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Alt-rock band X Ambassadors returns home to Ithaca, honors local educator in new album

X Ambassadors Adam Levin, Casey Harris and Sam Nelson Harris
Sacks and Co.
The X Ambassadors pictured from the left, Adam Levin, Casey Harris and Sam Nelson Harris

The alt-rock group  X Ambassadors dedicated their latest music video to Ithaca educator, Todd Peterson, who passed away in 2021.

Two members of the band are from Ithaca and shot the video in their hometown. 

Sam Nelson Harris is lead vocalist for the band, which found international success with songs like “Unsteady”, “Home” and “Renegades”.

Harris told WSKG’s Aurora Berry the band is returning to upstate New York with new music, reflecting on the people and places in Ithaca that shaped them artistically and personally.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Aurora Berry: I want to talk a little bit about Todd Peterson. Who was he to you? What part did he play in your life as a performer?

Sam Nelson Harris: Todd was my teacher. He was kind of like a mentor to me growing up. He worked at the elementary school I went to growing up, Belle Sherman Elementary School.

He was always with us kids, everywhere. If we got in trouble, you were going to see Todd, but he was also on the playground with us hanging out.

He really was an incredible, incredible person.

He found out that I could sing. He convinced me to sing at this fifth grade play that we did about women's suffrage. I sang the song “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” while these two kids danced ballet on stage.

I was so nervous. I couldn't actually be on stage. I stood by the side of the stage with my microphone, and no one could see my face.

He was the first person who was like, “You're doing this.” There was no question. He was like, “You're gonna do this, and you're gonna be great. You're gonna sound great. You're gonna do it.”

And then I did it. And he was like, “See, what did I tell you?”

He was a very, very monumental figure in my life. He taught me so much about what I know about performing and gave me so much confidence as a young person to do that.

My story is not unique, he had such a huge impact on so many other kids.

It sounds like he was really supportive and proud of you. How did he feel once X Ambassadors started taking off?

He was so proud.

We came back to visit him around the time when we put on this festival called Cayuga Sound at Stewart Park.

We went back to visit him at Belle Sherman and he had pictures of us all in his office. He was so proud and still he had that same kind of Todd attitude. Like, you know, “Don't get too big for your britches, Sam.”

He would give me that attitude and it was very sweet.

There was definitely a part of me as the years went on, I don’t know… I’d get annoyed when he would say, “Don't forget about us little people. Don't forget about us. Why don't you call me back?”

It’s so shameful for me to admit this but I started kind of just avoiding his calls and his texts. I actively kind of avoided him towards the end.

When I heard that he had passed, I was just so distraught and so torn up. I just wished that I could have thanked him for everything that he did for me and for being the incredible human being that he was.

That's kind of what I was trying to grapple with in the song “Your Town”, that I wrote for him. It’s me struggling with my own sense of guilt for leaving him behind and trying to celebrate this incredible person that I knew.

What do you think people outside of Ithaca should know about Todd?

Todd was a queer, black man from upstate New York who was so unabashedly himself. He just walked through the world with so much confidence and poise and light and humor, and also was not afraid to remind you how serious and heartbreaking life can be.

He believed in you for you, until you finally got it, until you finally believed in yourself. That's just the type of person that he was.

I hope that anyone who didn’t know him and listens to this song is reminded of someone in their lives who had a similar impact on them.

So many people won't ever know the huge impact that teachers, mentors, community members, family members and friends like Todd have had on so many people's lives.

Most of those stories won't ever get told. I hope that some of them do get told, like I was able to do with Todd.

The X Ambassadors are returning to Ithaca for a show at the State Theater on June 1
Aurora Berry
The X Ambassadors are returning to Ithaca for a show at the State Theater on June 1

It seems like you’ve been reflecting on your life in Ithaca a lot recently. What have you been thinking about as you’ve been making art about it? 

It's so funny how, when I grew up there, I just wanted so badly to leave. I wanted so badly to not be defined as a person from upstate New York, because I felt like we had no identity up there.

I felt like this was kind of a place in between places. It was already such a transient town because of the universities that both existed there. It felt faceless, it felt nameless, and I desperately didn't want that to be me.

I moved to New York and I started a band in New York. We were a Brooklyn band even though it was me and my brother and my best friend and we all were from Ithaca.

Now, I just am so aware of the fact that so much of who I am is where I'm from, and the people who I left behind and the people I've carried with me and that place, upstate New York.

At the beginning of this record I was like, I want people to know what upstate New York is really its own unique place. It’s not faceless. It's not this kind of place between places. In trying to identify this place where I'm from, I have come I think the closest I've ever been to finding myself, as corny as that may sound.

I feel such a connection to this place that I've fought so hard against for so long, and embracing it has felt just like absolute freedom.

You shot all of your newest video in Ithaca. How did you decide which locations you wanted to feature?

I wanted to get a director on board who knew upstate New York and specifically knew Ithaca as intimately as I did.

My friend Dan Pfeffer is a brilliant filmmaker. We made so many short films together in high school. It was really nice to come back together and make something as grownups and especially to do it in our hometown.

There's stuff shot at Ithaca High School, where I went to high school and stuff shot at Belle Sherman Elementary, where we went to elementary school. The Shortstop Deli, which is a great sandwich place.

A lot of gas stations. I kind of romanticized this gas station as this place where we could fill up on a tank of gas and drive out of town and never come back.

Most of the time we were just stopping by to fill up on gas and drive out to somebody's house out in the country and party. You know, drink and smoke and do whatever you did as kids. You’d fill up on whatever supplies you needed for the night and meet up there, loiter in the gas station parking lot for as long as you could before they’d kick you out.

I think there are places all around the world like that. You'll pass through and it's just a place you pass through, but to somebody else, that's their entire world, that's their home. And it's good to be reminded of that.

Can you think of any other memories that you feel have influenced your upcoming album?

There's a little interlude on the record called “First Dam”. There's the first and second and third dam in Ithaca. I wrote this about an experience I had there when I was 13 years old. I was with some friends and one of them threw a rock and didn't see me behind him, and he actually accidentally broke my nose.

I was pouring blood out of my nose. We found somebody's house nearby and called an ambulance. I had this crazy memory of getting in the back of that ambulance, waving to them like a queen or a king. They're waving to me. I'm being carried out on this thing, going past my friends.

I described it on the record as being a moment where I felt finally wasn't this secret boy. I was kind of royalty for a second. I wasn't invisible anymore.

I think that I struggled a lot with that, with the dynamic in my house, too, with my brother being blind. My mom and my dad and I all paid so much attention to his needs. We were always preoccupied with him. I think, maybe buried deep down inside, I sometimes felt a little overlooked.

It was mostly mom and me and Casey. She had her hands full with him. I don't blame her at all, for me feeling like that.

I think I often felt like I didn't matter or that my problems weren't, you know, worth worrying about.

I've finally come around to thinking, I felt seen in that moment. And that's pretty, pretty powerful.

There's a song on the album that I wrote for my brother, Casey. That song is the first time I've ever really been able to explicitly kind of talk about our relationship dynamic and being the sibling of someone with a disability and how that's been for me.

It's very vulnerable and very scary to put it out into the world. But I'm not so scared, really, because I think it's great. I love him a lot and I love the song. That's one that I'm excited for people to hear.

The X-Ambassadors’ upcoming album “Townie” will be out on April 5.