Early Years and Career
Serena Ryder was born into a musical family. Her mother, Barbara, was a go-go dancer and backup singer, and her father played in a Caribbean folk band. Her uncle, part- Ojibwe singer-songwriter Bob Carpenter, worked with producer Brian Ahern and singer Emmylou Harris and recorded the unreleased Silent Passage (1974), which has since become a folk- rock cult classic. Ryder never met her biological father, who was from Trinidad and passed away when she was 11. She credits her stepfather, Andy, for introducing her to jazz and blues music.
Ryder began performing in local coffee houses and Legion halls with her piano teacher when she was eight years old, and started selling self-made recordings at her shows when she was 15. “When I was a little kid I used to be obsessed with just performing wherever I was,” she told CTV in 2017. “I always wanted to be a musician and to play in front of as many people as possible.” By 17, Ryder had left Millbrook for nearby Peterborough and released her debut album, Falling Out (1999), through the independent label Mime Radio.
Unlikely Emergency (2005)
In 2003, musician and producer Hawksley Workman heard Ryder perform on the CBC Radio program Here and Now and signed her to his label, Isadora Records. That same year, she released Serena Ryder: Live, which had six new songs originally recorded for broadcast on CBC Radio’s Bandwidth. She then toured with Workman in Canada and Europe, and eventually opened for Steve Earle in Australia.
Ryder’s first major label record, Unlikely Emergency (2005), was produced by Workman and distributed by EMI Music Canada. Ryder’s raw and honest songs, such as a powerful cover of Etta James’s “At Last” and her own folk-rock ballad “Just Another Day,” earned national attention. In 2005, Ryder also released a live six-song EP recorded in Sydney, Australia, entitled Live in Oz. Five of the six tracks were previously unreleased songs, including “Millbrook Fair,” a duet with Workman.
If Your Memory Serves You Well (2006)
Ryder’s follow-up, If Your Memory Serves You Well (2006), features 12 covers of classic songs by such artists as Leonard Cohen, Paul Anka and Bob Dylan, as well as three original tracks. The album was certified gold in Canada in 2007, and Ryder’s original song “Weak in the Knees” was certified a gold digital download. In its review of the record, American Songwriter described Ryder as timeless, with “a range and vocal maturity of someone twice her age.”
In 2007, Ryder released another EP, Told You in a Whispered Song, which features the title track and acoustic versions of “Hiding Place,” “Brand New Love,” “Weak in the Knees” and “Blown Like the Wind At Night,” which would all appear on her fourth album, Is It O.K. (2008). In April 2008, before the release of Is It O.K., Ryder won the Juno Award for New Artist of the Year.
Serena Ryder with her award for New Artist of the Year at the 2008 Juno Awards.
Is It O.K. (2008)
Distributed through EMI Music Canada and Atlantic Records in the United States, Is It O.K. went gold in Canada in 2009, when it won the Juno Award for Adult Alternative Album of the Year. Ryder’s rock hit “Little Bit of Red” won Video of The Year at the 2010 Juno Awards and the emotional “Weak in the Knees” was certified a gold digital download in 2012.
In 2009, Ryder’s cover of the Bruce Springsteen song “Racing in the Street” was posted on his official website as part of a “Hangin’ Out on E Street” cover series. Ryder’s version had more than 400,000 views on YouTube as of June 2015.
However, Ryder’s hectic tour schedule in support of Is It O.K. contributed to a severe case of depression. She explained in a 2012 interview in Chatelaine magazine that she had struggled with depression since she was 13, and the immense pressure and media spotlight finally took its toll. “When you’re touring, everything is about you,” she said. “You talk about yourself all day. You’re always on. And it’s not even really about you. It’s about an idea of you. So it can get really confusing if you don’t have a super strong sense of who you are inside.”
After suffering severe panic attacks, she abandoned the tour and returned home, where she spent weeks in bed and struggled with suicidal thoughts. She was diagnosed with clinical depression and, through a combination of anti-depressants and therapy, she started to recover and began to write the songs that would appear on Harmony (2012), her next album.
During her recovery, she also toured as the opening act for Melissa Etheridge’s 2011 Canadian tour. The two singers, who have the same manager and became close friends, often sang Ryder’s “Broken Heart Sun” as a duet while on tour, as well as at the 2011 Juno Awards. The song was later released on Ryder’s EP Serena Ryder: Live in 2011. That same year, Ryder and the Toronto alt-country band The Beauties released the four-song EP Serena Ryder & The Beauties, produced by Broken Social Scene member Kevin Drew. The EP has three original songs, a cover of Band of Horses’ “Funeral” and four accompanying music videos available through digital download on iTunes.
Serena Ryder’s 2012 album, Harmony, had its origins in her earlier struggle with depression. After starting treatment for her illness, Ryder’s interest in music was renewed and she wrote more than 60 songs for her forthcoming album. Encouraged by her manager, Ryder went to Los Angeles for co-writing sessions with producer Jerrod Bettis, who ended up co-writing much of Harmony with her. She told the Globe and Mail, “the songs were conversations with myself, telling myself that I wasn’t the depression. I began to understand music in a way I hadn’t understood it before.”
Called “the boldest album of her career” by the Globe and Mail and “the best-produced disc of her career” by the Toronto Star, Harmony expanded Ryder’s folk-rock sound by incorporating pop, blues and soul genres, and was certified platinum in Canada. The album’s first single, the anthemic “Stompa,” became an international hit and was certified a triple platinum digital download in Canada in 2013. Rob Farina, an executive vice-president at Astral Media, described the guitar-heavy song as a “mash-up of the Black Keys and Adele,” while the New York Times called it “a new song of summer” and praised the “fireball” Ryder’s “raw-throated vocals and passion.” Ryder has said that “Stompa” is meant to encourage 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.”
“Stompa” was featured in a Cadillac commercial and on the TV series Grey’s Anatomy. It spent eight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s US Triple A airplay chart and became Ryder’s first song to crack the Top 10 on Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 chart, peaking at No. 8. It also reached No. 1 on Billboard’s US Adult Alternative Songs chart and cracked the Top 40 on Billboard’s US Hot Rock Songs, Rock Airplay and Adult Top 40 charts. It became the first song by a Canadian artist to top CBC Radio 2’s Top 20 song chart and its music video won Rock/Alternative Video of the Year at the 2013 MuchMusic Video Awards. The same year, Ryder performed “Stompa” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and at the 2013 Juno Awards, where Harmony was named Adult Alternative Album of the Year.
Released through EMI Canada and Capitol Music, Ryder’s new US label, other singles from Harmony were also successful. The pop-rock hit “What I Wouldn’t Do” went to No. 8 on Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 list, earned a platinum digital download certificate in 2013 and helped Ryder win Songwriter Honours at the SOCAN Awards in 2014.
In 2013, Ryder performed “O Canada” at the 101st Grey Cup in Regina. In 2014, she performed the anthem at the NBA All Star Game in New Orleans. She also co-hosted the 2014 Juno Awards with fellow musicians Johnny Reid and Classified. That night she took home trophies for Songwriter of the Year and Artist of the Year.
Although it is performed by Mickey Guyton, Ryder co-wrote “It’s No Mistake” with Jimmy Harry for the 2013 film The Right Kind of Wrong. She and Harry won a Canadian Screen Award for the song in 2014. Ryder was also chosen to sing the official song, “Together We Are One,” for the 2015 Pan/Parapan Am Games in Toronto. She performed it along with “Stompa” and several other original songs at the closing ceremony.
Ryder went into the recording of her sixth studio album, and first in five years, with so many new songs that she considered releasing a triple album. The 12-track Utopia (a special deluxe version comprises 17 songs) was released on 26 May 2017 and proved to be her most pop-oriented album to date. Ryder left the guitar-driven sound of her past work behind in favour of a more rhythmic approach. She wrote many of the album’s songs on the drums, often writing and recording a song on the same day. She also discovered new range to her vocals after quitting smoking.
The Record’s Michael Barclay, who wrote that Ryder “may well be the greatest female voice in pop music since k.d. lang,” observed that on Utopia, “Ryder makes sure she throws all her cards on the table: every track here is aimed at the top of the pops, jammed with hooks and production that sounds like a million bucks… Ryder is far better as a pop artist than a rock artist, which she realized on Harmony; when her voice has to compete with loud guitars, nobody wins. Here, everything is centred on her vocals, and the songwriting gives her plenty of expansive melodies to work with.”
The album, which debuted at No. 1 on iTunes, features seven songs co-written with pop-music specialist Simon Wilcox, a successful Los Angeles-based songwriter (Nick Jonas’s “Jealous,” Three Days Grace’s “Home,” Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling”) and daughter of guitarist David Wilcox. The hit song “Got Your Number” peaked at No. 62 on Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 Chart and at No. 39 on the Hot Canadian Digital Song Sales chart. It also became a gold-certified single in Canada while Utopia became Ryder’s highest-ranking album on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart, peaking at No. 10.
Ryder performed alongside Walk Off the Earth, Alessia Cara and Gordon Lightfoot at the Canada Day festivities on Parliament Hill on 1 July 2017. Later that year, she embarked on a 20-city Canadian tour in support of the album.
Christmas Kisses (2018)
Ryder’s first Christmas album, Christmas Kisses (2018), was produced by Canadian Music Hall of Fame member Bob Ezrin and released on 19 October 2018 (see also Christmas Music). It features jazzy covers of nine holiday classics, such as “Let it Snow,” “White Christmas” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” as well as the original title track (written by Ryder and Simon Wilcox), which Ryder performed at the 2018 Original Santa Claus Parade in Toronto. Ryder toured Atlantic Canada in support of Christmas Kisses, which Rolling Stone magazine ranked at No. 5 on its list of the Top Christmas Albums of 2018.
Honours and Charity Work
Ryder has been involved with numerous charity initiatives including the Bell Let’s Talk mental health campaign, the Canadian Kidney Foundation and Fashion CARES. She sang on K’Naan’s “Wavin’ Flag” in support of Young Artists for Haiti, performed for MusiCounts, an organization that gives children access to music education in schools, and has supported the Unison Benevolent Fund. In 2009, her song “Sing Sing” from the album Unlikely Emergency was chosen for Music Monday, a coalition for music education, and sung in schools across the country.
In 2014, Ryder played a benefit concert in Peterborough for Five Counties Children Centre and performed in Toronto in support of Save the Children Canada. Also that year, the town of Millbrook, Ontario, added “Home of Serena Ryder” to the town’s welcome sign, as well as the logo featured on the Harmony album cover. On 11 August 2018, she performed alongside Billy Talent, City and Colour, Finger Eleven and Maestro Fresh Wes as part of the #TorontoStrong benefit concert in response to the mass shooting on Toronto’s Danforth Ave. on 22 July 2018.
- New Artist of the Year (2008)
- Adult Alternative Album of the Year (Is It O.K.) (2009)
- Video of the Year (“Little Bit of Red”) (2010)
- Adult Alternative Album of the Year (Harmony) (2013)
- Songwriter of the Year (“Stompa,” “What I Wouldn’t Do”) (2014)
- Artist of the Year (2014)
- Rock/Alternative Video of the Year (“Stompa”), MuchMusic Video Awards (2013)
- Songwriter Honours (“What I Wouldn’t Do,” “Stompa”), SOCAN Awards (2014)
- Chart Topper Award, Canadian Radio Music Awards (2014)
- Achievement in Music – Best Original Song (“It’s No Mistake”), Canadian Screen Awards (2014)
- Margaret Trudeau Mental Health Advocacy Award, Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services (2018)