Interview – Serena Ryder
– by Fatimah Yasin
Millbrook, Ontario-raised Serena Ryder released her first indie record, Falling Out, at 17 in 1999. The Toronto-based singer-songwriter has since released four major label studio albums, including 2006’s If Memory Serves Me Well, a record of covers of Canadian songwriter-penned tunes, as well as a part-live record and numerous EPs.
Her 2008 album Is It O.K. won the Juno Award for Adult Alternative Album of the Year. The following year, she was nominated for a Juno Award for Artist of the Year.
We reached Ryder in Toronto. From her newly renovated home studio in The Annex, she told the Snipe about her experience in making her latest album, Harmony.
Fatimah Yasin: So, you’re at your home studio right now, are you working on some things?
Serena Ryder: No, this is where I like to be when I do all my interviews. I feel like it puts me in the zone, it’s where I made the record.
FY: Yeah I was thinking, are you already getting back to work? You just released your album, you should take a break!
SR: Yeah [laughs].
FY: I actually heard your song “Stompa” a few days ago, on the weekend, actually. It was on the radio and I was with a bunch of friends, we were driving around and it came on, so I turned it up because it sounded good. We were all sort of grooving to it, and honestly I didn’t know that was you at that point so I looked it up and I was like, “Oh, it’s Serena Ryder.” I was driving and we were all grabbing our hands, stomping our feet, but I couldn’t stomp my feet though because I was driving so everyone else did that for me. It’s a great song
SR: That’s totally the purpose of the song; you just made my day by telling me that, that’s awesome. There’s so much going on, life can be really hard, and there can be a lot of crappy things happening. When a good song comes on or a song that makes you want to move around, it’s like everything is okay.
FY: I was reading an article on star.com, and you were quoted to say “I listen to everything and I’ve always loved everything”. Do you think that this album is a truer representation of the diversity in your musical taste? In what way?
SR: I’ve always been involved in multiple subjects. I’ve got constant things on the side, for fun. For this record, I really wanted to bring everything together. I didn’t want to separate any style; I didn’t want to separate any genre, or any topic or anything. I felt like it was really important to me to explore all the different parts of myself musically, and to explore the different parts of myself spiritually and emotionally.
So I was really conscious about trying to honor all the different messages and the different sounds that came out, and to not censor anything that was coming out of me because I felt in my head that it was the right sound for me, or the right vibe. I feel like we really limit ourselves by defining ourselves in a lot of ways. So, I didn’t want to define myself, I wanted to let the music lead me. And that’s what I feel. And that is what happened on this record. Being at home made for a really safe place to do it.
FY: Do you find that you’re more at harmony with yourself in this album? How so?
SR: Yeah for sure. I feel like I have endless possibilities with this, with where I could go musically and also with where I could go personally. I feel like this record just really solidifies that for me in general and also specific to my career.
FY: Behind the scenes, you talk about how we need to accept the different elements and emotions that comprise our being. Have you been able to explore this outside of music in different hobbies or interests?
SR: Yeah I feel like I learn a lot from people, and I feel like I learn a lot from my interactions with people and my reactions to people. I think that a lot of my interactions with people teach me about myself a lot more. I wouldn’t call it a hobby; it’s kind of changed my lifestyle. A lot of the time, I feel like we really put ourselves in a box by our reactions and judgement. I’ve been really paying more attention to how I react to the outside world, because I feel like it says a lot about your inside world.
You know even today, this morning, I was walking to the subway. There was this dude who was getting people’s change and sitting there because there was an excess of people so he had to be there, an extra person to help out. And usually you go underground, you go to subway, the people that are working there, they aren’t stoked about working there, they aren’t super happy or whatever. But this guy was all smiles, he was like “Hello, Good morning, have a great day” as you’re walking by, and most people were kind of ignoring him. And as I walked by, that really made me happy, that was awesome!
And my reaction to that was I smiled and I walked by but then I was like hey, maybe I want to let him know that was awesome. So I turned around and my boyfriend’s just like what are you doing, I turned around and walked back to him and said “You know that was really nice, it was really nice that you smiled and that you said have a nice day.” He seemed happy that I pointed that out. I’ve been trying to kind of do that a little bit more. People love it when you come up to them and you separate those walls.
FY: Not enough people do that.
SR: Yeah if you’re in the subway and you really like somebody’s shoes, you should say “Hey, I really like your shoes”. It doesn’t matter how they react, it’s about how you react. People love it, people love for those walls to be taken down. I feel like how that relates to my record and my life has just been huge.
Because you always put up your own walls and you can take down your own walls. And I feel like you know when it comes to defining yourself, and saying that you’re only one thing, it puts a lot of walls up around you. It doesn’t allow a lot of things to reach you and a lot of different styles and genres of music or ways of being, or belief systems. I feel like it can be really limiting.
FY: Yeah I feel like its using tunnel vision at times. We’re social beings; we want to talk to each other. Even though a lot of people don’t on the subway or the sky train here, people do want to. It’s nice engaging people sometimes and talking to them. It really opens you up.
SR: Yeah it’s embracing what makes us similar, you know what I mean. I feel like we’ve gone through a trend in the last hundred thousand years or something of humanity trying to embrace our differences and what makes us different and original. I feel like that’s really lonely, I feel like we should embrace what makes us the same, what pulls us together. We all want to relate to each other, so why not try and relate to each other by seeing how similar we are.
FY: … and you can only do that when you comment on the girl with the nice shoes in the subway or SkyTrain! [laughs] Yeah, I completely agree with that.
Who are some of your favourite artists? How have they influenced your style in this album specifically?
SR: In this album I feel like I was open to all of them, and I feel like I really realized, I kind of looked back and thought who was my first big gigantic influences when I was really really young, because that’s kind of when you start figuring out who you’re going to identify with, because it’s going to be a part of your identity for the rest of your life, you know. And this was a process I did after I made the record, just want to point that out because when I was making the record, I felt like I was really just open to whatever happened, you know what I mean.
So afterwards I looked back after creating this and was like well, I’m hearing a lot of my influences. Some of my hugest influences when I was growing up, Bette Midler was gigantic for me. I was super duper into her big gigantic voice, I loved her voice, Bette Midler, Whitney Houston was huge for me in her first record, Tracy Chapman was huge, she was really cool, TLC’s record CrazySexyCool probably the most influential record of my life because I learned it front and back. Also Janet Jackson’s record, Janet, the one where she has her hair all curly and her hands are up, and it was a really really sexy record.
FY: Is it the one where she sings “Love will never do…” does she have that one on it? I love that song.
SR: I don’t know that one.
FY: Oh you have to look it up, it’s amazing. It’s just a beautiful song.
SR: I don’t remember that one being there. But she had “like a moth to a flame, burned by the fire, my love is blind, can’t you see my desires? That’s the way love goes.” She had all that kind of stuff; it was like she was embracing her sexuality at such a huge time.
So yeah I feel like a lot of those influences really came out here for me, which was really nice. And I feel like a lot of them came out because I wasn’t really focusing on the acoustic guitar, I was focusing on singing and writing. I was writing the lyrics, and I was writing the melody. And I was able to have that sense of freedom in my voice where I could really play around.
When I got my guitar, when I was 14, I got my first guitar, for me the huge influences were Tracy Chapman, Ben Harper, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles, all of that kind of stuff, so it was all of my melodies when I first started writing songs. So I was going more towards folk music, and that’s where I kind of stopped writing and performing as much more soulful stuff.
FY: And during that time, is this something that you were thinking, like “Oh I kind of want to try something more soulful”?
SR: When I was making the record, what I wanted to do was record a record that I really loved singing and that was really fun for my voice, really playful for my voice. So I was really aware of melodies, I was having fun, like I was thinking would I sing this kind of stuff in the shower, you know.
The first record I recorded, I was like where would I sing this song? For fun in the shower it would more be an Ella Fitzgerald song, something like that. I would love to do a song that was really playful, and explore more vast territory, more vast melodic territory. I’ve always wanted to sing in my lower register, because I do have a really low voice. I have a pretty low voice. I found that when I was writing before, I would sing more to my mid/upper register, and I was thinking it would be nice to sing some songs that were pretty effortless, and effortless should be in your lower register, closer to your talking voice.
FY: The single “Stompa” has been playing on various radio stations throughout Canada. CHUM-FM music director Lisa Grossi said it could be your strongest song to date. What are your thoughts on this? Do you think that it is? If so, why?
SR: I feel like it’s the first of many strongest songs for me because I made it with a sense of openness and I feel like I honored the song more than my idea of what I wanted to write about. And that’s how I feel I created this entire record, so I’m super super excited about it. I think it may be the beginning of an awesome path for me because I had so much fun doing it. I feel like I’m having more fun that I’ve ever have and I don’t see that stopping.
FY: That’s great.
FY: What can we expect with your next album? What direction[s] do you envision it going in?
SR: I haven’t been thinking about it because I’m so into this record, it came out like three days ago. It’ll probably be in the next three to four years until another one, seems like the right amount of time between records.