“I’ll be a dreamer till the day I die,” warbles Simon Ward, lead singer and principal Strumbellas’ songwriter on their current singalong hit, “Spirits.” The catchy first single off their fourth, forthcoming release Hope has been played more than three million times on Spotify, and is in regular rotation on Canadian radio.
There are days when the band’s rapid rise into the broader consciousness of music fans feels like a dream to Ward. In the past few months, The Strumbellas signed with chic indie label Glassnote Records (Phoenix, Mumford & Sons); opened a string of cross-Canada shows for Blue Rodeo; made their U.S. network television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in Los Angeles; and shared a pre-Grammy party bill there with Leon Bridges. Ward says he was a bit nervous meeting Kimmel, but the couple of days in Hollywood were surreal. Amid these dream-like experiences, the highlight was meeting one of his musical idols: Alex Ebert from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.
When Ward connects with Words & Music, The Strumbellas are following the white line South — adding more miles to their musical journey, gaining new fans at each stop for their catchy roots-rock. Ward and his five bandmates are cramped in their tour van leaving New York City, rolling down the Interstate to Georgia. A pit stop in Nashville follows before the band arrives in Austin to play a bunch of showcases at SXSW 2016, receive a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award for “Spirits,” and eat plenty of Texas barbecue – one of their favourite dining experiences.
Formed in 2008, The Strumbellas are: Ward, David Ritter, Jon Hembrey, Izzy Ritchie, Darryl James, and Jeremy Drury. Asked how the band initially came up with the name, Ward says we’ll be disappointed with the story. “Led Zeppelin was already taken!” he laughs. “Seriously, I thought of The Umbrellas first and it didn’t sound right, so then I said, how about Strumbellas? Everyone else in the band thought it was okay, but nobody loved it. We’ve thought about changing it a few times, but it’s starting to grow on us.”
“Spirits” is definitely growing on fans. The video is closing in on a million streams. When you hear The Strumbellas in concert, there’s not a soul in the audience that’s not singing along to this infectious song and its catchy chorus refrain: “I’ve got guns in my head and they won’t go/Spirits in my head and they won’t go.” The composition speaks of the power of hope: finding light in the darkness that imprisons our thoughts during tough times. Melodies and words intermingle to provide a ray of light that helps extinguish the mental anguish.
“I was going through a rough patch when I wrote that song,” Ward explains. “We were on the road and I was feeling down and out. I missed my family. The metaphor of guns in my head symbolized my bad thoughts, but the thing about being down is that it always will get better in the end; that’s where hope comes in in the song.”
The spark for “Spirits” came to Ward while waiting backstage before a show in North Carolina. With only his trusty Gibson J45 acoustic guitar as his guide, he came up with the melody. “I thought it was cool,” he recalls. “Later, I shared it with the rest of the band. They liked it; everyone thought it was groovy.”
“Spirits” is the lead single off Hope, which drops in April. The 11-song collection was recorded at John Dinsmore’s Lincoln County Social Club in Toronto, with producer Dave Schiffman (Weezer, HAIM, Sky Ferreira). There were three studio sessions, all in the first half of 2015. The recording was organic and spontaneous, and many of the tunes came fast. The songs are a mix of the acoustically-inclined, rootsy, alt-country tunes that longtime fans have come to expect, along with a bit of a bigger, bolder sound that leans towards the pop side, with more experimentation in the instrumentation.
“These ideas pop into my head and I put them down on my voice memo app on my phone.” — Simon Ward of The Strumbellas.
“We made two records that were full acoustic, where we were all playing our instruments,” Ward says. “We looked at this recording as more of a collective effort. We wanted to make simpler songs. A lot of the Strumbellas’ sound was there, but we also added a lot of pop elements and lots of synthesizer. We wrote the record without our instruments and the bulk of it was done in the studio.”
For Ward, song ideas always begin with a melody. “These ideas pop into my head and I put them down on my voice memo app on my phone,” he says. “I get a collection going… that’s how it always starts, with that little hook. Then, I listen to these fragments and build the songs from there before sharing them with the rest of the band. Sometimes I worry that one day these ideas will dry out and stop, but luckily for now they haven’t.”
The song idea on Hope that Ward is proudest of as a songwriter is “We Don’t Know.” Its upbeat, harmony-heavy melody is backed by lyrics that echo the album’s theme of losing your way, then finding your way back home – through such lines as “I know my darkness will never go away,” and “It’s hard when you’re living and you don’t feel much.”
“There’s lots of synth in that one, and I’m super-excited about it,” says Ward. “I took my songwriting in a new direction. I like to experiment with different sounds and strategies, and took a bit of a jump as a writer on that one.”
The Strumbellas (2009); My Father & The Hunter (2012); We Still Move on Dance Floors (2013); Hope (2016)
SOCAN Award in 2015 for Folk/Roots Music
Won a JUNO in 2014 for Roots & Traditional Group of the Year
We Still Move on Dance Floors won a Sirius XM Indie Music Award
We Still Move on Dance Floors was also long-listed for the Polaris Prize
This article was published in SOCAN’s Words + Music March 22, 2016.