Guitar Girl'd: Interview with Serena Ryder on Her New Album, 'Harmony'
You may not realize it, but if you watch any TV at all, you’ve heard Serena Ryder’s “Stompa.” I know I have! I’ve rocked to her infectious beat during airings of Hawaii Five-0, Grey’s Anatomy and a commercial or two as well. Yes, it’s that ubiquitous!
With the imminent US release of her album, Harmony, Ryder explores new musical directions that bring her to worthwhile places. She rocks. She delivers smokin’ jazz. She dishes out the blues. She shares a beautiful ballad or two. It’s all good! If you take a listen, you might agree that Ryder’s voice is more kickass version of Adele. And there’s nothing wrong with that!
“Harmony is my journey, my past, my present, my future and all the ugly and beautiful things that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing so far in my short life here," she says. "I’ve chosen with this record to experiment more freely with the different musical parts of me that make up the whole.”
Ryder, a native of Canada, has earned three Juno Awards and two gold albums. Harmony, which already has been released in her home country, brought her the 2013 Juno for the Best Adult Alternative Album of the Year. The album went became platinum earlier in 2013.
I caught up with Ryder in the midst of a tour in anticipation of Harmony's June release in the US. Here’s what she had to say.
GUITAR WORLD: Where are you heading today?
We’re driving right now from Indianapolis to Ann Arbor. And then we’re going to Detroit and then New York.
I’ve heard your song “Stompa” all over the place. I was watching Hawaii Five-0 the other night with my son, and there it was.
it’s so surreal, too, right? It feels like it’s totally not reality at all, and the actual reality is that you wrote a song and now it’s everywhere. Total mindfuck. It’s really cool.
What about that song resonates with people?
It’s a song that’s really about how amazing music is and how I understand that it’s hard to be alive sometimes. When it comes down to it, it’s about the power of music and how it can take you out of any reality that you’re in and put you into a better place. And I just think that’s really sweet, that the power of music goes way beyond anything any words can describe. And I wanted to write a song with that message.
You’ve always been a singer, but what made you want to pick up the guitar and go in that direction?
I wanted to be able to create music 100 percent on my own. And I wanted to be able to do it in a way that I could travel around as well. I remember I was inspired to pick up the guitar by Neil Young. I would listen to his records over and over when I was like 13. Harvest is one my favorites. People like Neil Young, Tom Petty, Ben Harper, stuff like that. The music I loved growing up is all based around guitar playing. So I wanted to do that, I wanted to be able to play music and with the piano it’s more difficult. You can’t just put a piano on your back.
Did you take lessons or were you self-taught?
My dad got me my first guitar when I was 13, and it was a big-ass classical guitar with a gigantic, gigantic neck on it. It just had a really wide neck board, which I think is amazing. I’m so happy that I actually learned guitar on that, because now any other guitar that I pick up is so much easier to play. But I brought it into my room and taught myself how to play. My parents bought me a chord book of where to put my fingers. I swear, I haven’t really learned anything else since then. I can’t even name half the chords I play!
You just feel it, right?
Yeah. It just takes me 10 months longer to learn songs!
Tell me about writing your new album, Harmony. You changed up your process, right?
I started with the guitar riffs, and then I would record those. Then I would put the guitar down. I wouldn’t sing and play the guitar at the same time.
It’s something I’ve been doing for such a long time. Because I learned how to play guitar by listening to certain influences like Neil Young and Tracy Chapman, and all those people. If I wrote with a guitar in my hand, all of the stuff tended to be a little more folky. I wanted to explore my original interests, from before I had learned to play guitar. They were all from AM radio ‘cause I would listen with my father driving around in the car. So a lot of my influences came from the early ‘40s and ‘50s, you know, jazz stuff that had really big vocal, you know, showpieces. Like Etta James and big voices like that, which always comes out when I put down my guitar.
Tell me about the guitars you play.
Right now, I travel with five different guitars. Three of them are electric and two are acoustic. The three electric ones — there’s a Silvertone - it’s a 1950-something, like 1956. It’s a black and white one. It’s sparkly and black. You could get it in the catalog in the ‘50s for like 30 bucks. And then there’s another Silvertone solidbody, same time, same year, but it’s red and white. I leave it in open tuning.
But those two guitars are really, really, really, really precious to me because they used to belong to a friend of mine who passed away, and his parents gave out his instruments to all of his friends. He was an amazing, amazing musician. His name was Jay Reatard. A phenomenal, phenomenal songwriter and phenomenal singer and musician. He was really supportive and he really taught me a lot when I was just starting out. Those are my two Silvertones, and I have my Gibson Flying V. And I love that one. I actually was inspired to go out and buy a Flying V from watching this documentary on Jay. Have you ever heard of him?
No, can’t say I have.
There’s this amazing documentary on him. I always wanted a Flying V, but I was almost a little scared to get it. I was judging myself. I was like, “I don’t know what other people are going to think.” And then I was like, “Oh, my god. Just do it.” And so, I watched the documentary. If you haven’t seen it, go look at it. It’s called Better Than Something. That guitar is so much fun to play, it’s so light.
Yes, I wanted to ask you about that, because a Flying V is usually associated with heavier music.
Yeah, totally. And also, you know, the single off my record, “Stompa.” It’s super-heavily influenced by my playing that Flying V. I just kept wanting to play it for everything.
Right, that’s awesome.
Yeah, it gets me excited. I love playing it. I’m like, “Oh, my god. Everything is just better with a Flying V.”
I was watching some of the videos on YouTube of your record release and I love that you were wearing this beautiful white outfit and you’re playing this metal guitar. It was cool, a nice juxtaposition going on.
That’s so funny. It’s true, right? A flowy, feminine outfit.
I noticed you were playing a small-body acoustic. Can you tell me about it?
These acoustics are my favorite ever. They’re from Australia and they’re mini-Matons. They’re actually even smaller than a parlor guitar. They are made in Australia. They just sound so amazing. They make their own pickups, too, in-house. They make a big impression. They’re so tiny and so easy to play. They have this gigantic sound, too. I’ve never had a guitar sound that amazing ever, ever from a tiny guitar.
What are you plugging into?
I love older Orange amps. I don’t really know the models I use right now. This is the very first record I’ve done electric, so it’s all brand new to me, too, which is exciting. It’s so fun. I can’t believe it took me this long. It feels more free.
You’ve been playing songs live from the album> Are there any in particular that you just really love to play live?
Yeah, totally. I love, “Stompa.” It’s awesome, it’s just fun to play and people get into it. I love singing “For You,” which is kind of a jazzy song. And my favorite is “Baby Come Back.”
Have you had any challenges being a female musician?
I don’t know any different, you know what I mean? I don’t know what it’s like to be a man. I feel pretty good, so, no. No one’s tried to pull any shit on me.
Do you have any advice for other musicians out there?
Yeah, sure. I think the greatest advice that I can give, and that I’ve been given, is that instead of trying to find what makes you different from everybody else, find what makes you the same. Because in this industry and in this business, when you’re an artist, you’re supposed to be special. What does that mean? And should it not be more important that you have a community of people that you can relate to. And then you can feel happy and not alone. Because loneliness is probably one of the hardest things to deal with in this industry. There’s lots of traveling, lots of not knowing where you’re going or not knowing anybody around you. I think the important thing is to find what’s similar with the people that are around you.
And the other thing, advice given to me by Melissa Etheridge, who’s a really good friend of mine now, we did a tour with each other a couple of years ago. And she said that you gotta love what you do. If you don’t love what you do, do something else, you know? It doesn’t need to be a struggle.
Find out what’s next for Serena Ryder at serenaryder.com.
Laura B. Whitmore is a singer/songwriter based in the San Francisco bay area. A veteran music industry marketer, she has spent over two decades doing marketing, PR and artist relations for several guitar-related brands including Marshall and VOX. Her company, Mad Sun Marketing, represents Dean Markley, Agile Partners, Peavey, Jammit, Notion Music, Guitar World and many more. Laura was instrumental in the launch of the Guitar World Lick of the Day app. She is the founder of the Women's International Music Network at thewimn.com, producer of the Women's Music Summit and the lead singer for the rock band Summer Music Project. More at mad-sun.com.