Serena Ryder captivated the standing room-only crowd on the floor of her Monday night show in New York last month. The Canadian crooner kicked off the hour-long set with a spellbinding a capella verse of “Nobody But You” as a single spotlight illuminated her black and fringe-clad form, before she launched into full band refrains of “Fall” with Tina Turner-esque conviction.
When we caught up with VH1’s June You Oughta Know artist before her Bowery debut, we wanted to know how the hell we overlooked this old-fashioned howler with impassioned vocals and the Melissa Etheridge’s personal seal of approval.
Had our neighbors to the north been selfishly holding out on us since Serena’s indie debut Falling Out dropped in 1999? Serena’s theory on why The States got Justin Bieber while Canada kept the second-coming of Alanis Morissette is more straightforward: “I feel like I just didn’t have the right record yet,” Serena said. “Maybe I wasn’t ready.”
Thirteen years, a live album and four major label LP’s later, Ryder’s latest, Harmony, has her ready as she’ll ever be with the official U.S. release date set for July 16. Lead by the infectious “Stompa” which had the entire Bowery crowd dad dancing* with abandon. As joyful as the single and other tracks are on the album, the subdued, shadow-casting bar setting, where Serena sprawled across a vintage vinyl sofa to chat before her set, was oddly appropriate for telling the inspiring story of how Harmony finally made everything come together.*To dance erratically like a preteen’s embarrassing chaperon at basement party. See: shameless adj.
DREAM-LIKE CHILDHOOD TO DREAM CAREER
When Serena says she was “successful at the get-go'” as a singer and as a songwriter in the Canadian music scene, she’s not exaggerating. She hadn’t even made it out of her teens before being given an independent deal, followed by a major contract, which led to touring around the world garnering praise that likened her to greats like Aretha Franklin for her formidable, soulful pipes and mentor Melissa Etheridge for her raw, emotional songwriting.
But, growing up two hours outside of Tornoto, Canada in an idyllic tiny Ontario town called Millbrook (pop. 1,600), Serena’s flavor wasn’t always appreciated by her peers. “All the kids at school used to make fun of me all the time,” she confessed to the Bowery fans during one of her many endearing anecdotes in the set. “They said I sounded like a goat when I would sing, because I have vibrato.”
Serena soon gained an appreciation for her old-soul timbre as she was exposed to jazz and blues legends like Etta James and Bessie Smith thanks to AM radio listening sessions on Sunday drives with her dad. Multiple Juno Award wins later Serena got the opportunity to write an ode to the classics that inspired her style with “For You.” The swelling big band tune is composed around a string sample of Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You.” Coupled with Serena’s lower register rasp, it sounds like a lost vinyl recording of a James Bond theme from the 60s.
Her childhood was similar in that nostalgic way, “I always felt like it was a hazy dreamland when I was there. I knew someday I was going to wake up and be outside of it and have that as a memory,” Serena said. “In my head right now it will always be this romantic little place.”
“I DON’T JUST WANT TO SING ONE KIND OF FOLK-ROCK SONG ANYMORE.”
“I love that I can be exactly who I am right now, because you don’t have to explain to people how you’ve changed or why you’re doing this kind of music now,” Serena said, speaking on bringing her album to the U.S. where her exposure has been limited over the years. “With this record it is a fresh start for me. I don’t even remember who I was before.”
“Before” is largely in reference to the chapter of her life that ended when Serena says she was crippled by severe clinical depression for two years – shortly after her last studio album and hectic tour schedule. “It’s an [illness] a lot of people suffer from but also something people don’t talk about, so I never talked about it. You can only get to a certain point like that, and I just kind of imploded.”
Serena felt she was done with music at the lowest point in her life. But after many a doctor’s visit and treatment, it was writing her first song in years that made her start to feel whole again. “I got that magic feeling inside of my belly like, ’Oh, my god. I feel so amazing,'” Serena said. “It’s just this thing that comes over you that can change your whole day or life. ” That sentiment is echoed in her mid-tempo track “Mary Go Round” about music aiding her recovery.
Ultimately, Serena wrote around 65 songs for Harmony in a home studio where she also learned to geek out on the drums, piano, harmonica and production editing software to expand her repertoire of guitar playing. “In my getting better and seeing the light again, I realized I really want to play around with all the different styles of music that I love singing and performing,” she said. “I don’t just want to sing one kind of folk-rock song anymore.”
REBIRTH IN AMERICA
So Serena emptied her box labeled “folk-rock musician” and filled it up with a little bit of everything. There was only one rule: “Make sure that I did it totally on my own terms.” Producer-songwriters Jerrod Bettis (OneRepublic, Gavin DeGraw) and Jon Levine (Cher Lloyd, Nelly Furtado) joined the project and introduced a whole new way of songwriting to Serena.
“Why haven’t I been doing this forever? It’s so much more fun than sitting down with a person and a guitar asking, ’So, what kind of person are you?'” she said.
The result is a pop-rock amalgam of tracks like “Call Me” and “Stompa” with soul fringes on “Baby Come Back” and “Fall.” “I feel like there’s a little bit of something for someone on the record,” Serena describes it. “No hardcore thrash, but maybe on the next record.”
Forget the metal, is it too much to ask that she include a TLC cover or two on her next LP? Serena let it slip that not only is she a huge fan of the 90’s girl trio (performing at Mixtape Festival with Serena next month), but she “can spew rap from TLC records very well.” I’d say that’s challenge accepted.
Be sure to check back here all month long for everything Serena Ryder as we follow her through the month of June as our You Oughta Know artist on the rise.