Serena Ryder has already left an indelible impression in Canada, where her album If Your Memory Serves You Well has been certified Gold and contributed to her winning the 2008 Juno Award for Best New Artist.
For American listeners, this sets the stage for is it o.k., her full length debut for Atlantic Records on which Ryder paints a self-portrait that's bitter in betrayal in "Sweeping the Ashes," furious and yet not without affection in the hard-hitting "Little Bit of Red," teasingly romantic on "Brand New Love," struggling to understand another's pain on "Hiding Place," even careening through cascades of contradictory emotion, almost from one word to the next, on "All for Love."
All of these moments Ryder brings to life with a performance that resonates in memory long after its last notes fade.
Passion, humor, playfulness, anger and exultation: is it o.k. offers each in abundance. But truth? Here, Ryder draws the line.
"This whole record is about realizing that the more we think we know, the less we do know," she insists. "It's about me coming to terms with the fact that I'm imperfect, about being comfortable with feeling what I'm feeling and embracing being human in any way I possibly can."
This she knows because Ryder has been a searcher herself. Growing up in Millbrook, Ontario, surrounded by forests and fields, she sensed that there was something beyond the surrounding woods. Music encouraged that idea, through her father who performed as a musician and her mother who danced and sang backup vocals. Their record collection, offering the Beatles, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, and much more, whetted Ryder's curiosities. Then, as her father gave her a guitar after she turned 13, two doors opened, toward distant possibility and into her own undiscovered promise.
"I'd been writing a lot since I was maybe 11 years old," Ryder says. "I wasn't doing diary entries; I needed to express something a little deeper than that, which I couldn't express in conversation. And I'd been singing since I was a little kid, doing cover songs at gigs. But when I got my guitar, a whole other world opened up to me. I realized I could put the poetry I was writing to song and bring two very separate things together."
Things changed quickly after that. Ryder cut her first indie recording at 15. Two years later, she escaped from Millbrook and settled into a community of artists at Peterborough, the nearest larger town. Within a year, seasoned by a routine that combined shows with local bands, work at a Cajun restaurant, and a few formal lessons in music, she sang nationally on CBC radio. Tours followed, taking her initially across Canada and stretching more recently to Australia, Europe, and to Bonnarroo, Lollapalooza, South by Southwest and Denver's Mile High Music Festival.
Reviews surfaced in her wake, comparing her to "the teenaged Aretha Franklin" (Elle), noting her "impressive fearlessness" (Boston Globe), lauding her "pipes, presence [and] potential" (No Depression), and observing that "Ryder brings a range and vocal maturity of someone twice her age" (American Songwriter). She accepted an invitation to tour with Steve Earle and performed on bills with acts as diverse as Marc Broussard and Xavier Rudd. Ryder has also lent her vocal talents to fellow Canadians, The Great Lake Swimmers, appearing on their last two acclaimed albums, ONGIARA (2007) and Lost Channels (2009). She also appears on the track, "You Can Always Come Home" off of label mate, Jason Castro's debut release due out in early 2010.
These experiences nurtured Ryder's creative growth and led her eventually to Atlantic Records, which previewed her with an EP, Told You in Whispered Song, in 2007. Her reflections on life broadened as well. And just as her guitar helped bring the muses of music and poetry together in earlier years, is it o.k. combines two sides of Ryder, the seeker and the artist, each invigorating the other.
Begin with its contrasts, its parallel images of being wounded as well as toughened by love, its innocence tempered by bitter wisdom. These dualities, Ryder says, live within her. "Most people have so many different characteristics inside of them all at once, and when one doesn't fit they try to turn it off and not listen to that part of themselves. So this record is about listening to all parts of myself and therefore being able to listen to all parts of other people too."
It's another paradox, she admits: listening to herself in order to hear what others have to say. "But that allows me to open up to the possibility that not everything is the way I thought it was and that most things that are told to you, growing up, are bullshit. No part of me has to fit into any sort of a box. Why do you have to know exactly what you're doing with your life? Why do you have to know exactly who you are in the world? The process of writing this record was about figuring out where I was coming from regardless of the fact that that could change in five minutes."
Ryder's vision for is it o.k. took shape at the Village Recording Studios in West Los Angeles. With Grammy-winning producer John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Jason Mraz) at the controls, Ryder and an all-star backup band brought these extraordinary songs to life over a run of six or seven days.
"It was unbelievable," she says, smiling. "They made me see my songs from an outside perspective, which is a dream for songwriters because we're so inside our own world. They brought up so many elements and emotions that I didn't even know existed in this music. It was almost like I had folded up the origami, and then they pumped air into it."
History surrounded Ryder during these sessions - literally, in the vocal booth, among the mirrors, candles, and stained glass that Stevie Nicks had included in her design for the space. But there was a sense of history being made too - a personal step forward for Ryder, and something bigger for those who would hear this music.
"To tell you the truth, I think with this album I've just started to write good songs - songs that connect with people by relating my own contradictions to them," she says. "I'm realizing more and more that I'm not on a one-way street or even a two-way street. It's a street with an insane amount of twists and turns, and not everybody on it feels the same thing as you. I'm feeling a lot more on this music than I ever have before. I'm feeling the cold a lot colder and the heat a lot hotter. It's exciting and terrifying at the same time, because it's opening my windows a lot wider to the world."
Through those windows, the sound of is it o.k. heralds the arrival of Serena Ryder, an artist unlike any other - an artist who is ready to change your world.