Cover Story

Serena Ryder Rides High on Success  by Cindy Filipenko
Serena Ryder Rides High on Success

It’s a couple of days after the U.S. election and Serena Ryder is still enraptured by U.S. president Barack Obama’s victory.

“I was watching the election on my computer, because I don’t have a TV. I thought, Wow, for kids born into this, it won’t be history, it will just be.”

And when those same kids are cognizant of music, Serena Ryder won’t be this year’s breakout artist, she’ll just be.

With a harmonious relationship with a major label and talent supported by solid performing skills, Ryder is well-prepared.

She’s already been featured at the massive Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo festivals. At a time when many young artists are turning towards independent production and distribution, the 25-year-old Ontario native is more than happy to have the support of EMI. As for the indie scene, it’s a clear case of been there, done that for Ryder.

This talented multi-instrumentalist wrote her first song at 13 and released her first indie record at 15. Talking to Ryder, it becomes apparent that this wasn’t a vanity act of a musically precocious teen, but rather an inevitability, and a way to test the waters. Her first gig was an impromptu song at a family wedding when she was two. By the time she was eight, she was occasionally performing publicly at places like the Miss Diana Motor Hotel.

“It was a kind of shady place on the side of some highway. It was the Halloween Howl and I got up and sang Buddy Holly dressed as vampire.”

Around that time, Ryder was taking piano lessons, but her teacher was much more interested in her singing than her playing ability. For this self-confessed “AM radio kid,” it was in discovering Alanis Morrisette that she found vindication for the emotional storm that accompanies most young women through adolescence.

“I was 13 when Jagged Little Pill came out. It said in words and music things I couldn’t yet describe.”

Listening to the album was like listening to someone bursting out of her body.

“When you’re becoming a woman and going trough this period of dramatic growth, everything feels much closer and more intense,” she says. “The beautiful thing about being a woman is the connection with the emotional part of yourself.”

Accessing the emotional part became essential to Ryder when she began writing her own songs and realizing just how important music was to her.

“It was my medicine,” she recollects. “Nothing else could make me feel myself.”

After she’d almost worn out her copy of Jagged Little Pill, Ryder found herself motivated by a host of other women who were changing the definition of popular music while working on their own terms. Among her other influences were Tracy Chapman, Ani DiFranco and Melissa Etheridge.

“Their music felt very intuitive. They sang about things that aren’t easily put into words.”

Other influences in Ryder’s life include her parents.

“My mother was a good example of a powerful woman. When I was growing up she was a graphic designer at George Brown College, but when she was my age she was a go-go dancer. Andy, who’s been my dad since I was two, is also a stellar dude. I’ve had amazing role models.”

A strong sense of security has allowed the musician to take control of her career and make changes as necessary. For example, when Ryder eventually found the indie road to be paved with lots of sweat and not a lot of reward, she signed on with Hawksley Workman’s label, Isadora Records. This pairing resulted in 2005’s Unlikely Emergency. While the CD showcased Ryder’s considerable abilities as a songwriter, it was her a cappella version of the 1941 standard “At Last” that was the standout. Ryder proved herself capable of taking on Etta James’ signature tune and making it her own.

Among the people who took note of Ryder’s exquisite vocals was Frank Davies, founder of the Canadian

Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. Singing at a press conference for the organization, Ryder so impressed the organization’s executive director that the two soon found themselves working on If Your Memory Serves You Well. The 2006 album, her debut on EMI, consisted of 12 covers and three original compositions. The covers range from the AMfriendly remake of “Good Morning Starshine,” from the Broadway musical Hair, to the stellar remake of Paul Anka’s “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore.” While unmistakably diverse, the selections were all from the Great Canadian Songbook.

For a major-label debut to be a collection of covers is rather unusual, even risky. But If Memory Serves You Well expanded Ryder’s audience and made the critics stand up and take notice.

For Ryder, recording covers was oddly liberating.

“You can do covers for fun,” she says. “You don’t have to have that intense personal investment when it’s someone else’s words. The performance comes from a different place, you can play dress-up.”

If Your Memory Serves You Well effectively laid the groundwork for her sophomore EMI effort, the newly released is it o.k.?

While the title track refers to the eternal question that plagues many women, the resulting album is much more than okay, it’s fantastic.

Ryder has three distinct talents that should ensure the type of longevity enjoyed by few musicians. First, there’s her voice, a distinctively raspy instrument that has been compared to artists as diverse Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin. Second is the rare quality of that voice, a three-octave wonder that is a beautiful contrast to the thin-voiced, factory-produced popsters who currently dominate pop music charts. Third, she writes songs that somehow seem wiser than her years. But after a couple of listenings, they really do sound 25, in much the same way Morrisette’s Jagged Little Pill spoke to Ryder’s generation, or Joni Mitchell’s Blue spoke to young women of her mother’s generation—in their own, unique voices.

Released in November and pending a U.S. release in February, is it o.k.? will earn Ryder both accolades and a legion of new fans. On the single “Weak in The Knees,” a Ryder composition that first appeared on If Your Memory Serves You Well, she sounds like a female Cat Stevens. This may be from their shared vocal characteristic: a tremolo that wrings pain from a lyric of such painful anger that it seems to make the beautiful melody seem almost ironic.

is it o.k.? is not all about painful ballads, although there are other soul-rippers here, including “Hiding Place” and “Why Can’t I Love You?” In her music video “Little Bit of Red,” Ryder is a rocker in much the same groove as a Melissa Etheridge or a more articulate Stevie Nicks. She rocks. “Your black and white needs a little bit of red,” she suggests to an unseen lover who is a victim of their own narrowness. “Say you come back, but didn’t want to, still pretending everything is alright!” There is such a contained passion behind this guitar-driven three-chord rocker that it begs repeat listening.

But it’s the bluesy “What I Wanna Know” that has a truly soul-stirring vocal delivery. Featured as the closing number on the Bravo-produced concert that accompanied the release of is it o.k.?, “What I Wanna Know” is astounding.

With both a percussion arrangement and a melody that wouldn’t be out of place on a K.T.Tunstall album, this song plays to all of Ryder’s strengths. Ryder’s a damned fine poet, player and singer who operates with the minimum amount of ego (she refers to ego as the root of all evil) required to do the work.

“The more that I’ve lived, the more I realize it’s really about coming from the inside out. That’s when you connect with people,” she says. “You have to honour those little voices inside.”

Realizing that half of Canadian schools have no music programs, Ryder has partnered with other Toronto-area musicians to work on Music Monday, a project of the Coalition for Music Ed in Canada that encourages other young musicians to honour their voices.

“I think the biggest piece of advice I can give other young women is to really figure out what your message is. Figure out your purpose.”

With the release of is it o.k.? Ryder has found her purpose—crafting songs that will surely make their way into the Great Canadian Songbook.