For Serena Ryder, the title of her new album, Harmony, has real resonance.
“I think my purpose as a singer and musician is to bring all my elements into harmony,” she says. “That’s what this record is totally about. My entire life I have always been all over the map, style- and vocal-wise. People go ‘Pick a style, Serena. You’re going to confuse everybody.’ But to me, it’s like different languages. Pick a language for the world? No. I came to terms with that on this record. If I could only do one thing it might be easier to focus, but I don’t think my purpose in life is to focus.”
“I think my purpose as a singer and musician is to bring all my elements into harmony.” – Serena Ryder
With this record, the multiple facets of Ryder’s personality and eclectic musical influences have coalesced into one compelling whole, and Harmony is being hailed as her breakthrough album. Considering it’s her seventh full-length outing, and that she’s toured internationally for well over a decade, you could term her rather a late bloomer. Her prodigious talent as a singer whose voice routinely induces goosebumps has never been questioned, and her songwriting skills have increased exponentially over the last half-dozen years.
Relaxing over a drink in a favourite west Toronto neighbourhood haunt, Ryder admits agonizing at length over the kind of album she should make. Her early work fell into the folk/roots camp, and she became a folk festival favourite, both here and in Australia. 2006’s If Your Memory Serves You Well brought her a wider audience (its success helped win her a 2008 Best New Artist Juno) via sparkling interpretations of diverse material from The Great Canadian Songbook. 2008’s Is It O.K. leaned towards adult contemporary.
To follow up Is It O.K., Ryder wrote an estimated 65 songs, many with Toronto peers, but on the advice of her manager, Sandy Pandya, she chose another path. “Sandy said that she felt in her gut that I wasn’t ready to make this record and should go a little further,” says Ryder. “When I trust her, everything works out.”
A trip to Los Angeles to scout out collaborators led her to co-producers and co-writers Jon Levine and Jerrod Bettis. Ryder had enjoyed working with Levine (Philosopher Kings, Nelly Furtado) five years previously, but American Bettis was a blind date.
“I met him in Hollywood and that was the beginning of the record,” recalls Ryder. “I had no idea who he was or what he’d done. I came in with my acoustic guitar and a riff, and that’s how we wrote ‘Stompa.’ At his computer Jerrod wrote these crazy drumbeats and we got the track in two hours. I felt the spark, the energy, and the sounds inspired me to write the words. It was instant musical chemistry.”
Harmony’s lead single, the irresistible “Stompa” quickly became a cross-format hit, and at press time had spent seven weeks straight at the Top of the CBC Radio 2 Top 20. The good vibes behind its creation continued when Bettis and Levine oversaw sessions at Ryder’s home studio, The Cottage (originally a two-car garage).
“I’ve wanted my own studio my entire life, where I could create my own music whenever I wanted to,” she explains. “It was the perfect place for me to actually listen to how I was feeling, with no pressure. I am shit under pressure. I start counting on my brain instead of my instincts and emotions. My emotion is where my wisdom is.”
“It feels like I’ve opened the door to a new chapter of my life, and that’s inspiring.”- Serena Ryder
Ryder trusted those instincts, and she couldn’t be happier with the results. “It feels like I’ve opened the door to a new chapter of my life, and that’s inspiring,” she says. “Before, it felt like I had everything mapped out, what my songs would sound like, who I was going to work with. This new map breaks down a lot of genre barriers and walls and allows me to go off and do different things in different styles and with different people.”
She also changed her approach to singing on Harmony. “I got to realize my body knows how to sing differently when I put down my guitar,” she says. “By doing that, I felt I owned my voice more. It belonged more to my vocal than guitar influences.”
There’s a vigorous and vital feel to Harmony, but it hasn’t always been a serene ride for the singer. Ryder has discussed her ongoing struggle with clinical depression with typical candour and honesty, and that openness remains rare for those working in the arts.
“I do think it’s important to talk about it, but also to talk about the good in who you are and that is in your life,” she says. “Depression can grow into this gigantic monster that has a really big voice and is louder than you. Just because you can’t hear your own voice doesn’t mean you’re not there.”
Can songwriting help? “With really severe clinical depression, [even] getting out of bed and saying ‘hello’ is hard to do,” she says. “If you can write a song, you are probably not clinically depressed. You can’t force yourself to do anything when you’re in that situation, but I do think hearing and listening to music can really pull you through certain things.”
As well as pursuing her own career, Ryder loves singing with others. “I’ve always wanted to be like Emmylou Harris, singing on so many people’s records,” she says. Her credits include albums by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Tim Chiasson, The Beauties [with whom she recorded a joint vinyl album in 2011], Great Lake Swimmers, Johnny Reid, Jimmy Rankin, and Jerry Leger (on “All Over Again,” a tune the pair recently co-wrote). A 2011 collaboration with fellow vocal powerhouse Melissa Etheridge, “Broken Heart Sun” (a song Ryder co-wrote), was a radio hit, and a joint Canadian tour led to the pair becoming close friends.
As a songwriter, Ryder has been writing extensively with such Toronto peers as Derek Downham (The Beauties), Todor Kobakov, Lindy Vopnfjord and Hill Kourkoutis – now a member of Ryder’s touring band – as well as Montrealer Maia Davies (of Ladies of the Canyon).
Ryder acknowledges that intensive American touring to promote Is It OK took its toll. “It can be totally soul-destroying,” she says, “singing the same songs over again that don’t mean anything to you anymore. I definitely stepped outside myself a little too long when I was on the road. You start to feel there is nobody home inside you, it turns into cobwebs and mould. Luckily I got back inside myself in time, with some internal reno-ing the last couple of years.”
There were high points, though. “I got to tour with David Gray and Ray Lamontagne, and I’m a huge fan of both,” she says. “Getting to play Lilith Fair was a dream come true, from listening to the Lilith compilations at 14. I won a competition to join Lilith Fair when I was 16, but that following year they cancelled the tour!”
Ryder is grateful for the ongoing support of her Canadian audience. “Canada will always be my home,” she says. “I feel so blessed to be from here and have the fans I do here because I feel Canadians aren’t easily impressed. It’s not about the bells and whistles and the hype and who famous likes your music. Canadians have been very loyal. Even though I’ve come out with a totally different-sounding record, I feel like the people who have been with me in the last 10 years are still with me.”