Congratulations Ottawa, we’ve officially made it to summer! After a tumultuous past few years, summer festivals are making a strong comeback, kicking off with the Dragonboat Festival at Mooney’s Bay this weekend. Beyond the boats, one of the key aspects of the event is great live music that’s free for everyone to enjoy. This year’s headliners pack a ton of star power, with The Strumbellas and Serena Ryder gracing the stage on Friday and Saturday nights, respectively.
In addition, up-and-coming acts Stoby (6:30pm) and Frown Line (8pm) will start off the party Friday, while Steve Neville (6:30pm) and Rebelle (8pm) will kick things off Saturday. Ottawa’s Frown Line have only released a pair of singles so far, but the buzz they’ve generated and their high-quality mellow indie rock hint at a bright future. Catch them playing a full set on this high-profile stage for the first time. Finally, Sunday’s lineup features the RCAF Pipes and Drums, Success Dragon Lion Dancers, and the Chinese Canadian Children’s Choir of Canada.
While Serena Ryder appeared recently at a celebration of the Rainbow Bistro’s resurrection, The Strumbellas haven’t played here since they graced the CityFolk stage back in 2019, their final Canadian show before the world effectively shut down. They are now ready to re-emerge, with a new single (“Greatest Enemy”), a new lead singer, and a renewed focus. We connected with keyboardist Dave Ritter recently, days after their first live show in years, to catch up.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: What have you been up to for the last few years?
Dave Ritter: A lot of isolation, a lot of time at home. I had another baby during the pandemic, so did Izzy (violinist Isabel Ritchie), so it was a lot of time at home with family. And then just writing music. We released our song “Greatest Enemy,” and we tried to work through it, but of course, there were large stretches where we couldn’t get together. So we were trying to work remotely and write songs, and get together and record during one of the easier periods of the pandemic, but then things locked down again.
Given the dynamic in your band, which feels very organic, how did the recording process go when you couldn’t get together?
We do write a lot behind screens and we share files with Dropbox and we do demos in our own studios. We are able to work a bit remotely. But when we record, we’re all in the studio at the same time. We were lucky enough to be able to squeeze that in. It’s still six people around the microphone for big group vocals. And there’s still always too many Strumbellas in the control room. I think producers like working with one or two people, but instead, there’s six, and you all want different things. We always work with a producer and they help keep all six of us, the six-headed beast, properly wrangled.
We have to ask about the lead singer transition from Simon Ward to Jimmy Chauveau.
Simon is our brother and we just love him to bits. We’re so happy to be making this transition with him still in the fold. We’re really happy that Simon is still writing with us and still gets on Zoom calls and talks about the new record. And then Jimmy’s come in and it’s like we’ve known him forever. He’s got a great set of pipes and is really a pleasure to work with, frankly. So it’s gone better than I could have expected.
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Hearing that Simon was taking a step back, it was like the antithesis to the standard “lead singer quits and band moves on.” Everybody seems understanding and no hard feelings.
Yeah. We’ve been together for so long. I know it’s cliché, but it really does feel like a family. We love and fight and squabble like brothers and sisters. And I’m excited to have this be our story, because I don’t think there’s just one way to be in a band anymore. In some ways I think it’s a bit strange that it’s like a light switch is either on or off—either you do everything, the songwriting and recording and touring, or you do nothing. I think it makes sense that for some people, writing and recording is what moves them and what they want to do. And for other people, they want to be on the road.
Touring is really difficult in really specific ways, and of course we’re very lucky to get to do this with our lives. I love it personally. But I think anyone who’s traveled a lot for work and who is in and out of airports and away from their family for a long period of time can attest to the toll that it can take. I have a lot of sympathy now for bands that go through difficult times or break up. I think sometimes you can look at a band and say “Hey, they’re doing so well. Why would they mess up a good thing?” but I can understand the stresses now. So it just makes sense to me that different musicians would want to do different things, and I’m happy that as a band we’re able to accommodate that.
Speaking of the road, you’re going to be bouncing around quite a bit this summer with all the festivals. Any new music coming out?
“Greatest Enemy” came out a little while ago and over the last couple years we’ve had time to write. So everybody’s curious to see what the next chapter’s going to look like. I am also curious what it’s going to look like, but nothing new to note right now. We’re seriously writing and really excited about Jimmy and this new chapter, and definitely want to get everything right. So we’re taking our time recording new music, but nothing just yet.
We’ll all be anxiously waiting, and hopefully over the last few years the keytar skills have not gotten too rusty.
We’ll see! It’s possible that the keytar itself is officially retired, but the keyboard should be good.
The Strumbellas play the Hillside Stage (Mooney’s Bay) at Ottawa Dragonboat Festival tonight, Friday, June 24, at 9:30pm. Admission is free.