Finding a Ryder

Ever heard of Serena Ryder? I hadn’t. Until a rep from her Atlantic Records label contacted us several weeks ago to promote her upcoming shows in our region.

But listening to Serena Ryder talk about growing up with musical genes and spouting music history, her passion is infectious. It’s no wonder she’s on the cusp of greatness.

Neil Young doesn’t know it, but he taught me how to play harmonica,” Ryder said in a phone interview with me a few weeks ago, declaring the fellow Canadian’s “Harvest” album as her all-time favorite.

The way Ryder is going, Young will probably find out soon.

At 25 years old, the Toronto-based Ryder was earlier this year crowned New Artist of the Year at Canada’s Juno Awards and Billboard called the songstress “Canada’s most promising” artist.

She’s coming off a fantastic summer playing festivals, including the giants of Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, and next month the up-and-coming singer-songwriter is swinging through the region for a show in Milwaukee this weekend. She’ll also play two shows in Chicago next weekend.

Her songs have that raw emotion of a Janis Joplin, the soulful sound of a Toby Lightman and the spunk of an Alanis Morissette. Her personality carries the vitality and charm of a young adult but she has the maturity and wisdom of a schooled, industry veteran. The girl knows her stuff.

“Sometimes there’s a connection to something that I totally believe in,” Ryder said. “You know certain things and you don’t know why. I definitely feel like there’s certain wisdom that exists regardless of our intellect.”

A self-proclaimed “AM radio kid,” Ryder recalls Linda Ronstadt and Roger Miller as major influences while she was growing up, as well as the crop of singer-songwriters who rose out of the 1990s — women like Ani Difranco, Jewel and Tracy Chapman. They prompted her to buy her first guitar at age 13.

But Ryder thinks the music was in her veins long before that. Her mother was a touring backup singer and go-go dancer, and her biological father, whom she’s never met, was a Caribbean-folk musician. Her uncle also was a singer-songwriter.

“It was in the genes, in the blood for sure,” Ryder said. “Definitely there was some genetic history because none of that was going on when I was born and alive.”

Ryder was singing and performing as fast as she learned to talk. At the age of 2, she says, she jumped on a stage at her sister’s wedding reception and began singing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” to the crowd. By age 7, she had begun performing at hotels and events, and at 15 she moved to metropolitan Peterborough, where she played countless shows during the next few years.

Without any formal training, most of the songs and instruments she picked up she learned by plain observation and listening. When she finally began taking piano lessons, her teacher doubled as sort of a vocal coach, helping young Serena learn to sing and play songs she picked.

“It was kind of pre-destined,” Ryder said. “I was a little bit of a freak though as well. There was something inside of me that had to be explored. I had to do it. It was unexplainable like that was something that satisfied my soul like nothing else really did.”

After putting out a series of independent live recordings, Ryder caught wind in 2005 with her “Unlikely Emergency” album. On the strength of the emotionally-charged single “Just Another Day,” Ryder began touring the world, garnering outstanding reviews along the way.

Ryder followed that with 2006’s “If Your Memory Serves You Well,” a collection of notable Canadian songs that includes a rollicking cover of Galt MacDermot’s “Good Morning Starshine.” I fell so deeply in love with her version of the song, I couldn't get it out of my head for days ...

It was in March 2007, during a stop in Austin, Texas, that Ryder caught the ears of Atlantic Records. She signed with the major label before the end of the month and within two months recorded her U.S. debut, the EP “Told You In A Whispered Song.” The disc’s five songs are a compilation of gentle studio acoustics and new songs that are surely just a hint of what’s to come from Ryder.

In January, Ryder expects to release her first full-length album with Atlantic, an album she proudly points out was recorded in the same Los Angeles studio where the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Fleetwood Mac have recorded music.

“Signing with Atlantic was huge, huge, huge,” Ryder said. “It was kind of the last piece of putting in the foundation of your career. I’ve been building that foundation for a very long time and I feel like they’re a huge part of my foundation and family and I have a good relationship. I feel like I kind of got married in a sense musically.”

Ryder is feeling blessed to be part of the history, something bigger than her. She’s fully aware she’s at the beginnings of what she hopes is a fruitful career, and she’s all for learning from the best.

Already, Ryder has worked and toured with a handful of greats including Steve Earle, Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings of The Guess Who, The Corrs and the Blind Boys of Alabama.

But she also says she's figuring out quickly who’s in it for the music and who’s in it for the money. She recalled one recent experience of watching Robert Plant come backstage to greet his opening band because “he dug their vibe on MySpace.” Ryder said she was amazed at Plant’s approachability.

For the most part, she says, famous people “seem to be truly phenomenal people and really passionate about their craft with an unwavering love and vivaciousness. They’re still stoked about music.”

But she added, “I’ve learned that there’s a lot of heresy about famous people and people who have made it,” Ryder says. “... Every single stereotype is true. It’s like you get what you give, do unto others, it’s pretty true. There’s a few lucky assholes out there who are successful, regardless.”

So then, what can one expect from Ryder?

“Lots of honesty and lots of connection definitely,” she said. “I’m so intrigued by meeting people and by sharing my idea and my energy and having a conversation on stage.”

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