Music Interviews

Interview: Serena Ryder

Serena Ryder

Serena Ryder

Canadian singer/songwriter Serena Ryder has been compared to many of the greats, from as Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin. After linking up with Canadian singer Hawksley Workman and signing to his label, she released her debut album, Unlikely Emergency. With its hybrid of folk, pop and rock the record won many fans for the multi-instrumentalist.

Serena chatted to musicOMH about her career, her precocious childhood and of her talent for playing seemingly every instrument under the sun…


“Do you wanna go get a coffee? I’d rather not do another interview in The White Room.” Serena Ryder, sick of the lifeless four white walls, needs a change of scene – and a smoke. “You smoke?” I ask in consternation as we sit in a Parisian caf, for the 21-year-old Peterborough, Ontario native is, voice-wise, a cross between Aretha Franklin(who also smoked, by the way), Shirley Bassey, soul-wise, Leonard Cohen, and a rock chick image-wise, clad in black, matching her formerly naturally blond hair. “If I stop smoking, I could sing more opera,” something she does – and what most of us don’t do – for fun.

Then again, most of us aren’t blessed with a voice like that. She was the first artist to be signed to Hawksley Workman’s label, Isadora Records. “I met him two years ago,” she remembers, “I was on the CBC Radio (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) on a show called Here and Now. He was with his manager Sandy Pandya, who’s my manager now, and they heard me singing on the radio. Sandy and Hawksley flipped out, so they called the station. Hawksley got my number and invited me to dinner, and I’ve been doing music professionally ever since.”

Her first album, Unlikely Emergency just grabs you and throws you into a multitude of emotions created by the fusion of jazz, pop, folk and country. Quite a mix, reflecting her eclectic influences, “like John Curran, Roger Miller, Wham!, Culture Club, Michael Jackson, Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Linda Ronstadt. When I was little, I used to listen to all these different albums from my parents’ collection, whatever I could get my hands on.”

“I can fool around all day with an instrument. I can play a little piano. I play a little bit of everything.” – The multitalented Serena Ryder.

She wrote nine out of the ten songs, with the occasional help from album producer Hawksley. “He helped with bridges. He played drums on the album and his band played on the album as well. He’s an amazing producer. He’s very inspiring as a musician and a great person to be around musically. We went into the studio and he played the drums in one take. It was like a live concert in a studio!” But it also felt like home. “When I first got to the studio, he had flowers set up on this table and he had my favorite incense burning.” She adds, “We’re very connected. I don’t have a brother, so he’s like my brother.”

The autodidact multi-instrumentalist also played acoustic and electric guitars on the album. “I used to like anything that could make noise, make music when I was younger,” she says, “I can fool around all day with an instrument. I can play a little piano. I play a little bit of everything. The guitar is my main instrument. It’s something that I can say that I can actually play. But I dabble on lots of different things: piano, mandolin, harmonica, banjo, clarinet, drums, bass. Drums are so much fun.”

Hawksley, who plays electric guitar, the banjo and drums on her album, insisted that she learn to play the drums. “Basically, he gave me his drum kit in his basement. He was like, ‘Go down there, play them!’ He got down there and played the guitar a couple of times. When you’re a drummer, you can play other instruments as well, ‘cos you have a very good sense of rhythm. I find a lot of people who start as drummers are really good at anything else.”

“I did a five-song tape when I was 15, a CD when I was 16, a CD when I was 17.” – They start them early over in Canada.

But Serena’s main instrument is simply her voice. She first went onstage at the tender age of two. “It was my step-sister’s wedding reception. The band had just gotten off stage, and I got straight up onstage and started singing Michael Jackson’s Beat It. Obviously, the only words I knew were beat it!” When she was a little more experienced, at seven, she got her own band. “A cute little girl singing with a backup band!”

But she insists the cute little girl’s parents never put any pressure on her. “They encouraged me, but they never really forced anything. I was invited to sing the national anthem in high school. All of the students filed in and I was very nervous. All of my sister’s friends were there – I looked up to my sister so much. I freaked out at the last minute. ‘Mom, I don’t want to do this!’ I was crying my eyes out. So we left. That’s how supportive they were: ‘You don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it.'”

By the time she was in her teens, however, she was so used to singing in public that she decided to get serious and make a CD. “I did a five-song tape when I was 15, a CD when I was 16, a CD when I was 17. When I was 19, I had another live album that was done in Quebec.” OK, but don’t expect to see them as special box sets anytime soon. “I don’t really think they represent me. It’s the beginnings of the adventure, so I feel a little weary about putting them out. I was so young and inexperienced!”

And if on that fateful afternoon Hawksley hadn’t tuned in to CBC, she’d be “doing something in the arts for sure. I love painting, sculpting, taking photographs. I love dancing.”

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