In this time of division and rancor, songs of community and hope are needed more than ever. But such songs are useful only if they can persuade us to trust their message. And that’s one of the hardest tricks to pull off in pop music. In fact, any hint of sappy sentiment or formulaic bromides is likely to create mistrust and produce more pessimism than optimism.
That’s why the Strumbellas are the right band at the right time. The Ontario sextet’s new album Rattlesnake boasts the kind of anthemic choruses that can rouse an audience from its seats to dance in place and sing along. The stimulus is not so much the positive lyrics—which are easy to write—but rather the magnetic melodies, which are so difficult to come up with.
It’s not the words (“Hang on, kid, you’re my salvation”) that puts across the chorus from the album’s first single, “Salvation,” for example; it’s the irresistible vocal line (three descending half notes, a brisk, ascending triplet and a payoff on a rising note). That knack for melodic hooks is the most elusive talent in popular music, but lead singer/chief songwriter Simon Ward has it.
It’s a dangerous gift, however, for it can all too easily lead to gooey treacle. Fortunately, Ward is aware of the danger and counterbalances his all-together-now choruses with darker, singer-songwriter verses. That balance grows out of his two major enthusiasms in music.
“My favorite genre is alternative-folk—slow, sad, personal songs,” Ward, 36, explains, “but my second favorite genre is pop music, I love how big it is, how hard it hits, how good it makes you feel. Sometimes I write melodies that are folkie and confessional, and sometimes I write melodies that are big and communitarian. Then we mash them together. Sometimes it happens that they come together. I’ll write a slow song and in the middle I’ll say, ‘I love pop music so much; let’s write a big pop chorus.’”
Just before the big chorus arrives on “Salvation,” for example, the band drops away, leaving Ward’s acoustic guitar and his whispery voice to murmur, “Will they love me now?” Having voiced his self-doubt, Ward invites the band back on board and over the thumping drums and chiming synths tells himself, “Just put it all out, don’t let your head down.” The song wouldn’t work as well as it does if the hope hadn’t been countered by the doubt—and vice versa.
“Between you and me, that’s who I am,” Ward says. “It’s remarkable how I can wake up one day and be a very positive human being and write upbeat lyrics. Then I can wake up the next day and feel miserable and write a song to match. That’s our band: we’re up and down, happy and sad. I hate that; I wish I wasn’t like that, but we try to ride that wave. Every third day, I call up my manager and say, ‘I’m out of creative juices; there’s nothing left; break up the band and cancel the tour.’ Then the next week, I’ll write a cool song and say, ‘Fire up the tour bus; I’m ready to go.’ If I don’t write anything good in a week, I get angry at myself.”
Watch The Strumbellas perform live at the Paste Studio:
The new song “We All Need” begins with an unhurried acoustic-guitar strum and Ward’s conversational voice lamenting that he’s “spent many years, many years in the darkness. Oh, I’m tired of trying, I did my best.” But the band soon comes to the rescue, stiffening the rhythm and shaping the melody to a more confident statement: “We all need someone to love and to hold.” And those someones appears in the form of backing singers cooing
Ooooh,” in stacked, four-part harmony.
“When I talk to the producers, I say, ‘I want to make pop music. Can you make it sound like Imagine Dragons?’” Ward says. “And it’s not because I want to be famous; it’s because I want that feel. I don’t know how those producers do it, that fantastic big sound, but I love it. Tim Pagnotta, the producer on this album, told me, ‘Keep in mind: you’re a folk singer with a folk band.’ I said, ‘Yeah, sure, but I want that Miley Cyrus kick drum sound.’ So we go back and forth and it’s a compromise.”
When the Strumbellas played the Newport Folk Festival in 2016, only a few in the crowd knew them, but by the time they played “Spirits,” the band had the crowd on its feet, bouncing to the contagious but paradoxical chorus, “I’ve got guns in my head and they won’t go; I’ve got spirits in my head and I won’t go.” Ward—sporting a long, curly brown beard, shades and gold slacks—bounced along with the audience. Isabel Ritchie underlined the hook with her violin and sang the top part of the harmonies, as the other four guys filled in below her. Even though the lyrics pointed out that our brains are full of both violence and transcendence, the music suggested that the latter might triumph in the end.
“I want to make pop songs,” Ward confesses, “but I know that what comes out of my head is not that; it’s a darker, rootsier sound. I know that the blend between the two is what makes us who we are. I love that our sound may be called ‘funeral pop’ one day. We want the songs to be about depression and frustration, just with the sound of those big bands. The last three records I wrote were about death and dying, so I don’t mind getting a bit lighter on this one. Lyne Staley, Shannon Moon and Kurt Cobain, all my musical idols of mine, were dead before 30. I don’t know why I have this fascination with the songwriters who are so troubled, but I do.”
The Strumbellas are often compared to Mumford and Sons and the Lumineers, two other groups that often build folk songs to big pop choruses, but the Ontario sextet comes up with stronger choruses on a more consistent basis. Perhaps better comparisons are U2, Paul McCartney or Christine McVie’s songs with Fleetwood Mac. The Strumbellas are barely known in the U.S., but they’re a big deal in their native Canada. In 2017, the group’s song “Spirits” won the Juno Award (the Canadian Grammy) for Single of the Year, beating out Drake, The Weeknd and Shawn Mendes. They’re now hoping to replicate that success south of the border.
“America is like Canada on steroids,” Ward says. “The first time we toured the States after our second record; we didn’t have an American label and we were out for seven or eight weeks. We almost broke up, because it was so hard. It’s a big wall, and it’s a big deal when a Canadian band breaks through it.”
The oddest aspect of the Strumbellas’ origin story is that four of the six members come from the same, small farming town of Lindsay, Ontario, but they didn’t play music together or even know one another very well till they had all moved independently to Toronto. It was there that Ward put an ad on Craigslist, seeking musicians to form a band. Three of those who answered (lead guitarist Jon Hembrey, bassist Darryl James and drummer Jeremy Drury) were from his hometown, Lindsay, an hour and a half northeast of Toronto, in Ontario’s snowy, forested lakes region. Ritchie and keyboardist David Ritter filled out the line-up.
“I always joke that Lindsay has the highest per capita rate of pick-up trucks outside of Texas,” Ward says over the phone from the town, where he’s visiting family. “People hold doors for you and say, ‘Sorry.’ The most popular music here is country music, and I think country music is the biggest influence on my lyrics. Some people say they can hear a small town in our music, but I’m not sure I can hear it.”
The alt-country movement of the ‘90s provided Ward with the proof that there was another way of making country music, with dark, folk verses and big, rock choruses. As a teenager, Ward found that such melodies were popping into his head, and he couldn’t get them out of his brain until he sang them into a recorder. He was in a short-lived hip-hop-rock band, but he never found an effective way to turn those tunes into songs he could perform. Even after he followed a girl friend to Toronto, he worked as a supply (substitute) teacher and other part-time jobs but never performed in public.
“I’d been writing songs since I was 16,” Ward notes, “but I was too scared to share them. I’d always taken the writing part very seriously; I spent so many hours in the basement crafting these songs, even though I felt I’d never do anything with them. I had a ton of songs, and I needed to get them out in the world someway, but I needed reinforcements. So one morning in 2010, on a whim, I put an ad on Craigslist, looking for musicians to form a band. Much to my surprise, people responded, and once you have people over and start to rehearse, you can’t back out; you have to keep going.”
But even when he had a band, everything started with the tune. “Once I have the melody,” he continues, “I add guitar chords and then lyrics. I follow Kurt Cobain’s philosophy of melody first and lyrics second. Melody is the most important part. Getting a great melody compared to an average melody is just magic. There’s no explanation for it. You can listen to two songs that are in the same key with the same instrumentation and the same singer, and one can melt your heart while the other leaves you cold. How is that possible?”
Many of the melodies that Ward comes up with leave him cold as well. But every once in a while he invents one that knocks him out, and that’s the one that he’ll finish with chords, lyrics, a bridge and an arrangement. The rest of the band gets to weigh in on the final stage, suggesting tweaks to every phase of the song.
“I have 200 songs that are 70% done,” he admits, “and they probably won’t get done until I get a producer involved. How many songs in a year do I finish if there’s not a producer around? Zero. How many songs do I half-finish in a year? 250-500. My favorite thing to do is to go for a walk and listen through a bunch of demos I’ve made. The first 27 will be shitty, off-key and awkward, but the 28th one will be really good and make me say, ‘That tickles my soul.’ It’s like opening a present on Christmas morning. I have to immediately call someone up and say, ‘Listen to this—am I fooling myself or is this really good?’”
“Running Scared,” another song from the new album, is one of those good ones. Over the vigorous acoustic-guitar strum of the folk verses, Ward confesses, “I’m borderline mentally unstable,” but he soon counters that with the maxim, “We can all live a better life if we want.” That’s enough to launch him into the hooky chorus, where he repeats again and again, “I’m running scared,” as if he’s trying to get away from the problems behind him (“Don’t look back,” he tells himself) and into the promise ahead.
The melody lies so comfortably in the propulsive rhythm that it carries the listener along with the singer. By the end, Ward is belting out, “Running scared,” while his backing singers harmonize, “We can all get a little high if we want,” as if fear and hope were so inextricable entangled that they can’t be separated; they can only be reconciled inside an ear-grabbing chorus.
When the band performed the song during their official South by Southwest showcase at the Bungalow, a now-beardless Ward was spinning about the stage with his arms flung out, as all five of his bandmates provided stacked harmonies behind him. The crushed-together crowd pressed up against the barricade, right arms raised overhead, as Ward in his broad-brim brown hat and long-fringe buckskin vest egged them on. It was as if he had sucked the audience into his push-and-pull dance of doubt and confidence.