Serena Ryder was raised in Millbrook, a tiny town in southern Ontario, a place where she often felt misunderstood. Citing teasing from her early teens, Ryder says she was an outcast who dreamt of escape. Growing up, there were only a handful of events in her small town she looked forward to, one of which was the town fair, an annual festival of games, rides and tractor pulls.
"There were these creepy carnies that would be dancing around and blaring pop music," Ryder, 25, says. "It was kind of magical. I felt like they were playing it just for me."
Ryder made her getaway to a blossoming art scene in nearby city Peterborough, though she had been writing her own hypnotic pop music for the past decade. "Peterborough was a place where I felt like I could take chances," she recalls. "I would go outside and chain smoke and listen to music. It was an amazing scene – there were kids as weird as me, who 'got' me."
Though she had performed with local artists and at folk festivals since she was 15, Ryder gained national exposure in Canada for singing on CBC Radio around 18. Fast forward through tours and major festivals, and Ryder releases her debut "Unlikely Emergency" in 2005, produced by prolific Canadian rocker Hawksley Workman and issued on his label Isadora Records. She was soon scooped up by EMI Music Canada, which released her "just-for-fun" covers album "If Your Memory Serves You Well" the following year.
Then came her win at the 2008 Juno Awards, in the new artist of the year category. Joining a group that includes recent past winners Nelly Furtado, Avril Lavigne and Michael Buble, Ryder was immediately pegged as the future of Canadian music. "I was too ecstatic to feel any pressure," says Ryder, who is up for two Juno awards this year, including Artist of the Year. "Honestly, I was just inspired to continue doing what I was doing."
Her latest batch of radio-friendly folk recordings, "is it o.k.," was released last month via Atlantic in the U.S. Lead single "Little Bit of Red," started at No. 21 on the Triple A chart in March, demonstrates a balance of sweetness and ferocity that the singer-songwriter has developed in the past years.
Produced by John Alagia (Dave Matthews Band, John Mayer), "is it o.k." bursts with Ryder's idiosyncrasies. Songs like "All for Love," which was recently featured on ABC's "Private Practice," flicker with trembling vocals and acoustic licks before bursting into huge, raw choruses.
For Ryder, finding the tone of the album (which she says was fully completed in under a month) was effortless. "There were so many emotions going on, but when it all came together, it was a given," she says.
Ryder just wrapped her first U.S. headlining tour last month and will hit the road in mid-March for a short trek across Canada. Her "Unlikely Emergency" track "Sing Sing" will also be the theme song of this year's Music Monday, a pro-music education event in Canada on May 4. As someone who is best understood through her music, Ryder knows the importance of such events. "Music is its own language," she says, "and you can't take that away from kids."