Serena Ryder Masters The Art of Falling Apart

Music Features Serena Ryder
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Serena Ryder Masters The Art of Falling Apart

To sing the blues believably, one would imagine, it certainly helps if you’ve lived it. Not a new concept by any means, but it’s one that did occur to Juno-award-winning Canadian folk-rocker Serena Ryder quite recently, as she was deciding how to proceed with her latest album, The Art of Falling Apart, released today. Driving her truck down a highway outside of her native Toronto one night, she casually turned on the radio and was jolted by what she heard. “This song came on and I was like, ‘What is this? I feel this, 100%, through my entire body!’,” she recalls of hearing Ann Peebles’ steamy, hip-shaking standard “Do I Need You” for the first time. “It went right through me, and I don’t think I ever experienced the blues in that kind of way before. It was a moment that just clicked with me, and I got it, I understood the importance of it—the importance of that spectrum of great joy and great sadness.”

It was a spectrum with which Ryder, now 38, was uncomfortably familiar. For years, she’d grappled with clinical depression, sinking so low at one point that she could barely be motivated to get out of bed for several months on end. She’d survived its euphoric highs and debilitating lows and emerged on the other side, and consequently turned that life story into a keynote address she’d been giving at medical conventions and other events. She was so outspoken about the once-hush-hush condition that in April of 2018 she won the Margaret Trudeau Mental Health Advocacy Award, and her popular speech—which she blithely dubbed “The Art of Falling Apart”—will soon be transformed into an animated film. But why not make a musical version of it first? She reasoned. And why not sing it with the power and conviction of an old-school R&B great? What did she have to lose, really?

Fans who have been following this Leonard Cohen-inspired singer since her 2005 bow Unlikely Emergency or 2007 breakthrough hit “Weak in the Knees” might be surprised by Art—the gal can really belt out blues. And not in a shallow, awkward “k.d. lang straining to reach the notes in Roy Orbison’s ‘Crying’” way, but in a guttural, gravelly growl that truly sounds like it was whelped in the gutter itself. There are 10 tracks, in timeline order, each relating a chapter in Ryder’s Icarus-descending tale, and the confessional kicks open on a deceptive self-assessment called “Candy,” wherein she puts up a hard-shelled facade to a Stax-Volt rhythm, which soon shatters on the Gospel-huge “Waterfall,” which finds her repeatedly moaning that “It’s too heavy a load.” The mood lightens for a couple of jazzier numbers—“Bus Stop” and “Thinking About You”—but it soon gets swampy again on the soulful finger-popper “Better Now,” and a tribal R&B rave-up called “All the Love,” which finds her practically screaming the feral chorus. Be prepared—you might get the chills on this one, just like its composer did with Peebles. It’s the real down and dirty deal. Smartly, she also knows to leave on a high note, and she humbly glides out swanlike with a swaying “Differently,” a conversely bouncy “Used to You,” and an almost Ella-breezy conclusion, “Back to Myself,” in which she defiantly vows to “Welcome the pain…I’ll find my way.” Overall, it’s quite the cathartic tour de force.

Watch Serena Ryder perform at the Paste Studio in Atlanta in 2010.

Ryder has sung about depression before, but never to this vulnerable extent. But it’s a frank, understanding new era, she notes, when celebrities like Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson can openly discuss the mental miasmas they’re personally groping through. But when she was younger, it was something of a taboo topic. “Since I was 13 years old, I’ve had a life of ups and downs,” she says. “But it’s never just something in your system that you’re born with. As a solo touring artist, just me and my guitar, I kept pushing and pushing myself until I really dug myself into the ground. So it was a combination of clinical depression, exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed and the fact that I was drinking constantly, just to feel okay, drinking and chain-smoking and partying. Just layer upon layer of self medication, and it just broke me. And I knew it was real about two months into it, when I could barely leave my house.”

Trying to maintain any kind of romantic relationship proved impossible, as well, so the singer had no one to turn to except her manager of 20 years, Sandy Pandya, who stuck by her and nudged her through the anxiety-filled minefield. So her journey from mental illness to wellness might have begun back in 2011, with her just trying to clamber back up to the self-respecting artistic plateau where she felt passionate about making music again. But she was still learning things about her psyche three years ago, when she finally stopped drinking. “I didn’t realize I was an introvert until I got sober,” she assesses. “I literally thought I was an extrovert my entire life, because if I was out and I’d had a few drinks, I could talk to anybody, about anything, and I loved it. And when I used to do coke, the reason I would do it was so I could stay up and keep drinking longer, which only made me talk more.”

As with any traumatic life upheaval, the farther away you get from it, time-wise, the clearer you can view it in 20/20 hindsight. And once Ryder composed her TED-talk-styled keynote address, the more she considered setting the record straight for musical posterity in 2019. Another old friend, her first A&R agent, Fraser Hill, dropped by to see her before she was scheduled to fly to Nashville for writing/recording sessions. “I told him I was gonna make some music, and he said, ‘You know, you should do something a little more soulful this time,’” she says. “And I said, ‘That’s a really good idea, because that’s where I’m at right now—that’s what I’m feeling and what I’m listening to.’ So he kind of put that idea in my head.”

On the flight into Tennessee from Toronto, after thinking about nothing but her “Art of Falling Apart” speech for months on end, the lightbulb started glowing: With her hitmaking gal-pal Simon Wilcox and others in Nashville, she would follow it like a libretto for 10 songs, writing and recording one song per day. “And when I walked into the studio, I said that I wanted to make a record that’s really soulful, because this topic is so soulful, and it goes so deep with me that I didn’t know any other way to sing about it,” she says.

And if listeners think she sounds possessed on “All the Love,” well, you’re not far from the truth, Ryder chuckles. “I did all the vocals live, and for ‘All the Love’ I was actually falling on the ground while I was screaming that—I actually had to fall down on the floor to get that out. But now I’m gonna have to worry about how to be able to do that live, every night, once touring starts again.”

Aside from that quibble? Not much else to fret about these days, she adds. Thanks to her charity work, she’s met Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau several times, and has become good friends with his wife, Sophie. Her idyllic house sits adjacent to Toronto’s largest forest, so she’s had a nonstop cavalcade of nature to observe during the pandemic, including a new canid hybrid called coywolves. “Wolves and coyotes have mated, and they’re huge, and they’re not scared of anybody,” she reports. “Just in the last few months I’ve seen, like, five, close up.”

Pandemic panic? Not for this self-assured survivor. “Before I made this record, just before COVID-19 hit, I was talking about how I wanted to tour less. A lot less,” she concludes. “So I’ve really been enjoying a lot of the things about being at home. Like, you get to have a schedule. You get to wake up in the same bed. And this record has been the most cathartic, therapeutic album that I’ve ever made. But if I didn’t go through what I’ve been through, then there’s no way that I would be able to have such compassion for what others are going through right now.”