The inside story of The Strumbellas and how their guitarist—running with his mom—co-wrote Spirits, his group’s infectious, awesome-to-run-to hit song
By Ben Kaplan
iRun: As your band gets more popular, does that make you run more, or less?
Jon Hembrey: It might seem counter-intuitive, but I’m actually running more these days. I’m not sure if it’s just that I’m more into it right now or that we’re so busy I find myself having to take advantage of every bit of free time I get. So if I’ve got some time in the morning, I might as well just get out there and run. Once I get in the mindset of just “Go out there and do it,” I find I have more time than I think. So I end up running more.
iRun: Why do you think so many successful musicians are runners? What does it do for you?
Hembrey: I’m not really sure. It’s definitely a challenge to keep active on the road. You’re travelling so much and don’t have a lot time for yourself. I like it because it’s easy—all I need are some running shoes—and you can do it anywhere. I usually go out in the mornings so it gives me some time to myself and I get to explore all the cities that we visit. Sometimes it’s my only chance to actually see the cities we’re playing in.
iRun: Can you give me a sense of your current running routine? How often do you go out, how far?
Hembrey: I usually run somewhere between five and seven kilometres two or three times a week.
iRun: Your mom got you started, right?
Hembrey: It’s kind of funny but my mom got me into both running and playing music. About five years ago I had been casually running for awhile, really casually…like honestly once or twice a month. My mom had gotten into it and signed up for the Sporting Life 10K in Toronto. She asked me if I wanted to try it, so I did. Signing up for it really made me commit to more of a schedule because I wanted to finish the 10K. Ever since then I’ve been a pretty consistent runner.
For music, I had just randomly said to her one day in high school that I’d like to play guitar. The very next day she told me she had booked lessons for the next week. That’s very much her attitude when it comes to trying new things. Just get out there and do it.
iRun: She sounds awesome.
Hembrey: My mom has always been very active and she’s all about getting out there and trying new things. She runs and kayaks and takes her dog Henry for a walk in the woods behind her house all the time. She’s always been a big inspiration for me.
iRun: Do you have any ambitions to further your running? Do you see yourself as a marathon guy?
Hembrey: As I’ve started running more I’ve been thinking I might try a half marathon. So that’s my current goal. And then once you’re there, you might as well try for the other half and just make a full marathon so who knows!
iRun: I got to tell you, I love Spirits so much. It’s such an uplifting, phenomenal running song. Have you ever tried running to it?
Hembrey (laughing): I don’t usually run to Spirits. Maybe when we’re in the recording or mixing process I might have thrown it on once or twice to give it a bit of a critical listen while running.
iRun: Can you give me a sense of the songwriting process. Do you know you have gold in the studio?
Hembrey: Simon is the primary writer. He’ll usually send out a demo to the band and then the rest of us all weigh in with suggestions and parts to fill it out. It’s a fairly collaborative process.
Unfortunately there is no easy “gold test” in the studio. You’re so invested in the songs, it’s hard to take yourself out of the moment and really listen with fresh ears. You’re in there making the music you want to make and that’s what you’re mostly focused on.
I usually find myself falling into two extremes while in the studio. It’s either “I can’t believe how amazing this sounds” or “This is total garbage.”
iRun: What do you like running to and, as a follow-up, how do you feel on a run? (For me personally, Graceland is the perfect running song—uplifting, not too heavy, helps me keep my pace).
Hembrey: Graceland is an awesome song. That’s going on my running mix for sure! I usually go for something a little on the pop side of things. Singalong choruses and a nice mid range tempo. If I hear something on the radio or if we play with a really cool band, I’ll usually throw them into my running mix for a couple weeks.
Nothing too fast either. I tend to play the air drums while I’m running. So I’ll flail my arms along to parts of the song I love. I imagine it might look a little weird.
iRun: If you could run with any musician of all-time, who would you run with and, if you could both listen to the same song, what song would it be?
Hembrey: If I could run with one musician, it’d have to be Jimi Hendrix. I’d put on Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright and geek out about Bob Dylan.