Interview with Serena Ryder: Music as Medicine

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Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist Serena Ryder made a tour stop in Atlanta at the famed Tabernacle last Friday evening opening for Michael Franti. Sitting in her dressing room prior to hitting the stage, Ryder chatted with us about her life as a musician, and reflected on what inspired her, challenges she faced along the way, and her fabulous new album Harmony.

Ryder has risen to fame in Canada with four prestigious Juno Awards that include: 2008 New Artist of The Year, 2009 Adult Alternative Album of The Year (Is It O.K.), 2010 Video of The Year (“Little Bit of Red”), and 2013 Adult Alternative Album of The Year (Harmony).

Her latest album, Harmony, was produced by Jerrod Bettis (Gavin Degraw, Better Than Ezra) and Jon Levine (K’naan, Nelly Furtado), and mixed by Joe Zook (Katy Perry).  “Stompa” is the lead single on the album and has received double platinum certification and “What I Wouldn’t Do” is quickly rising up the charts, as well. Not only has Ryder performed her hit single “Stompa” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, she has also received attention from major publications like The New York Times, Esquire and USA Today.

Ryder toured with Melissa Etheridge in 2011 and also performed on stage with her at the Juno Awards that same year. On getting that opportunity, Ryder told us that as fortune would have it, her manager was friends with Etheridge’s manager at the time and Etheridge was planning a Canadian tour and wanted to partner with a local Canadian artist. After hearing Ryder’s song “Broken Heart Sun,” Etheridge wanted to do a duet with her.

Ryder explained, “We had to have something to release leading up to the tour. We literally had not sung the song together in person. I had recorded it a while back and then it was sent to her and she sang the parts in it and sent it back. It was on the radio before the tour! The first time we sang it together was on stage the first night of the tour. It was great! It was awesome to me because I have been compared to her since I was a little kid because I’m a female singer-songwriter with a strong voice and play the guitar, so it was really interesting to actually be with her and to be on the tour bus and we became really, really good friends.”  When we mentioned that Etheridge has referred her to as her “adopted daughter,” Ryder laughed and said, “Yeah…she refers to me as her rock ‘n’ roll offspring!” She added, “the entire experience was phenomenal…we had a great time!”

Ryder comes from a family that she says has “an eclectic musical taste. They just loved good music…and I do, too!” Her father listened to Roger Miller, Culture Club and Wham among other bands, her Mom loved Linda Ronstadt and Rita Coolidge, and her sister was into Michael Jackson and Prince. She said that she never really related to the “stuff that my friends were listening to on the radio at the time like New Kids on The Block, or whatever was popular at the time.” She recalls family road trips where her Dad “would turn on the AM radio or he had mixed tapes that had all kinds of music on them.”

She started singing when she was 8 years old and “just loved singing so much. I would sing songs from the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. I always loved that era…I could relate to it because that was what my voice sounded like. I had always loved Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Roger Miller and people like that.”

At 13 years old, her Dad bought her a guitar at a yard sale. Ryder laughingly said, “I had been wanting a guitar for about a year and I couldn’t stop talking about it!” She recalls the guitar as a “classical guitar and it had a crazy, thick neck with nylon strings, so my fingers got a really nice workout from the very beginning. I wanted a guitar because I didn’t always want to have to depend on somebody else to play with. I could take the guitar to the park and just play. I started getting obsessed with folk culture and really started getting into Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell. I had all these records from my parents’ collection that I was listening to upstairs in my bedroom. I actually taught myself to play guitar by watching other people playing. One of my favorites was Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” – I played it over and over again in my bedroom.”

Not having any formal guitar or vocal lessons, Ryder was born with natural musical ability. Her mother was a Go-Go dancer/back-up singer/tambourine player for different bands in Canada. Her biological father was a musician who played guitar and drums for a band called The Tradewinds. Her uncle, Bob Carpenter, was a folk musician and singer-songwriter and Ryder proudly said, “He has the most amazing voice and songs. He’s written songs for Tom Rush back in the ‘70s and ‘80s.” So, yes, it’s in her genes!

On her current tour, Ryder is accompanied by her drummer and travels with 5 guitars – 2 electrics and 3 acoustics. Her electrics are her Gibson Flying V and a Silvertone. She said, “I actually own 2 Silvertones…I love them. It’s really more of a sentimental value guitar for me that I love so much because it was left to me by a friend who passed away, Willie Pete Bennett, who was this amazing singer-songwriter folk musician from Canada. His parents gave out his instruments to his really good friends when he passed.” Her acoustic of choice is the Mini Maton which is made in Australia that she’s been playing for the past 9 years. She also uses Orange Amps and just received some exciting news that day that she is now being endorsed by them. “It’s pretty exciting. I just love Orange Amps. I’m going to be playing them at the Grey Cup where I’ll be singing the National Anthem and playing my Gibson Flying V.”

After a warm conversation with Serena, we did a little Q&A during the interview.

GGM:  Your musical inspiration?

Serena: Because of the eclectic mix of music I grew up listening to, I have a wide love for many different styles and I feel like the more years go by and the more I play, the more that I’m able to play around with all of the different styles that I always liked and listened to. You’re always influenced by the people that came before you and I feel like for me, that’s a really big part of my message as an artist is to embrace the influences that you had and to really pay homage to those influences because that’s where you came from. My album Harmony embraces more of the whole of where I am musically now and where I want to go.

GGM:  Your writing process?

Serena:  It’s pretty primal. Right now what I do is start with a guitar riff and I’ll record it and then maybe put some beats on it. Then I’ll just free fall with my voice and make sounds and noises and have fun…like move up and down into different melodies. It doesn’t have anything to do with thinking about what I’m going to write about. I feel like inspiration is one of those things you can’t describe…it just happens and there’s no explanation for it and that’s the magic about it.

Everything starts with an emotion, but when I’m going through something and I want to put it into a song, it doesn’t really work for me. As soon as I start trying to identify an emotion and articulate it through a song, I’m never able to do that. I always think it’s so awesome when people can just experience something or think of a story. But that has happened to me before as I remember one of the first country songs I wrote was after having my first kiss when I was 17 years old. It was called the “Winter Waltz” and it was in the winter time when I started day dreaming about being together forever with this person and making up a story of dancing in a field, and the snow, and dying in each other’s arms…like this whole Romeo and Juliet story.

But my process is constantly changing just like my music is. The difference between my music when I was 13 up until now when I’m 30 is totally life times apart and so is my writing process. And I find that writing with other people changes your process, too.

GGM: On Harmony, did you write with anyone?

Serena: I wrote a few of the songs by myself and I co-wrote the others with the two producers. I wrote all the lyrics, the melody and the guitar riffs, and then they came up with all the music around it and the beats and things that inspired me to bring out the words. “Stompa” was the first song I actually wrote for this record so it laid the entire foundation of the record and the message behind it which is about how music is the best medicine in the world and how it changes lives.

GGM:  Is there any one particular song from the album that you feel special about?

Serena: I go through phases depending on what I’m going through in my life and what’s really important to me and resonates with me…as they all do because they’re all songs that I’ve written from my heart. But right now I’m loving performing “Fall.”  It’s my third single and we just finished a music video for it…it was really fun.

It’s a song about learning how to love yourself first before you try and love somebody else. The whole process of the idea of love and how pop culture has always said ‘finding somebody else’ or ‘your other half’ is going to complete you and all of that BS. You think someone else is your other half and when they’re gone away, you’re incomplete. It was a song in rebellion to that idea…you don’t have to ‘fall’ to fall in love.

GGM:  You talk about songs being medicine and I read about your previous struggles with depression and how you overcame that difficult period in your life. Did you write Harmony as a result of that experience?

Serena: I feel like I wrote this record as a result of sort of everything that I’ve been through in my life. I was able to give myself a fresh new start because as Joni Mitchell said ‘you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.’ When things are taken away from you which is what depression does – it strips everything away from you – yourself away from you. When I got myself back, I was just so excited that I really wanted to enjoy my life and to do what I wanted to do for the right reasons. So this record definitely came out of realizing that I control my life and I control my thoughts. I describe myself the way that I am and I create who I am by my story. So this record kind of gave me an opportunity to write a new story.

GGM:  What advice would you give musicians who are experiencing depression?

Serena: I think the most important thing is to not push yourself. Go a lot easier on yourself. I feel like a lot of people just try to push through things and work through things when they’re actually stretching themselves and it takes a while to get back into your own skin. I think it’s important to talk about it and I think it’s also really important to get some help if you’re experiencing a lot of anxiety and severe depression. Go through some sort of therapy, or get some sort of help, and realize ‘you’ are not the depression…the depression is happening ‘to’ you. A lot of people describe themselves based on how they feel like ‘I am sad,’ ‘I am moody,’ ‘I have anxiety,” and it’s like NO…it’s happening to you! So I feel it’s really important to be aware of what you’re thinking about yourself.

GGM: Do you feel like you’re a role model for young girls out there today that want to play guitar?

Serena: I know that I am because of them reaching out to me which is amazing. Performing and seeing the kids coming up to me after the show is so inspiring to me and I feel really honored about that and humbled. Kids are my favorite audience members…they are the future of our world. The honesty, the openness, and the innocence of children, and their experience with music, is just so inspiring to me.

GGM:  You said the tour was going great. Any memorable moments so far?

Serena: Yeah! I have been performing with Michael every night and at the end of the show he gets me up on stage and it’s one of my favorite times of the night because I get to really let loose. I just jump up and play the tambourine and jump around the stage. He’s got such a great energy to him and really great positive music and audience members. Everyone’s dancing and jumping around and having an awesome time, so that’s really awesome for me.

Also, I just love getting to meet people in the audience after the show. I sign CD’s after performing every night and I get to meet a lot of people. There was one night when we were in Austin and these 3 young boys around the ages of 9 and 10 came up to me. When on stage, I talk about how much music has helped me get through a lot of things and you can use music as your medicine. One of the young boys said, ‘I just want to thank you because you have inspired me to use music as my medicine and I didn’t know you could use music to make you feel better like medicine and I’m going to do that from now on.’ It’s moments like that, that really touch me.

GGM:  You recently collaborated with Demi Lovato and Imagine Dragons for the We Day Celebration. Can you tell us a little about that?

Serena: We Day Celebration is an amazing initiative to inspire kids to do something to change their community and the global community. They sign a contract and agree to do whatever they can – throw a concert or have a bake sale to raise money for whatever they want to do to change their community and the global community, and to let them know they can make a difference. In exchange, they get to attend the We Day concert. The one I played had about 20,000 kids there and it’s pretty inspiring to be in this arena with all these kids that are there because they want to make a difference. The strength and power of that is just so amazing.

GGM:  I know you’ve been extremely busy lately, but are there any new projects on the horizon?

Serena: I have a bunch of stuff that I’m going to be doing. I record a lot with other artists and I sing a lot of different things on people’s records. I have a lot of stuff on the back burner that I can’t really say anything about, but it’s pretty exciting!

GGM:  Coming in 2014?

Serena:  Yes, 2014. A lot of stuff is going to be released and it’s going to be fun.

A few fun questions:

GGM:  First concert ever attended?

Serena: Tragically Hip….they’re an amazing Canadian rock ‘n’ roll band. Big superstars…they’re like Rush.

GGM:  Top 3 songs on your playlist?


“Do I Wanna Know?” by the Arctic Monkeys

“212” by Azealia Banks

“Lean on Me” by Bill Withers – I play it every night with my band before we go on stage!

GGM:  Your dream performance would be with ______?

Serena: Bruce Springsteen.

GGM:  What’s one thing people don’t know about you?

Serena: The only make-up I’ve worn in the last 3 weeks is red lipstick.

GGM:  In one word, can you describe what music means to you?

Serena:  Everything!


After the interview, we stayed for the performance where Ryder performed a set that included “Stompa” with her Gibson Flying V and “Fall” with her Mini Maton acoustic guitar. Ryder definitely got the crowd jumping and dancing and “stomping” their feet!

To learn more about Serena Ryder and her music, visit her site HERE.

Cover Photo Credit:  Autumn DeWilde

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