The Strumbellas’ Fun Folk Appeals to 4 Knots Festival-Goers (Interview + Photos)

A conversation with Canadian folk-pop group the Strumbellas and photos of Car Seat Headrest and Protomartyr from the 4 Knots Music Festival.

This year’s Village Voice 4 Knots saw the festival return to the South Street Seaport. The festival offered a generous day of music across two stages (plus a DJ stage) including acts like Guided by Voices, Car Seat Headrest, Prince Rama, Mild High Club and the one I was looking forward to most of all, the Strumbellas. The Strumbellas newest album Hope has propelled the band to new stages rapidly. Lead singer Simon Ward, violinist Isabel Ritchie, keyboard player David Ritter, drummer Jeremy Drury, bassist Darryl James and lead guitar Jon Hembrey studied pop songs to craft an album that’s loaded with catchy songs. Their lead single “Spirits” can be heard at grocery stores around the world.

PopMatters sat down with Ritter and Hembrey ahead of their 4 Knots performance to discuss the Strumbellas rising musical prominence, the Canadian folk music scene and crafting Hope. Photos of a few performances from 4 Knots follow below.

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Last night, The Strumbellas played [London’s] Hyde Park at an event headlined by Mumford and Sons — how was the show?

Jon Hembrey: [The show] was fantastic. It had a really great turnout with a lot of people singing along, which is super great to see.

Dave Ritter: Not to be too modest, but a surprisingly big turnout. We had a 3:30 set time…

Hembrey: We were the first band on the one stage we played at.

Ritter: So we were kind of thinking “oh it’s going to be so so” but it’s our first show in the UK and it was actually amazing.

I’ve heard “Spirits” [The lead single off of Hope] in grocery stores like Whole Foods here in the U.S. It’s is blowing up isn’t it?

Ritter: Yeah it is blowing up. I find that [those are] the most surreal moments… I’m buying a burrito when it comes on. I kind of expect to be in the car or something.

Hembrey: It came on at Toronto Bluejays game when I was there. And my sister lives in Paris and she heard it in the big chain over there but like the Loblaws in Canada or Sainsbury’s in the UK, that equivalent in France, [is where] she heard it.

In other interviews, the band has expressed that pop songs influenced the sound on Hope, can you go into that and what some of those influences where in particular

Ritter: I feel like there were a lot of pop records being played. I myself almost had a lot of Taylor Swift 1989 on. I just heard it and loved it. That was a big record for a lot of people in the band actually, especially for some people in the band who don’t listen to pop music at all. I love Katy Perry and anything Max Martin does.

I really like the Carly Rae Jepsen record [E-MO-TION] from last year so I was listening to that a lot and annoying the heck out of these guys playing it in the can. There was a lot of Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”. I don’t know, for some reason we just ended up all liking a lot of big pop records and I think it kind of seeped into the music we were making.

Hembrey: We just listened to a lot of it and then when we got down to recording it’s like “hey”.

Ritter: Any music that you’re excited about and listening to, you maybe study a little bit. Like “how did they do that” and then you start thinking about it. But it was definitely something that came from us listening to in our free time then something we were doing on purpose.

Hembrey: It wasn’t homework or anything.

What’s your favorite track to play live?

Ritter: That’s a good question… We’re playing a slower one from Hope called “Wild Sun” that I’m starting to really like playing live because it’s sort of a change of pace. It might be one of these dark horse favorites where it’s not like a song you hear on the radio. I feel like I’m seeing it blossom so that’s exciting for me right now. To call it a fan favorite or deep cut status.

Hembrey: I’ll go the opposite and say “Young and Wild” which is like the most party-like song the record.

What is a recent work of art, literature, film that has influenced you personally?

Ritter: I saw an exhibition and I’m not going to remember the title of the work. We were in Boston and it was at the Institute of Contemporary Art and they were doing a series of work by Geoffrey Farmer who is a Canadian, West Coast artist who is starting to do quite well.

They were amazing; his stuff is all about archives and accumulation. It’s this collection of 15,000 art books that are all being destroyed and he’ll go through them, pick out images and then reconstruct them into figures. And then you’ll walk into a room and there will 500 of these paper figures that he’s made by sifting through his archive.

Or he’ll make a video that’s based on some huge digital archive, all of these things that are becoming available with digital technology now and he’ll write an algorithm that takes a bunch of images from the archive. Anyways, it’s very abstract kind of stuff about archives that makes you think about this digital accumulation of information is all about. It’s not particularly related to the music we’re making but it’s making me think a lot.

Hembrey: Mine was No Great Mischief by Alistair Macleod, the last book I read. [Great Canadian choice Ritter inserts.] It’s a book about family, what it means to be family, how that changes and how we stay the same. It really stuck with me because my dad was born in England but came here when he was ten so I just met some distant relatives when we were in London just the other week. It’s a great Canadian novel.

Ritter: A lot of sad stuff about dogs.

Hembrey: (laughs) One of two sad stories.

What’s the Canadian folk scene like?

Hembrey: It’s great, I’d say it’s thriving. There are lots of great new artists like Greg James. It’s really neat in Canada at a lot of the folk festivals you typically do a show but then you do a workshop throughout the course of the weekend. So you get on stage with one to four other bands and just play together. It’s a little thrown together.

Ritter: Yeah, you never rehearse and in most cases you’ve never met before and they throw you on stage and say “alright, go”.

Hembrey: But it’s really fun. You just say, “hey, we’re going to play this song. It’s in G. Join in.” And someone plays something really cool overtop like a unique melody and a unique take on something we never thought about.

Ritter: And then sometimes it doesn’t work (laughs) but that’s kind of fun too.

Hembrey: But that’s playing music: sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s awkward.

After today, I’ll be seeing you again at Newport Folk Festival, are there any collaborations you anticipate?

Hembrey: It seems like a Canadian thing only. I don’t think we’ve ever had that experience in America.

Ritter: Maybe we it happens but we haven’t been to those kind of festivals. Nothing is on the books right now. I know Izzy [Ritchie] in particular, our violinist, is really excited about Newport Folk, just all the history. And she’s a real kind of folk and country person so that’s really exciting for her specifically.

What are you most looking forward to on this tour?

Ritter: Spirits is approaching double platinum in Italy, which is kind of blowing all our minds a little bit, and there are some gigs on Italy that I just have no idea what to expect. Maybe they’ll be amazing and maybe the songs will have come and gone. There’s something exciting about traveling halfway around the world and having no idea what to expect.

Hembrey: Most of the European shows I’m pretty excited about because most of the countries I’ve never been to. That’s just really fun: to go to a country and play music.

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Car Seat Headrest


The Strumbellas