AltPop hitmakers X Ambassadors hit the road ahead of the release of their anticipated ‘Joyful’ album

Despite the current focus on singles, keyboardist Casey Harris says the band was mindful of making the new full-length a larger, cohesive artistic statement

X Ambassadors’ fans have gone almost three years since the release of VHS, the album that thrust the group from Ithaca, N.Y. into the Pop spotlight behind the hits “Renegades,” “Jungle” and “Unsteady.” But by no means have those fans been left empty handed while waiting for a follow-up album. In just the past 12 months, the group has released six singles.

click to enlarge X Ambassadors - Photo: Catie Laffoon
Photo: Catie Laffoon
X Ambassadors

That’s an interesting approach to take when following up a breakthrough hit album — and it may be the wave of the future, especially for major-label acts. The new music is first parceled out in a series of singles, while the album is saved for release at some to-be-determined point, perhaps after a single starts to make noise online, on radio or on a streaming service, or to create anticipation for a major tour.

Whatever the strategy, X Ambassadors keyboardist Casey Harris is fine with a shift in focus toward singles. He said it suits a group like X Ambassadors that always has new songs in the works.

“We’re always writing material and we always just want to put out material for people to hear,” he says. “We have so much material that we’re sitting on that it was practically leaking out our ears. We sort of had to release tracks to relieve a little bit of the pressure at some points. But we also want to find out, to be honest, what people like. I feel like the best way to do that is to write tracks that we like and release them and see what people think.”

Harris also believes putting out singles aligns with how music gets heard these days.

“With everyone listening on streaming services and on their phones, and as important as radio still is, I would say the singles-focused market is purely driven by streaming, because playlists and (the way) people jumble (them),” he says. “People are really listening to single tracks by different artists. It’s really powerful because you have a higher chance of at least getting some of your material heard if it happens to be on a ‘what’s new’ playlist or whatnot.”

Of the post-VHS singles that were released last year, including “Hoping,” “Torches” and “The Devil You Know,” only “Ahead of Myself” made much of a chart impact, going Top 10 on Billboard’s Adult Alternative chart and Top 15 on the Alternative Songs and Rock Airplay charts. Riding the momentum of “Ahead of Myself,” the singles released so far this year — “Joyful” and “Don’t Stay” (from January and February, respectively) — have scored airplay and received positive feedback from fans.

Meanwhile, the next X Ambassadors album remains in something of a holding pattern. Titled Joyful, Harris says it is essentially finished, with 13 songs in place (including the two singles from this year), but “spring 2018” is as precise of a “release date” given so far.

Even with the band’s pivot to releasing single songs, the musicians have still been mindful of making the new album a larger, cohesive artistic statement instead of just a collection of unrelated singles.

“We always have the album in focus whenever we’re thinking about releasing singles these days, because the album is really the centerpiece of our writing from the past year or so,” Harris says. “The songs (on Joyful) do sort of run a story arc. I don’t want to give away really what that it is, because it should be obvious when you listen to the album itself. But it definitely runs a story arc and is of a theme.”

Musically, Harris didn’t offer many clues about how Joyful compares to the Hip Hop-inflected Pop Rock of VHS, but he seems confident that fans of the previous album will like what they hear on the new one.

“As much as I love VHS and still really love playing that material live, this album is musically and songwriting-wise — and performance-wise and production-wise — head and shoulders above where VHS was,” he says.

But fans liked VHS just fine. The album went Gold, while “Renegades” was a platinum single and “Unsteady” went double platinum. It was a nice payoff for a band that had waited a good while for its moment in the spotlight. Formed in 2009 by Harris and his brother Sam (vocals/guitar), drummer Adam Levin and longtime friend and guitarist Noah Feldshuh (who has since left the group), X Ambassadors initially based itself out of New York City, where the group gradually gained a local following.

In 2012, the band independently released a single, “Unconsolable,” which started getting radio play on a station in Norfolk, Va., where it was heard by Dan Reynolds, frontman of Imagine Dragons. Reynolds tipped off producer/songwriter Alex Da Kid to the band and soon X Ambassadors was signed to Kid’s KIDinaKORNER imprint, which is distributed by major label Interscope. X Ambassadors then went to work on VHS, with Kid producing.

Despite no clear release date for the album, the band’s just-launched road jaunt is dubbed “The Joyful Tour.” Running through mid-June, X Ambassadors’ set list will vary somewhat from night to night, with a mix of songs from VHS, the recent singles and at least a couple of yet-to-be-released tracks from Joyful. Throughout the tour, the core trio is joined by an additional guitarist, as well as three backing singers.

“It’s really incredible having them all playing with us,” Harris says of the auxiliary Ambassadors. “I love having a stage full of lots of people.”

Harris is loving life offstage, as well. In March, he married his girlfriend of five years, Olivia. And life in X Ambassadors is better than ever for the keyboardist, who has been visually impaired since birth, finding his passion as a child via a piano in the family home. He later graduated from the School of Piano Technology for the Blind and was a professional piano tuner up until X Ambassadors’ career skyrocketed.

“It’s amazing. I honestly don’t know what I’d be doing with my life if I wasn’t in this band,” Harris says. “We’re all like family now. We know each other so well — we spend way too much time with each other. But we’re really close. We know how each other works. We know what makes each other tick at this point. I can’t tell you how grateful and how lucky I feel to have had a band that’s remained this close and this constant for so long.

“And I’m grateful that me and my brother get along so well. He’s my rock, you know, he’s the best — him and my wife, of course. Yeah, it’s pretty incredible.”

X Ambassador s play Bogart’s on Sunday, April 22. Tickets/more show info:


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