Sam Harris of X Ambassadors didn’t know that what was first a simple phrase — “breathe out, breathe in / American oxygen” — would turn into one of the hottest songs out right now. “American Oxygen,” the latest single from Rihanna’s forthcoming R8 album, was in the works for over a year before it dropped. When it did, Sam, who penned the song, was both “impressed and satisfied” with his creation’s success.
We talked with Sam about the songwriting process behind “American Oxygen,” his working relationship with British producer Alex Da Kid, and his upcoming VHS album with X Ambassadors—which drops on June 23. Find out what Sam had to say about each of these, and check out the lyric video for “Renegades,” X Ambassadors’ latest single, below.
It took you over a year to write “American Oxygen.” How did that process go?
It was a real labor of love. I originally had an idea for a chorus over a beat Alex sent me. It was just a rough idea, the words “breathe out, breathe in / American oxygen.” Over the next six months, I would sit and try new things to expand upon it. I’d send them to Alex, and he’d help me chip away at it. After the hook was done, he played it for Ri and she loved it. She and Alex had the idea to make it an immigrant’s story. Both of them came to this country with next to nothing and both really embody what the American Dream is. I helped put their concept into words and melody. I think I did three different versions of those two verses. All in all, the whole thing took a little over a year.
What inspired the song?
I wanted to paint a picture of this country — of what it is, what it could be. People have seen America as the land of opportunity for so many years, and in many ways it still is, but there are so many problems that are finally coming to a head. We sweep a lot of things under the rug here, and live under the illusion that our society is so much more advanced than the rest of the world. Bruce Springsteen is a hero of mine and he does a great job of expressing that in his songwriting. His songs are protest songs, and yet still very patriotic. That’s what I wanted to accomplish with “American Oxygen.”
What is your relationship with Alex Da Kid like?
He’s incredible. He pushes me to work harder than I’ve ever worked before. I’ve always felt I was a hard worker, but I never thought I’d be able to accomplish what I’ve been able to in the past two years since we signed with him. We were introduced to Alex through the guys in Imagine Dragons. They had heard about us down in Norfolk, Virginia, where we were getting some radio play, and showed our music to him. From there, he and I met for dinner and spent the whole night talking music. Immediately, we got each other. We got the whole band in a room with him for two weeks and we made our first EP, Love Songs Drug Songs.
How did you pitch “American Oxygen” to Rihanna?
That was all Alex. I don’t know how he worked his magic, but I know he had worked with her and Skylar Grey on “Love the Way You Lie,” which became a massive hit for her. I think she trusted him, and she just loved the song.
You never actually met Rihanna while writing the song. Did that make the process harder?
Nah. I do most of my songwriting alone, separate from the artist. It allows me to get my full ideas out, and then Alex and I work on editing those ideas together, usually via text and email. I’m sure I’ll meet her soon, though.
You hadn’t heard the final version of the song until it dropped. What was your reaction when you heard it for the first time?
I woke up to it, and it was the first thing I had heard that day. It was like a huge weight had been lifted off of me. I was so impressed and satisfied.
Did you have any input on the making of the music video?
No, that was all Ri and her team. The video is what makes the song mean so much. With everything that’s happened in the last year — in Ferguson with Michael Brown, in New York with Eric Garner, what’s happening in Baltimore right now with Freddie Gray, this video is extremely relevant. It also sheds light on all the things that have made the United States so great, and all the things we’ve yet to do together. Change is starting to happen, but we have to look at what still needs fixing.
What made this a Rihanna song and not an X Ambassadors song?
Usually when I write with Alex, we have no idea where the song is gonna go until it’s finished. With “American Oxygen,” the song wasn’t even finished before I heard that Rihanna wanted it. How could I say no? There was never a question in my mind. She’s amazing and I was honored that she’d ever wanna sing something I’d written.
Can you give us any more details on X Ambassadors’ upcoming album?
The album is the story of us, a band of brothers. Casey [Harris] and I are the only blood brothers in the band, but Noah [Feldshuh] and I have been best friends since we were five years old. Adam [Levin] we’ve known for almost a decade. We basically all grew up together, so we had all this home video footage of us as kids, as teenagers, and then finally, footage of us as young adults trying to make the music thing work. We cut audio from those videos and put clips throughout the record, as interludes, like so many hip-hop records we grew up loving. I wanted the album to be a reflection of our relationship as a band of brothers, and about growing up. I was really influenced by two movies: Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines and Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Cianfrance’s beautifully dark picture of Upstate New York, where we grew up, combined with the simplicity and intimacy of Linklater’s film was the atmosphere I wanted to create with this record. Sounds weird, ’cause I’m comparing film to music, but that’s where it all came from.
You’re touring with Milky Chance this summer. How did that come about?
Our management and booking agent chased them for a while, trying to get us to tour together. I guess persistence and hard work gets you places!
Stay tuned for the release of X Ambassadors’ VHS album this summer.