Serena Ryder on touring, living hard and the mistakes that aren’t mistakes

By Nick Krewen

Special To The Star

       Serena Ryder knows all too well about the art of falling apart.

       As a recording artist who used to tour relentlessly, the six-time Juno Award winner found the incessant grind of the road personally damaging, as she relied on a steady diet of drink, drugs and cigarettes to cope and carry on.

“Being a touring musician can be one of the most draining things you can do if you do it in the way that’s expected of you, like sort of label, pedal-to-the-metal stuff,” said Ryder recently over the phone to promote her new album The Art of Falling Apart, out Friday.

“You don’t get breaks…and it breaks you. You’re pushing yourself and pushing yourself.”

Ryder said she suffered from depression and anxiety and “so many back-and-forths and ups-and-downs because I’m a person who is always on tour, and also as an artist and also someone who has a broad emotional spectrum.”

Three years ago, Ryder decided to radically change her life.

“I stopped drinking, doing drugs – even casually,” she admits. “I just don’t drink at all anymore. That’s been key for me.”

She also stopped smoking.

“I’d been smoking cigarette since I was 11 years old, and when I toured, one of the biggest stresses of my life was always, ‘am I gonna make it through this whole set?’” Ryder recalls. 

“Because of my voice and my range  and how strong it is, I was always terrified I was going to lose it. I’m 38. I was constantly worried about my voice in my 20s. I lost my voice a bunch – so that’s another thing.”

Now that she’s dropped those vices, Ryder says she feels healthier than ever.

“I haven’t once worried about my voice in three years. Not once. 

“Different types of my personality have come out and shown me that I’m a balanced, grounded person. I haven’t had these insane ups-and-downs in my life. I pathologized a lot of my ups-and-downs as, ‘this is my depression or this is my anxiety.’  

“I haven’t experienced that spectrum since I haven’t been drinking.”

And that’s what The Art Of Falling Apart is all about: Serena Ryder’s journey into the land of healing, chronicled over 10 songs in 25 minutes.

The album was named after a keynote speech Ryder, a mental health advocate and public speaker,  wrote prior to boarding the plane to Nashville for what she assumed was going to be a bunch of writing sessions with her buddies Simon Wilcox, Gordie Sampson and Thomas “Tawgs” Salter.

Ten days later, the album was done.

        “The speech clocks in at about 30 minutes and is longer than the record,” she laughs. “With this album, this wellness speech was fresh on my mind.”

       The album is also sonically different, primarily because Ryder‘s normally brassy voice – the one we’ve heard on hits ranging from “Stompa” and “What Wouldn’t I Do” – sounds more casual and less vociferous. 

“It’s my relaxed writing voice,” Ryder admits. “You usually don’t hear that side of me.”

Once she entered the studio, Ryder says the album that she wasn’t expecting to make at all, quickly took shape.

       “We had no idea there would be 10 songs in 10 days,’ Ryder admits. “I walked in and said, ‘Hey guys, this is what I want to be writing – my wellness journey and the speeches that I’ve been doing.

         “I want to put all my arrows into the direction of wellness because that’s the most important thing to me – to be able to share what I’ve been through and share my story. 

“Because that’s been the most helpful for me when I’m going through it  – deep in the muck of depression and anxiety and hearing about someone else who has gone through the same thing and has come out the other end.”

The quartet worked on a song a day, creating from scratch and finishing it off before retiring for the night, with the instruction that whatever was captured would stick, warts and all.

“This is the first record that I’ve done that had absolutely no tuning,” says Ryder. “I was like, leave the flat notes, leave the sharp notes – I wanted to hear the emotion and “the mistakes” that aren’t mistakes, you know?

“And the sound and the vibe that came out of the record was me sitting on the couch, with a studio mic and writing.

 “We were literally writing as we were recording.”

       From the opening strains of “Candy” to the forgiving “Better Now, “ the central theme of the album is giving yourself permission to be vulnerable.

       “The importance of The Art Of Falling Apart is how important it is to allow yourself to fall apart,” Ryder explains. “Because that is really big medicine but also the scariest thing to do, because it is so stigmatized. Not that falling apart means you have an illness or anything: It’s a part of putting yourself back together.”

Ryder is the first to admit it’s easier said than done.

“If you put layers upon layers upon yourself of different unhealthy things that you’re doing – once you take those things off and just start feeling – yeah, you’re probably going to cry for a while and feel a lot of uncomfortable things, but once you come through the other side, it can be really healing in a really long-term kind of way.”

And Ryder emphasizes that one of the more important things you can do is not self-medicate, but to listen to and trust your inner voice.

“I feel like the thing that’s helped me the most has been really listening to myself and realizing that the uncomfortable moments are there for a reason,” Ryder reasons.

“Just making the uncomfortable moments go away doesn’t do any real deep healing – because the uncomfortable moments are there to tell you something.”

Veteran songwriter Simon Wilcox, a close friend of Ryder’s who helped write the album, feels that The Art Of Falling Apart reveals a whole new side of the artist.

“She’s more than this big voice,’ says Wilcox. “She is this deep human being who has really struggled and really suffered and really fought to heal. 

“I think this record introduces them to that side of her. And in terms of her body of work – and as a great artist, this record is really important and people will go back to it to understand more of who she really was and is – not just a hit songwriter.”

Outside of the album, Serena Ryder is continuing her mental health advocacy through her latest venture, Arthaus – a Toronto-based studio, label and wellness centre combo she founded in 2019 with her manager, Sandy Pandya.

“We decided to create a community,” Ryder explains. “Arthaus is very much her child about creating a community of artists instead of this machine label, so it’s a place where pre-pandemic, artists were constantly coming in and out. 

“We have a recording studio that I helped design in the back and it’s a place where we have artists that actually live in the building. There’s a wellness program initiative, a six-week course that I helped build with Dr. Anita Shack  called the Art of Wellness, but it’s now online that’s also online.

 “There are all of these different doctors, counsellors, healers that do different work and have different programs that are free online and live programs that are 90 minutes each day.

“There are ones that are specifically for black, indigenous and people of colour, and one for the LGBTQ2-spirited people; and basically they’re structure over mind-over-space stress reduction. Just helping people finding their inner wisdom.”

As for the future, Ryder says the unwavering touring she did in the past will remain in the past.

“If I’m going to be in the public eye, the only way to do it is to have rest,” she notes. “Being healthy and having a sustained career means just so much to me because I love music and I love being able to share my healing journey with people. I need to keep walking the path.”