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Going solo: X Ambassadors frontman Sam Nelson Harris returns to Ithaca for State Theatre benefit show

Sam Nelson Harris
Sam Nelson Harris

The State Theatre of Ithaca will host the inaugural “Benefit My State Variety Hour” on Wednesday night, showcasing an array of acts that have a connection to the downtown venue.

Headlining the show is Ithaca native Sam Nelson (aka Sam Nelson Harris), co-founder with his brother Casey Harris of the rock band X Ambassadors, which has scored several hits – “Unsteady,” “Renegades,” “Jungle,” and more – over the past decade. He also has written, co-written, or produced songs for other major acts, including Rihanna, Lizzo, Travis Scott, The Weeknd, SZA, and Maren Morris.

Now based in Los Angeles, Harris is stoked to return to his hometown, and to the venue that X Ambassadors sold out in 2016. He’s especially excited because he just released his first solo album (under the name Sam Nelson); it's titled “why does everything make me cry?” which he describes as “about Love. Doubt. Communication. Asking yourself some hard questions.”

“To be able to come back there and play the State by myself on an acoustic guitar is really exciting to me,” Harris said. “I obviously had such an incredible time playing there with the whole band, but this time will feel so much more intimate and personal.”

In a recent interview, Harris talked about coming back to Ithaca, his new album, X Ambassadors’ latest projects, his acting aspirations, and much more.

Q: I really like your new solo album. But I feel like I needed to give you a big hug after listening to it. Did something happen in your personal life? Did you and your wife Tess Harrison split up?

SNH: Oh, Tess and I are still very much together. It’s just over the pandemic we were specifically forced very close together, like a lot of couples, and had to grapple with some things. That’s kind of the way it goes if you're in a committed partnership and cohabitating with someone – you have to ask these hard questions about yourself, and you have to figure out how to communicate with each other. And that is a challenge. You're two different people, you have two different love languages, and you have to learn how to get on the same page.

But also, I just love songs about heartbreak. I don't know why, but I’m just drawn to them. So this record was my opportunity to kind of scratch that itch. And I have definitely had my fair share of it in my life. I'm lucky that in my romantic relationship, we have maintained a strong foundation for as long as we have been together, about 13 years now. But I have had many, many people break my heart throughout my life – friends, colleagues – so I relate to the songs about heartbreak, even if they're not necessarily about situations similar to the ones that I've been through. Those songs are so cathartic to me. So I wanted to compile something that felt like a bomb to my soul. And that's what those songs do.

Q: Did you make the record all by yourself?

SNH: It was a kind of two-hander between myself and my friend Henry Was. I also worked with a couple of other producers, and we started the demos together, and there's another guy, Noah Conrad, for one more song. But for the most part, it was me and Henry. And my buddy Sam did some direction on “Crash.”

But with every one of them, I took them back to my little studio in the back of my house, and just kind of worked out the songs in the room right there. And I really liked the way that room sounded. I wanted the whole album to kind of feel like someone put an iPhone down in the corner of a room when someone was playing and captured this magical moment. I wanted to try and capture that vibe throughout, and I think we did it. I mixed a lot of the songs myself, too this is a very DIY process – and I'm really proud of the way it sounds.

Q: Did you do all the vocals and harmonies yourself?

SNH: That's all my voice on everything except the first track, “Give Me Hell,” which also has Madi Diaz. It was so awesome to sing with her. I've been such a fan of hers for so long, and we've been really good friends for a long time, but this is the first thing we've done together. It felt really good.

Q: You toured solo in Australia earlier this year, opening up for the Vamps. Was going out there all by yourself intimidating?

SNH: It's funny, I actually have done it more than I thought I had. I was going into that tour with the Vamps thinking that I was going to be so unprepared. But the reality was that I’ve played a lot of these acoustic solo gigs at private events, sometimes in lieu of the entire band going because maybe they can't afford to bring all of us out. So I’d go out and play a bunch of X Ambassadors songs by myself. I've done that quite a lot. Not all of them have been long sets – most of them are usually just playing three or four songs acoustically at radio stations. But those gigs gave me some good practice for playing solo.

Q: But playing in front of a big audience seems like another thing completely.

SNH: It's gonna be really interesting for me. I'm playing these tiny clubs and they're selling out, and I'm so excited and so grateful because it feels like the start of something new. If I was on tour with the band playing tiny clubs, I'd probably be pretty disappointed because we were selling out large theaters recently. But now that I'm starting this project, it all feels so good and exciting.

I am a little daunted by the fact that I'm asked to play an hour just by myself, without anyone behind me, but I think that I feel better about it knowing that tickets have been selling well, and people will be coming out to the shows who want to hear the music. That always puts me in a much more confident, comfortable position.

Q: What’s the status of the next X Ambassadors album?

SNH: The next X Ambassadors record is done. We were in Ithaca earlier this year shooting all this content for it. We’re going to start rolling songs out from it, probably toward the end of the year.

But before that, we are putting a bunch of other music out, too. We have this collaborations project called “(Eg)" that we're doing the next season of this year.
[(Eg) is a brand of single releases by X Ambassadors, intended to highlight their roles as writers and producers.] We have three more collaborations coming. which we're really excited to announce – the first one is coming up very soon.

That's going to carry us through the summer. And when fall starts, we'll start putting out songs from the new record, and then release the whole record out probably at the top of next year.

X Ambassadors: from left, Adam Levine, Casey Harris, Sam Nelson Harris.
X Ambassadors: from left, Adam Levine, Casey Harris, Sam Nelson Harris.

Q: X Ambassadors created and hosted Cayuga Sound, “a festival for the city of Ithaca,” at Stewart Park in 2017 and 2018. Any plans to bring it back at some point?

SNH: We’d love to make it happen again, it's really just a matter of money and planning. Thankfully, I don't have to do a lot of the heavy lifting – a lot of it is done by Dan Smalls and our manager Seth Kallen. But we in the band are always asking them, ‘Hey, guys, do you think we're going to be able to do this again?’ So we’re doing everything that we can to make it happen again. It probably won't happen this year – it’s a little late in the game – but we are definitely looking at next year as a possibility to try and come back.

Q: You played Paul Stanley of Kiss in “Spinning Gold,” a biopic of Neil Bogart, who co-founded Casablanca Records in the 1970s. Do you think you'll pursue more acting roles?

SNH: Yeah, I mean, I'm in the grinder right now, putting myself out there. I'm making a lot of practice tapes, and I've got some really great representation that is trying to find some angles for me. I would love to do more acting. That's where I started – before I was even in a band, I was acting.

Q: Speaking of acting, what has it been like to see your brother-in-law (and former Ithacan) Will Harrison land a big role on “Daisy Jones & The Six”?

SNH: We're all so proud of him. He just came back to L.A. – he's been in New York doing a play out there – and the other night I was just gushing to him about how great he is. And he really deserves it – he’s an incredible actor and an incredible soul. I told him, “It’s great to see who you are – your kindness, tenderness, and vulnerability – shine so brightly through in that role.” It just made me so proud and happy, and Tess is so proud, too.

They also have a new movie that Tess wrote, directed, and starred in opposite Will. It's called “This is a Film About My Mother,” and it just become available to stream last week.

If you go

What: “Benefit My State Variety Hour”

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, May 17

Where: State Theatre of Ithaca

Cost: $25 ($75 for VIP Package), available online here and at the State Box Office

Event Info

Read more about the “Benefit My State Variety Hour” here!

X Ambassadors perform to a sold-out crowd at the 2016 "Benefit My State" show. Frontman Sam Nelson Harris will return for a solo performance this year.
Casey Martin
State Theatre of Ithaca Inc.
X Ambassadors perform to a sold-out crowd at the 2016 "Benefit My State" show. Frontman Sam Nelson Harris will return for a solo performance this year.

Jim Catalano covers the Finger Lakes music scene for WITH (90.1 FM in Ithaca, and its affiliates.