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Photo: "I'll Wait" (YouTube)

CityFolk In Focus: Interview with the Strumbellas

By Stephane Dubord on September 12, 2019



The Strumbellas have come a long way in a very short amount of time. After two albums released in 2012 and 2013, they began garnering attention on the Canadian music scene, earning a Juno Award nomination for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year in 2013, and then a win in 2014. But a funny thing happened when they released the lead single for their follow-up album Hope in 2016. “Spirits” launched the band into the international superstar stratosphere, reaching the Top 5 in multiple countries, including a #1 on the US Alternative chart. Suddenly, The Strumbellas were winning iHeartRadio awards and had fans across the globe. “Spirits” alone has over 180 million Spotify streams and over 60 million YouTube views. So now what?

We caught up with keyboardist (and former Carleton University student) Dave Ritter to chat about how surreal their sudden rise seemed, their sound, and the pressures that come with releasing their newest album, Rattlesnake.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

APT613: The last time you were in town was Bluesfest, last year, where we found out that you went to Carleton. So as a former resident, how is it coming back to Ottawa with the band?

Dave Ritter: We’ve played Ottawa a bunch of times now, starting way, way back. We used to play a place called Raw Sugar when that was still open, and we’ve played Café Dekcuf, Mavericks, and then lots of festivals, so Ottawa feels like a second home. It’s not that far, when we’re talking Canadian distances anyway, from Toronto, and especially since I went to school and lived there for a few years. So it’s always great to come back.

The Strumbellas put out two albums and you started building up some word of mouth around  Toronto and Ottawa, the country, and then all of a sudden you put out “Spirits” and you guys blow up. How was that ride like for you?

It was very a strange and exciting time. “Spirits” did its thing over the winter, and a lot of bands don’t tour much over Christmas and January and February since it’s cold in Canada right? So I was just at home in my bachelor apartment, just hanging out playing guitar, and I’d get emails that “well, it’s #5 on the Alternative chart in the States” and we didn’t really know what that meant. We had toured in the States but not that much. And then we’d get an email that “it’s #1 in Italy.” We’d hop on a plane and play in Salt Lake City and people would be singing our song, in a place we’d never played before. Or we’d fly to Italy, and people would be waiting at the radio station. It was very strange and amazing.

In Canada, we’d always done the thing where you play a city once, and there’s five people, and you go back, and there’s 10, and then 20. That’s kind of what we were used to, building slowly through touring. Then to have fans in cities we’d never been to, or they know all the words to our songs when we’ve never played there, it was a total trip. Pretty amazing.

“We’d always done the thing where you play a city once, and there’s five people, and you go back, and there’s 10, and then 20. That’s kind of what we were used to, building slowly through touring.”

I suppose when you go from indie touring band, and then all of a sudden you’re nominated for an iHeartRadio award in the States, and you win it, that’s got to be a little surreal.

Going to the iHeartRadio awards show was one of THE most surreal moments. We’re seated at this table, and at the table next to ours is Fifth Harmony, and Ryan Seacrest is hosting and doing his whole introduction thing two chairs over. I think our guitar player hugged Miley Cyrus. It was super fun but really weird. We didn’t play the awards show, but we got to play in and around the venue there. It was a fun and weird time.

Having rode that wave to the top of the charts, when you got back to trying to write the new album was there a different vibe or did you feel more pressure?

I think so, I mean, this was the first album that we’d ever made that we could reasonably expect that thousands of people would listen to it at least once. And we have fans that we don’t have a personal relationship with. Like, our Canadian fans who’ve been with us for a long time, there’s a lot of trust there, because there’s been a lot of face time. But now you’re making an album for people in Brazil that you’ve never met.

“This was the first album that we’d ever made that we could reasonably expect that thousands of people would listen to it at least once.”

So there’s more pressure, but we’ve always just wanted to make music that’s cool to us, and if other people like it, that’s great. So that’s what we needed to focus on. But there is more pressure to follow up, and you always want the people that you work with and the people who listen to your music to be happy, but ultimately, what we try to focus on is making cool music we like it, and I think everything is essentially a distraction. So, there’s more pressure, but we try not to focus on it.

When you were coming up, you were part of that whole folk revival wave, including Mumford & Sons, Of Monsters & Men, and The Lumineers. Since then, some of that group sort of split off and started experimenting more in other sounds like synth-pop, while The Strumbellas have pretty much stayed the course with the roots your music. With the new album Rattlesnake, was that in your mind when you started writing?

We don’t often worry much about our direction, or people’s perceptions whether we’re moving away from our old sound. We’re just trying to make the biggest, most fun, coolest songs we can make, and they always kind of turn out sounding like us anyway. It’s ironic you mentioned synth-pop because I learned a bunch of stuff about synthesizers for the last album before this one (2016’s Hope). In some ways, we do explore those same things, and we’re always pushing for a bigger sound, or more fun, or something catchier, and big drums and things, but, it always just ends up sounding like us anyway.

So just the fact that we’re ourselves anchors our sound. We’re never going to be able to make a Miley Cyrus song or a Taylor Swift song, even if we’re really into pop music at the time. We’re just six people, and it just sort of comes out sounding like that. If you feel like the sound is grounded somewhere, it’s probably just in the six of us, and not part of a specific plan.

I think if ever you write a Miley Cyrus song you’d have to teach Simon (Ward, lead singer) some choreography for that one.

And that would make for a very different interview!

On the new album, there are a lot of very fun, big, songs which struck me that this is a festival album, with so many sing-alongs and the crowd is going to be swept up in them. I know you’ve done a few festivals this summer, so how’s the touring going so far?

It’s been great. That’s the best part of a show for us, when the audience is really having a good time, singing along. A big group of people all singing together, there’s just something special about it. I don’t know if you can really explain it, but it gives us all tingles and chills down your spine. Maybe that influences the music, that we have such a good time doing that at our shows, and we love to have people clapping, dancing and singing together. Plus, we’re a big band and we all sing together so I think that maybe influences the vibe of doing things together.

Make sure not to miss the epic sing-alongs Thursday night at CityFolk. And while they’ve just announced a headlining Canadian tour kicking off this January, without an Ottawa date, there are plenty of open dates left in their schedule (like between February 7 in Peterborough and 14 in Quebec) to squeeze in a show in their second home. Keep an eye on @apt613’s Twitter feed for any breaking show announcements.