She puts a new spin on the old songs
FOR HER BIG-LABEL DEBUT, SERENA RYDER DIPS INTO A CANADIAN SONG BAG AND PULLS OUT SOME REAL PLUMS – INCLUDING TUNES YOU NEVER ASSOCIATED WITH EH-SAYERS FROM THE NORTH
Enough about the Great American Songbook, already. There’s a Great Canadian Songbook, too – and singer-songwriter Serena Ryder is clearly among its biggest fans.
She has taken the unusual step of devoting most of her major-label debut on EMI, If Your Memory Serves You Well, to celebrating classics from this side of the border.
The selection will surprise those who didn’t know of the Canuck connection to some of these evergreens.
Bob Dylan’s This Wheel’s on Fire, the song that gives the album its title, was co-written with Green’s Corners, Ont., native Rick Danko of the Band.
The Lovin Spoonful’s Coconut Grove was written by the group’s masterful melodist, John Sebastian, with the Spoonful’s late guitarist, Torontoborn Zal Yanovsky.
You Were on My Mind was a big hit for the San Francisco quintet We Five, but it was penned by Chatham, Ont.’s own Sylvia Tyson – who makes a cameo appearance on Ryder’s irresistible reggaeinflected version of the pop perennial.
It Doesn’t Matter Anymore, the Buddy Holly classic written by Ottawa boy Paul Anka, gets a barrelhouse gospel makeover from Ryder.
The disc also contains a primitive recording of Ryder, now 24, singing the bespectacled legend’s That’ll Be the Day at the age of 7, before an appreciative audience at the Lions Club in Millbrook, Ont., her hometown.
“I was obsessed with Buddy Holly when I was younger,” she said in a recent interview at a Montreal hotel. “I had a vinyl record of his – and I loved Linda Ronstadt.” Ronstadt had covered the Holly song, too.
Coincidentally, the precocious child also performed Ronstadt’s first big hit with the Stone Poneys – Michael Nesmith’s Different Drum – for the Lions Club.
Such strange links still echo on the new disc, Ryder said.
“That’s the thing about this record,” she said. “Musicians are all tied together. The tie is so old, and it’s beautiful. You can see how those lines are blurred between where one style of music started, or where a song started and finished. Nobody owns a song. You can’t own art.”
Ryder’s genes might have foretold her eclectic taste in covers. Her mother, Barbara, is a former go-go dancer and backup singer, and her biological father, Glen Sorzano, was a member of the popular Caribbean combo the Tradewinds, she said.
Yet most of her previous discs, which she began releasing independently at the age of 15, seemed to predict a different musical path.
“My earlier stuff was diary music, very female singer-songwriter, talking about how it’s really hard to exist and live, and woe is me, and no one understands,” she said.
“I’ve been slowly realizing that lots of people understand and lots of people are in the same boat. Now my music’s more about connection.”
It’s unusual for a maiden effort on a big label to consist mostly of non-originals, but the project seemed fated.
Frank Davies, founder of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, met Sandy Pandya, Ryder’s manager, at a CSHF showcase. Davies had been planning a project celebrating Canadian songwriters and Ryder, Pandya told him, was keen on covering some favourites.
Davies, Ryder and producer Steve Mackinnon whittled their selections down to 45 songs. Each made a short list of 12 and there was substantial agreement.
Once the album was recorded, Fraser Hill, EMI Canada’s A&R director, caught Ryder on stage and told her, fairy-tale like, to come in and talk. A contract was signed and the 12 cover songs were later augmented by three Ryder originals, including a cowrite with Randy Bachman.
On one of the covers, Raymond Lévesque’s Quand les hommes vivront d’amour, Ryder sings in creditable Québécois French. She was coached by Liane de Lotbinière, she said.
“There were certain vowels I couldn’t really pull off as being Québécois,” Ryder said. “At school, I was taught Parisian French, not Québécois French. (De Lotbinière) marked down all the different sounds and we sat, and she’d be like ‘euuu,’ so I went back and fixed certain vowels.”
Lévesque’s plea for peace is among the tracks that give the disc another unifying concept. “There’s a huge theme that ties all these things together,” Ryder said. “War and peace and true love. Morning Dew is about the apocalypse, which people are thinking about more and more today. A lot of the subject matter is absolutely timeless. And a lot of the songwriters on this record were pretty much my age when they wrote these songs.”
Yet the subject matter isn’t all serious. Ryder brings wide-eyed acceptance to Good Morning Starshine, from the hippie musical Hair, and goes vampy on the 1936 big-band toe-tapper Boo Hoo, which she said she’d like to see in a Quentin Tarantino fight scene. “It just really brought me back to being a little kid and starting to sing, back to musicals and fun,” she said of the song. “That really helped balance out the intensity of a lot of the other songs.”
It takes both subtlety and power to tackle a range of songs from Leonard Cohen’s Sisters of Mercy to the torcher My Heart Cries for You on the same album, and Ryder delivers the vocal goods.
She has had no training. “I realize that I am blessed to be able to express my truth with my voice,” she said. “And I’m very lucky to have known that since I was very young. I know a lot of people who are all grown up and still don’t know what they want to be. I’ve become aware at certain points that there’s a power behind what I do that’s greater than me. And I respect that and I try and honour that as much as possible.” Serena Ryder plays Café Campus March 8 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $12.50. Call 514-790-1245 or go to www.admission.com.
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Serena Ryder has come a long way since she sang Buddy Holly tunes for the Lions in her home town at age 7, but she hasn’t lost her way.