Serena Ryder is just 23. But her voice, a deep, bluesy, soulful instrument that has drawn comparisons to Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, makes her sound much older. She also appears wise beyond her years, blessed with an intelligence and confidence that came across in her songs on Unlikely Emergency, her critically acclaimed independent album. Some might even call her an "old soul" who seems like she's been here before.
Ryder's extraordinary major-label debut, If Your Memory Serves You Well, involves no time-traveling or reincarnation. But it does feature the native of Millbrook, Ontario covering vintage Canadian songs-some of them written more than 70 years before she was born-with remarkable authority. From Shelton Brooks' "Some of These Days," recorded by the likes of Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday," to Percy Faiths' "My Heart Cries for You," previously recorded by Ray Charles and Ben E. King, Ryder sings with enough passion and conviction to make them her own. She delivers a stunning rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Sisters of Mercy" and a scorching version of "This Wheel's on Fire," which Bob Dylan co-wrote with The Band's Rick Danko.
If Your Memory Serves You Well is as much a testament to Ryder's talent as it is a tribute to the enduring strength of these songs. She takes "Boo Hoo," a playful 1937 number co-written by Guy Lombardo's brother Carmen, and turns it into a funky romp that is both campy and highly contemporary. And she makes "Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream," Ed McCurdy's 1949 anti-war anthem sound as relevant and emotionally vital as the day it was written. One of the album's most buoyant numbers is "Good Morning Starshine," Galt MacDermott's joyous anthem from the 1967 hippie musical Hair, co-written with the show's creators, which Ryder captures in all its feel-good glory. "It's amazing how much this material makes more sense the older it gets," says Ryder. "A lot of the songs speak to the political time in which they were written, but they also resonate with what's going on today. That's the mark of a great song."
Ryder had no reservations about tackling material by other artists, even though she's a songwriter herself. For her, it's "all about beginnings." She points out that "Morning Dew," the apocalyptic vision made famous by Rod Stewart and The Grateful Dead, was the first song ever written by a young Toronto folksinger named Bonnie Dobson. Similarly, "You Were On My Mind" marked Sylvia Tyson's debut as a songwriter. "A lot of performers wait until later in their careers to pay homage to other composers," says Ryder. "Why should you have to wait? Why not start with songs that have stood the test of time and are so awe-inspiring? I'm at the beginning of my career and I want to learn from the best of them."
The genesis of If Your Memory Serves You Well can be traced to legendary Canadian music publisher Frank Davies, who founded the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. Ryder was one of the artists that was asked to perform at the CSHF 2005 press conference to announce the following year's inductees. Davies was so impressed by Ryder's musical gifts that he suggested she record a collection of Canadian gems-some inducted, others Hall of Fame-worthy. Working with producer Steve Mackinnon, they considered about 500 songs before narrowing the list down to 45 and settling on 12 for the album. Ultimately, there was little disagreement. "With only a couple of exceptions, Frank, Steve and I all chose the same dozen songs," says Ryder, adding "some things really are just meant to happen."
Since the album is all about beginnings, If Your Memory Serves You Well also features three of Ryder's earliest and most important songs, all produced by Rhys Fulber. "Just Another Day," a powerful declaration of self-determination, was first recorded on Unlikely Emergency, while "Weak at the Knees" is a more recent heart-wrenching confessional number. As for "Out of the Blue," it's an infectious love song that Ryder co-wrote with Canadian iconic rocker Randy Bachman. Taking Ryder's musical story right back to its start, the album also includes a recording she made of Buddy Holly's "That'll Be the Day" when she was seven. Even at that early age, the power of her voice is readily apparent.
Ryder comes from strong musical roots. Her Canadian mother was a touring backup singer and go-go dancer, while her Trinidadian father was a percussionist and guitarist with the Caribbean folk outfit The Tradewinds. After recording a live EP in 2002 at the Black Sheep Inn in Wakefield, Quebec, Ryder was discovered when Canadian pop iconoclast Hawksley Workman heard her on CBC Radio and immediately contacted her. Workman signed her to his Isadora Records label and issued 2004's Unlikely Emergency, which quickly garnered rave reviews as Ryder toured music festivals across North America and as far away as Down Under. The Boston Globe was impressed by her "outstanding" vocal range and predicted she'd become a "major force," while Australia's Brisbane Mail Courier credited her "maturity" and her three-octave voice that "sometimes soars, growls and then curls up around the notes like a lazy cat."
If Your Memory Serves You Well will expose Ryder's talent to an even wider audience. "Doing this record is a really important step for me in my career because I'm learning so much from performing this material," says Ryder, who adds that covering songs like Zal Yanovsky's Lovin' Spoonful nugget "Coconut Grove" and Paul Anka's "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" struck strong personal chords. "This music feels very natural to me," she says. "When I sing these songs, I'm really singing what I need to be singing right now." Clearly, the songs have inspired Ryder, but she, in turn, has breathed new life into these timeless Canadian classics.