Local Celtic- and bluegrass-tinged pop-rockers the Clumsy Lovers recently issued Smart Kid, their second CD on Vancouver's hugely successful Nettwerk Records. It's the group's seventh release overall, but bassist and main songwriter Chris Jonat points out that being on the label's roster hasn't changed the long-time indie band's day-to-day routine all that much. "Most of the stuff they do for us we never did for ourselves anyways," he says, calling from the group's van as it speeds down an Iowa highway. "We know there's a lot more CDs in people's houses than there were before, but as far as the nuts and bolts of it goes, we've been making a living as a touring band for quite a while, and that's still what we're doing."
When Jonat rings in, his quintet's en route to a gig at a 250-seat club in the college town of Iowa City. The road-crazy Lovers spend upward of 300 days a year on tour, so they're really not based anywhere in particular. When they do get a bit of time off, one wonders whether they hole up at Nettwerk's funky 2nd Avenue digs, sipping martinis with millionaire boss Terry McBride and superstar label mate Sarah McLachlan. "We just hang around the office and hope somebody notices us," admits Jonat with a chuckle. "We walk in and say, 'Can we use the bathroom?' and then try to bump into somebody in the hallway."
Although the band's been around for a decade, it still has to work hard to expand its fan base across North America. McBride may have the Midas touch as far as the music biz goes in general, but he can't just snap his fingers and make the Clumsy Lovers a major concert attraction. "It really varies from region to region," says Jonat of his group's drawing power. "In the Pacific Northwest we do really well, we can headline fairly decent-sized rooms and stuff, but the farther east we head it starts to be some good markets, some not so good." The five-piece-which also includes vocalist-guitarist Trevor Rogers, mandolin and banjo player Jason Homey, fiddler-vocalist Andrea Lewis, and drummer Gord Robert-recently shot a video for the unabashedly upbeat and catchy "Stand Up", which bodes well for increased popularity. But they don't plan on challenging McLachlan for radio play anytime soon. "We're getting, like, dribs and drabs," says Jonat. "Down here in the States they have Americana radio, and it [Smart Kid] got to, like, No. 20 on the national chart in that format. But as far as, like, triple-A [mainstream] radio goes, it's a slow grind for sure."
Smart Kid does a swell job of incorporating modern pop sounds with roots music from the past: several tunes sport instrumental breaks based on traditional songs. The Jonat-penned lead-off track, "Bobby Banjo", has a break based on the old-time reel "Eighth of January"; his "Better Days" borrows from the mid-1800s fiddle tune "Molly Put the Kettle On". "There's obviously an endless supply of traditional Irish and American bluegrass tunes," he relates, "and a lot of them we've played for years. Sometimes there's one we really like but are bored of playin' as a stand-alone tune, so we'll try and incorporate it into an original song."
Like its 2003 predecessor, After the Flood, Smart Kid was produced by John Webster, a member of '80s rock greats Red Rider who went on to score lucrative jobs as a session player for multiplatinum American acts like Bon Jovi and Aerosmith. While the earlier Clumsy Lovers albums strove to duplicate the band's live sound, Jonat says that with Webster at the helm, the group has aimed beyond that goal. "We just realized after a while that you can't really replicate the visceral experience of a live show," he contends. "You're better off doing a bit more in the studio in terms of trying to contribute some extra sonic energy."
As well as producing, recording, and mixing the CD, the multitalented Webster handled organ, backing vocals, and "stellar" tambourine. His wife, Annette Ducharme, also contributed some harmonies, as did Jonat's sister, local songwriter Carolyn Arends. "She's really strong in the studio," says Jonat, "and she's really good to bounce stuff off, so it's nice to have her around."