Born to Be Mild: Toronto's Strumbellas Perfect the Neo-Folk Anthem
"We're the lamest band of all time, for sure," says Simon Ward, vocalist and guitarist of the Strumbellas. "We like to focus on getting to bed real early."
It's 11 a.m. on a Thursday at Trinity Bellwoods Park in the West Queen West neighborhood, Toronto's answer to Williamsburg. Not a morning person, I am still chugging coffee in an effort to match Ward's already high energy level; I joke that I never really know what to expect during a.m. interviews with musicians who might have been out partying the night before. But it quickly becomes apparent that the Strumbellas, a poppy outfit with a formidable arsenal of sing-along neo-folk, aren't exactly hard-living rock stars (Ward even used to be an elementary school teacher).
"We went to some after-parties at the Junos the year that we won, [in] 2014, but it was mostly just nice. I don't know if that was a Canadian thing," says David Ritter, who provides keyboards and vocals and has plopped down next to Ward at our picnic table. "You hear of someone at the hotel, like, 'There was this crazy party' — "
"But we were never invited!" Ward jumps in, cutting off his bandmate.
Ritter leans over and shouts into my recorder, "Let us know where the party's at!"
"Village Voice readers! We don't have a lot of friends," adds Ward.
With his beard, baseball cap, plaid shirt, and tattoos, Ward, 33, looks like any of the dozens of other locals in the park. At the moment, Trinity Bellwoods is filled with people who don't have anywhere else to be on a weekday morning: retirees and families with small children, twenty- and thirtysomethings with creative jobs. I found myself thinking that all of them would find something to like in the Strumbellas' catchy melodies, which the New York Times recently called "as good-hearted as all get-out."
The music "is not so much about trying to please [certain] people," says Ritter, 36. "It's more like, [our records] are going to sound like they came from these people — us — who our fans know." Clean-shaven and bespectacled, Ritter often lets Ward speak first before stepping in to clarify his bandmate's digressive musings with careful, polished explanations.
The two met in 2008, when Ward posted on Craigslist looking for musicians to "come over and jam." Ritter was one of the first to respond, and he and Ward clicked instantly. Violinist Isabel Ritchie was also a Craigslist find, although the rest of the respondents were duds. Ward eventually recruited the remainder of the lineup — Darryl James, Jeremy Drury, and Jon Hembrey — from his hometown of Lindsay, Ontario, where he still lives.
A band of that size is going to make some noise. The Strumbellas are very, very good at writing anthems, a word that's used a lot in pop-music writing but one that has rarely felt more accurate than when referring to this particular act's third album, Hope, which arrived last April. The record offers many catchy tracks: Hypnotically repetitive verses build up to euphoric choruses that sound like movie scores for charming countryside montages — kisses on hayrides, stargazing in open fields, whatever romance city people imagine happens in rural life.
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It's also the Strumbellas' most ambitious album. The songs follow a traditional pop structure, but the band is clearly striving for a bigger sound. Every track features a forceful drumbeat, Ritchie's understated but effective fiddle, group vocals on the choruses for added dramatic effect, and no shortage of handclaps and foot-stomps. They tapped a new producer, Dave Schiffman, because they liked the work he did on Toronto pop-punk group Pup's debut album. "We knew exactly what we wanted," says Ritter of Schiffman. "We just needed someone who could help us with that."
Making the album accessible was a priority. "[Ward] sent me this demo that pretty much sounded like full-on pop songs," Schiffman says via phone. "It was about hybridizing this idea of a Katy Perry or Miley Cyrus big chorus, but having that intimate acoustic thing the Strumbellas do, and to make it fit. That was the goal. I feel as if we pulled it off."
Maybe that's because Ward, who writes the bulk of the songs, comes up with a melody or mood first and finds words to fit later. Ward thinks of himself as the furthest thing from a traditional writer. "I just don't often understand lyrics that are [meant to be] poetic," he says. "I tried to learn poetry in university and I had a really hard time with the concepts." Take the chorus of "We Don't Know," which reads almost like a motivational poster: "We don't know the roads that we're headed down/But we all know if we're lost then we'll find a way." But Ward's tender voice and the band's melodious cacophony add a pathos that makes the lyric feel momentous.
"I think Simon's going for the feeling," explains Ritter. "He's not going for something that's too abstract or too narrative. He's going [for] the gut." (The band rarely touches his lyrics, although Ritter says they sometimes tease him for what they refer to as "Simonisms." "He'll try and say, 'It's a metaphor,' but [instead] he'll say" — Ritter perfectly adopts Ward's laid-back drawl — " 'Guys, it's just a metaphysical. Don't worry about it.' ")
By far, the standout song on the album is "Spirits," which you've heard even if you don't know it — the track is quickly becoming one of those ubiquitous hits whose origin you don't discover until years after it begins appearing everywhere. Its catchiness is designed to make even the most cynical experimental-music fan give in, let go, and sing along.
And of course, there's no better way to listen to these songs than on a blanket with a beer, so it's appropriate that the Strumbellas will be co-headlining 4Knots on July 9. I ask them if they plan on spending time exploring the city. Ward has one plan, and partying is not it.
"I wanna go on the Ghostbusters tour," he says. "That's high on my list."
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