Interview: Serena Ryder – Rips Tunes Whips Hair at City Winery

Serena Ryder

Serena Ryder sings with conviction; she’s sexy but she also sounds like she could kick your ass. The Canadian, Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter played the intimate City Winery on February 25 to audience cheers and turned the place into a sing-a-long that fans appreciated by the show’s end. Opening for Howie Day, Ryder wore a red, layered skirt that looked part flapper, part Meatpacking District minx, along with knee-high black boots. The soulful opening of “Sweeping The Ashes” quickly illustrated to the crowd that they were in the presence of an iconic rock voice, along the likes of Stevie Nicks, Janis Joplin and Melissa Etheridge. Ryder raised her voice spiritedly on some of the notes and captured everyone’s attention. “Let me feel, let me feel what I’m feeling tonight,” she sang, and you could sense Ryder’s soul with the “whoa-ohs” and a moving guitar melody.

Following the song, Serena Ryder chatted with her fans and mentioned that she was invited to be an official performer at the Olympics saying “I am excited that Canada won a little, it’s pretty exciting.” At which point she later said “OK, boring!”

Anything but boring actually, Ryder’s seven-song set continued, so rich with emotion and melody that it felt like her own headlining show. Ryder introduced the next song and said “I was writing in an empty bathtub in a very small hotel I was staying in for about a month and I was writing songs feeling sorry for myself. And I was like ‘why do I feel bad for myself? I’m in a hotel room writing songs!’” Her song intros add color to the songs and it was especially welcome as she started “Brand New Love.” The vocal was soft and sweet on this love song as Serena sang “We’ll stain our lips with the color of wine, and then we kiss and everything is fine again.” She held out a long note shortly after this lyric and it gradually grew louder to audience applause.

“Thank you” whispered Ryder. She took a moment and said “Cheers,” motioning in appreciation with her water bottle. Ryder was clearly in the zone because she continued whispering to the audience, “You guys are a really good audience, it’s a good sign when you can talk like this and people can hear you.” A glass in the room smashed and Ryder’s laughter completely changed the mood. When the opening notes were strummed on her guitar during “All For Love” the audience applauded. The new single is a passionate song, almost desperately sung, with so much emotion and heart. During the second chorus, Ryder shook her locks of hair as she strummed, later joined by guitarist John Kengla who provided beautiful back-up vocals. On “All For Love,” music lovers really got a sense of Ryder’s musicianship and her passion, which comes through in a tightly-produced song that has all the right elements: an alluring rhythm, climactic vocals and instrumentation that compliments the timeless melody.

Ryder chatted with the audience again, mentioning how she used to live around the corner from the Millbrook Fairgrounds, where she would go to the Millbrook Fair every July and sing between innings of baseball games. She dedicated the next song to a favorite cab driver who inspired her, Ernie Doig. After the title track from her recent album “Is It o.k.,” for which Ryder opened a capella there was a wounded romance in her voice when singing “Weak In The Knees.” Here, as with other moments in the set it was clear that her voice is powerful enough to make an impact with just a guitar or both a guitar and one other musician on stage.

After some more conversation, Ryder said “I want you to sing along with me in this song because it makes me happy.” This was after chuckling a bit and saying she had “foot-in-mouth disease.” “I was born with it,” said Ryder. “You’re black and white needs a little bit of red” was taught to the audience during the call & response portion of the song and before starting, Ryder said “your goin’ to the spa for your brain on this one!” Another clear highlight, Ryder was flopping her hair every which way as she passionately attacked her guitar. It was a very controlled vocal and Ryder got into it — dancing, hip shaking and she continued her hair acrobatics throughout. Her hair really helps define physically who Serena Ryder is as an artist. She later aggressively marched and danced in place while playing guitar and said “cut to the beat” while the crowd clapped along and she kept the energy high. A final jump-strum ended the song. The upbeat “What I Wanna Know” closed Serena’s set and she concluded with a smoky passion in her voice. Serena Ryder will spend most of the spring on the road in Canada and the U.S. including several dates with the Barenaked Ladies before joining a range of female talent at the new Lilith Fair this summer.

The afternoon following Serena Ryder’s City Winery performance, she took some time while at a café at Prince and Lafayette in New York’s SoHo to chat with Bloginity.com and provide some insight into the stories she shared at her show as well as talk about what’s coming up this summer. Ryder told us she got a new haircut that day, which may explain part of the reason why she appeared with such ease and confidence on stage that night whipping her hair and getting lost in the moment.

Michael: What did you think of the ambiance and crowd response last night at City Winery?

Serena: I think that it’s a really amazing place to be with a bunch of friends and it feels really comfortable and has a really refined setting which is hard to come by. You feel like you’re in a fine dining establishment and it’s pretty awesome. I’m definitely coming back to New York and playing a show in May with a full band. With the band it’s a whole new level of rocking out. It’s great when I get the boys on stage but I love it both ways, the intimacy of doing it solo.

Michael: Not only do you have this iconic voice but you also kind of have this signature move I’ve seen in several of your shows where your hair takes on its own presence (hair whippage or hairography as a friend calls it) and it completely adds to the emotion, intensity and climax of your songs. Have you done this for a while? Is it something that you just got into when you were really vibing and getting into a song?

Serena: Haha. That’s awesome. Well, it’s actually — it happens really, really, really naturally and it’s something that happens. In playing solo for a long time I really lose myself in the song, you know, when you get to a place with that kind of comfort, it just becomes so natural. When I’m really getting into a moment, I’m never consciously aware of what was going on so people started pointing it out and people say they love that I am whipping my hair around. I love it, I love dancing, I love going crazy on the stage. You just made me laugh really loud in a really quiet coffee shop!

Michael: Where in America are you getting a lot of love and what towns do you enjoy playing?

Serena: Washington, D.C. is really awesome. New York is really awesome. Mobile, Alabama is amazing. America in general has been really, really amazing for a while. Seattle and San Francisco has been phenomenal as far as audiences.

Michael: So the return of the Lilith Fair is creating a lot of buzz these days – what does it mean to you to be part of this and what are you most excited for this summer?

Serena: I’m the most excited about you know, being able to see other female musicians rock it. I’m such a fan of other people who are playing. Metric for instance, they have one of my favorite records of the past couple years. I’m a big fan of Brandi Carlile. Also, I’m just really honored to be a part of it. When I was growing up and starting to play songs and write songs when I was 13 or 14 years old I was so inspired by the Lilith Fair and by those women. It’s definitely a dream come true.

Michael: Any surprises coming up on tour, whether on the Lilith Fair tour or on other dates? Duets? Collaborations?

Serena: We have a lot of things in the works and a lot of collaborations in the works that I’m really excited about. They’ll happen when they happen. That’s something I really adore doing – that really stokes my fire collaborating with other artists.

Michael: How did writing in the bathroom at a small hotel for a month come about?

Serena: I was in Paris for a month and I was there playing shows and staying in a tiny hotel and I was by myself – the restroom is the best place for acoustics.

Michael: The audience clapped after the first few guitar strums of “All For Love.” Do you get this kind of response on this song a lot?

Serena: That was so cool, ay? It is the newest single. It’s been a really great response.

Michael: During your show, you were talking about the Millbrook Fair around where you grew up and how you were singing between baseball game innings, right?

Serena: Literally between innings at 8 years old I just started singing on the bleachers. It happened several times.