TORONTO — A few days before the Strumbellas were set to embark on a Canadian concert tour in January 2020, they dropped a bombshell announcement: the entire 14-city run of shows was being postponed as one of the band's own sought treatment for an unspecified illness.
The news rocked their fanbase, but lead singer Simon Ward said the decision to cancel came during a crucial time. He was the unnamed member spiralling into a mental health crisis. Over a year later, he’s still digging himself out of it.
"I'll be honest with you, it's been the worst year of my life," Ward explained in an interview from his home.
"And every day I'm just here, trying to heal and get better."
On Friday, the Strumbellas will release "Greatest Enemy," a new single that marks their first effort since Ward faced crippling depression and anxiety.
He began writing the song before the six-member band sidelined their touring plans, and the band finished it during a recording session last November.
Thematically, "Greatest Enemy" reflects on the overwhelming demons of the mind, but in true Strumbellas fashion, the words are paired with a soaring chorus of perseverance.
It’s a formula that did wonders for the band in 2015 when "Spirits" elevated them from a ragtag group of Ontario indie musicians to a Top 40 success story, driven by an unforgettable chorus: "I got guns in my head and they won’t go. Spirits in my head and they won’t go."
But the struggles hinted at in "Spirits" became all the more real for Ward as the Strumbellas embarked on a 2019 European tour for their followup album “Rattlesnake."
Looking back, Ward says there were signs something was amiss.
Sometimes it was as simple as him deciding to hide away in his hotel room when the rest of the group went to dinner together, he said.
"It's so easy to isolate yourself when you're having mental health issues," he added.
"All you want to do is… not be with other people. So I would stay by myself."
But it was after the European leg of the tour wrapped and he returned to Canada that Ward started to realize something more serious was happening.
"I started to feel so weird, like total lethargy," he said.
"I couldn't get out of bed, dark thoughts, negative thoughts. Thoughts that were really mean to myself. I knew something wasn't right."
Ward’s family paid him a visit, and he says that’s when he broke down, confessing to them that he was not doing well. He decided to check himself into a local hospital to seek professional help, receive a mental health assessment and discuss medications.
"This has just been a full-on mental health year for me," he said.
"(I’m) still in it, still working my way through it and struggling. I'm better now. But, you know, mental health is just such a tricky game. It seems to hang around, come back and float around."
Getting the Strumbellas back on their feet will take some time.
The band has worked on the early stages of new material in recent months, said guitarist Jon Hembrey. But a near-total shutdown of the concert industry during the COVID-19 pandemic has eased the pressure of getting back on the road.
"I wouldn't bet any money on whether there will be shows in the summer," Hembrey said.
"It's just too hard to tell."
That's left room for the Strumbellas to interact with their fans in creative ways.
Last year, they hopped on TikTok for the first time, creating a venue to answer questions about music, and recently for Ward to lend positive encouragement to others dealing with mental health hurdles.
“A lot of people are in tough spots right now," he said, reflecting on how the live music industry has ground to a halt.
"But everybody's going through it, so honestly make the best of it. We're just trying to make new music, get back in the groove of things and hang out again and see where it goes.”
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2021.
David Friend, The Canadian Press