Hometown: Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
Album: Is It O.K.
For Fans Of: Brandi Carlile , Grace Potter , Bonnie Raitt
In 2001, an 18-year-old girl from a tiny Canadian town sat down at Toronto’s Little India restaurant to have lunch with musician/producer Hawksley Workman. “I’d never even had Indian food at that point, I was such a small-town girl,” Serena Ryder laughs, describing the fairy-tale turning point of her music career. Workman’s manager had overheard the young singer-songwriter’s on-air performance on CBC Radio, “and all of a sudden I was going to the big city of Toronto,” Ryder recalls. She was immediately invited to sign with Workman’s label, Isadora. “And it was history from there.”
But her signature eclectic blend of bluesy folk had been maturing long before her teenage years—arguably, before she could even read. “I was the loudmouth of the family,” says Ryder. “I was constantly stealing forks and spoons from the cupboard so I could bash on pots and pans with them. I’ve been obsessed with music since I was born.” She began the upward climb toward a music career while most other kids were still learning to write cursive, armed with a tiny toy piano and a naturally powerful vibrato. By the age of 15, she had released her first demo, a five-track cassette tape. “I printed about 500 of them,” she says, “so that I could make enough money to make a CD.”
Four albums later, Ryder’s music reflects a worldliness that can only come with years of refinement and inspiration. With a mother who was once a singing go-go dancer and a father who blasted Roger Miller and Buddy Holly from his pick-up truck, she seemed destined from the start to evade genre-specific pidgeon-holing—and a constant thirst for musical experimentation and collaboration has only magnified this dilettantism. “I want to be in a band! I want to be in five or six bands!” she exclaims breathlessly. “I love being a piece of a bigger whole.” Her collaborations with artists include Great Lake Swimmers (you can hear her breathy vocals on Lost Channels and autoharp on Ongiara) and she has covered everyone from Bruce Springsteen to Band of Horses .
Despite her musical-butterfly tendencies, Ryder’s music reflects an intimate focus. “Some people say I’m a blues musician. Some people say I’m rock, or total pop,” she laughs. “But I feel like every different style of music has a different emotion and energy, and I really want to honor as much of that as I can.” Her latest album, Is It O.K. (out Sept. 15 on Atlantic Records), exemplifies Ryder’s love for eclecticism, highlighting her passionate pipes against a myriad of instrumental backdrops—still, the 25-year old refuses to call off the search for her own musical identity. “The battle of knowing yourself in music is a very intense, profound, intimate thing,” she says.
After jumpstarting her career in Canada (and collecting a Juno Award along the way), Ryder seems to finally be catching on in the U.S., with her single “A Little Bit of Red” peaking on AAA radio charts. But even after working toward success for well over a decade, the diligent small-town musician is still taking it slow. “I’ve always found that the slower I walk, the more steps I set up for myself closer to my feet,” she says. “So if I fall down one step, it’s just that one step and not a cliff.”