In the 1950s and ‘60s, Johnny Cowell put Canadian songs on the top of the pop charts. One of his most enduring remains “Walk Hand in Hand,” a sweeping love ballad that‘s been recorded more than 90 times, including hit versions by crooners Andy Williams and  Tony Martin, and Liverpool beat group Gerry & The Pacemakers. He also composed hits for The Guess Who (“His Girl”) and Bill Purcell (“Our Winter Love”), and his song “(These Are) The Young Years,” in the version performed by organist Floyd Cramer, appeared in the final season of Breaking Bad in 2013. The 90-year-old trumpet player, a former member of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, was one of the first inductees into the Scarborough Walk of Fame.

Your music career started with the playing the trumpet. What turned you on to songwriting?
The reason I started writing songs was I met [my wife] Joan in a dance band. She was the singer. And she really looked terrific! I wanted to write her a song to sing. And I got hooked. So I just kept writing them.

What did you like about songwriting?
As a musician, it gave me immense satisfaction. I enjoyed just sitting down at the piano and playing. If I had a good idea, it just sort of wrote itself. Well, the melodies came quite easily; I usually had trouble with the lyrics. But when I finished I felt really good about it. And if I didn’t feel good about it I’d throw it in the wastebasket.

Johnny Cowell

You worked closely with the late, famed music publisher William Harold Moon. What was he like?
He was one of my best friends. We just hit it off like a couple of peas in a pod and he was the person who really got me going. He was interested in my songs and brought me into [SOCAN precursor] BMI [Canada]. It was funny, Harold would phone me up at night and say, “I’ve got a good title for you and I’d like to see a completed song in two days.” I was really sorry when he died.

Tell us how you came up with the idea for “Walk Hand in Hand.”
My wife Joan and I we went to New York on our second wedding anniversary and we decided to take the ferry to Staten Island. And when we got there, we noticed a marquee on the theatre: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. So we thought we’d go see it. All through the film, [the characters] are walking hand in hand. So when we came out of the theatre, I told Joan, “I think I got a good title for a song, called ‘Walk Hand in Hand.’” And by the time I got back to the hotel, I’d written all the music.

There are many versions of the song — Andy Williams, Tony Martin, Gerry & the Pacemakers, etc. How did that happen?
My friend Denny Vaughan. I played on his television program and I took “Walk Hand in Hand” into the studio and he said, “This is it, I’m going to record this.” So he had the first recording – and a very good one, too. He’s a terrific singer. Denny’s the one who took it to New York and played it for Republic Music, and they got it to RCA, and then Tony Martin. From there, Andy Williams picked it up, and several other people.  It was hard to keep track. One night Joan and I were sitting in our living room and watching the Ed Sullivan show, then all of a sudden Tony Martin walked out and started singing my song. We weren’t expecting it. It was just terrific.

“Walk Hand in Hand” has become a kind of wedding standard. How do you feel about that?
It’s funny, some people think it’s a religious song, but not to me. It’s a love song. I sometimes get calls from people looking for the sheet music who can’t find it. I usually Xerox it and get them a copy so they can have it at their wedding. Any time I can get someone to sing “Walk Hand in Hand,” I’m happy to do it.



“I’ll be a dreamer till the day I die,” warbles Simon Ward, lead singer and principal Strumbellas’ songwriter on their current singalong hit, “Spirits.” The catchy first single off their fourth, forthcoming release Hope has been played more than three million times on Spotify, and is in regular rotation on Canadian radio.

There are days when the band’s rapid rise into the broader consciousness of music fans feels like a dream to Ward. In the past few months, The Strumbellas signed with chic indie label Glassnote Records (Phoenix, Mumford & Sons); opened a string of cross-Canada shows for Blue Rodeo; made their U.S. network television debut on Jimmy Kimmel Live! in Los Angeles; and shared a pre-Grammy party bill there with Leon Bridges. Ward says he was a bit nervous meeting Kimmel, but the couple of days in Hollywood were surreal. Amid these dream-like experiences, the highlight was meeting one of his musical idols: Alex Ebert from Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros.

When Ward connects with Words & Music, The Strumbellas are following the white line South — adding more miles to their musical journey, gaining new fans at each stop for their catchy roots-rock. Ward and his five bandmates are cramped in their tour van leaving New York City, rolling down the Interstate to Georgia. A pit stop in Nashville follows before the band arrives in Austin to play a bunch of showcases at SXSW 2016, receive a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award for “Spirits,” and eat plenty of Texas barbecue – one of their favourite dining experiences.

Formed in 2008, The Strumbellas are: Ward, David Ritter, Jon Hembrey, Izzy Ritchie, Darryl James, and Jeremy Drury. Asked how the band initially came up with the name, Ward says we’ll be disappointed with the story. “Led Zeppelin was already taken!” he laughs. “Seriously, I thought of The Umbrellas first and it didn’t sound right, so then I said, how about Strumbellas? Everyone else in the band thought it was okay, but nobody loved it. We’ve thought about changing it a few times, but it’s starting to grow on us.”

“Spirits” is definitely growing on fans. The video is closing in on a million streams. When you hear The Strumbellas in concert, there’s not a soul in the audience that’s not singing along to this infectious song and its catchy chorus refrain: “I’ve got guns in my head and they won’t go/Spirits in my head and they won’t go.” The composition speaks of the power of hope: finding light in the darkness that imprisons our thoughts during tough times. Melodies and words intermingle to provide a ray of light that helps extinguish the mental anguish.

“I was going through a rough patch when I wrote that song,” Ward explains. “We were on the road and I was feeling down and out. I missed my family. The metaphor of guns in my head symbolized my bad thoughts, but the thing about being down is that it always will get better in the end; that’s where hope comes in in the song.”

The spark for “Spirits” came to Ward while waiting backstage before a show in North Carolina. With only his trusty Gibson J45 acoustic guitar as his guide, he came up with the melody. “I thought it was cool,” he recalls. “Later, I shared it with the rest of the band. They liked it; everyone thought it was groovy.”

“Spirits” is the lead single off Hope, which drops in April. The 11-song collection was recorded at John Dinsmore’s Lincoln County Social Club in Toronto, with producer Dave Schiffman (Weezer, HAIM, Sky Ferreira). There were three studio sessions, all in the first half of 2015. The recording was organic and spontaneous, and many of the tunes came fast. The songs are a mix of the acoustically-inclined, rootsy, alt-country tunes that longtime fans have come to expect, along with a bit of a bigger, bolder sound that leans towards the pop side, with more experimentation in the instrumentation.

“These ideas pop into my head and I put them down on my voice memo app on my phone.” — Simon Ward of The Strumbellas

“We made two records that were full acoustic, where we were all playing our instruments,” Ward says. “We looked at this recording as more of a collective effort. We wanted to make simpler songs. A lot of the Strumbellas’ sound was there, but we also added a lot of pop elements and lots of synthesizer. We wrote the record without our instruments and the bulk of it was done in the studio.”

For Ward, song ideas always begin with a melody. “These ideas pop into my head and I put them down on my voice memo app on my phone,” he says. “I get a collection going… that’s how it always starts, with that little hook. Then, I listen to these fragments and build the songs from there before sharing them with the rest of the band. Sometimes I worry that one day these ideas will dry out and stop, but luckily for now they haven’t.”

The song idea on Hope that Ward is proudest of as a songwriter is “We Don’t Know.” Its upbeat, harmony-heavy melody is backed by lyrics that echo the album’s theme of losing your way, then finding your way back home – through such lines as “I know my darkness will never go away,” and “It’s hard when you’re living and you don’t feel much.”

“There’s lots of synth in that one, and I’m super-excited about it,” says Ward. “I took my songwriting in a new direction. I like to experiment with different sounds and strategies, and took a bit of a jump as a writer on that one.”

The Strumbellas (2009); My Father & The Hunter (2012); We Still Move on Dance Floors (2013); Hope (2016)

Track Record

  • SOCAN Award in 2015 for Folk/Roots Music
  • Won a JUNO in 2014 for Roots & Traditional Group of the Year
  • We Still Move on Dance Floors won a Sirius XM Indie Music Award
  • We Still Move on Dance Floors was also long-listed for the Polaris Prize

The forefather of Lac-Saint-Jean’s wave of “dirty rock,” Fred Fortin has just released his most cohesive album so far. Entitled Ultramarr, this work of hypnotic folk stands apart in the artist’s discography because of its softness.

It’s basically a cliché now. When a music writer needs to explain the specific kind of rock music that’s made in Québec’s Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean region, he or she, of necessity, invokes the image of a shed packed with old tube amps. And all of them are cranked up to 11! In just a few words, you’ve explained the nonchalant, heavily distorted energy of the bands Gros Méné, Galaxie, Les Dales Hawerchuk and Poni.

Even on the ground, one need not look very far to find said shed. Just drive to Saint-Prime, where you’ll find Noël Fortin’s house and its adjacent, archetypal garage. This garage, the walls of which are decorated with posters of local bands, is the birthplace of Ultramarr, Fortin’s fifth solo album.

“Ever since the arrival of the Coup de Grâce Musical de Saint-Prime music festival, pretty much all the Vieux-Couvent’s after-show parties happen in my dad’s garage,” says Fortin. Since it’s his rehearsal space, they always end up in jam sessions that last until the wee hours.

This is also where he played with the Barr Brothers for the first time, and their presence on Ultramarr is palpable in the cozy folk atmosphere. “When I played with them, we all agreed they would participate on my next album,” says Fortin. “And so, when I write music thinking of specific musicians, it becomes like movie casting. I try to write roles that will highlight their talent. So I started playing a lot of acoustic guitar. That yielded a much more coherent album. Truth be told, I also ran out of rock songs after recording the last Gros Méné album.” Ultramarr is hypnotic because of the open structure of its songs, at times reminiscent of the Sadies’ psychedelic folk, another band with whom Fortin has jammed in his dad’s garage.

This new album goes straight for the heart. Some will probably say it’s Fortin’s best album so far, and arguing against that would prove very challenging. Unlike its four precursors, Ultramarr doesn’t de-stabilize the listener with the occasional acid-rock tinge. Fortin’s production is totally organic, as are François Lafontaine’s keys. Olivier Langevin – the reigning local King of screaming guitar solos – doesn’t even play guitar here, restricting his participation to playing bass on five of the songs.

“Human stupidity is quite a burden for me. And I include myself in that. I sometimes wish I was smarter. I’m 44 and I’m dealing with my actual life. I don’t let myself go totally dark because I want to be there for my kids. My narcissism stops there.”

An Ode to Naiveté

Fred FortinNot only is Fortin a brilliant melodist, but he also uses language in a manner that few before have achieved. By tinkering with the very structure of songs, the songwriter gives himself all the required latitude to juggle his words, make syllables vanish, or stretch out certain sentences. “I always write my lyrics at the same time as I compose the music, because otherwise I end up with wordless music, and I hate just writing words,” says Fortin. “Working the way I do, I can adjust the length of the verses or choruses to fit the lyrics. That way, I don’t end up with a perfectly square song where everything is symmetrical. The music is tailored to the lyrics it inspires.”

What about that approach to language? “The French language is very musical. But to be perfectly honest, I’m not smart enough to think through every word I write. More often than not, it’s sheer luck,” he says, with a sly grin. “The hardest part is remaining coherent. And since I don’t plan out where I’m going with my lyrics, it does happen that the sentences don’t make any sense in relation to each other. Other times, however, it just flows and feeling takes over everything else. It might sound silly, but there are surprises sprinkled here and there in my lyrics that make me lucky. Just like a burglar, you find something that fills your heart with contentment.”

Fortin talks about the spontaneity of such luminaries as Daniel Johnston or Syd Barrett, “two mad geniuses that are straight to the point. They have no filters. They’re the perfect examples of the kind of naive music by which I’m inspired.” Ever since his first album, 1996’s Joseph Antoine Frédéric Fortin Perron, the singer-songwriter has established himself as a unique “signature” artist: No matter what the era, the arrangements, or their register, his songs are instantly recognizable as his. It’s got to do with the stance, the intention, the “tone,” as he would say. “It’s all about having an idea for a song,” he says, “and not overthinking what people are going to think, or how to make it sound more sophisticated. You just go with the flow.”

An Ode to Stephen Harper

Fred FortinThis lack of filtering in his creations is in stark contrast to the man sitting down for our interview. Even though we’ve had time, over the years, to get acquainted with this strange animal, Fortin is far from the type of guy who’ll bring his private life into a public place, or reveal his moods in the media. Yet, even when they depict the daily lives of colourful fictional characters as on “Molly,” or the album’s title track, the songs on Ultramarr are filled with dark recesses: psychosis on “Douille,” insomnia and its relentless self-investigation on “Grippe,” or loneliness on “Gratte.” It’s an album about obsessions. “Finding dark recesses isn’t hard. It’s well-known that a lot of artists are slightly bipolar,” says Fortin. “Human stupidity is quite a burden for me. And I include myself in that. I sometimes wish I was smarter. I’m 44 and I’m dealing with my actual life. I don’t let myself go totally dark because I want to be there for my kids. My narcissism stops there. Past that, I don’t think it’s really useful to know how an artist was doing when they wrote a given song. What they meant to say is in the lyrics.”

As if to counteract his melodramatic side, Fortin also throws in a healthy dose of self-mockery and irony, such as is the case on “L’amour Ô Canada,” a tribute to Stephen Harper he wrote on the night of the 2015 federal election. “I was convinced he was going to be re-elected,” says Fortin. “So I holed up in my cabin and, without knowing the election results, I wrote this love song to my beautiful Harper.”

Ultramarr also shows traces of Fortin’s contribution to Les Beaux malaises, a TV comedy for which he composed the show’s opening theme and soundtrack. “The song ‘Tête perdue’ was inspired by the Martin’s brother’s character [played by Fabien Cloutier],” he says. “Initially, that song was supposed to be used in the show, but I felt like adding words to it. I’d watched one of Martin’s [Matte, one of Québec’s most popular stand-up comedians] skits where he talks about his brother’s love of root beer. That was my starting point to write a story. ‘Tite dernière,’ the last song on the album, was also written for the series. It’s for the final scene, but I can’t talk about it since it has yet to air.”

When you read that song’s lyrics, you immediately expect a dramatic ending for the show’s characters. “Ha! You’ll see,” says Fortin. “One thing’s for sure, Martin has announced that the show won’t be back next year. I need to start looking for a new contract,” says Fortin, only half-joking.  Based on the quality of Ultramarr, he probably won’t have to look very long.