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How the Strumbellas are breaking big in the US

Matthew Fisher

The 30th year of South by Southwest just wrapped up in Austin, Texas, but for one Canadian band it was just the beginning of what could be one of the biggest success stories south of the border.

Last week, Toronto's the Strumbellas played 12 showcases at some of the hottest parties, including ones for StubHub, daytime TV host Rachel Ray and Pandora — events where the sponsoring brands want to connect their image with the next big thing. And it looked like the Strumbellas were in high demand on their first-ever trip down to SXSW.

But the crazy week of showcases in Austin wasn't necessarily a reflection of an overnight success. In Canada, the band has toured extremely hard across the country numerous times and has already released two records, including We Still Move on Dance Floors, which garnered more than 12,000 in sales and won a Juno for roots and traditional album of the year. The big break for the band finally came in January when it signed a deal with huge indie label Glassnote Records (Mumford & Sons, Chvrches). 

Since then, the Strumbellas have made huge strides on U.S. radio with their new track "Spirits," currently sitting at number 4 on the U.S. Alternative chart and number 11 on the U.S. Triple A chart. To give you some context, Arcade Fire's "Reflektor" also hit number 11 and massive Magic! hit "Rude" only reached number 17 on the Triple A chart, according to stats from BDSRadio. And if the Strumbellas don't have enough going for them, they were asked to play on Jimmy Kimmel Liveat the end of February.

While at SXSW, CBC Music was able to chat with the Strumbellas' Dave Ritter about their first festival trip, Stateside success and playing Jimmy Kimmel.

How are you feeling about your SXSW experience?

It's been a total whirlwind in the best way. People sort of warned us it might not be fun, like four shows a day, but actually it is. It's exhausting, but fun and exciting and it's great to see all the venues, as we've heard about the festival for a really long time and it's great to finally experience it. 

Have you had the chance to meet new fans that have discovered you through SXSW?

This does feel like one of the first times we've encountered those people who have heard us on the radio in the States, so that's fun. It's a different crowd because in Canada our fans know us through a lot of touring that we've been doing and they know who we are and don't necessarily know us through one song, but in America they don't necessarily know who we are, and don't necessarily know our deal, they just know our one song. So it's a very interesting experience in a new way of winning over an audience.

Having radio success in the States is something every Canadian artist dreams about. Was that always a goal for you guys?

Yes. Mostly what we want to do is make music that we like but if, while doing that, we can make music that other people like, that's the goal. If people are playing it on the radio and people that are hearing it on the radio are enjoying it, that's the best. We're having a great time, a lot of it was unexpected in a lot of ways and you can't really do much except for just make the kind of music you want to make and hope it connects with other people.

Have you guys stepped back and looked at the accomplishments over the last few months to acknowledge the big moments and debrief?

At home we do these little texting debriefs like "Did you get that email? That's amazing!" or "Hey did you see we're top 10 on the Alternative chart in the States, can you believe it?!" so we have little moments where we talk to each other about how we can't believe this is happening but it has been really quick and a lot of it you get the news when I'm in my bachelor apartment in the Annex, or you get the news when you're driving between Atlanta and Nashville and a lot of it is abstract, you can't necessarily connect with what's happening because you're in the same van that you've been touring in for the past 6 years but there are definitely moments where we look at each other and say "we can't believe this is happening".

One of those moments was playing Jimmy Kimmel, what was that like? 

The whole L.A. trip where we played Jimmy Kimmel was amazing. I think it's only the second or third time in L.A. so just sort of flying into L.A. and driving around is its own experience. The Kimmel studios are right on Hollywood Boulevard so it's right in the heart of everything and they run a pretty tight ship. It was fun, we spent the whole day there and a few minutes with the man himself. He laughed at my T-shirt that has my own face on it, so that was a big win for me. Ultimately we played like we always do; it's a stage, we had our instruments so in some ways it felt very familiar but of course it was big for us and one of those call-your-mom, make-sure-she's-recording-on-the-DVR kind of moments. 

Rumour has it Kimmel has really soft hands.

[Laughs] I did shake his hand but I can't say that I was paying attention to the consistency or texture of his hands.

The Strumbellas' new record, Hope, will be released on Six Shooter/Glassnote Records April 22.

Follow me on Twitter: @MattRfisher