Happiness and heartbreak go hand in hand for The Strumbellas.
The Canadian collective had been riding high in 2019 on the success of its fourth album Rattlesnake with performances across the globe including festival slots and a rendition of lead single “Salvation” on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
But when the band returned from a long European tour, lead vocalist Simon Ward realized that his depression, something he’s dealt with over the past 15 years, had progressed into something he was no longer able to manage on his own. Ward was hospitalized and placed under doctor supervision. The group collectively decided to cancel its highly anticipated Canadian tour in early 2020, intent on giving its frontman the time and space to heal.
“I started struggling with depression when I was 18 and managing it has been extraordinarily hard. Some days are a lot harder than others,” Ward explains. “I’ve always found picking up my guitar helps. I’ve always used creating music as an emotional outlet. There are so many musicians that I’ve listened to and turned to when I’ve needed to know someone understands, and I’m always humbled when people reach out and tell me that my songs have helped them. It’s not always easy, but I talk about my struggles in my songs because I know what it’s like to feel alone and if my music can give even one other person hope, then that’s all that matters to me.”
Over the course of the year, lockdowns in Canada kept the band from making music and from each other. They’d hit a string of milestones and were anxious to get back to doing what they love. Since releasing their eponymous EP in 2009, the band has become an indie juggernaut, releasing four albums and bringing their unique brand of folk-leaning pop to festivals including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza. Their third album Hope, which released in April 2016, catapulted them to new heights, with lead single “Spirits” topping the Billboard Alternative Songs chart and winning the Juno Award for Single of the Year in 2017.
With the group on hiatus through 2020, Ward spent his time focused on his mental health and finally felt the spark to create music with his bandmates, intent on weaving his personal issues into the band’s music and message. This past November, the band reconnected in person for the first time in almost a year to record their new single “Greatest Enemy,” a song that Ward had penned with acclaimed songwriter Stevie Aiello (Thirty Seconds to Mars, Lana Del Rey).
Though the track had been written prior to their European tour, “Greatest Enemy” is prescient to Ward’s experience, with lyrics that grapple with the anxiety of knowing that your personal well-being can ultimately be your undoing. “This song is something to let you know that you're not alone, and that there are others who struggle, so don’t give up,” says Ward. “It's about recognizing that you’re more than the adversities you face.”
It also touches on themes that are universal to the current human experience, adds keyboardist David Ritter. "I think it speaks to the times because it's a time of increased pressure on people's state of mind. And so I do think it speaks to what we've all been going through over the past year."
As a group, The Strumbellas sound invigorated on “Greatest Enemy,” which sees them reuniting with producer Dave Schiffman (Weezer, Tom Petty) who worked with the group on Hope. The song ebbs and flows from contemplative verses to a chorus that explodes like a firework, with Ward carrying the vocal torch in concert with a sea of supporting voices: “Feeling like I can be anything I wanna be, but I know I’ll always be my greatest enemy,” he emotes.
“It felt like we'd all been isolated away from each other, away from our instruments, away from the thing we love to do and love to do together,” says Ritter, who constitutes The Strumbellas along with Ward, Jeremy Drury (drums/percussion), Isabel Ritchie (strings), Jon Hembrey (guitar) and Darryl James (bass). “We were able to come together and not just be physically together in the same room, but sing together and to support our friend Simon who we all love and have seen suffering and have wanted to help. The song is a lot about one person's struggle alone, but then all of the voices are singing together. It's the sound of us working together and helping each other and doing what we love.”
The Strumbellas may be unsure of when they’ll be able to play for their fans again, but there's a clear spark of optimism surrounding "Greatest Enemy." They’re intent on making the conversation around mental health integral to their narrative because it’s impacted not just Simon but everyone in the band. Touring and the rigours of the music industry affect everyone, and this year has been hard on artists, producers, engineers, and crew members. Working with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) for the single’s release, the band is hoping to raise awareness and provide fans with opportunities to donate.