The Strumbellas Make Death Danceable in Debut Album “My Father and the Hunter”

Toronto band The Strumbellas’ debut album My Father and the Hunter, is a stirring, emotionally charged record, with the group’s already recognized infusion of stomping bluegrass and indie-rock grit, laced with an alt-country feel. But if the album feels a bit dark, you can chalk it up to songwriter and lead vocalist Simon Ward’s preoccupation over the past year with the idea of death.

“During the time I wrote this record, I was obsessed with death. I don’t know what it was. I was just obsessed with it. I thought about it all the time — not to do it — it’s just a topic that fascinated me,” he says. “I was literally sitting there and writing, going, ‘Who cares about anything?’ We’re all working so hard in life towards death. Like, we do all these things in our daily lives — we go through all these hard times, all these struggles — and what are we working towards? You know — death.”

Now, Ward is a friendly guy with a cheery disposition. Aside from being the lead vocalist for the Strumbellas, he teaches young kids at his day job as a supply teacher. Ironically, he doesn’t teach music much because, as he wryly confesses in his interview with Cadence, he can’t read music.

His is the kind of affable personality that makes you want to go out to a pub and kick back with a couple of drinks. This is the kind of person you’d expect to write a song like “The Sheriff” (the first track off the new album) because it is a gleeful, barn-stomping, beer-drinking ruckus of a song. However, on the tracks that have a decidedly dark turn to them, Ward reveals his propensity for deep, thoughtful, and lyrically morbid songwriting.

Drawing inspiration from his family, people around him, and his own personal life, as well as from religion, Ward says he found himself compelled to write about heavier topics than might ordinarily be expected, especially when introducing his music to the world.

“For some reason, during the turning of this record, those are the four things [family, surrounding people, personal life, religion] that were on my mind, and that’s just what I had to talk about, you know?” he says.

But given that their music falls into the country/bluegrass genre, where soul-wrenching storylines are commonplace, Ward doesn’t feel this is necessarily a bad thing.

“It would make a terrible pop record, for that reason alone,” he jokes. “[This genre] gives you complete freedom to write about anything you want.”

Coming back to the heavy material that ended up on the album, Ward explains the motivation behind it:  “I know it’s totally morbid and dark, but I honestly don’t see it as a dark and morbid thing! When I think of it, I’m not sad. It’s not a sadness thing. It’s a fascination thing. I don’t glum about like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe I’m going to die.’ More like, ‘Wow, this takes a big pressure off my life!’ ’Cause like, it’s not like we’re going to last forever, so just enjoy this life I have. It’s totally a positive outlook on death. It’s not like a sad, glum outlook.”

This is no album of shoe-gazing music though, despite lyrics that often reference situations of loss, death, and separation. The instrumental expertise present on each song reveals a group of talented musicians whose separate talents come together in astonishing ways to make you want to dance and sing along, while leaving you with deep things to think about once the music stops. On the song “Lakes,” when Ward sings, “I miss the days, the days when I was young / Oh I miss my street, I miss where I come from / I don’t wanna die, but it’s everywhere I go, ohh-ohh-ohh, oh-oh-oh-oh,” the fast, strumming tempo of the music is almost at odds with the mournful tone of the lyrics.

On the chorus of the contemplative, banjo string-plucking “The Bird that Follows Me,” Ward matter-of-factly notes, “I believe in death, ’cause death has always won the last hand.”

With gothic overtones, the vivid imagery on this track puts in one’s mind a vision of night-drenched desert landscapes, free-wheeling vultures, and tragic, mysterious loners. In it, themes of loneliness, fear, and love are covered with equal depth and gravity, while the slow-strumming lingers in your mind long after the final note:

There’s that bird that follows me

Swinging from the branch of a dying tree

I walk through the city in my bare feet

The devil put the barracuda spirit into me…

And I run, run right out the window

And I believe in death, (hey!)

’Cause death has always won the last hand…

Walk through love with my heart on my sleeve

Rattlesnakes slithering around my feet

Spend my days looking up from my knees

One day, Jesus Christ, won’t you follow me?

“Rhinestone” is another gem of a song. Barely two and a half minutes long, it deals with the harsh reality of a family torn apart by religious differences: “Well I lost my father / To the hands of Jesus / It breaks my heart, Dad, you won’t meet my son” – while making you want to nod, clap, and stomp your feet, especially with the uncannily catchy hook, “All my life, all that hurt, all that heartache.”

Rarely does a debut album arrive on the scene as fully fleshed-out and with as distinct a sensibility and voice as can be found on My Father and the Hunter.

Their lyrics are rich with meaning and emotion, paired with an instrumental blend that borrows from bluegrass, country, and indie rock, as well as a storytelling style reminiscent of legends like Bob Dylan.

But the Strumbellas have had a lot of practice. Since forming in Toronto in 2006 (with each member hailing from Lindsay, Ontario, not coincidentally), the band has played in a variety of Toronto music locales known for showcasing emerging talent. These include the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern, the Dakota Tavern, and the Cameron House — the latter of which hosted them for three separate residencies.

Larger than your average band, the Strumbellas is made up of Ward on acoustic guitar and vocals; David Ritter on piano, organ, percussion, and vocals; Jeremy Drury on drums and percussion; Isabel Ritchie on violin, viola and vocals; Jon Hembrey on electric guitar and mandolin; and Darryl James on bass.

“We’re going to definitely have to downsize for touring,” Ward says, only half-jokingly. “We’re going to have to figure that out, ’cause it definitely won’t fit in one van.”

With a disparate, yet cohesive mix of high energy and deep contemplation, My Father and the Hunter would be impressive even as a sophomore album. As a debut, it is even more of a feat for this emerging band.

The Strumbellas also made their Canadian Music Week debut this year, on March 21 at the Garrison in Toronto.

For more information on tour dates and band news, check out their website here.