As Rihanna prepares to unleash her new album, R8, at basically any moment now, she’s been dropping new singles left and right to fans’ excitement. But even though her most recent track “American Oxygen” may seem like it was released out of the blue, the song’s co-writer Sam Harris says writing it took nearly an entire year — the longest he’s ever spent on something, either as a hired gun or with his own band X Ambassadors.
What started as an idea bouncing back and forth between him and producer Alex Da Kid (who signed X Ambassadors to his Interscope subsidiary KIDinaKORNER in 2013) was slowly sculpted into an anthemic ode to the American dream’s potential and its disillusionment. “It’s a lot of writing and rewriting and getting it right by saying as much as you can with as little as possible,” says Harris.
The X Ambassadors singer describes the process of creating “American Oxygen” as a “very 2015” way of working: collaborating digitally back and forth. He never actually met Rihanna during the process, he says, and instead received her notes through Alex Da Kid.
“I didn’t even really know what version of the verses she ended up recording until I heard it for the first time a couple days ago,” he says.
But interestingly enough, this process is pretty similar to how he writes music for X Ambassadors, who also have a new single called “Renegades” out now and will be touring with Milky Chance this summer. “We’re constantly writing and rewriting stuff,” he says. “Alex is the producer on our records, so he’s just a springboard for everything I do.”
Billboard caught up with Harris to talk about his writing process, pulling inspiration from Bruce Springsteen and how “American Oxygen” developed into the epic song we hear today.
Where did “American Oxygen” begin?
We worked on that song for a year. When we started out on it, it was a track that Alex had. He sends me beats all the time, and I’m constantly writing to them — for him and pitching for us, for the band and for other artists. This is one that really stuck with me, and I started this chorus with the first couple lines, and Alex immediately was like, “This is something cool, keep going.” We worked on just that chorus for like three or four months, going back and forth, back and forth…. It goes to show you that sometimes these songs just appear out of nowhere and sometimes you just have to go at it like a block of marble and you’re chipping away at it.
What’s going on when you say you’re “chipping away at it”? How do you keep that perspective that there’s even anything there?
It’s hard to keep that perspective. I had the title and I had the first couple lines: “Breath out, breath in, American oxygen.” And it immediately had a vibe to it. Alex and I wanted the chorus to say so much with as little as possible. You’ve just got to add stuff, and sometimes I’d have a line that worked but it didn’t have the right melody, so we’d have to change the melody and so on, and that process went on for a while until we got it.
And then he was pitching it to a couple people. First I heard one person wanted it, then I heard another person wanted it, then I heard that Rihanna really liked it, and from there we started writing verses together, and that’s when she became involved in the process. With her help and with Alex’s help, we all collectively created this story. And it took a lot of different variations. I think there are three different versions of the verses that were written. But I wrote one thing and then Alex and Rihanna had the idea to turn it into this song about an immigrant story, coming to this country as an outsider. … That was her idea, really, hers and Alex’s, to turn it into that kind of song.
When you start with a chorus and the song then is shaped around it, does a phrase like “breath out, breath in, American Oxygen” change its meaning while you build out these new verses and drafts?
The song means so much, and it’s kind of hard to pinpoint one specific thing. A lot of the time it’s just a subconscious thing that you’re exposed to that comes out in the lyrics. There’s a lot of turmoil going on in this country right now, and I don’t think of myself as a political person or politically savvy, or someone who can speak as eloquently about social injustice as other people that I know can, who are very well-versed in it. But I think we all have something to say about it, and if you just kind of let it happen and work hard enough at it on a song, something will eventually come out.
People living in this country, or who don’t even live in this country, they all feel something different. … I looked at songs like “Born in the U.S.A.” and that record. I listened to a lot of Bruce Springsteen when I was writing this, and he really gets it. He gets that there’s pride to living here in this country. This country is great and has the potential to be something really, really incredible, but there are a lot of problems that we don’t acknowledge and it’s important to shed light on both those things. And if you can do that in a song, that’s the best.
Once you find out Rihanna wants the song, does that change how you work on it? Do you start thinking about Rihanna’s voice then?
No. Not at all. Some writers do. For some writers, it’s much easier for them to write if they’re trying to cater it for that artists. For me, I think of it like if I was looking for a song written by somebody else, what would I be looking for? I would be looking for something that’s unique and different. I really was just trying to write something that I thought was cool and that I thought I could sing, even after I knew that it was going to her.
But it gets me thinking about when I first heard her version of it, because it’s so cool because it’s so her. She just really made magic with that song and she made it her own. She really did. And the fact that her and Alex both helped craft the song and turned it into something that’s bigger than me, it just means way more. The perspective that they gave to it, having it be this immigrant story, is something so cool and unique that I probably wouldn’t have thought of had it not been for them.
Is writing like this something that you had hoped to do earlier in your career, when you were in a rock band starting out in Ithaca, New York?
It just kind of comes with the territory. As a band we write so many songs, and not all of them are going to see the light of day and not all of them are going to be played by us. But some of the ones that aren’t going to be played by us, maybe somebody else wants. And that thing gets to be out in the world rather than just sitting on a hard drive somewhere.
Could this have been an X Ambassadors song instead?
Sure, yeah. We have our own version of it. But I think it means so much more being sung by Rihanna — specifically by a black female immigrant in the United States. That is so powerful for a young kid to see her singing that song, it gets me choked up just thinking about it. It really was made so much more powerful by what she contributed to the songwriting and the performance of the song. I idolize her, and to have been given the opportunity to work with her is amazing. … I watched the video for it the other day, and it’s just so powerful. I’d heard the song, I’d seen her do it live, but that video for me, it was like, “That’s it.” This is why I do this — to see a finished product like this that means so much, it really is exactly what I wanted it initially to mean.
You’ve got to feel immensely proud.
I’m lucky. I’m so lucky to have been a conduit to whatever it was that hit me to help write this thing and to be associated to her is just incredible. I couldn’t ask for anything more.