Formed in 2008 in Toronto, The Strumbellas are Simon Ward on vocals and guitar, David Ritter on vocals and keyboards, Jon Hembrey on lead guitar, Isabel Ritchie on violin, Darryl James on bass guitar, and Jeremy Drury on drums. Hembrey, James, Drury and Ward are all originally from Lindsay, ON.

The band’s self-titled EP was released in 2009, garnering critical acclaim and widespread coverage as a band to watch. An ongoing Monday night residency at Toronto’s Cameron House cemented their reputation, and in 2010 the band was invited to play landmark venues, including Yonge-Dundas Square, The Horseshoe Tavern and The Peterborough Folk Festival. Their full-length debut album, My Father and the Hunter, was released independently in 2012. The Strumbellas signed with Six Shooter Records, releasing their second album, We Still Move on Dance Floors, in 2013; it won a 2014 JUNO Award in the Roots & Traditional Album of the Year – Group category.

The band’s third studio album, Hope, was released in 2016. The first single from that album, “Spirits,” topped the Billboard Alternative Songs chart, and enjoyed mainstream radio airplay in Canada and a number of European countries. The band were featured performers on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, among other national, late-night, American TV network programs. They toured globally in 2016 and 2017, visiting Australia, Europe, and North America, including high-profile festivals such as Bonnaroo and The Governor’s Ball. “Spirits” won a 2017 JUNO Award as Single of the Year, and earned them a SOCAN No. 1 Song Award as well.

The band has just released “Salvation,” the first single and video from their fourth studio album, on which they’re currently working. In the Fall of 2018, Strumbellas’ chief songwriter Simon Ward gave a SOCAN Songwriting Master Class at the Folk Music Ontario (FMO) Conference in Toronto, where he was very voluble and forthcoming about his songwriting process. In addition to breaking down the bit-and-pieces assembly of The Strumbellas’ world-conquering hit song “Spirits,” here are some the highlights of what he had to say…

  • “The first song I ever wrote was around age 12, for my dad’s birthday.”
  • “I obsess about music. I love it.”
  • “I have thousands of voice memos on my cellphone. I sing into my phone on the subway. I run out of the shower to sing a melody into my phone… I’ll put days of work into a song demo… My favourite thing is to make demos.”
  • “My overall message as a songwriter is, melody, melody, melody… If you don’t have a good melody, just throw it in the garbage… Once you get 10 seconds of amazing melody, you can start to talk about lyrics, arrangement, and production… Lyrics can be a tool to get to the melody, and you can use other tools to get to the melody, but you need to get to it… I love when people pour out their souls in lyrics, but the melody has to be there… Still, once I have a great melody, I’m not very good about building around it.”
  • “I have a short attention span, which usually means a short song, three minutes or so. I pour my heart and soul into it, even if I’m trying to make a big pop song.”
  • “It’s crazy how much ‘Spirits’ changed my life, and the lives of all The Strumbellas band members. I always wanted to have a song that went around the world.”
  • “For our current single ‘Salvation,’ it’s a 12-year-old melody, written before The Strumbellas.”
  • “I have a hard time avoiding depression, but I challenged myself to be positive on our next album… But I haven’t laughed in years… I love slow, sad folk music. I might be making some in the future as Simon the Island.”

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“It’s really crazy, all that,” says Laval-based Brandon Mig about his exceptional year in 2018, which can be summed up in five words: “Best I’ll Never Have.” That song was the most played on Québec radio in 2018, which contributed much more to the recognition of his talent than did his participation in La Voix [the Québec franchise of The Voice] in 2017. “It’s so cool to have had a chance like that,” he admits.

Propelled by tropical house rhythms, “Best I’ll Never Have” sits squarely in current musical trends, and became a summer staple on Québec’s commercial airwaves. The fact that there was also a bilingual version also helped ensure maximum rotation. “With both versions out there, we manage to accumulate [rotations] and increase its popularity in both languages,” says Mig. “Although the Francophone version did get more airplay.

“The interesting thing is, the French version was a huge hit on the radio, but the English version did better on streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and others. It’s like each version found its niche.”

But the fact that he was a contestant on La Voix, and his subsequent association with coach Marc Dupré, also played a big part in seeing his song adopted by radio stations and their audiences. “On the Anglophone side, it’s mostly community and college stations that played ‘Best I’ll Never Have,’ as well as Montréal’s Beat 92.5 FM.”

Captivated by music since the piano lessons he took as a child, Mig discovered singing when he participated in a musical in high school. He even played in a small alt-rock band. “I still play with those guys for fun, for the sheer pleasure of playing music,” he says. One thing leading to the next, he ended up auditioning for La Voix. “I made it to the quarter-finals – quite the experience. The following summer I toured with Marc Dupré a little,” he says, and also offered his songwriting skills to other people’s projects.

Partly thanks to Dupré, Mig met the architect behind the success of “Best I’ll Never Have,” Montréal composer, producer, and studio owner John Nathaniel. “He’s an incredible musician,” says Mig. “His method of composing is efficient, fast and formidable.” Fruitful, we would add: Nathaniel, awarded the Songwriter of the Year at the SOCAN Gala in 2017, co-written and/or produced a ton of radio hits in Québec and Canada, including Marc Dupré’s “Du bonheur dans les étoiles,” Alexe Gaudreault’s “Placebo,” and “Éclat,” as well as worked on songs by OneRepublic, Marie-Mai, and Switchfoot.

Nathaniel invited Mig to his studio just to see if there was any chemistry between them. Luckily, the two immediately clicked. “Before we got to ‘Best I’ll Never Have,’ we wrote seven songs in two days,” says Mig. “Short, two-minute-long ideas that we would record. ‘Best I’ll Never Have’ was the eighth, and it was the best of all the ones we’d come up with. Everything came together when we found the chorus; that’s when we knew we might have a hit on our hands.” Why that one? “Hmm…,” says Mig. “I think when we came up with the melody and the lyrics, I was in a more emotional place. I think that’s what it is: together we created a song full of emotion, both lyrically and musically.”

From this demo, the pair worked for a solid week in the studio to come up with the best voice tracks, tweaking the orchestration and production under Nathaniel’s direction. As soon as the song was finished, they considered recording a French version, and that’s when lyricist Mariane Cossette-Bacon, Nathaniel’s collaborator (who penned Alexe Gaudreault’s “Placebo”) stepped in to adapt to French. The rest, as they say, is history. “It’s so cool to have a mentor like John, because he knows how to compose good songs,” says Mig. “That’s something I want to keep doing for a very long time.”

Although “Best I’ll Never Have” was Québec’s Summer hit of 2018, and greatly increased the Mig’s fame and fortune, he still doesn’t have an album, yet. Unsurprisingly, he’s now working full-time to remedy that situation. “We’re planning on composing a five- or six-track EP, and to release them one by one, as singles for the radio,” says Mig. “By seeing how the next single does, if the momentum is still there, we’ll be able to figure out how far we can take this.”

A new song penned by Nathaniel, Cossette-Bacon and Mig should be released soon. Don’t touch that dial!


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Nashville is known as “Music City” for a reason. You can’t walk 10 steps there without bumping into an aspiring artist or songwriter. Over the past decade, the town’s population has swelled even more, with a human influx inspired by the six-season run of the Nashville TV series. A whole host of Canadians are making their own Nashville noise, which is reason to celebrate. Among them are newly emerging SOCAN members Kathleen “Kat” Higgins, Jesse Labelle, and Sarah Troy Clark. These are their stories.

KAT HIGGINS

Kat HigginsCurrently signed to BMG Nashville through Patrick Joseph Music, Kat Higgins’ biggest songwriting credit to date is as a collaborator on the Carrie Underwood track “Mexico,” with Derrick Adam Southerland and Jamie Moore, released on Underwood’s 2015 album Storyteller.

But that isn’t Higgins’ first taste of success. For the majority of her life so far, she was part of Canadian country family trio The Higgins, who released two albums on Open Road Records. But her destiny was permanently altered when she first stepped on Nashville soil.

“The Higgins came to Nashville to visit, and as soon as I walked off the plane and out of the airport, I was heartbroken – because I knew I wasn’t going to want to be at home anymore in Canada,”  says Higgins, who began writing  songs when she was 13 years old. “My heart hasn’t left Nashville since.”

After The Higgins went on hiatus due to sister Eileen’s pregnancy, fellow Canuck and professional songwriter Deric Ruttan and his wife Margaret took Kat under their wing, offering sanctuary while she sorted herself out.

The Delta, BC, native says her tenure with The Higgins “got me in [writing] rooms that I would have never gotten in, because we had a record deal in Canada, and writers wanted to contribute to [our] singles.” Having written the bhangra-inspired “Mexico,” Higgins says at press time that she’s awaiting news on a track she hopes to have landed with an American male country artist. She’s placed her songs “Old Soul” on The Voice, and “Johnny Cash Heart” on American Idol.

Higgins hasn’t abandoned her performing career; she’s setting up a Canadian tour for 2019 and will release a few new songs on Spotify.

 

JESSE LABELLE

Jesse LabelleAfter a detour into pop music from 2009 to 2012, yielding hits that included “Easier,” Toronto’s Jesse Labelle has settled back into his comfort zone: country. “I was discovering myself as an artist,” says Labelle, who recorded at the time for Wax Records. “But even if you’ve listened to my earlier songs, they’re all stories, and the lyrics are rooted in country.” Even in those pop years, Labelle made most of his music in Nashville, which he’s called home since 2013.

The effort has borne fruit, with Labelle pushing himself both as a performer and songwriter – he’s opened for Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, Eric Church , Florida Georgia Line, and Thomas Rhett. He’s also made impressive inroads as a songwriter, penning songs with David Huff, Richard Marx,  Jeffrey Steele, Victoria Shaw, Hunter Hayes, Desmond Child,  Chris Wallin, and Deric Ruttan, to name a few.

Labelle’s latest claim to fame is as a co-writer on the new single from Austin Burke, “Slower,” which has already garnered 1.5 million Spotify plays, and at press time was tentatively scheduled to roll out to U.S. radio in early 2019.

Labelle plans to release an EP in February, and will be touring the U.S. substantially.

SARAH TROY CLARK

Sarah Troy ClarkA graduate of Boston’s Berklee Music, Sarah Troy Clark calls herself an “amoeba” who’s still finding herself as she toils away at her craft. The native of Bragg Creek, AB, has recently placed three co-writes on Obeds’ ambient pop album Projections – and sang on two of them: “The Valley” and “Arms’ Length.”

“That’s the highest-profile project I’ve been involved with,” says Clark, who adds that the pop scene in Nashville is currently experiencing some growth. Noting that her move to Nashville was precipitated more by economics than desire (“moving to any other city would have required crazy rent”), Clark is nonetheless enjoying her time working with her creatives, and has a number of songs on hold.

“I’m having a hard time holding back on my hope,” she admits, knowing that having a hold in Nashville offers no guarantees. While she’s released six albums independently on her own – some financed by Indiegogo – Clark is trying to focus on writing songs for other people.

“I just want to show up and be happy to do this, because it’s crazy I get to do this,” she says. “It’s even crazier that I might pull it off.”


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