Serena Ryder’s Creative Revival

Photo by Jimmy Fontaine

It may seem like yesterday but Serena Ryder's hit album Harmony is five years old now, and her new album Utopia was almost triple album thanks to this gap. Pushing her creativity to the edge, Ryder wrote on drums, with pop producers and tracked everything the day she wrote it, making for her most ambitious album to date. We talked with Ryder ahead of her December 17th show at Centrepoint Theatre to discuss extensive creativity, stretching genre and writing on drums.

Ottawa Life: It had been quite some time since you released Harmony, but I heard you had too many songs on your hands rather than too few?

Serena Ryder: Harmony was released, then we toured for three years, and then I wrote for two years. I wrote almost 100 songs, so technically there was really only two years off. The fact that I wrote 100 songs was kind of insane because I didn't really know how I was going to pick enough songs for one record. I was thinking of doing some three vinyl thing, but that's not realistic these days, people don't even put out full-length records now.

Do you think you'll be working with what's left of the album going forward or are you going to scrap them and write more?

There's a bunch of songs that we perform live still, that aren't recorded. I think it's cool to be able to go to a show and hear a song you won't be able to hear anywhere else. You have the ability to switch the songs every night and make something special for the audience. There's also songs that have been placed in movies and TV that wouldn't work on a record. There's songs that other artists are interested in doing, so that's pretty interesting as well.

What guided towards the more electronic sounds of tracks like "Electric Love", I definitely heard crossover between you and the new LCD Soundsystem album on that track?

It wasn't a conscious effort to make those kinds of sounds. One of the best things for me as a musician is getting on stage and seeing the audience dance. That is the biggest compliment in the world, when people have to move their bodies, it's so primal and it's awesome. Who doesn't love to dance? Even if you're really bad at it…which I am. I consciously wanted to write a few songs that would make people want to dance because it's the best feeling.  

What was it like to work with Doc McKinney (The Weeknd) on this album, and how did they help you push yourself?

I've known Doc since I was 18-years-old, so we go way back and have been friends for a long time. We've worked with each other on and off, and just hang out. I was talking to him "Hey I'm working on a new record, we have an excuse to hang out." So I went to his house, we did this song "Wild And Free" and it's the opposite of a dance song, it's the slowest song on the record. We had so much fun working together, and we just hung out and worked in his basement. His son and daughter would come down, his girlfriend was making cookies, it was nice family chill time.

Were you ever worried about managing the more all over the place sound of this record or was this more to the Two Wolves parable you've said loosely inspired you on this record?

That's been a thing for the last 15 years of my career, was people saying "What kind of music do you play? I'm having trouble deciding. This song sounds like this, and this song sounds like this." Basically, I like listening to the radio, because my influences are like that. I love all different kinds of music and all different styles, and it's never really been something I've been self-conscious with playing with. Sticking with one thing for too long just makes me really bored.

How did your process of writing and recording that same day change the way the music turned out compared to road-testing them?

I think it's been a gigantic change for me, to write a song and then sing from that place of inspiration that comes in that moment. Recording that instant snapshot of where that inspiration came from, and even your voice and choice of melody without over-thinking it, is just so exciting. I think you can hear that in this music. I've done records before where I would write all the songs, take months and months, or even years thinking about the production or composition, all of that stuff. There's something that can be really beautiful about that, I know artists that have reworked stuff over and over again. It's the difference between an impressionist painting and an abstract piece, it's very much in the moment or thought out. I love the primal excitement of being able to write and record in the same moment it's born.

I heard you also wrote on drums for parts of this record, how did that change things up?

I had my drum kit set up in my living room in my old place in L.A.. I was playing in one of my friend's bands, just me and him, we only had one show where I was playing drums and singing. They were still set up when my writer friend came over to do some writing, and I thought I'd sit behind the drums and see what happens. That's actually the beginning of how I wrote "Got Your Number," I had the melody and the beginning of the lyrics come to me while I was behind the drums. It made sense to me too, because I would often get inspired by the sound of beats, but I'd never done it live before, which was pretty exciting.