Serena Ryder toys with rhetoric on Is It O.K., her latest release. She brings her pathos, ethos, logos and big voice to Halifax for a two-night stand at Casino Nova Scotia, March 20 and 21.
"It's an internal question. I'm kinda leaving it open to interpretation," says Ryder, calling on her cellphone from the Rockies near Colorado. "I was going through this place that was really hard, and when I finished going through it, I was sorry.
"It's about trying to find out what is actually going on inside you before you judge or before you compare yourself with other people on the outside to find your answer."
Ryder looked into the depths of herself when writing this album. The past year spanned various heartaches, including the loss of her former manager and close friend, Bonnie O'Donnell, who died of pneumonia at 32. Half of the songs on Is It O.K. were written during the mournful weeks that followed, though she says none of them are explicitly about O'Donnell. It's the raw emotion and aching sentiments that fuelled the recordings. Ryder says this dark period was the first time in her life she actually allowed herself to exist inside pain.
"I wasn't trying to get out of it. I was just trying to feel it. So I did that and wrote the songs," she says. "I feel it was a big release for me afterwards and now the songs are different, now the songs are for everybody else in a way. The satisfaction and healing that I get from those songs (I get by) performing them on a stage and being able to have a conversation like that with other people who hopefully receive some sort of peace of mind or peace of heart."
Light always follows darkness. In the thick of it all she was awarded a Juno Award for best new artist of the year in 2008. But Ryder's no novice; she's been singing and performing long before spoken language came into play. George Stroumboulopoulos posted a photograph of her singing on-stage at two years old during an interview on CBC's The Hour. At this year's Juno Awards, the Millbrook, Ontario, native is nominated for artist and alternative album of the year. She's Vancouver-bound for the awards show later this month.
"Even last year it was the first time," she says. "It's like cracking an egg in some respects but not actually opening it all the way, just in how I was feeling at the time, not in the honour of being honoured like that. This year I am really excited to wear comfortable shoes and a really comfortable outfit, maybe a suit or a really flowy dress. I am really excited to be comfortable in my skin there."
At 25, she's still shedding skins, changing every day and growing into herself. It's been a long road since she was first discovered at a stage production of Gone With the Wind, by producer Damon de Szegheo in Peterborough. He recorded her debut release, Falling Out, in 1999. A self-titled cassette EP appeared later that year. Other independent releases include Live at The Market Hall and A Day in the Studio (2002) and Serena Ryder Live (2003). It wasn't until Hawksley Workman heard this burgeoning songbird on CBC Radio that he signed her and released Unlikely Emergency in 2005.
If Your Memory Serves You Well (2006) covers the whole Canadian gamut. Ryder recorded stunning renditions of Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy," Paul Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" and Shelton Brooks' "Some of These Days," though it was her two original tracks, "Just Another Day" and "Weak In the Knees," that earned the vocal powerhouse significant airplay.
These days Ryder's only objectives are to remain true to her songs. The process is more organic than most. "Every sound has a vibration and a colour; emotion. Usually I'll just start making noises and I find if I record all of those noises I can find words inside of them, sounds and different things. I just try and find what the words are saying after I've finished making the right sound."
Serena Ryder, March 20-21 at Casino Nova Scotia, 8pm, $36.50, 451-1221, ticketatlantic.com.