Rock trio X Ambassadors have been chosen as this year’s mentors for the finalists of Project: Aloft Star, a competition for emerging talent presented by Aloft Hotels and Universal Music Group & Brands.
When Billboard caught up with X Ambassadors frontman Sam Harris to talk about the mentorship gig, he discussed what he and his bandmates have to offer aspiring musicians. “It’s not an easy job, but it’s one that we have embarked on and have done all right at,” he said. “So I look forward to learning just as much from these young artists as much as giving whatever advice I can.”
Starting Tuesday and ending August 20, unsigned bands and artists across the U.S. and in select Latin American countries can upload two original songs and a picture through Aloft Hotels’ official website to enter the contest. Three finalists will be picked by a panel of judges from UMG, Aloft Hotels and Aloft partner Bandsintown before kicking off the Project: Aloft Star Tour, a five-city trek dedicated to Aloft Hotels’ mission — as set by the brand’s “Live at Aloft Hotels” music program — of delivering intimate live performances from emerging talent. Years and Years, Tank and the Bangas, Bea Miller and Banners will perform on the tour.
“Aloft Hotels has always been the brand for music makers and music lovers, but now through our collaboration with UMG, we’re able to support emerging artists in a more meaningful way than ever before,” said Toni Stoeckl, global brand leader for Aloft Hotels and vice president of distinctive select brands for Marriott International. “The opportunity to record a single with one of UMG’s prestigious labels and receive dedicated mentoring from the best in the industry is very rare, and we’re so glad to be able to bring this to emerging talent all over the world.”
The New York-based X Ambassadors will help guide the three selected artists in preparation for their performance during the tour finale at Aloft Austin Downtown on Nov. 1, where a winner will be chosen based on the judges’ picks and fan votes received from Sept. 17 to Oct. 22. The winner will have an opportunity to record a single at Capitol Studios while meeting with executives to discuss the recording process and potential digital distribution of their track; mentoring from UMG’s Artist & Recording division with feedback and guidance sessions; and 500,000 loyalty points for Marriott International hotel stays, among other rewards.
Below, find our full interview with X Ambassadors’ Harris, who spoke to Billboard about the significance of advising young talent on the rise within the music industry, the constant learning environment of mentorship programs like Project: Aloft Star, and the advice he’s given and received.
What inspired this idea of a mentorship program for emerging talent?
Well, it’s really the life of the industry. That’s what everyone is kind of always looking for. You’re always — in the music industry — everyone’s always looking for the next big thing. And there’s so much young talent, especially now, it really is what keeps this industry going. And we were also emerging talent at one point in our careers too, and it’s a real thrill to be able to get to nurture up-and-coming musicians.
Would this be X Ambassadors’ first gig as a mentor, or have you or anyone else in the group acted as mentors for artists or bands before?
Yeah, in a professional capacity, I think this will definitely be our first time mentoring another group. I’ve certainly given my fair share of advice to young musicians, but this will be really fun for us being able to work up close and personal with someone else who have aspirations of being in the music industry and being a full-time musician. It’s not an easy job, but it’s one that we have embarked on and have done all right at. So I look forward to learning just as much from these young artists as much as giving whatever advice I can.
Do you feel like there’s a special transition between being an artist and solely dedicating yourself to crafting your own art and then kind of taking on that big brother role? Does it feel like you’re moving away from your own art to help someone with theirs?
Yeah, it’s another way of getting outside of your head. Any artist knows you spend most of your time stuck inside of your own psyche, whether it’s thinking about your career, thinking about your art, no matter what. You’re always kind of in your own head about stuff, so it’s a relief to be able to pull yourself out of that. It’s also nice for you to have some perspective, to be working with something totally outside of yourself. And it helps you. But for some reason, when you’re putting it in the context of somebody else’s life and career, it makes it easier to come at it objectively. So again, I feel like I’m ready to learn just as much from this mentorship as whoever our mentee may be.
Like most of the time, I’m seeking advice from other people. In the industry, we are relatively new to the upper echelons. … I barely even consider myself like a professional. So I’m constantly seeking advice from other people, from different bands or from other producers or songwriters we work with. But I often find myself giving advice to people we meet at our shows, come up to us and say, “Hey, I’m a singer. I love what you do. What advice could you give us?” And nine times out of 10, I’d say that advice is just to keep your head down and don’t stop. If you want to make music your life and your career, you have to treat it like a job and you have to show up to work every day and work till like 5. And whatever that work entails, whether that’s sitting down trying to write a song or practicing your chops on an instrument or sending off emails and promoting a show you have coming up or even going to a museum to try and get inspired by something, that’s all a part.
Do you feel like you and the group are still growing in your musical career? It’s not like anyone is just kind of done, like, “OK, I’ve made it.” Maybe if you were like Michael Jackson.
Well, I’m probably right when I say that even Michael Jackson didn’t think that there was a stopping point to developing himself as an artist. Like of course, I am constantly, I am my harshest critic, and it’s very, very difficult for me ever to be able to take a step back and say like, “Ah, wow, we’ve done pretty good.” It’s rare that I ever find myself mentally in a position where I’m able to do that. I always have felt like there’s another tier, no matter what level that we’ve been at in the band or as artists. There’s always something to strive for. You can always be better and you can always learn.
Did you feel like you had a big brother partnership that helped you come up in the industry?
I oftentimes thought, “I wish I had someone that I could always turn to and ask advice on something.” There are times when I really don’t feel like I have ever had any mentor or any guide to this, but we actually have been really lucky to have some pretty great people help us out along the way when we first signed our record deal. Our producer Alex [Da Kid] is the biggest influence on all of us. He taught us how to bust our asses and just always be writing and taught me a lot about pop songwriting, structure and melody. And then also working with a band like Imagine Dragons. They kind of co-signed us early on and took us out on tour, and from their example, we were able to see how a band at their stature really operates. We’ve always prided ourselves on being a respectful group of guys, but those guys take it to another level. They are so good to their crew and to each other and they’ve worked so hard. And they put on an amazing show consistently every night, it’s a real show. And that’s definitely something that we always admired in other groups, and it was so cool to see that firsthand every night being out on tour with them, back in 2013-2014, very early on in our career. We were lucky in that regard.
Online, X Ambassadors are categorized as a “soulful, indie rock group,” and then the other bands involved in the tour are Banners and Years and Years, and they’re kind of indie rock and indie pop. Are the emerging artists who get accepted expected to produce similar kind of music? Or can they be like, “Oh, I want to be a rapper,” “Oh, I want to be a country singer”?
I know that for whoever we will be mentoring, I will be encouraging them to just fully follow their dreams as a musician, as an artist, and not necessarily encourage them to make indie rock music. I think that genre is a trap. You should never, ever try and fit into a certain genre. You should just follow your truth and really make the type of music that you want to make, that makes you feel good. I will be encouraging that. But I don’t think that the project as a whole encourages that either. Also, the nice thing is we all listen to tons of different types of music. And as a musician, I feel like it’s your responsibility to try to listen to everything, take what you can, learn where you can from all different types of musicians. If I’m paired up with a rapper, I listen to hip-hop music all the time, hopefully I’ll still be able to give my two cents and help mentor this artist as best I can. And even if it’s something outside my genre, art is art. That’s it.
See the dates for the Project: Aloft Star Tour below:
Years and Years – June 23 – Philadelphia, PA
Tank and the Bangas – Aug. 9 – New Orleans, LA
Bea Miller – Aug. 21 – Asheville, NC
Banners – Oct. 17 – Denver, CO
Finalists – Nov. 1 – Austin, TX