Photo: Tyler Jay Hanson
X Ambassadors Keyboardist Casey Harris On New Album 'The Beautiful Liar,' Creating Music In The New Norm & Making Music Tech Accessible For All
Casey Harris is one third of the alt-rock trio X Ambassadors, a band he formed with his brother and lead vocalist, Sam Harris. He's also been legally blind since birth.
In the band, Harris plays keyboards, but the lifelong musician also plays a fundamental role in their songwriting, producing and engineering. At times, he even provides the primary motivation for the direction XA takes with their projects.
That's no exception when it comes to their third full-length album, The Beautiful Liar, which will be released September 24th. In tribute to the sci-fi and fantasy audio dramas the brothers listened to growing up, The Beautiful Liar tells the story of Clementine, a blind teenager who struggles with anxiety, discovers her long-dormant superpowers and, eventually, attains self-acceptance.
The band also took songwriting inspiration from the state of the world during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the political unrest that unfolded in the U.S. under Trump's presidency, having to face an unpredictable future for their own careers as musicians and the entertainment industry overall.
We connected with Harris to learn more about X Ambassadors' creative process during the pandemic, pushing for inclusivity in the music industry and the satellite projects of The Beautiful Liar.
Casey Harris. Photo: Tyler Jay Hanson
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How have you been managing throughout the last year and change during one of the most difficult times in our history?
Yeah, I'm doing pretty good. I'm just sort of adjusting to not knowing things yet again. I mean it's crazy, you know, obviously everyone's dealing with this whole Delta variant and the lack of information on anything and everything, but [I'm] just trying to handle being safe with that.
Obviously, we're trying to get back to business, trying to get back to playing music, and that sort of thing, so it's a juggling act. It's been a while, too, because it's pretty much just been within this last month that we've suddenly kicked it back into gear. So, it's kind of zero to 100, but it's really, really been nice to rehearse and play music together again. I've forgotten how much I love doing that. It's really been great.
Despite that XA created and released several projects. What was it like going through the creative process during a global pandemic and political turmoil? Sam has said that was the inspiration for some of the songs on the new album.
Yeah very much so. Both [our multi-part, collaborative series] (Eg) and the EP were largely material that we were lucky enough to have recorded right before the pandemic hit—like, months to weeks beforehand.
And then, we all three know how to produce music, at least fairly well on our computers. Probably not me quite as well as, say, Adam, but we're all at least good enough that we can record ideas and cool-sounding parts and send them back and forth to each other and build a song out of it.
So we did a lot of that, taking the foundations of what we started before the pandemic and just doing that remotely. There have been technological ways to work around it, and to listen to what each other is doing. But it's still not that real time. It's not in the same room, seeing each other, so it's been a lot of adjusting there.
Honestly, that was so very much our writing style to have everyone in the room together. But yeah, we adapted it. I think for all of us, if anything it improved our skills as producers and as audio engineers and that kind of thing, which is probably something I needed to brush up on anyways, but yeah, we've been fairly productive I'd say over the last year, surprisingly so considering everything.
I think it's just because it's an outlet. When you're feeling trapped, claustrophobic, like the world is a dangerous, threatening place, at least you can go write music, go play music, and it makes you feel at least somewhat better. It helps you escape that for a minute.
I think that's one of the reasons why no matter what we're all three always making music. [Those technologies] made it at least possible to keep putting out material and keep putting material together.
This new album was phone calls and ironing out the details, and again, sending tracks back and forth for final production notes. Just a lot of back and forth. A lot of it was very much shaped by how kind of crazy and unpredictable and unknown everything was and that's very much how this album goes.
And the fact that everything just felt so bleak. This album, there's some hopeful moments on it, but a lot of it is kind of not bleak, but it very much does not shy away from the darkness of everything, of life, of love, of everything we've all been going through.
I think it's very representative of where we've all been over the past year-plus.
It seems like the inspiration behind this most recent body of work comes from some of your experiences growing up as a blind person. How do you translate your personal experiences into music and visual art? There's a companion podcast with this latest release. Tell me how that came about.
It varies so much. The songwriting always comes before any of the stuff surrounding it. But I think a lot of the time, the songwriting draws on some themes that me and my brother in particular have experienced throughout our lives.
[The Beautiful Liar companion] podcast and the whole theme of this girl with superpowers—me and my brother, ever since we were little, have been obsessed with superheroes and Marvel and all that. It's been kind of a lifelong thing.
We've always wanted to make our own comic series or something like that. I obviously have been more of an audio books and podcast kind of person, so it wasn't one of those "ah-ha" moments. It was a no-brainer moment when we thought, "Oh why don't we make a podcast that's like a comic book?"
The story just organically came together. I mean we knew we wanted it to be about someone who was blind, a blind character, mainly because no one has really done that since Daredevil. We wanted it to be sort of a coming of age story, something very personal and very relatable, but also have this superhero element to it.
A lot of the story just came from the songs. We didn't necessarily have the story in mind while we were writing the songs. But when you listen to them in a certain order, they string together and they tell a natural story.
It's really a story of, I guess when you come right down to it, trust, betrayal, and finding out who you can and cannot trust, and who really does care about you. Also, finding out what harm, unfortunately, people who do care about you but make the wrong choices can do.
A lot of it is a story about self-discovery and discovery about where you fit in the world. I'm really proud of it. It's been a long, arduous process getting it together, but we finally started recording. We're actually getting actors' voices on audio files now, so it's really exciting.
It's a separate piece from the album but it's a companion piece, it uses the songs from the album throughout as a soundtrack and as part of the storyline as well. We're still working on plans of how we want to release it, but it will be available on all major streaming platforms. It'll be a way to deepen people's understanding of the album and the stories behind it between the songs. It's really coming together and I'm excited for the world to hear it.
It seems like you guys really got your creative juices flowing during the pandemic and that you were able to find ways to pursue projects that you'd maybe dreamt of doing but previously didn't have the time to do.
If anything, the pandemic has forced us all to spend more time focused on our personal and private lives. In a weird way, especially when it comes to music, I think spending some time with your nose not to the grindstone somehow results in more creative, more inspired material.
We're just around the corner from National Disability Awareness Month. How do you think being an artist with accessibility needs has shaped and impacted your experience in the music industry?
It sounds funny to say, but oddly, it wasn't quite as much of an issue in the olden days. Back when we were just a band slugging it out on the road, I would schlep my keyboards around. Obviously there were challenges like finding my way around venues and that sort of thing, but we all made do.
One thing I really started to discover during the pandemic is how inaccessible a lot of audio recording and production tools are for blind and visually impaired people in particular. Because, ironically enough, it's all incredibly visual. Even though you're ostensibly doing something with an auditory medium, the way the programs and most audio tools are laid out is extremely visualized.
A few months back, I did an interview with Vision Australia Radio. Afterward, one of the hosts asked me what my tips and tricks and techniques were for editing audio and audio processing on the computer when you can't really see very well. We had a whole back-and-forth discussion.
That's unfortunately become one of my biggest gripes with, I suppose, the music industry, but the music tech industry in particular. I've actually been throwing around the idea of trying to team up with a software company to try to address this.
It really is crazy how difficult it is to do professional audio production and editing when you're visually impaired.
Do you have any suggestions for companies who are trying to lead the charge in making the industry more inclusive? It sounds like a good place to start would be organizing and leading conversations with music tech industry executives about the current limitations on their tools and how that's impacting creators with disabilities.
Absolutely. I know that with current technology, it's very possible and very doable. It just takes the motivation and having those conversations and getting those people to actually pay some attention and focus coding on these issues. So, yeah, I think that's a good place to start.
The Beautiful Liar tour this fall is said to feature a "multi-sensory live show." What can fans expect to experience at one of these shows?
Unfortunately, right now, I can't give any specifics. First, because I don't want to give anything away, but also with the Delta variant, tour planning is very much in flux right now.
We have started to do rehearsals to prepare for it. We've always toyed with this idea as a band to have dramatic sets, in the sense of where it's almost kind of like a Broadway show with different sections and themes and vibes to it. I think that's even more the case this time.
For instance, we're going to have two separate sections to the set. The first section will be the brighter—not necessarily more optimistic—but the brighter more upbeat section, and lighting and music will all reflect that.
And as the story progresses, we'll get to the second half of the set where the lighting and the vibe and the music will all change. That half is focused more on the shadow and the slightly more sinister side of the album and the story.
It's going to be a whole journey. I can't wait to play this tour. You'll walk out of there feeling like you've taken a trip.
Any last thoughts you'd like to share with readers?
Stay tuned for upcoming releases. We've got songs coming out. We've got so many songs we've been sitting on, just waiting for proper music videos and other material like that to go with them and we're finishing all that up right now. So, be prepared!