Serena Ryder gears up for folk festival performance

Justin Brake
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There's a steady stream of career-affirming events happening in Serena Ryder's life, like winning back-to-back Juno Awards in 2008 and 2009, but the 25-year-old Ontario-born singer, songwriter and guitarist is taking it all in without forgetting what's important to her.

Gearing up for her first performance in the province Sunday, when she headlines the 33rd Annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, Ryder took some time to chat with The Telegram from the road.

Serena Ryder

There's a steady stream of career-affirming events happening in Serena Ryder's life, like winning back-to-back Juno Awards in 2008 and 2009, but the 25-year-old Ontario-born singer, songwriter and guitarist is taking it all in without forgetting what's important to her.

Gearing up for her first performance in the province Sunday, when she headlines the 33rd Annual Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival, Ryder took some time to chat with The Telegram from the road.

With a wealth of media attention over the past two years, it's no surprise the interview is limited to 15 minutes. But her answers are quick-witted and her tone, genuine - unexpected from someone who's spent the better part of her year answering to faceless journalists and critics.

The first time Ryder saw her name in print was nearly two decades ago when ears began to perk in her hometown of Millbrook, Ont.

"I was nine years old and it was (in) the Millbrook Times," she says, recalling the headline: "Millbrook's rising star."

It wasn't until CBC Radio One 'Here and Now' host Avril BenoÎt did an in-depth interview with the young musician in 2002 that the attention began to pay dividends.

"That was a real pusher for my career," she recalls. "It's the reason why my manager heard me, the reason why Hawksley Workman heard me, and I ended up on his label and touring with him. So that was a big deal."

Endowed with a three-octave range vocal ability, a sound drawing from folk, roots, rock and country, and a maturity in her songwriting beyond her years, Ryder earned a fan in Workman, who helped her release her first major label album, 2005's "Unlikely Emergency," on his own Isadora Records.

"If Your Memory Serves You Well," a collection of cover songs by Ryder's favourite Canadian artists, was released on EMI in 2006, followed by an EP, "Told You In A Whispered Song," in 2007.

Two Junos and a hugely successful album later (last year's "Is It O.K.") Ryder finds herself on a brief summer tour of the United States with The Wallflowers, led by Bob Dylan's son Jacob.

The response to her music in the U.S., she says, has been as warm as that in her native land.

"I find that people in North America in general, we have a certain way of reacting to certain kinds of people, certain ways of living and all of that. I find the only difference in reaction in America is the difference between the energy that's put behind a lot of radio and TV and things like that," she explains. "With Canadian audiences there's definitely more of a sense of home."

Catapulted into the spotlight, Ryder recognizes the new pressures in her life, but refuses to be swayed one way or another by fame and fortune, holding a middle-ground, Socratic "one can never know anything" sort of stance on the things she's passionate about.

"For the most part, there are two sides to every story. There's always two different perspectives," she says. "I know I contradict myself all the time, and that's a very human thing to do."

Looking at labels

Exploring the trend of either imposed or desired labels shaping a person's image, which happens in the cases of many famous people, Ryder's deep level of reflection emerges.

"When you have a certain thing about you that comes out in your emotions or things that you do that, say, go against what you say you are, then you and everybody else around you accuses you of being a liar and a hypocrite. That's not true, because we're everything all of the time. In the same respect, I also don't have any problem with labels, as long as we realize 'I am that, but I'm also this and I'm also this and I'm also this.' It's never-ending. I think labels are important in giving us comparisons to what that label is not, and what that label is. It's pretty complex."

With only a few minutes remaining, we discuss one more thing: songwriting and the perception of singer-songwriters held in higher regard than artists who don't write their own material.

"I don't really think that it matters if you write your own music or not," she says. "I think it's how much you relate to what you're singing and if you're saying it from a place of total relation and honesty and love, you know? Certain people are translators, and that's just as important as speaking the right language. Some people have the right voice, the right vibrations to relay that message to everybody else that they didn't happen to pen. But sometimes there's just something so big inside you that you need to articulate yourself and that comes from your own personal, three-dimensional experience of this lifetime, or whatever you want to say. And some people feel the need to express in that way and that's important as well. It just depends on how honest you are about it."

This, and a few albums worth of similarly insightful lyrics and songs, from a young woman whose career is only beginning.

"Is that OK?" she humbly asks about headlining a festival of predominantly traditional-influenced Newfoundland music, as if to expect a general consensus in response.

I can't speak for everyone, but I offer her a confident, "Yes."

Ryder performs at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival Sunday evening. For more information, visit www.nlfolk.com.

Organizations: Millbrook Times, CBC Radio, The Wallflowers

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Millbrook, Ontario United States North America

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