With 60 songs written and ready to go, Serena Ryder had some tough choices to make when starting work on her new album. She made the toughest of all: She threw them out. Every one of them. A full year’s hard work into the trash.
Best thing, the Juno Award-winning artist says, she’s ever done.
Ryder has earned grass-roots acclaim as a guitar-wielding singer-songwriter, an approach at the core of the five dozen songs she had on hand. Starting fresh allowed her the freedom to see that she’d only been showing one side of her talents and passions. She put down the guitar and wrote, first and foremost, for her voice and for her full musical personality. The result is Harmony, an album of wide range and deep vision, driven by a fierce love — and matching talent — for music of soulful connections, for the voice as the supreme instrument, for “pop” values at their most grounded and most reaching.
Working with producers/collaborators Jerrod Bettis (Gavin Degraw, Better Than Ezra) and Jon Levine (K’naan, Nelly Furtado) in Hollywood and at her Toronto home studio, the rush of creativity was remarkable both for the results, and its ease.
“This was one of the easiest and fun records I’ve ever made,” she says. “Really, really effortless. We wrote and recorded all of the songs in a couple of weeks.”
The songs showcase boisterous pop (“What I Wouldn’t Do”), lushly sultry soul balladry (“Fall”), raw exuberance (the scat-driven “Stompa”) and earthy joy (“Mary Go Round”). And throughout each song is a blend of a joyous embrace of a wide range of styles, at all times honoring her whole musical life: The girl who sang along to her mom’s record collection before she ever picked up a guitar and the woman who had fallen under the seductive sway of generations of dynamic, poetic singer-songwriters.
“When I first started playing guitar I learned from listening to Neil Young,” she says. “And I learned to write lyrics from him too, and Tracy Chapman, Ben Harper, the Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, John Prine, Leonard Cohen, Kris Kristofferson. And on my guitar that was how I always wrote.”
There was much more to her, though.
“But I started singing when I was a kid,” she says. “I didn’t play guitar yet, so I was singing Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt songs. Bette Midler was massive! ‘Beaches’ was huge for me. Also ‘The Labyrinth’ with David Bowie, one of the first people I wanted to marry! These super-eclectic people I was into. So soulful and big. When I put down my guitar all those influences came through.”
After making the hard decision to forget all the written songs for a fresh start, Ryder headed to Los Angeles where she was put together with Bettis at his home studio. She arrived with just “the first idea of a riff.”
“He said, ‘That’s cool.’” she says. “We didn’t know it was anything. We recorded that and he created this unbelievable drum beat around it. And then the song came naturally. When I was a kid I loved Ella and all that, loved scatting, using my voice as a real instrument. All of a sudden I was scatting. And the word people came out of my mouth. Just came out!”
From that grew “Stompa,” one of the album’s irresistible centerpieces.
“He said, ‘What is this song about? I said that it’s about how magic music is. How music is one of the most powerful medicines in the world. That’s what I want to sing about, how powerful music is in itself. It can take you to a whole other place, shoot you our of your body and into your heart. I wanted something that would make you move, forget your lousy day, forget your awful job or car or disease. Music can do that. I forget that sometimes, even though I’m a musician. You know, it’s that simple!”
On “For You,” Levine brought in an idea he’d intended for her when they’d first worked together, but had not had a chance to use. Built around a string sample from Nina Simone’s recording of “I Put a Spell on You,” the song has a simmering tone manifest through Ryder’s sultry vocals. “Call Me” carries another shade of the same seductively dark edge. And “Fall,” she says, came from wanting “something where you were just so in love that you’re falling down that rapid river.”
Her favorite, she says. is “Baby Come Back,” about “me writing to that be-all, end-all power, God, the universe, whatever. People in their moment of despair will go to that higher power. I was thinking, why then in our moments of happiness, when everything is okay, you forget about that? Where’s the gratitude? So I wanted to write about that.”
The album’s lustrous sound, she adds, was brought to full dimension by the other key team member, Joe Zook, whose mix of the music has her “for the first time feeling I was hearing music in 3D.”
Ryder was born in tiny Milbrooke, Ontario, pop. 2000, raised by her mom (a go-go dancer with rock revue tours in her youth) and step-dad (“Those oldies! He loved it. Could not sing at all, but would scream at the top of his lungs to the radio when we would go on drives Sundays in his truck”), with extra music influence from her uncle, noted singer-songwriter Bob Carpenter. Her musical pursuits took off in her teen years, with early recordings and steady performances on the Toronto circuit, both solo and with such bands as Three Days Grace. Among her accolades is the Juno New Artist Award.
The single of “Stompa” previewed the breakthrough of Harmony as a hit at home, as well as a featured spot in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.
The songs, she adds, to her represent the elements — fire, water, air, earth — in respective, poetic ways. But also much more within that, the elements within her, within the emotions touched by music.
“All those elements coming together in this record,” she says. “That’s why it’s called Harmony. Harmony is being able to have a billion things happen at once. As long as they’re in harmony, it’s all good. You don’t have to think about yourself or deny yourself.”