TORONTO – Striding out to perform “O Canada” at the recent NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans, Serena Ryder found an unexpectedly hard time in the Big Easy.
“When I was walking out to sing, all the all-stars were lined up on the podiums. And they were heckling me!” she recalled in a recent telephone interview. “Seriously, I was walking and three or four of the dudes – I don’t know (who) because I wasn’t looking, because I was on camera – but as I was walking, they went: ‘You’re live. You’re live. Start singing. The camera’s on you. Go ahead.’
“I really felt like I was in high school, walking down the hallway right by the jocks who were super popular and they were all commenting on my gothic outfit – which they actually did, I was a goth in public school. And I got made fun of all the time.”
The anthem itself? Oh, that was a breeze for the husky howler, increasingly adept at the big moments.
She delivered a faithful rendition that swelled impressively at its climax, delighting at least one of the nearby cool kids.
“After I’m done, I start walking off and then there’s Drake,” she said of the Toronto rapper, ubiquitous during the NBA’s all-star weekend.
“He like grabbed me and gives me a big hug. All the cameras are on me. It was the most surreal experience.”
And Drake isn’t the only industry heavyweight to embrace Ryder recently.
She earned five nominations at this weekend’s Juno Awards, and her haul included nods in marquee categories album, single, artist and songwriter of the year. And she’ll also co-host alongside Johnny Reid and Classified, with whom she’s set to open the show.
This after the 31-year-old’s 2012 breakthrough “Harmony” announced her ascension into Canadian rock’s top tier of performers. The primal single “Stompa” pounded its way to triple-platinum sales, and it wasn’t a fluke; winsome indie-pop gem “What I Wouldn’t Do” matched its chart position, peaking at No. 8 while also going platinum.
The next frontier, of course, is the United States. On this day, Ryder is chatting from her house in Los Angeles, where a crew is noisily ripping up the floor in her basement to remedy damage caused by recent flooding.
But even as breaking into the U.S. looms as an obvious goal, Ryder won’t necessarily submit to the punishingly rigorous, ego-popping club traipse that’s become de rigeur for Canadian acts trying to break south of the border.
Her major breakthrough at home didn’t necessarily come about the typical way, after all. She followed the script from 2004 and ’08, releasing three increasingly popular records culminating in the Juno-winning folk-pop of “Is It OK.”
Seemingly, Ryder was swimming ever-closer to the surface, only a stride or two from bursting through to the mainstream. Instead, she stopped paddling altogether.
Ryder has been honest about the four-year gap that ultimately followed “Is It OK.” She struggled with depression, at various points finding it hard to summon herself from bed.
Eventually, friends, family and a new romance helped Ryder emerge from the din. The writing came almost easily – sanguine songs reflecting her newly cheery mindset. When it came time to record “Harmony,” she had more than 60 to choose from.
Told now that her success story defies the typical strike-while-the-iron’s-hot ethos of an opportunistic industry, she laughs aloud.
“I know – that’s the funniest thing in the world,” she said. “I don’t believe in the whole idea of breaking your back in order to enjoy life later. … It makes no sense whatsoever.
“Love and that passion behind it is what feeds success … and then if you don’t love it, stop doing it,” she added. “That’s easier said than done, absolutely. But that also takes courage.”
The opportunities flowing her way now might have seemed impossibly overwhelming when Ryder occupied a stormier mindspace.
“I don’t think that I would have been able to enjoy it as much as I am now, because I definitely would have been more in my head,” she said. “I think the difference between me now and me then is that I’m so much more grateful. I have an abundance of gratitude for what I have in my life.”
It helps that the curve upward has been gradual.
She began her career in earnest as a teenager, but was singing since age 8. She started “doing legions and motor hotels and performing in small, little dive-y bars.”
She grew up in Millbrook, Ont., a small town with a population below 10,000. Now, she’s not only established deep roots in the Toronto music scene, but she’s also managed to find a comfortable place in L.A., where she says she feels like she has an equally snug community around her – “the only difference is there’s an ocean and sunshine.”
Still, when she surveys the artists who have become her competition in the upper echelon of the Junos – the likes of Arcade Fire, Michael Buble, Celine Dion and Drake – she’s floored.
“I grew up in a small town. I still have my same friends. I like going to the pub for fun and going to a dive bar and watching music or playing pool. That’s my deal. I love it,” she said.
“I feel uncomfortable most of the time at red carpets or black-tie events. And then all of a sudden I’m amongst these superstars – it feels like almost unreachable famous people, you know?
“And then on the other hand it’s like, wow, what a huge, amazing honour. I feel so proud because this is what I’ve always wanted my whole life, when I was sitting in front of the television watching MuchMusic and watching ‘Star Search’ … or when I’m at home playing my Arcade Fire records in Toronto and dancing around my room.
“It’s a total trip and I’m so grateful. It’s such a huge deal.”
The Juno Awards air Sunday.
© The Canadian Press, 2014