MUSICIAN + CARTOGRAPHER

 

I discovered The Strumbellas at a cottage a few years ago. We repeatedly listened to their first album, My Father the Hunter, and as the air filled with sweet sounds of banjo, violin, and guitar, I made a pact with the other cottage goers to gather once again the next time The Strumbellas were in town. And so we did. They've since won a Juno Award, are getting ready to release their third album, and have kicked off their shoes and played one sold-out show after the next, each venue being a little larger than the last. With the intention of catching up and interviewing each one of these talents individually, I begin with Isabel Ritchie, also known as Izzy, if given a sharpie and asked to write her name out on paper (see above). She brilliantly plays the violin, holds it down as the only female bandmate in the group of six, and simultaneously balances a second career as a cartographer, you know...just in case her musical accomplishments weren't impressive enough. 


 
 

Describe what brought you to what you're doing now.
I started playing violin when I went to a Montessori School and they started offering it in kindergarten. Apparently I came home from school with a slip of paper one day and said, "I want to do this, I want to play.” So years later, when I got to university I kind of stopped playing for a year or two, and I studied Archaeology and Urban Studies. I went down a totally different path but I really missed playing, so I joined an orchestra at University of Toronto. Then I went on Craigslist, and went to the "musicians wanted" section, and I just started replying to ads. I had a few false starts. I joined one band where we had two or three rehearsals and then it fizzled. Then, I was in another band for six months then that fell apart too. Eventually, I joined the The Strumbellas. I almost didn't go out to meet them. I had emailed Simon and he had linked a song on his Myspace, and then they scheduled the first rehearsal the night before one of my exams.  I was in fourth year university and thought, "Okay, I can't go meet a bunch of strangers from the internet, instead of studying for my exam. That is not a responsible thing to do." And so I didn't go. After Christmas break they hadn't taken me off the Strumbellas email list so I emailed asking I could still come out to and they said sure! That was almost seven years ago.

What is your balance like now? Are you focusing on music?
I quit my job a few years ago and was doing music full time for a year and a half, and we were touring like crazy and it was really awesome. So we were still really busy with the band, but I got an opportunity to do a job at University of Toronto, working at a place called The Martin Prosperity Institute, where they do urban economic research. I am a cartographer, mapmaker, and data analyst for them and I've been there for about eight months, so I am balancing them both. They're really flexible with the band, which is great. So I am balancing these two passions of mine, the music side and the academic side.

 
 

Let's talk about your creative process. What is that like in terms of working with other people in a band?
Well with the band, it usually goes like this: Simon has a demo and he puts it out to the band and we jam to it. I really like jamming and writing at the same time, and having that really organic process happen where you're kind of coming up with stuff on the spot, and some stuff works and some stuff doesn't. Sometimes you have to put more of the work in at home, where you're sitting down with the recording and headphones, just playing the same thing over and over again, and trying to find something that works. We just recorded an album, and sometimes you go into the recording thinking one thing, and then you hear it in context and it doesn't work at all. So it is a lot of writing on the spot and working with the producer and band members to find something that works. 

Individually for inspiration, I love going out to shows in our genre, but also listening to more traditional or classical music, and seeing what other people are doing. When you're playing with the same group for seven years you have a rhythm of how you work, so lately I have been trying to just throw myself out there and play with other people, or sit in on a jam. If you're playing with a different songwriter, you're forced to adapt. So I have really been trying to push myself in that way lately, taking inspiration from what I am hearing in other bands by playing with them and going to shows.

What are you listening to right now?
That is a good question *laughs* I don't know what I'm listening to now actually. I think I'm in this weird place in the dawn of the streaming era, where I'm just constantly listening to a whole bunch of different music. Whatever pops up on my recommended list, so I'm listening to album after album after album instead of delving into one particular thing. I think that's a good thing and a bad thing at the same time. Sometimes I find an album and that's all I listen to, like the last Jason Isbell record. He just released a new one and I think it'll probably happen to me too where I just become obsessed and listen over and over again. Or I really like Kacey Musgraves. She's a country artist and she's so fun and quirky and kind of inspirational in the way she handles herself in the media and her public persona, so I've been listening to her a lot too.

What's the best show you have ever been to?
The funny thing about being a musician is that you're at so many shows that they all blend together, so some of the ones that stand out to me are shows I went to early on in my life when I was 12 or 13, like Lauryn Hill at a big amphitheatre. That was really awesome. 

Earlier last year you won a Juno with The Strumbellas. How was that?
It was awesome! We got nominated for Folk Roots Album of the Year for our first album, My Father the Hunter, and we went and it was an awesome experience but we had no expectation of winning and we didn't win. It was just this cool overwhelming experience. Then, when we went for the second time for our second record, We Still Move On Dance Floors, we kind of started to think, "well maybe it wasn't a fluke. Maybe we actually have a chance". Most of the awards, are awarded in a gala that happens the night before the televised show, so there are about three hours of awards and of course our award was around third last. There are something like forty awards, and only eight are announced on the televised broadcast, the rest are announced in the gala. So in the gala it's all the folk awards, classical, new groups, anyone who is not really famous, their awards get announced the night before. So we're sitting there, trying not to drink too much, and finally our award came around and they announced our name and it was kind of surreal. I think I let out a little scream. I couldn't believe that we had actually won. I think we were just smiling ear to ear for days afterward. It is just such a cool feeling to have that recognition from fellow musicians and people in the industry. It was pretty fantastic.

 
 

 

I have you seen you play small venues and now really big venues. Tell me how that feels. Do you have a preference?
We were just talking about this! I was talking to Jon the guitarist, I was like, "when did we start getting fans?" It sometimes feels like we played these shows to only twenty/thirty people at these small venues when we released our first album. Back then we had our CD release at Rivoli and so we were like, "I hope we can sell it out" and we sold it out. Then the second CD release we had at the Horseshoe Tavern and we thought, "I hope we can sell it out" and we sold it out. And then, not even a year later we are selling out the Phoenix, and all of a sudden it's like gone from this thing where you don't know if you can sell out a hundred person
venue, to selling out a twelve hundred person venue and it just kind of happens like that *snaps*. I love smaller venues like The Dakota Tavern and The Cameron House, I feel like that's where we first started to get real fans and really build something. The Cameron House is still one of my favourite places to go. Those smaller intimate venues are really nice because you can talk to the audience and they're really engaged, whereas playing a huge festival stage is amazing because five thousand people are watching you, but you just don't have that same kind of audience interaction. So we like having a balance between the two. If you play a theatre it's a little more intimate and you can have a little more banter and talk to people, but if you play a big festival, you lose that but you gain this adrenalin and energy from the crowd.

When it comes to your fanbase and crowd energy, what's it like across the country?
I think every city is unique, and we have different kind of fanbases in different cities. Toronto is our hometown so we really feel a lot of hometown support here - biggest crowds, a lot of energy. We went to Halifax last year and everyone there was singing along and we were like,
"how do you people know this?", but you know we'd gotten a lot of support from local radio stations out there. There are certain cities that have always supported us for a long time, like Edmonton. Just from early on, from our first western tour this group of people started coming out and were supportive and the fanbase grew that way. And with some other cities, for whatever reason, it's a bit harder. Some cities are more rowdy whereas Toronto crowds are usually more laid back and chill, but that's just the Toronto stereotype - almost like everyone is too cool to get into it, but we like to break that and get them into it.

When you look forward, what do you see?
We are really excited about our new album coming out and are hoping to reach a wider audience. We have amazing support across Canada, but you always want to get it out there more and have different kinds of people listening to it. We’re doing our first European tour in the fall - we are going to Germany and Austria in October. Just traveling and getting our music out there and hoping people like it because we really like the new stuff that's coming out! The new single just came out, so we're hoping people are as excited about it as we are and that we keep growing and keep up the same trajectory. We've been really lucky to keep stepping up in terms of crowds and crowd response, so we'll hopefully just continue on that path.

LISTEN TO THE STRUMBELLAS NEW SINGLE, "SPIRITS" BELOW

 
 

Do you feel like your sound had changed as a band?
I think it has changed. If you listen to our first EP, it was very folk, very country. We didn't even have a drummer. By the time our first album rolled around we added a drummer so it was a little more country/rock, and then our second album was a little less country. So I think we are evolving, adding different elements. On this new album we really experimented with some new sounds, so it still sounds like us and is still really true to The Strumbellas, but we're growing and you never want to make an album that just sounds exactly like the last one. It's always walking this line where you want to grow and do something new, but you don't want to go too far. I think we've evolved naturally. We're always trying to push ourselves but not trying to be something we're not.

What is your day to day like? Do you feel like having an unconventional schedule ever effects the expectations you have of yourself?
I think it's funny when you’re not working a conventional 9-5 job. What I found is that it really ebbs and flows. So if you’re on tour or recording, it feels like you’re on 24/7. And then you get home and you have a couple of weeks off, and all of a sudden, while there's stuff you can always be working on and you can always be practicing, you don't really have any obligations. You might not have any real obligations for a couple of weeks, and you're sort of decompressing from these crazy months where you were on the road, so it's this weird ebb and flow. It's hard because you're just on such an opposite schedule sometimes from other people. Even though I might have time off on a Tuesday morning, everyone else is working and then everyone wants to hang out on the weekend and I'm gone almost every weekend. Especially in the summer, we're playing shows in different cities every weekend and that's my busiest time - when everyone else is free. So it's funny being on this opposite schedule from everyone else.

What's the best advice you have?
I think it can be intimidating to get into any creative field where you feel like everyone is so established and you're not. The thing that's taken me a really long time to learn, but I am trying to live by my own advice now, is that you should just do it and put yourself out there and talk to people. Just don't be worried about making a fool of yourself, because people are probably really excited that you're excited about something. That's something that I'm constantly reiterating to myself, because I can be a bit shy. Since I've been trying to live by that, I'm constantly surprised how receptive people are. And I guess I did that when I joined the band after responding to a random Craigslist ad. So I'd say just keep doing what you do and don't let yourself get complacent. 

 

CHECK OUT THE STRUMBELLAS
www.thestrumbellas.ca
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CREDITS
Published on August 31, 2015
Interview & photography by Marlee Maclean
Transcribed by Robby Maclean