Serena Ryder

Canadian singer/songwriter Serena Ryder has become a fixture in Canadian music scenes, winning Junos – that country’s equivalent of the Grammy Awards – for best new artist, best song and best video over the last two years. Her music has been featured on TV’s “Private Practice” and “Gossip Girl” and she’s preparing to take on America with a slot on the and opening shows with Rob Thomas, Ray LaMontagne and David Gray. After that, she plans a return to the States as a headliner to begin developing her own regional U.S. fan bases.

You began playing and recording at a young age. What drove you to choose music as a career?

I did my first cassette tape when I was 15 years old. I’d love to find a copy if anyone in the world has one. I put five songs on there, and sold them for $5 to try to make enough money to make a CD. I made music to try to make more music. I’m walking the road because I need to walk the road.

It was the one way I found a way to translate what I was feeling. Every age is hard; you’re growing out of old skin no matter what age you are. For me, performing and singing and expressing myself through sound and movement was a very big thing to me. I got on stage for the first time when I was 2 years old. I’d performed in bars and venues by the time I was nine.

It was always a part of me and I always found solace in AM radio, driving around with my dad on weekends. I picked up the guitar when I was 13, when my dad gave one to me. I realized I could create that release on my own without singing other peoples’ songs. I could sing my own words and release what I was feeling.

Photo: Kirk Stauffer

I was actually approached when I was 14 at a drama festival in Peterborough, Ontario, by a budding producer/musician who had a recording studio in his mom’s basement. He said, “Hey, you ever recorded a record?” I said, “No.” He said, “You want to?” I said, “Yeah,” and that was it. It was very natural and very fun.

It feels like it could have been the last 30 years of my life, and I’m only 27. One thing really did lead to another. You do something over and over again and it becomes a mantra for your life. I could not be stopped. I could not stop singing or writing.

When it did stop, I went through withdrawal, like my body would literally burst. I ended up performing everywhere I could – open stages, with other bands. I moved out of my parents’ home when I was 17 to go to Peterborough. I was singing with anybody I could. A big inspiration and infuser for me is Emmylou Harris because of the way she is able to join with other peoples’ voices and harmonize. It’s the same with Linda Ronstadt.

How did you learn to play?

I had a few piano lessons growing up with someone who was supposed to be my vocal teacher. But I wound up singing what I wanted to anyway, so he decided “screw this” and I decided I’ll just play piano. And we wound up doing gigs together.

How do you write music? Is there a difference working out songs on piano or guitar? How inspires you?

It’s the same reason that runners in training would swim, or ride bikes or do weight training; it trains other muscles.

I have a lot of inspiration from friends when it comes to songwriting. It’s where I’ve always gotten a lot of my direct influence – from my friends’ music.

One of the first bands I idolized played all the time at this place called the Montreal House. We called it the Mole Hole. It was an old man’s club and they’d only gotten a women’s washroom the year before I started going there. It was a closet.

This band called the Silver Hearts would play every Wednesday night. I was jamming with them. There are a couple of other bands that influence me, and are friends of mine.

One is a band called the Great Lake Swimmers. Tony Dekker is the lead singer and songwriter that really is very profound in my experience. I’ve been in on all of their records because I’m such a fan. I’m Stevie Nicks to their Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. I’m glad they said yes instead of no.

Another is a band called The Beauties. Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene actually produced my EP with The Beauties, and it’s available on iTunes. It got played on “Gossip Girl” just last week.”

But I kind of flip flop all over the place. I feel very blessed. Luck is a bunch of bullshit. I can write chewing gum, in a chair, in a hat, sitting beside a rat, I can write with a group, I can write by myself.

But I choose to write in a lot of different places because there are so many different people in the world and different places, emotionally and physically and mentally, and I try to put myself in as many places as I can, yet stay centered in them.

For myself, I find even as a touring musician about nine or 10 months a year, it gives me an opportunity to find home inside myself, where ever I go. That can sound really out there but its not. It’s where I write.

If I don’t feel comfortable, and it doesn’t feel like I’m in the right place, or it doesn’t feel like I’m telling the truth – because the truth is inside too – I just stop writing.

I either center, recenter, regroup, ask “what is this bullshit I’m talking about,” tell the truth. I give my self a break if it’s not. I try to not rush myself and not stretch myself too much because I find that peace is a very big part of the process for me.

What songs by others have really grabbed you?

I cried at the song, “Turn The Page,” Bob Seger. On the first night of one of my tours I was out and I’d been out pretty much three months straight, and that’s enough. I’d maybe been home for five or six days in three months.

And I heard that song, and I used to think it was corny but it suddenly spoke to me so clearly that I cried. How profound it was that somebody out there knew exactly what I felt.

And if I could do that for anybody, at that moment, I am totally living it. I am living my dream.

Tell us about your upcoming tour dates.

I’m doing five dates on Sarah McLachlan’s Lilith Fair. That was a dream come true for me. So is getting to tour with Ray LaMontagne. I’ve always wanted to sing with him; I hope he’ll let me.

How are you preparing to break into the American market?

I was on the last Barenaked Ladies tour, and it was kind of massive. The U.S. is a massive, powerful country. It always has been. A lot of people with a lot of amazing powerful energy live there. It has the power to change the world. And that is amazing.

It’s exciting for me because I realize that it’s a big deal. I’m not taking it lightly – and making sure I don’t take myself too seriously. I’m looking forward to a really fun time.

I would love to, absolutely, make some new fans. I’ve been out there for awhile and meeting new people and getting my feet wet. I might be up to my waist now, and I think I’m ready to go swimming. I’m really excited to be able to go on the road with David Gray, Ray LaMontagne and with Rob Thomas.

I’m in a really happy place with everyone who’s around me. I wouldn’t change a thing. People always ask if you’ve had any regrets in your life, and everything in my life is what got to me to this place, and I’m pretty satisfied. You can’t do any better than feeling like everything is perfect in your life. I really love where I am right now.

Photo: Andrew Zaeh

Tell us about the time you opened for Aerosmith? Or at least according to Wikipedia.

Wikipedia, man, you get one thing in there and then everything just kind of falls off of it! Technically the Backstreet Boys opened for me two months ago. They literally played before me, so hey.

But Steven Tyler was one of the first men that I wanted to marry. David Bowie was the first one. Then Steven Tyler.

I played five sets before Aerosmith at a festival, then wasn’t able to go backstage. I had to watch from way off and to the side of the festival and admire him from afar, where he still looked like there was still a possibility that I would still want to marry him.

So everything looks perfect from far away, and Steven Tyler looked perfect to me.