“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

As the flag-bearer for everything that enlivens the local music scene, CISM, the Université de Montréal college radio station, is celebrating a quarter century on the air this year. And as noble as the road travelled has been, 89.3FM is resolutely looking and moving forward. Nostalgia? Not their thing at all. “We’re a ‘discovery’ radio station, no nostalgia here. When you listen to our programming, it’s more likely than not that you’ll never have heard what we play anywhere else. It’s our strength, yet sometimes our weakness, too,” says Jarrett Mann, the station’s General Manager.

He means weakness in the sense that traditional, commercial radio stations need to retain their audiences with the heavy rotation of hits, or oldies. Regardless, it’s thanks to its spicy, daring and uncompromising programming that the station – broadcast with the most powerful student antenna in the world, with a reach of 70 km – has created its own niche. And even though that programming is sometimes a little demanding on its audience, an incredibly high proportion of the most important music creators in Québec took their first public steps there. Its web platform recently hit the million streams mark, additional proof that, sometimes, the best way to satisfy your audience is to take it to new horizons. Even if those horizons are marginal.

“A radio station like CISM is striking because of its diversity, and is an invitation to discovery.” – Olivier Langevin, Galaxie

Louis-Jean Cormier’s case is one of the most powerful. A year ago, almost to the day, the songwriter streamed his entire latest album, Les artères, exclusively on CISM’s website. It was the musician’s way of thanking the station, underscoring how important a broadcasting platform it is for so many of his emerging colleagues. As Mann remembers, “the website crashed during the first hour!” Yet that was one of CISM’s major highlights.

Olivier Langevin, frontamn  of the band FGalaxie, who’ll participate in the 25th anniversary celebrations, alongside Hôtesses d’Hilaire and I.D.A.L.G., says: “A station like CISM is striking because of its diversity and is an invitation to discovery. It’s always seeking the good stuff among the tons of music that’s being put out there, and that’s crucial.”

Happiness is a warm niche

CISMBetting on new music discovery allows CISM to give on-air time to more niche genres, whose fans are often much more fervent and loyal than fans of mainstream artists. To wit, garage rock, which couldn’t have a better high priestess than Romanne Blouin—an authority on the genre and its many subgenres —and her show Nous sommes les rockers. Says Blouin, “It think it’s very healthy, culturally, that there’s such an alternative to traditional Francophone media. CISM has a very positive impact for bands whose music airs here, but also on an audience who isn’t satisfied with what happens elsewhere on the FM dial.”

Benoît Beaudry is at the helm of a show called Ghetto Érudit, a flagship show for hip-hop culture, a genre that is largely absent on Québec commercial radio. He’s been hosting the show for almost a decade, and there’s a reason: “It is the station to turn to if you want to stay on top of what’s new on Québec’s music scene, regardless of the musical genre,” says Beaudry. “It’s also an outstanding laboratory that gives its hosts total freedom to try new things, content-wise.”

What’s the most-played song since CISM has been keeping tabs on that kind of data? We Are Wolves’ “Magique”and they’re another band that will be part of the 25th Anniversary celebrations — has logged a few hundred rotations so far. Alex Ortiz, We Are Wolves’ frontman, is blown away by this statistic. “I was really surprised, I honestly wondered if it was a prank or something,” he says, laughing. And as much as he appreciates that the station’s mission remains its local, promotional role, he mostly remembers the joy of hearing a band that turned him on and sharing a stage with them a few months later. Great minds think alike, as they say…

CISM 3.0

CISMSo what’s in store for the next 25 years at CISM? “We’re among the best on the web, and we’re one of the top references when it comes to new music,” says Mann. “One thing that’s evolved over the last few years is, we used to have the reputation of being a student radio station – in the pejorative sense of the term – and that has subsided as we’ve established our web style.”

The core mission? To keep on doing what they do best. “The digital transition is far from over,” says Mann. “We’ll remain at the cutting edge of technology. Right now it’s tablets and smartphones, but we need to stay on top of those changes that happen lightning-fast. If CISM is to remain a young and cutting-edge station, if we want people to keep listening and supporting us, we have to talk to them!”

Says Benoît Beaudry, “I hope CISM remains essential to the Montréal landscape, and continues to re-invent itself on a daily basis, in order to remain a relevant, avant-garde springboard for emerging artists.”

Avant-garde for the past 25 years, at the cutting-edge for the next 25. Long live life in the margins!

CISM will celebrate its 25 years in music with three concert evenings in Montréal that are sure to be memorable:
We Are Wolves — March 31, 2016, at Divan Orange
Loud Lary Ajust/Brown/Rednext Level — April 1, 2016, at S.A.T.
Galaxie/Les Hôtesses d’Hilaire/I.D.A.L.G. — April 2, 2016, at Club Soda



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.