Canadian folk-rocker Serena Ryder thought acoustic guitar would be a cakewalk when she first started strumming. But soon, she was suffering from tennis elbow so painful it nearly shut down her career.
Instead, it changed her sound.
"I just couldn't play the big, full-sized guitars anymore," recalls the winner of last year's Juno Award — the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy — for New Artist of the Year. Fortunately, Ryder came upon an unexpected solution. She discovered vintage parlor guitars, which were popular in the late 1800s, and quickly adapted to the smaller instrument.
"They were these tiny guitars, originally invented for women to play to the men in drawing rooms, and they're amazing. I actually fell in love with their sound."
Ryder has since become an obsessive collector of parlor six-strings and their equally comfortable competitors, half-sized guitars. She's currently on the road with one parlor guitar and two half-sizes, which she tracked down on tour: "They're called Matons, you can only get them in Australia, and they're the best I've ever found. And I actually have someone who's making me a parlor guitar right now. He's been crafting it for the last two years, and he keeps on sending me pictures of it. Other than that, if I can ever find any parlor better than the ones I have, I'll get it — they're that great."
The singer is also an avid collector of sew-on buttons, so it all kind of fits. Such appealing eccentricity is reflected in the thoroughly refreshing songwriting found on Is It O.K., Ryder's brainy U.S. debut for Atlantic. From the chiming opener "Sweeping the Ashes" to a forlorn "Dark as the Black" finish, Ryder's soulful rasp wends through tales of breakup, despair, even death.
"A lot of the songs that were written for this record started in love," Ryder says. "But a lot of 'em were half-written, so I ended up finishing all these tracks within about six or seven days, just locked up in my Toronto apartment, alone with my sadness. And not in the kind of way like, 'When is this gonna end?' I actually, for the first time in my life, felt like I was in the moment, in the biggest way. So I think it's important to feel sad, because there is no light without darkness, and there's truth in everything."
Ryder's upbringing wasn't somber, but it was definitely unusual. She hails from the rural Ontario village of Millbrook, pop. 3,000. "And the only thing that I knew of the outside world was by TV," she says. "There was no bus that left town, no train — the only way to get out was by driving."
Her two big thrills, she says, were long woodland walks and the annual Millbrook Fair in June. "I had my first crush on the carny who ran the Octopus ride," she confesses. "And I ended up writing an early song about him, which started out 'I'm only 9 / What are you?'"
But Ryder isn't parlor-serenading any new beaus in the Great White North — she's looking inward instead.
"I've actually been falling in love with myself and my life. Because only then can you truly love others and be loved in return. Which falls in line with my artistic credo, as well — embrace the truth from wherever it comes, and do not take ownership over it."