The State of Emotions

Canada's Serena Ryder brings a brand-new album on her first headlining U.S. tour

Serena Ryder, a rising star in the singer-songwriter firmament, isn't planning anything special for her Valentine's Day gig at Plush.

That's because most of the songs on Ryder's forthcoming album, Is It O.K., already deal with "love, or not having love, or struggling through love, or some stage in between."

"The great thing about that, I guess, is the fact that it's Valentine's Day, and on most of the songs on my new record, I have written about all those aspects of love," she said in a recent phone interview. The 25-year-old Canadian spoke on a cell phone, the signal wandering in and out, as she rode in a van through the mountains of Oregon on the way to a recent gig in Seattle.

Ryder's rockin' folk songs deal with romance in transition, which she said reflects the state of human emotions in an increasingly complicated world.

"I think there's a lot going on in the world, and people are seeing themselves more and more in terms of global communities, the bigger picture, and we're seeing in our daily lives and personal homes a lot of upheaval. We're all changing and all growing so fast, and in so many directions, it's hard to find something that helps us focus our hearts and minds. I think I'm trying to work through that process in my songwriting."

Atlantic Records will release Is It O.K. on Tuesday, Feb. 17, although it has been available in Canada since November.

Produced by Grammy Award-winner John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer, Jason Mraz), Is It O.K. is a haunting and often peppery collection of thoughtful ruminations on the nature of the human heart. On it, Ryder exercises her soulful three-octave voice, which can sound buttery or throaty depending on the context, falling somewhere between the vocal instruments of Melissa Etheridge and Rachael Yamagata.

In some ways, Ryder's origin story is familiar. She grew up in the semi-rural environment of Millbrook, Ontario. Her father was a musician, and her mother was a dancer and backup singer. The young Serena grew up listening to records by the Beatles, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young from her parents' collection.

She always sang, started writing poems and songs at 11, and got her first guitar at 13. She made her first indie recording at 15 and sensed her career was starting to fall together after moving to an artists' community in nearby Peterborough. She sang with several local bands, and still loves to sing harmonies on her pals' records when possible.

As Ryder's career horizons stretched out, she began sharing stages with such artists as Marc Broussard and Xavier Rudd, not to mention opening for Steve Earle, Cheap Trick and Aerosmith.

Her full-length major-label debut, Unlikely Emergency, was released in 2005, followed the next year by the remarkable If Your Memory Serves You Well, a collection of tunes by Canadian songwriters, as well as three originals. Among the artists she covered on that record are Leonard Cohen, Percy Faith, Paul Anka and The Band, whose "This Wheel's on Fire" contains the album's title in its lyrics.

"I did that record to prove myself as a singer, and to offer a tribute to other Canadian songwriters whose music has touched me and who paved the way. It was a project I had wanted to do for a long time."

When asked if she hoped one day to hear other artists covering her material, Ryder said, "They already have! I just saw this thing on YouTube the other night, and it was a 6- or 7-year-old girl singing my song 'Weak in the Knees.' And one person last year on the TV show Canadian Idol also covered that song."

Ryder's doing her first-ever headlining tour in the United States, playing solo all the way, even though most of the tracks on Is It O.K. are arranged for a full band.

"I play with a band pretty often in Canada, but I can't afford to take a band on the road with me in America yet," she explained.

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