Since 2009, Casey Harris has been performing as one-third of the pop-rock band X Ambassadors, which released its most recent album, “The Beautiful Liar,” in 2021.
As a person who has been in the music industry for over a decade, and as a person who has been legally blind since birth, Harris is uniquely qualified to discuss the joys — and the challenges — of working as a recording artist with a disability.
A family affair
X Ambassadors was founded in Ithaca, New York, as a family affair. Harris’ brother, Sam Harris, is lead vocalist, while Adam Levin plays drums. Casey plays keyboard.
Harris recalled how he and his brother first teamed up, back in high school. “We didn’t want to have anything to do with each other in high school, of course, because we’re brothers, but he had a band, and I was playing in all sorts of different bands. When [Sam’s] band would be on break between rehearsing their songs, I would come down and jam with the other guys in his band, which he hated, but it would sound really good. Eventually, he finally begrudgingly said, ‘Hey, do you want to join my band?’” Harris added that he agreed to the offer, which would begin a yearslong partnership that led the brothers to New York City, and, eventually, around the world as X Ambassadors.
A love of music began for Harris at a young age. His mother had been a professional musician before becoming a stay-at-home mom, and his father had tried his hand at country music songwriting and possessed a massive record collection. “[Sam and I] were always steeped in music, and we took music instrument lessons,” said Harris, who noted he played piano while Sam played saxophone at the time.
In high school, Harris recounted improvising during lunchtime with other students in their school’s fine arts theater, which had two pianos, a drum kit, an amplifier, and a couple of acoustic guitars.
“I’d just be, you know, playing around on one of the pianos, and then you know, once in a while another kid would come in and they’d start playing on the drums or on another on a guitar or the other piano. And it was the first time where I’d made music with other people. And especially the first time I’d made spontaneous music, just no planning, just straight playing along, just jamming,” Harris said. “None of us were very good, but that sort of unspoken wordless communication was really magical. It’s hard to put into words what it is, but it’s really that when you’re playing even with other musicians who don’t know the first thing about music, when you’re playing together, you all somehow get on the same wavelength. And you don’t necessarily know exactly what the other person is gonna play, but you get the general sense of what they’re going to play next and you can play off of that.”
From improvising, Harris said, he got “hooked” on performing and music in general.
It wasn’t until his high school music teacher gave him the idea that Harris thought he could make a living from being a professional musician. “Even though my mom had been a singer professionally, I didn’t really know you could actually make enough money to live playing music,” Harris said. “For some reason, that just hadn’t been something that crossed my mind. I always thought music was just something you sort of did for fun.
“But my music teacher at school was an amazing guy. He was also very much responsible for getting me into music and playing music with other musicians. I forget how the conversation exactly went, but he said, ‘Yeah, if you do this enough, this could be your job.’ And that was that was a revelation to me, as stupid as that sounds.”
A creative spirit
Despite his disability, Harris has never felt “taken advantage of or disregarded.” He credits this, in large part, to the fact that he and his fellow X Ambassadors bandmates have always had each other’s backs and treated each other like family.
“I think that I was, in retrospect, so, so lucky,” Harris said. “I think it would be a lot harder for solo artists to match those things. But I was blessed to have these amazingly good-hearted people around me.”
That doesn’t mean musicians who are legally blind are on an even playing field with musicians who can see. These days, aspiring musicians are often expected to have fully finished and recorded songs completed and up on Spotify before a record label will even consider signing them.
“The days of having a demo-quality recording and then some record label guys hearing it and taking you to the studio to record a real version?” Harris said. “Those days are long gone.”
But the thing is, recording software these days isn’t always easily accessible for people who are visually impaired, because it tends to lack integration with screen readers. “I really do not think it would take much effort on the part of the software developers to add that integration or maybe the ability to change the font size,” Harris said.
Harris has found workarounds with screen magnifiers and hacks on YouTube.
“YouTube is really your friend as a blind musician, or as a blind person in general learning how to do things in the world,” he explained. “Luckily, there’s tons of other blind people out there in the world who post about their experiences and how they do things.”
Finding those workarounds in order to self-produce — and maintaining the willpower to keep at the craft of making music and performing — is some advice Harris gives other hopeful professional musicians.
Now, as an experienced music recording artist and performer, opportunities to improvise with other musicians, or simply to make music for the sake of enjoyment, are more scarce. Harris, however, hopes to carve out space for it when he can.
“I’m going try my best to get back into doing that,” Harris said, “just jamming or creating music that’s not necessarily going to go anywhere, but that’s just purely for the joy of creating music.”