Need a few tips on how to navigate the modern music ecosystem? One option is a conversation with Sam Nelson Harris.
As the frontman for alternative band X Ambassadors, Harris has seen three of his band’s songs hit the top 20 on the pop charts through high-profile placements in commercials (“Renegades,” which scored the 2015 Jeep Renegade campaign), films (2016’s “Sucker for Pain” from “Suicide Squad”) and trailers (“Unsteady,” for the sleeper hit “Me Before You”). The group’s current single, “Boom,” from this summer’s newly released second album “Orion,” hit the rock charts this year on the strength of multiple high-profile synch placements, including ESPN’s 2019 NBA promos.
And as a writer/producer for hire, Harris has seen his stock rise considerably this year after his work on three standout cuts for Lizzo’s blockbuster debut album “Cuz I Love You” and co-writes on seven of the 14 tracks on the all-star compilation “For the Throne: Music Inspired by the HBO Series Game of Thrones,” many of which he also co-produced with his fellow X Ambassadors bandmates.
It’s the unexpected moonlighting gigs where Harris takes the most pride, having helped X Ambassadors achieve the rarity of being credited as a band on their production work rather than their individual names.
“I really love that we can put the band’s name as credited as producers on another song,” says Harris. “That’s something I haven’t really seen with a band. You don’t look at a record and see ‘Produced by U2,’ or ‘Produced by the Rolling Stones.’ I will still write stuff for other artists and be created as Sam Nelson Harris, but I think it’s really exciting for me to be able to redefine what being a band is in 2019.”
Harris will continue to defy expectations next year when he joins the all-star cast of Casablanca Records’ founder Neil Bogart biopic “Spinning Gold” as Kiss’ Paul Stanley, appearing alongside Samuel L. Jackson (as George Clinton), Kenan Thompson (as Berry Gordy), Jason Derulo (as Ron Isley), Jazmine Sullivan (as Gladys Knight) and Neil Patrick Harris (as Kiss co-manager Bill Aucoin), among many others.
Songs for Screens caught up with Harris on the eve of X Ambassadors’ fall tour to talk about the long journey to the band’s second album, writing for Lizzo and “Game of Thrones,” and why synch has played a crucial role in the band’s “lifeline.” The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s been four years since the first X Ambassadors album, “VHS.” What role did synch play in getting “Orion” past the finish line?
Harris: It was a struggle, man, for lots of different reasons. I think first and foremost, we really wanted to put something out that felt like it was a truly identity-defining record for us. Not something that was a departure for the sake of being a departure, or that was too familiar for safety’s sake and being afraid to try new things.
But also, honestly, the landscape has changed a lot. When we had “VHS” come out on the tail end of the success of “Renegades” being in the Jeep campaign, and then a year later with “Unsteady” and “Me Before You,” that really helped drive our music to radio and a little bit of streaming, which was still fairly new then. It’s still really hard, but we’re starting to see “Boom” getting a lot of placements now which is really exciting, and we’re hoping to get some more for some other songs in TV and film. It’s harder now just because there is so much out there and so much is driven by streaming and by creating a personality around music. We got very lucky with the exposure brought to us through synch.
You’re known for making very emotive, sensitive-guy rock music with X Ambassadors. So on paper, I’m sure a lot of fans were surprised to see that you co-wrote and produced three songs on the Lizzo album. How did that collaboration come about?
First of all, I love hearing that: “Really? X Ambassadors? She did a song with those guys?” I love that surprise, that tickles me. I love her. From the moment I heard her two and a half years ago, with the “Coconut Oil” EP of songs, I fell in love with like “Good As Hell” and then her subsequent singles when she was releasing “Water Me” and “Truth Hurts,” which came out so long ago. I was just fully smitten, and I thought she was the most exciting artist I’d heard in a really long time.
I said to our manager “Please figure out a way to get us in the studio with her.” And eventually it happened. And you know, she had been in rock bands in her life in Texas and in Minneapolis, so she gets the dynamic. We had this very strange kind of connection, and I’m so proud of the work she’s done on this record that we’ve done together. I feel like there’s some justice in this world that she is getting the attention she deserves.
Which song came first in your sessions together?
The first song we wrote together was “Jerome.” That was the magic right there. We walked into this room not knowing each other at all and came up with this song about this guy that she dated during the summer, and we just kind of connected on it. It was wild. And on the second day we wrote “Heaven Help Me,” and at the very end of the day we wrote “Cuz I Love You” in an hour. It’s a testament to her and being so genuine and being in a room full of three dudes that she’d never met before, and it was so raw and fun, I felt like a kid in a candy store for those two days together.
You also added Maren Morris, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, SZA and many other buzzy artists to your collab roster through your work on “For The Throne: Music Inspired By The HBO Series Game Of Thrones.” How did you get involved with that project in such a deep way?
It was a very random turn of events. We had already started working with Ricky Reed as the executive producer on our album, and were just starting to wrap things up. A couple months previous, I had sent a demo of our song called “Baptize Me” to an A&R at Columbia because I was just frustrated that we weren’t able to shop some songs to other artists. That song got forwarded to the head of A&R, who was also working with Ricky and he showed it to him like, “Do you know this guy Sam from X Ambassadors?” And Ricky was like, “Yeah I’m working with them now.” They liked the demo so much they wanted to use it as kind of a blueprint sonically for what this soundtrack could be.
So Ricky and I started working on songs together, and I think on the first day we came up with the demo for “Kingdom Of One,” which later became the song that Maren Morris ended up singing. And from the get-go, I think Ricky and I share a passion for the show and excitement about the possibilities thematically that we could write about. It was so vast and epic and incredibly fun for me to tackle creatively.
You were recently announced as part of the cast for “Spinning Gold,” the long-in-the-works Neil Bogart biopic. Will we see you perform in that?
I play Paul Stanley from Kiss, both in and out of makeup, so I’ll be recording some Kiss songs, and I think they’re putting out a soundtrack of it. So music and film is definitely still in my life in an in-front-of-the-camera way now. I’ve been acting since I was a little kid, so it’s great to get back to it.
Now that album number two is finally out in the world, what’s next for X Ambassadors?
We’re going out on the “Orion” tour starting in October, and playing a couple festivals and shows here and there. We’re also writing new material. We’ve learned the lesson of not second guessing ourselves so much from the time it took to put this record out, so we want to get started on that as soon as we can.
The repeated success of multiple X Ambassadors songs in the synch world has become a modern case study in how to break through the clutter. What has that meant to you as an artist?
It really is so invaluable. The synch world has just done so much for us a band, and it’s in our lifeline. It’s always been and hopefully will continue to be. I’ve always loved particularly film and television, and I think that’s shown in our music. My dad is a unit publicist and has worked in the film industry for 30, 40 years, so it’s not something we take for granted. But really for any band, especially an independent artist and alternative artist, it is so crucial and can really help put food on the table and increase exposure in an oversaturated market. It does a lot.
Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by music experiential agency MAC Presents, based in NYC. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.