The Winnipeg Folk Festival is all about discovery. Every week from now until the festival, we are digging into the lineup and profiling the artists we think should be on your radar.
This week: The Strumbellas.
To say that 2014 has been the Strumbellas' year would be an understatement.
In March, the Toronto indie-folk six-piece snagged the Juno Award for Roots & Traditional Album of the Year -- Group for 2013's breakout record We Still Move on Dance Floors.
Months later and frontman Simon Ward is still in shock.
"The Juno was crazy," he says. "It was totally surprising. We thought for sure we were going to lose. I cried, and I'm not usually a crier."
By June, We Still Move on Dance Floors was long-listed for the 2014 Polaris Music Prize, alongside albums by the likes of Chad VanGaalen, Arcade Fire, Drake and fellow Winnipeg Folk Festival performer Bry Webb.
And at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the Strumbellas are performing at Big Blue@Night, the festival's alternative mainstage, on Friday night.
"It's been a great year," Ward says. "I'm really happy we're on that list -- but all I'm thinking about now is the making the next record."
Indeed, Ward, 31, isn't one to ride one record for too long; the Strumbellas' Juno-nominated debut, My Father and the Hunter, came out in early 2012, roughly 20 months before We Still Move on Dance Floors. Following up a successful record comes with its own set of expectations and pressure -- internal and external both -- but Ward thrives on that kind of heat.
"It stresses me out but I love it," he says. "I think that's my favourite thing about songwriting and making music in general. It's not even that you want to compete; it's that you want to stand out."
For the Strumbellas, that might mean taking a more calculated approach to their third album. When the band -- which includes David Ritter, Jon Hembrey, Izzy Ritchie, Darryl James and Jeremy Drury -- went into We Still Move on Dance Floors, there wasn't much of a game plan for that record.
Actually, make that no game plan.
"Our band was still so green," Ward says with a laugh. "When we found out we could make a record, everyone was still in shock that we had the money to do it. It was just like, 'Hey guys, I have a few new songs, can we apply for a grant?' I feel bad saying that -- it's not a very artistic approach. But it's the truth."
The band may not have some grand artistic vision for the album, but it certainly didn't take a haphazard approach to making it. The Strumbellas took their best songs to the famed Bear Creek Studio outside Seattle to record with Grammy nominee Ryan Hadlock (Metric, the Lumineers). We Still Move on Dance Floors is a bright, harmony-driven collection of bluegrass-kissed songs that showcase the undeniable chemistry that brought these players together.
The Strumbellas formed in 2008. A couple years before, Ward had put up an ad on Craigslist. He'd just moved to Toronto from Peterborough, Ont., and wanted to start a band. After two years of auditions and false starts, "four of us ended up being from my hometown of Lindsay, Ontario," he says with a laugh. Only Ritter and Ritchie came from that Craigslist call. The group jelled, and released a self-titled EP in 2009.
Since then, the band's bond has only strengthened.
"I'd love to talk to a band that doesn't have that brother-sister relationship," Ward says. "You have to be in the van with these people for 12 hours a day for months. That's so important. You can write great songs, but if you can't find people you can do that with, you're in trouble."
It's also key to find people who share the same priorities. "We're committed to being full-time musicians," Ward says. "Touring takes precedence. We're in it for as long as we can take it. I'm a big believer in that; if you're going to do it, you have to go for it. It's hard to be successful if you don't go all the way."
In fact, all the Strumbellas have recently quit their day jobs -- but Ward is hesitant to celebrate just yet. "Talk to us in a year," he says.