Serena Ryder finds her stride on Utopia

We talked to Serena Ryder about embracing darkness, writing with friends and polishing turds.

July 27, 2017

Summer has been pretty warm to Serena Ryder. The Juno Award-winning singer-songwriter performed at the big Canada Day 150 celebrations in Ottawa, has been jetting from Saskatchewan to Montreal to play primetime Jazz Fest showcases, and her current singles “Got Your Number” and “Electric Love,” both off her sixth studio album, Utopia, (which debuted at No. 1), continue to soar on charts and playlists across the country.

Utopia follows 2012’s double platinum album Harmony, which produced hits like “Stompa” and “What I Wouldn’t Do.” While Harmony’s focus was much about finding balance, Utopia is instead an off-kilter montage of romantic loss and rebuilding in the aftermath.

The songs on Utopia are also loosely centred around the First Nations Cherokee folklore of the Two Wolves that exist within all of us: the good wolf and the evil wolf. In the end, the story reveals that the wolf that wins is “the one you feed.”  But Ryder isn’t feeding just one; she’s entertaining and coexisting with both.

“If you’re just feeding this one side of yourself, you’re denying yourself balance,” says Ryder. “When you deny yourself your darker spots they kind of take over eventually… I mean why can’t you feed both?”

Over a three year period after Harmony’s run simmered, Serena Ryder took a break, moved to Los Angeles for a bit, did some touring overseas and wrote nearly 100 songs. These were the building blocks to Utopia, a name she came up with before the record was finished.

Similar to what Lorde sings on “Perfect Places,” Ryder toyed with what her utopia could be, and got excited about an “imaginary place in an album that wasn’t even created yet.” Yes, the album is a play on words, but it’s also a “play on your reality and what you could create.”

Ryder writes about what she knows: inner dialogues, love, loss, and life’s deep cuts. Utopia may be as much of a breakup album as it is an album on the pain of mastering a positive life.

“I feel like that’s something that everyone’s constantly struggling with,” says Ryder. “Finding the positive and feeding the positive part of yourself, thinking positive thoughts, and taking these thoughts and making your reality in this positive way.”

Ryder has bipolar disorder, so managing moods and depression is something she’s dealt with for years. She says it’s pretty easy for her to find both the dark and the light, and songs like “Killing Time,” “Saying Hello,” and “Utopia” exemplify this contrast; lyrics like the title track’s  “I hit the floor, I hit the ceiling, out of control, not giving up, can’t find the door, can’t find the meaning, I’m looking for utopia” convey a sense of hysteria that can be crippling, similar to what might be felt while dealing with mental health setbacks.

It’s been 10 years since “Weak in the Knees” was released, which was a respectable introduction to the then 24-year-old Ryder, but in recent years she’s recognized a real change in the way she writes music (and what she writes music about).

“The music has definitely changed, I mean I look at some of the first stuff, my first album ever made. Man, it’s so terrible, it’s the worst thing I’ve ever heard,” she says, half groaning. “I’ll come back to it sometimes just to remind myself that I’ve actually progressed.”

When Harmony came out five years ago, Ryder says she started to realize she was “actually good” at what she was doing. She also learned when to just stop and move on.

“You can’t polish a turd,” she laughs. “As a writer, I think knowing when not to work on a piece of shit, knowing when to stop and start again and not hold on so tightly, that’s important.”

Speaking of writing, Utopia is an album full of co-writes, including credits from the likes of Simon Wilcox (Nick Jonas, Demi Lovato, Britney Spears), Thomas Salter (Josh Groban, Lights) and LP (Rihanna, Cher). The record is versatile as a result, seemingly gliding between pop, rock and roots-y sensibilities, but with Ryder keeping feverish storytelling at its core.

“I have a lot of really fucking talented friends, and one of my favourite things to do is hang out with them and write.” Impromptu jam sessions? Why not.

Curiously, she’s scared of unintentionally taking something from someone else’s songs, and makes sure to double check verses among her friends first before moving on with an idea.

“There’s only so many notes in the world, right? But no one actually wants to steal anything from people, I certainly don’t,” explains Ryder. “I mean I’ve like written ‘Walking in Memphis’ before, but then I realized it’s been written before,” she jokes.

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