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Toronto singer's year an emotional rollercoaster
TORONTO - It's been a year of extreme highs and lows for Serena Ryder.
The Toronto-based singer-songwriter lost her friend and co-manager, Bonnie O'Donnell, to pneumonia last January, channelled the pain into a bunch of soulful songs, recorded them in the spring and then won a Juno Award for best new artist in April.
As the blues-folk-rock musician releases those heartfelt tunes this week on her new album - "Is it O.K." - which is dedicated to O'Donnell, she says she's reminded again of the sadness but she's ready for it.
"It's still kind of like, super fresh," Ryder said in an interview.
"So that's, you know, in essence why I wrote the songs because it's kind of like a mantra to be able to like, go over it and be like, 'OK, so this is how it feels' ... it's like a conscious kind of opening, you know, which is painful and hard but I think important."
The 25-year-old musician with the powerful raspy pipes (she has a three-octave range despite being a smoker since age 11) wrote half the tracks for "Is it O.K." over a period of several months last year while on tour for her last album, a collection of covers called "If Your Memory Serves You Well," for which she received wide acclaim.
When O'Donnell died at age 32, Ryder says it took just 1 1/2 to two weeks to pen the rest of the tunes.
"That was a really really intense thing for me to go through and I didn't really have any way of expressing it other than through my music," said Ryder, adding the process has been therapeutic.
"The root of all evil is suppressing, not allowing yourself to be naked and to feel what you're feeling," she said, noting the album's first song, 'Sweeping the Ashes,' is about that very notion.
"Is It O.K." - which does not contain a question mark because "it's more of an internal question than it is an external question" about life, said Ryder - contains 13 tracks, all written or co-written by the singer herself and produced by John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer). One of the songs is a stripped-down version of her 2006 hit single "Weak in the Knees."
Ryder, a multi-instrumentalist who has been singing she was a tyke, recorded the album with a band assembled by Alagia in the Santa Monica, Calif., studio complex Village Recorder, where one of her favourite albums, Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" from 1977, was created.
Being in the studio was also significant for Ryder since her husky voice and vibrato have been compared to that of Fleetwood Mac's frontwoman, Stevie Nicks, as well as Janis Joplin, Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge and Aretha Franklin.
"It's funny, like, I hear (the comparisons) and I haven't actually taken in how much of a compliment that is," said Ryder, who was raised in Millbrook, Ont.
"I know it's a compliment and I go, 'Aw shucks, golly, aw, thank you,' ... but at the same time it's like, I try not to think about it because if I thought about it it's like, 'Well, do I really exist in that realm?'
"It's exciting to think that it's possible for me to speak to a generation in the way that those people did," she added.
"But then it also makes me feel this gigantic sense of responsibility ... so then it brings me back to the beginning and it's like, 'Well, I just don't want to think about it.' But it's definitely an honour."
Ryder performs in Drayton, Ont., this Friday; London, Ont., on Sunday; Ottawa next Monday; and Toronto next Wednesday. She'll also sing at the Cavalcade of Lights in Toronto on Dec. 20 and launch a cross-Canada tour next March.