Canadian Bands You Should Know: The Strumbellas

Jul 22, 2014


The Strumbellas (Photo: Heather Pollock)

Being both tortured and elated are dichotomies that roots act The Strumbellas straddle well. Amid the bursts of violins and banjos, stomps and claps, and jubilant multi-part harmonies, there’s a dark, recurrent theme of death tucked away.
 
“I have a really unhealthy fear of death,” frontman and main songwriter Simon Ward confesses over the phone from the Winnipeg Folk Festival. “That’s pretty much what I think about for a lot of my day. It’s just hard not to write about that. I’m pretty sure I’m gonna die young and these songs are basically foreshadowing that…You know when you just get a gut feeling?”
 
As heavy an introspection as that is, Ward’s propensity for dark content never detracts from The Strumbellas’ joyful spirit. We Still Move on Dance Floors, the band’s sophomore full-length on the Six Shooter record label, is more uplifting than depressing, playing like a celebration to living life in the now before you’re dead and gone.

“Ride On” performed live by The Strumbellas and filmed by Southern Souls.
 
Relying on catchy-as-hell pop hooks alongside shimmering bluegrass, the album is full of anthemic folk jams that just make you want to sing-along.
 
Formed in 2008, Ward and core members Jon Hembrey, Darryl James, and Jeremy Drury—all Lindsay, ON natives—serendipitously reconnected while living in Toronto. David Ritter and Izzy Ritchie were added after Ward posted a call to musicians on Craigslist.
 
“Some of us went to different high schools, so none of us hung out at all,” Ward says. “It was like 10 years after when we were all living in Toronto that we all kind of reconnected and got into this band together.”
 
Non-stop gigging throughout Toronto in the years following their formation, Ward credits residencies at the Cameron House and the Dakota Tavern for helping the band make a name for themselves on the local alt-country circuit.
 
“It went from like two people, to six people to ten people,” Ward says. “It literally was like that. It was a really slow build…it took a good four years in Toronto to build an audience.”
 
With The Strumbellas’ debut full-length, My Father and the Hunter, which draws on Ward’s affection for gothic narratives and elements of Canadiana, the band quickly saw the fruits of their labour, receiving a JUNO Award nod in 2013.
 

“The Sherriff” off My Father and the Hunter might be the band’s creepiest video to date.
 
On follow-up, We Still Move on Dance Floors, the band took a natural step forward, enlisting producer Ryan Hadlock, known for his work on The Lumineers’platinum-selling self-titled debut.
 
“We were nervous because we’ve never really done that before—travelled out to a different country to record an album—so we were just very green about it,” Ward explains. “We had no plan…we just wanted to make the best songs we could.”
 
The album is arguably their best one yet. And it hasn’t gone unnoticed. The Strumbellas won a 2014 JUNO Award for Roots and Traditional Album of the Year, and were long-listed for this year’s Polaris Music Prize. Although Ward says he feels enormous pressure to outdo past successes, he seems up for the challenge.

“End of An Era” off  We Still Move on Dance Floors was inspired by the book
Love in the Time of Cholerawhich Ward admits he still hasn’t read.
 
“You spend years sitting in a van and playing to nobody,” Ward says. “To see the growth and the recognition means everything. You can only go so long playing to nobody…we’re all in our 30s, so we really needed this year to keep us motivated…I have extraordinarily high expectations for myself, and I’m gonna make another great record. I just gotta think about it a lot.”

To see The Strumbellas’ full Canadian tour dates, go here
 
–Julijana Capone

About the Author

Julijana Capone

Originally from Winnipeg, Julijana is NMC’s senior publicist and the managing editor of Amplify. In addition to her role at NMC, she is the founder of Light of Day Publicity, a company she formed to promote the work of emerging Canadian artists.

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