It’s a holiday tradition for me now, doing my last-minute shopping for gifts somewhere on Lansdowne Street and hearing a familiar voice singing about getting in touch with an old friend, catching up, and wishing them a Merry Christmas.
I know Serena Ryder’s singing voice better and more intimately than almost any other voice. For two years, our voices were fused, so to speak. We sang together every few days between the summers of 2000 and 2002, and played in bands, including a short-lived combination of our singer-songwriter personas called the Weak Knees.
“It was such a dichotomy,” she says, thinking back to our singing together, an earnest and eager teenager and an anxious and ironic man pushing 30. But we’d been playing and performing for roughly the same time, and although I was near the pinnacle of my artistic ambition and she was just taxiing towards the runway, we were in unlikely harmony for a few months.
Since then Serena Ryder has become, as everyone who has ever heard her play predicted she would, a star. In 2014 her fourth LP Harmony was certified platinum and she won Junos for Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year. Her songs, from the seasonal chestnut “Calling to Say” to her recent hit “Electric Love,” get regular play on commercial radio.
Now she calls Toronto, in the neighbourhood around High Park where I went to high school, home. But Serena grew up in Millbrook, Ontario, and went to high school in Peterborough. In her late teens she began haunting hip Hunter Street, her open heart and her massive voice marking her, even among a community of oddballs, as someone uniquely special.
Serena was young when she played her first shows in Peterborough, but was already a well-rehearsed performer with a decade of stage time behind her.
“We had just moved into Millbrook,” her mother Barbara Ryder remembers. “We lived two doors from the fairgrounds, and she’d say ‘I want to go to playground,’ but during the intermissions would belt out songs from Annie!” She laughs. “She knew all the words.”
About that time, when Serena was seven, Barbara sought out Terry Finn, who took the young star on ostensibly as a vocal student, but really as her accompanist, backing her up on early gigs at the Lions Club and the Miss Diana.
“Her dad got her first guitar at a flea market,” Barbara says. “And then I got her the Ibanez at Bud’s.” Serena got a chord book and learned five or six chords from it, and then started picking up other guitar lore from her older teenage Millbrook neighbours, Eli and Caleb Robinson and Gobinde Soligo.
Serena remembers listening avidly, for hours on end alone in her room, to Neil Young’s Harvest album. “My style is all Neil Young,” she says. She also admired other percussive acoustic guitar players of the 1990s, like Ani DiFranco and Don Ross, and mimicked their style as a solo sing-songwriter.
She was writing songs from an early age, Barbara remembers. “She’d say, ‘Mom, you want to listen to this?’ It was pretty dark stuff.” Serena’s scribbled pre-teen lyrics were almost indecipherable, so Barbara copied them out in beautiful cursive.
After junior high, Serena began the arduous early morning commute from Millbrook in to Peterborough to go to Crestwood, having been turned down for Peterborough Collegiate Vocational School’s Integrated Arts program because the bus was full. At 16, she transferred to PCVS and, fatefully, started going to the Only Café at lunch time.
She was still performing all the way through this period, and writing her own songs. In early 1998 she was asked to sing during the intermission of a production of Gone With the Wind, and there she met Damon de Szegheo. Damon asked Serena if she had enough original material to record a full album, and she did. Released on Damon’s Mime Radio label in March 1999, Serena’s first album was called Falling Out.
A lot of people in Peterborough started talking about her, about her remarkable and precocious talent and determination, after the album came out. Beau Dixon remembers seeing her perform at Cosmic Charlie’s (when it was on Hunter opposite the Red Dog), and being impressed by both her performance and the fact that she had released an album at 16.
I didn’t meet Serena until the following summer, though, when she was working at 4th Line Theatre doing childcare (one of the kids she looked after was Missy Knott), and I was hired as a summer student working on The Bell of Batoche.
One day it rained while we were rehearsing outside, and as everyone huddled under a tarp, I started singing “Close Up the Honky Tonks,” and Serena sang along with the chorus. Our voices made an incredibly rich and mournful texture together. “How do you know that song?” I asked her when it was over. “I don’t,” she answered.
The Hunter Street scene that Serena joined around 2000 was in the midst of a stark transformation. For the past few years, since the demise of the Union Theatre and the establishment of the original Hot Belly Mama’s on Water Street as the scene’s rough new live venue, Peterborough musicians were devoted to loud, basic rock music, and disdainful of other aesthetics.
Things were changing, if only because the closed, clique-y scene was starting to feel constraining. The Silver Hearts, a vast agglomeration of maturing rockers and folkies that sang of broken hearts and empty bottles, were the emerging centre, and Beau Dixon, newly arrived in town, was breathing new life into the scene’s long-neglected passion for soul and funk.
Even with the changes coming in the scene, the immediate impression Serena gave people in that era was of an impossibly earnest eagerness to play or sing anywhere, anytime. She’d sing her own songs of course, but she’d also add a harmony on someone else’s songs if she heard one, and was just as eager to play a tambourine or sing along with a noisy appliance or a passing vehicle. She sang walking down the street, sang while she served pizzas at the Night Kitchen or washing dishes at Hot Belly Mama’s.
All the time other musicians spent arguing over what was bad in music, Serena was singing. She was the most talented musician on the scene by a long ways, but she was constantly breaking the core rule of Hunter Street at the time: that you define your art by what it’s not. She wanted to be and do all of it.
After our parlour trick out at 4th Line, we sang together whenever we ran into each other, quickly working up a spontaneous repertoire of songs with tight, soaring harmonies, some as old as the Carter Family’s “Weeping Willow,” others as new as Ida’s “Maybelle,” which we called “Look At Me.”
When I put together a backing band called the Weak Knees for a show at the Gordon Best in the spring of 2001, I asked Serena to sing with me, Greg Roy to play drums, and Beau Dixon to play bass. I was late showing up to the first rehearsal, so she ran through one of her songs with the band and, by the time we hit the stage a month later, we were co-lead singers, harmonizing on each other’s songs.
The songs Serena sang in the Weak Knees were a subset of the ones she was doing in her solo set at the time. Songs like “The Motorcycle Song,” an upbeat roots-rocky love song, were good, but most effective as vehicles for her voice. A few months after we started to singing together, though, she showed us “Winter Waltz,” an aching third-person country tune that pointed towards a new level of songcraft.
Like a lot of her musical experiences at that time, the Weak Knees was for Serena both a chance to amaze people and a chance to learn, to stretch and expand her talent in new directions. She started doing one song of mine from the Weak Knees, an abstract and melancholy meditation on lost love called “Fortune’s Wheel,” in her own shows, and kept it in her sets long after the band ended in 2002.
To a lot of people who saw Serena play solo or with the Weak Knees or later on with the Drifting Audreys, a Hank Williams tribute she did with Silver Hearts Brian Sanderson and Charlie Glasspool, Serena was a country singer. But she was equally at home with soul and jazz, and took every chance she could to show it.
Beau Dixon remembers when Serena asked if she could sing in his band Slips ‘n’ the High Fives. “I was reluctant cause she was so inexperienced,” he says. Soon, though, the band would be playing Hot Belly’s and Serena would be standing eagerly near the stage, and Beau would call her up. She’s do “Clean Up Woman,” or “Mr Big Stuff,” old soul songs with big-girl attitude. “I’d feature her on a couple songs,” Beau says. “They were the highlight of the night.”
What often struck audiences about Serena was her intensity as a performer, her presence on stage and in the song, whether it was her own or not. But musicians marvelled at her versatility, her talent for inhabiting a wide range of styles completely.
“She picked up on tunes very quickly,” Beau remembers. “She’s very intuitive and very versatile.” Driving to a show out of town together, they were listening to the radio and “she sang a Britney Spears song, then a Mary J Blige song, then Roger Miller, all perfectly. She was like a chameleon. She could have gone in any direction musically and she would have succeeded.”
Serena was young and new to us, and full of surprises. One day she walked into a Slips ‘n’ the High Fives rehearsal in Beau’s mother’s basement on Hazlitt Street and said that she wanted to sing the Etta James song “At Last.” A couple of us helpfully explained that “At Last” was a pretty special song, almost holy, and that it might not be the best fit. But she insisted, so I counted it in, and from the third beat I was shaking my head and smiling, trying to focus on my own playing while the best singing I’ve ever heard came out of the teenager next to me.
I don’t know how much she had rehearsed it before bringing it to the band, but she had an incredible soulful quality and unbelievable power. When it ended—“cause you are mine … at la-ast”—we all agreed that yes, she should sing Etta James’ “At Last,” and, although we didn’t say so at the time, both Beau and I mark that as our moment of realization that Serena wasn’t one of us.
The realization was at once sad and incredibly exhilarating. We knew that we would not be singing together in small venues along the Hunter Street strip much longer, but we also knew that we were in the presence of a rare magic.
Kellie Bonnici remembers meeting Serena at the Only in the early days of Serena’s coming to town. “She was super smiley and had this intriguing positive energy,” she says. They were seven years apart, so Kellie saw Serena to some extent as a kid, but she was immediately affected by her presence.
Serena moved in with Kellie and then-partner Pat Walsh, a lynchpin of the Silver Hearts horde who was teaching Serena to play harmonica, in the fall of 2000, abandoning the family home in Millbrook, and school, to be a full-time musician and service industry worker—a commitment that lasted until November, when it got cold in the upstairs of 17 Fleming Place.
Remarkably, Kellie didn’t hear Serena sing until the following summer, when she performed solo at the 2001 Peterborough Folk Festival on the main stage. “Sitting up on the hill,” she says, “I started crying. It was really was not something I did—I thought, ‘What the fuck is happening?’ Her voice was so powerful.”
Kellie determined at that point, with zero experience in the music business, that she was going to do whatever she could to get Serena where she wanted to be and evidently was made to be. Eager to expose Serena to industry people but short on money, she and Ken Ramsden of the Folk Festival came up with a plan to create an award for Emerging Artist and give it to Serena.
Once that was arranged, things moved quickly, in a whirlwind of travel and shows. Like a lot of young artists started out, she played lots of small shows at the bottom of bills, but she always made a big impression, and got a lot of people’s attention. Kellie remembers being at a Bobby Blue Bland show with Serena, who kept making her way closer to the stage, looking at Bland and singing with him. “He invited her up on stage,” she laughs. “Maybe she didn’t know the song, but she was up there singing with him!”
In early 2002, Serena spent a day at a studio in Toronto recording what would be her second album, A Day at the Studio, which featured a motorcycle on the cover, and recordings of “The Motorcycle Song,” “Winter Waltz,” and of course, “At Last.” It didn’t come close to capturing the energy and charisma of her live show, but it was an impressive document of her development since Falling Out.
Alongside the non-stop performing, there were specific strategic moves that led to the big break. The Emerging Artist prize money paid for a visit to the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals in Toronto, which led to another showcase in Winnipeg where Serena met CBC personality Avril Benoit. Serena sang “Winter Waltz” on Benoit’s show, which was heard by Hawksley Workman, who signed Serena to his Isadora label.
That was when, with Serena delivered into the arms of bona fide industry professionals, it began to appear that Kellie’s service to Serena was coming to a close. “It was obvious she needed someone that actually worked in music industry,” she reflects. “I didn’t have any designs on working in the music industry; it was really about her.”
Serena’s newest single, “Ice Age,” is a thumping four-on-the-floor anthem of liberation, ostensibly about the power of love to shake us out of the doldrums (picture Arcade Fire covering Aretha Franklin’s “A Natural Woman”) but really about the power of music. Serena calls it “a love song that I wrote to myself.”
This was an intentional strategy. “I started writing this record as love songs to me,” she says. “I’m performing them. I’m up on stage, I repeat myself. And there’s a part of the songs that becomes true in your life.”
Reflecting on Is It Ok, the album that first got Serena significant pop radio play, she remembers she “went through one of the darkest periods of my life.” Looking back on it now, she says, “A big part of it was that I was singing six days a week about heartbreak and depression.” Her next album, she vowed, would resonate at a different mood.
When she began working with Jerrod Bettis on what would become Harmony, she discarded the old approach. Where previously she had brought in completed songs to show the band, this time she came ready to play. She would have a line or two, or Bettis would present her with backing tracks and she would add whatever came to her.
Like a lot of very musical songwriters, Serena uses the McCartney method, where you sing whatever tuneful nonsense pops into your head and then, looping and re-looping the passage, slowly form the sounds into words, ideally with intelligible meaning. (Though McCartney famously left “The movement you need is on your shoulder” in “Hey Jude.”)
As a teenager, Serena was definitely an old soul, identifying more with Etta James and Hank Williams than with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. As an adult, she loves antiques, old jazz, and old country. “I’ll get into new stuff here and there,” she says, “but it never really stays with me. Since I was little kid I’ve related a lot more to older generations.”
Working with backing tracks rather than writing on an instrument paradoxically allowed Serena to come back to her roots. Particularly on “Stompa,” the first single off Harmony, she “kind of melded that old jazz style of singing” with the very modern instrumental track. Now, she says, “My voice feels home.”
The video for “Ice Age,” in which Serena plays a nursing home employee who awakens a wan, withdrawn old woman by placing headphones over her head, transporting her into a powerful reverie, is a perfect encapsulation of Serena’s love of music and affinity for the old.
The premise is drawn, of course, from the techniques for treating dementia that are referenced in the film Alive Inside, in which people who have become mentally withdrawn and dislocated come forcefully back to presence after hearing a recording of their favourite music.
It’s also a powerful commentary on the link between music and memory, how they reinforce and clarify one another. Those of us who were lucky enough to hear and see Serena in tiny rooms when she was a teenager and learning to use and control that powerful voice and find her style, and then hear her on the radio now, know how intense their interaction can be.
Serena Ryder in Peterborough photos by Wayne Eardley. Other photos by Jimmy Fontaine and Evaan Kheraj.