They may not be a household name —just yet— but The Strumbellas, an alternative country and indie rock band from Canada, are working their way in to the ears and hearts of new fans every day. In April of this year, The Strumbellas released their third studio album, HOPE, on Glassnote Records. And the band’s debut single, Spirits, from that album has been receiving some significant radio play.
While The Strumbellas have been gaining attention in the U.S. and other parts of the world, the band is no stranger to success —winning a Juno Award, Canada’s equivalent to The Grammy Awards, back in 2014— have been performing together since 2008.
I recently had a chance to sit down and chat with David Ritter (vocals and keys) and Jon Hembrey (lead guitar) of The Strumbellas. The guys had just landed in New York City following a performance in London and we met up in a nice little courtyard setting in lower Manhattan.
Here is an excerpt of what Dave and Jon shared with me…
Me: How did the name of the band come to be?
Dave: It’s not the most exciting story. Our lead singer, Simon, was just thinking about band names one day, I think he was driving, and it sort of just popped in to his head. So it’s one of these names that doesn’t really have a meaning or didn’t have a meaning at the time but has come to represent us and everything that we are about. I fell affectionate about it. I kind of like that it doesn’t mean anything except to our band.
Jon: It’s impossible to miss on Google too. There’s only one result for The Strumbellas.
Me: What is it like gaining all of the new attention with the release of the new album?
Dave: We’ve been a band for a long time in Canada and that success was really built from the ground up through a lot of touring and that feels like a grassroots thing where they know us and they know our music, they’ve seen our shows. Where this feels a lot different because the song and the record are going out everywhere, even in places we have never played. So we will be hearing that the album has gone platinum in Italy, or it’s doing well in France and we have only been there a few days, this year. So that’s fun. It’s fun to land in London and to play a show and have people singing our songs in places we have never played before. So that’s really cool. It’s a different way of working that we are discovering and it’s exciting.
Jon: Yeah, it’s very cool to go to a place, like Dave said, that you have never been and people not only know the words to Spirits, but they know all the words to the songs on HOPE. And we will even play songs from the first record and you see people there singing along and you think “wow” they really went far back and really checked out our band. It’s really very cool. It’s awesome.
Me: What was it like to hear yourself on the radio for the first time and where were you?
Dave: It must have been in Toronto on CBC. I don’t know where I first heard it. It may have been in the band van with these guys and that was fun. In Canada we have been played on the radio quite a bit so some of the novelty has worn off. I hope I never take it for granted, but some of the novelty has worn off. But at the beginning we were probably screaming. It was amazing.
Jon: I definitely feel like we were out west and had satellite radio for the first time ever and that was when Sailing was being played off our second record. And you set up the alerts so at any point on Sirius the song is played you get a notice to switch over to that channel. So maybe, weirdly, we set alerts on our own song and then we were like oh wow our song is being played over here. Switch over quick!
Dave: Yeah it was pretty neat. Pretty exciting.
Me: What was the moment like when you were winning a Juno Award?
Jon: It was really exciting for me, being from Canada Juno’s are a big thing, so it was a huge honor but I specifically remember we were nominated the one year and we didn’t win and then the second year I was like oh lower your expectations. And I remember sitting there and they announced our category and said all the names and then they said our names and we all stood up and were cheering and hugging and we were all very happy, but in the back of my mind I was like did they actually say our name? Is it possible that I misheard that? And we all misheard it? And there is another band somewhere else, because you’re in a big room, was there someone else also celebrating? Are we awkwardly going to get up there and realize it wasn’t our award? But as it turned out it they totally said our name.
Me: Can you describe the writing process for your songs?
Dave: Simon, our lead singer, will come up with the bones of the song. He will have a demo where he sings a verse and a chorus and plays guitar or plays piano and then he will bring it to the band and we will work it up from there. So that’s how it starts. Simon is just a very genuine guy, so I think whatever is going to come out of our music is whatever he is feeling or thinking about at the time. And I think if we wanted to do something else other than what we were thinking or feeling at the time, I don’t know if we could. So it’s great that it’s working.
Me: Where does the writing take place?
Dave: Simon is amazing. He just seems to be writing constantly. You’ll look over and he is saying something in to his phone. You’re driving in the van and you hear him working on something on his laptop. At sound check he is playing something on his guitar. So the writing kind of happens everywhere. And then he will take these voice memos that he has been recording all day, every day, and turn those in to more thought out demos often when he gets home.
Me: Where did you record the current album HOPE?
Jon: We actually recorded the album before signing to Glassnote Records. We had recorded it in the summer of 2015 in Toronto at a place called Lincoln County Social Club. It’s this really cool, fairly small, studio in Toronto and they have lots of great gear, lots of great equipment. We recorded that over three separate sessions.
Me: Is this album different than the other two?
Jon: The record is a bit of a shift for us from the other two. It’s kind of like we turned the knob a little bit towards pop I suppose. But I think that was more because of what we were listening to at the time.
Dave: In retrospect it looks like a career oriented move, like oh, you know, move in sort of the crossover pop direction, but we were just listening to a lot of Taylor Swift, and I was listening to Carley Rea Jepsen and Simon was listening to Miley Cyrus. And it just seemed to be the year The Strumbellas got in to all of these big pop records so I think it shows
Me: In the song Spirits, there is a line “I’ll be a dreamer until the day I die.” What are some of the things you dream about?
Jon: Honestly, If I were to talk to my twenty-year-old self who just started playing in bands, I don’t even think he knew what to dream about if that makes sense. Some of the stuff that has happened has just been so wild, just crazy. Beyond anything I ever expected like going platinum in Italy, winning a Juno, just so many fantastic things, I don’t even know I ever really thought or planned on doing those things if that makes sense. I just play music to play music and all those things just came along. And in the same way I don’t think I am looking for anything specific in the future for the band, just so much as to just keep doing what we are doing and sort of see what happens.
Dave: My dreams were a lot of this kind of stuff. We have gotten to record in a lot of fancy recording studios. It really is something like thirteen-year-old Dave’s dreams-come-true. So maybe there are some specific things such as I’d love to play Glastonbury or Reading or one of the big European festivals. That would be super cool. I would love for us to be a big name on the Bonnaroo poster at some point, you know what I mean? I’m sure every band thinks of those kinds of things but mostly if we can keep making and playing music that we’re proud of and that’s exciting to us then I don’t know what else I can really ask for.
Me: If you could perform with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
Jon: I’m going to steal some of Dave’s thunder and say I want to play with Bruce Springsteen just so I can hang out with him.
Dave: But like circa 76 maybe?
Jon: Sure, yeah. But even now. What the hell, I’ll take it.
Dave: For sure. I’d probably say the Beach Boys in 1967. There’s a few of them still alive and kicking and god willing they will keep going for a long time but back then is when I would have liked to perform with them.
Me: What are some of the cities you have visited that you enjoy the most?
Dave: We just got back from London this morning. I love London. This was our first time as a band but I’ve gone several times before. And I actually really like New York.
Jon: I agree. London is great. New York is great. I love Berlin a lot. Not just the cities but also getting out to more of the rural areas, like some scenic parts of Canada. I saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time which was with the band and that was a very cool moment for me.
The guys were great to chat with. It was like we were old friends just catching up on good memories.
You can download their music using the iTunes links below and be sure to go see The Strumbellas in concert when they perform in a city near you.
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