looms over from the city’s South Hill. But despite its status as a bonafide college town, Ithaca is far from a bustling metropolis – the town’s population barely tops 30,000, and the nearest major city, Syracuse, is still over 50 miles away. While some may see this seclusion as restrictive, Harris sees it as liberating.
“Because Ithaca was pretty isolated, we had the freedom to experiment with our sound and figure out how to build something out of almost nothing,” said Harris. “No one was playing the type of music we were playing, so we had to build our own shows, book ourselves, promote ourselves, and play whenever and wherever we could. I also think the isolation motivated us to write big songs; music that would reach far and wide, that would touch people all over the world.”
Ithaca apparently taught them well, as X Ambassadors’ style has drawn in fans from every corner of the globe. The band’s musical sound involves a unique blend of traditional rock instrumentation with some 21st century electronica (think Imagine Dragons), with echoes of operatic, Bastille-esque vocal harmonies. But the band’s trademark is found in Harris’s vocals. The lead singer’s ability to effortlessly switch from rugged, folksy soul to thunderous, soaring heights from track to track transfixes listeners from the first listen. His massive vocal range, at times reminiscent of a young Jeff Buckley, never ceases to surprise and impress.
X Ambassadors further stands out from their indie-rocker peers with their lyrical content, which often displays a negative tone rarely seen from artists that are no strangers to the Top 40. VHS lyrics like “I’m a little unsteady,” “I’m nothing but a low life,” and “I get nervous when I’m happy” reflect an inner sense of paranoia and self-doubt within their writers. Even their new single, “Ahead of Myself,” is a self-critical look at a soured relationship.
“It’s all just me trying to be my own therapist,” explained Harris. “I think it’s important to be vulnerable and reveal all different aspects of myself, good and bad. Why would I ever want my music to be one-dimensional? That would take all the life out of it. Nobody’s a saint, and everyone’s just trying to get by in this world. It’s my job as an artist to reflect human behavior, not try and rise above it.”
Of course, it’s not all gloom and doom for X Ambassadors. Harris is a self-proclaimed comic book fan and “film geek”, instilled by his father’s work in the movie industry, and enjoys throwing pop-culture references (like comparing a person in a tough situation to Indiana Jones in “Hang On”) into his lyrics. Their first big hit, “Renegades,” is a powerful anthem for living life to the fullest.
Despite their success, X Ambassadors takes no issue with sharing the spotlight. VHS prominently features lesser-known British singer and labelmate Jamie N Commons on several songs. A deluxe edition of the album features performances by rapper A$AP Ferg – “he’s one of the most underrated rappers out there right now” – and former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello – “that was a total dream come true…he’s a real hero of ours.” It’s clear that the small-town humility has not left Harris, as his response to who his “dream” collaborator would be is Minnesotan rapper/singer Lizzo, whose single “Water Me” is an X Ambassadors favorite.
This humble, small-town mentality has led X Ambassadors to come back home, and create an event for Ithaca that is purely their own. Cayuga Sound will be a multistage festival in Ithaca’s Stewart Park on September 23, with X Ambassadors and the Roots co-headlining on the main stage. The rest of the acts are a collection of X Ambassadors favorites that the band was more than excited to recruit for the show.
“We wanted the lineup of artists on the bill to reflect our own tastes and musical influences, as well as the broadening spectrum of music we’re all listening to on a daily basis,” said Harris. “We could not be happier with the acts who have agreed to play, and I can’t wait to watch all of them myself.”
X Ambassadors’ roller-coaster journey will not end in Ithaca. The band is constantly working on new music, and while following up a successful debut is no doubt a daunting task, any fans afraid of a mere VHS rehash can rest easy.
“With VHS, we proved to ourselves that we could write hit songs,” said Harris. “On this next record, we’re attempting to show that not only can we write hit songs, but present them in our own unique way – in a way that only we are capable of doing. These new songs are us at our best and the most ‘ourselves.’ I think we’ve created much more of an identity on this record than on the last one. The next step is to prove that to the whole world.”
Proving their identity to the world will not be easy, but X Ambassadors has long proved it to their hometown. When they take the stage at Cayuga Sound, the band will be reunited with their former neighbors, classmates, and peers that have been with them since their origin. On September 23, Sam Harris will feel that bond with Central New York again – a bond shared whether you are a Syracuse University student or a young kid from Ithaca.