Serena Ryder breaks out of mould on new disc
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TORONTO - Toronto power vocalist Serena Ryder was at home but in foreign territory while recording her new album, "Harmony."
The three-time Juno Award winner with the soulful three-octave range made the tracks in her own backyard studio, a cosy shed she'd previously only used as a rehearsal space.
Another first: the "Weak in the Knees" singer-songwriter penned the tunes while falling in love.
And she actually had fun while making the disc, a feeling she admits wasn't predominant in her recording sessions of yore.
The result is a feel-good, catchy collection that touches on a wide range of genres, giving Ryder a broader appeal than the blues-folk-rock categories she's typically been associated with.
"With this record I feel like it was very, very primal and animalistic and I wasn't really thinking about what direction I'm going to go in," Ryder, who turns 30 on Dec. 8, said in a recent interview.
"I was like, 'I want go in all directions,' because the most frustrating thing that's been the bane of my existence and my career has been people (saying), 'Serena, you've got to pick a style or you're going to confuse people,' ... and I started really believing that. I was like, 'OK, I've got to pick one way of being and one way of singing and one way of branding myself,'" she continued, sitting at a piano in her studio shed that's adorned with vintage furniture and a vast array of instruments.
"I was trying a little bit too hard, I feel like, in a lot of what I was doing, and I didn't see it at the time.... In trying to be myself I became this idea of who I thought I was, based on other people's ideas of who they thought I was.
"And with this record I wanted to break that chain."
But Ryder didn't know how to do that at first.
Over a period of roughly eight months this year, she feverishly wrote about 65 songs in an effort to craft a followup to her previous album, 2008's "Is it O.K.," which won a Juno in 2010 for video of the year ("Little Bit Of Red").
Turned out none of those 65 tunes made it onto the new album.
"I was like, 'I'm done, I'm done my record, it's fine,' and my manager was like, 'I don't think so, let's go to L.A.,'" recalled the multi-instrumentalist, whose husky pipes have drawn comparisons to the likes of Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin and Melissa Etheridge.
"I was like, 'OK, whatever, I'll humour you and go to L.A. for the trip but I think my record's done already.' And then she was totally right."
What Ryder wrote over those two weeks in Los Angeles in June became "Harmony," which is gaining fast traction with the foot-stomping single "Stompa" being played on four radio formats (Modern Rock, Hot AC, Top 40 and Adult Contemporary).
"Stompa," the first song Ryder wrote for the album, is "about encouraging people to get outside of their heads and realize that everybody's got problems and everybody's got issues and life is hard but music can really help you out," she said.
The rest of the tunes are largely about love, from the spirited "What I Wouldn't Do" to the touching piano ballad "Please Baby Please" and the string quartet-fuelled "For You," which would be a perfect compliment to Adele's "Skyfall" on the new Bond soundtrack.
"This record, it feels like it's the first time that I've written in love," said Ryder. "I fell in love for the first time a year and a half ago. It's like, 'Oh, this is rad! I love this! Oh my God, I'm happier in my skin!'"
The recording process also marked the first time Ryder explored so many different genres on one project. It's something she'd been wanting to do since she was a young singer in various bands, from soul to country and rock 'n' roll.
"I've always loved so many different styles of music," said Ryder. "One of my biggest musical influences was TLC. When I was 13 years old, my favourite record in the world was 'CrazySexyCool.'"
Ryder also explored her vocal register more, singing lower, quieter and louder than ever before.
And she used her studio's computer technology to record more than ever before, even logging on to iChat to communicate with a string quartet while they recorded parts for her album in Los Angeles.
"I never realized how much of an instrument pre-recorded sounds could be," said Ryder, whose other albums include "Unlikely Emergency" and "If Your Memory Serves You Well."
Producers/co-writers and instrumentalists Jerrod Bettis and Jon Levine went to Ryder's home studio over the summer to record the new tunes. She also returned to L.A. to finish some of the tracks.
Working so close to home alleviated pressure and Ryder ended up making the disc in a shorter amount of time than any of her previous releases.
She named the album "Harmony" because every song is based on one of the four elements: earth, air, fire and water.
Plus, Ryder is fascinated with numerology and the number four, and feels like this record is the most balanced art she's ever created, she said.
"I feel like this record is the most open that I've been with myself and the most fun I've had, too."
In Focus: Richard Crouse