Serena Ryder was trapped in a box. A folk-rock box. It was a comfortable place and somewhere she had been since she was a teenager. But a battle with clinical depression in her late 20s eventually led her to break down the walls around her and free herself musically. After all, why limit herself to just one genre when she can experiment with so many more sounds and styles?
The end result is Harmony, Ryder's fifth studio album and the 30-year-old's strongest effort to date. Certified gold in her native Canada, the album, which was released in August in the U.S., combines folk, rock, jazz and R&B influences tied together behind Ryder's three-octave vocal range, giving her the opportunity to perform alongside pop-rock bands like OneRepublic (she opened for them at the Uptown Amphitheatre in August) and Michael Franti, whom she will open for at The Fillmore on Nov. 10.
"Harmony is a more eclectic and broader perspective on who I am and what I love within music," Ryder says. "It's definitely a lot different from what I've done, which was more niche and one genre — singer-songwriter, folk-rock kind of stuff. That's awesome, but there's so much more to what I love doing, singing and performing, than that."
Ryder's rebirth as an artist didn't happen overnight. She started having anxiety attacks in 2008, until she eventually hit rock bottom about three years ago — closed up in her house, assuming she'd never perform again. She needed therapy and time to heal and learn about her debilitating condition.
"It was something I had never experienced before and knew little about," Ryder says. "It had taken everything away from me, and I didn't think I would make music again. I had to take baby steps to get better."
As her health improved, she started writing feverishly to express what she had gone through. By the time she was ready to record again, she'd written roughly 70 songs — a feeling she compares to finishing a marathon. Ryder's manager, however, pushed her further, suggesting that she start over: Find a second wind and write something new.
"When you're trying to do something, you're not really doing it," Ryder says. "I had to get all of those other songs out of the way in order to start an album from where I was, instead of telling people where I had been. So, I started over and the result was the new album."
Ryder named it Harmony for a number of reasons — the unity of different musical styles, the harmony of vocals and the harmony of the classical elements (earth, air, fire and water), which are included in each of the album's 10 songs.
Four years ago, Ryder had the idea of a concept album based on the elements, but put it aside. It was only when she started writing for Harmony that she noticed the concepts of earth, air, fire and water started subliminally appearing in her lyrics.
"[When working on the album], I felt so comfortable and so free to be totally myself and to be all of the different parts of myself," she says. "It blew my mind that I was actually writing that record."
The perfect example of that fusion of harmonies is the album's first single, "Stompa," which has gone triple platinum in Canada, was nominated for a Juno Award and is also the first song she wrote for Harmony. It harkens back to her roots and influences from when she was growing up. Over a lone piano, Ryder begins singing with a smoky, sultry, blues-infused tone. As the guitar and drums kick in, Ryder's voice channels jazz, à la Billie Holiday. After a catchy pop chorus, a bridge hits the listener like a ton of bricks — Ryder refers to it as a TLC-like R&B groove, but it ends with more power than that, as her range expands and the vocals soar toward a rafter-shaking crescendo.
"That song laid the groundwork for the whole record for me," Ryder says. "It's about how powerful music is as a medicine and how it can change people's lives. That song is about the power of music — it makes me want to dance and smile and move around. I had never written anything like that before. It was my 'aha' moment that got me to keep writing and finish the record in two weeks."
For her recent stretch of gigs across the United States, Ryder has been performing her music in a stripped-down way. It's simply her, an electric guitar and a drummer using a cocktail kit — a one bass/snare drum and cymbal combination.
"When it comes to introducing myself to people, I think it's really special to be able to do it as an opening act," Ryder says. "I do so much touring with my band, usually, that this tour is a great way to do more of a stripped-down version of the album. It's a great way to show people what I'm doing."