November 26, 2012 7:50 PM | By Sean Plummer

Serena Ryder evolves beyond folk on new record

Harmony is her first album in four years

Serena Ryder

Serena Ryder (Mary Rozzi 2012)

Serena Ryder has an admission to make, and it may shock you.

“My biggest influence is TLC’s CrazySexyCool record,” she says. “I know it front to back, every single word.”

That’s not the sort of talk you might expect from Ryder. After all, the Millbrook, ON-raised singer-songwriter has been widely praised as one of this country’s best folk and roots artists, often citing the likes of Roger Miller and John Prine as influences.

But Ryder’s new album Harmony, while not a 180-degree turn from her past work, certainly reflects the diversity of her musical tastes, which she says includes Culture Club and Ace of Bass, as well as more likely suspects like Joni Mitchell, The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

“I was always obsessed with all different styles of music, and I feel that this record was my kind of open door to create whatever sound I wanted in the moment; whatever I felt.”

Coming four years after her last studio album, 2008’s Is It O.K., Harmony was mostly inspired by her falling in love.

“This is the first time where I've been in a relationship where I feel like it’s true love,” she says. “And in a lot of ways, true love with myself as well. It’s made me fall in love with myself as a person and as a musician too. He’s a musician, and it’s been really amazing and real. I feel like my life was a lot more solid and real because when you get a chance to sleep in the same bed every night and you see the sun rise in the same spot, I think it’s really important for everybody to have that kind of solidity and that centeredness.”

While some of the new album was recorded in Los Angeles, most of the production took place over a two-month period at The Cottage, the home studio she built with said boyfriend in her west end Toronto digs. Producing was Jon Levine (K’naan, Nelly Furtado), who also produced Ryder’s first radio single, “Calling To Say,” and the Emmy- and Grammy-nominated Jerrod Bettis (Gavin DeGraw, Better Than Ezra) who came up with the track for the album’s first single, “Stompa.”

“He looks like he’s 18-years-old,” Ryder says of Bettis. “When I met him I was like ‘What? Who are you? We’re working together? Okay cool.’ But he’s an unbelievable drummer as well so he’s really rhythmic, and for me a lot of rhythm inspired me to write music and melody. So he would come up with these crazy beats and then I could bring my acoustic guitar or electric guitar and start writing riffs. He’s so amazing at inspiring me to write music.”

Far from the acoustic-based music for which Ryder is arguably best known, “Stompa” is grittier and more rhythmic, evoking both the bluesy guitar work and beats of The Black Keys and the vocal soul of the late Amy Winehouse. To that end I ask how making Harmony challenged her perceptions of herself as an artist.

“I feel like I was more challenged in my previous records than I was on this record,” she says. “I feel that this record literally encapsulates freedom for me as an artist. I always tried to pigeonhole myself a little bit more in my previous records. And the thing about me is that this record I feel is less produced than any of my other records because it was just me in my studio in my backyard with my producer. That’s it. There were no studio musicians coming in, there was no full band, there was no bells & whistles. It was me and my two producers. And each stayed with me separately at my house. So it was almost like I had the freedom to play and I had the freedom to just think about what I wanted to do and what I wanted to express in the moment without having to pigeonhole myself into a vision of who I thought I was or who other people think that I am.”

Indeed, Ryder says she felt free for the first time to set aside the expectations of her as some sort of folk rock saviour and instead merely indulge her muse.

“My entire life people have been like, ‘You have to pick a style of music, Serena. I know you like doing lots of different things, but you have to pick a style. Tell us who you are.’ And I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m so many people!’ And there’s so many parts of me and there are so many different styles of music that I love.”

Perhaps it’s that sense of an artist revelling in her artistic freedom that has appealed to both radio and listeners, as “Stompa” has become one of her most successful singles to date.

“It’s like we’re all trying so hard to be real instead of just being real, and I feel that this record is me being real,” she says. “And whether it’s successful or not, I couldn’t give a flying f**k because I am being real. But then, on the other hand, of course if it’s successful I’m going to be super-stoked.”

I finish our chat by asking Ryder how her sense of what she can achieve artistically has evolved or changed since the release of Is It O.K.

“I feel like who you can be and who you are as a person is based on your perspective of yourself,” she says. “And so you can basically do anything that you want to in your life as long as you believe in yourself and as long as it feels real and right to you, regardless of what anybody else says or what anybody else thinks. If you feel that it’s right inside your gut, you have to listen to that.”

Harmony is out November 27th through EMI Music Canada.

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