Serena Ryder is best known for her powerhouse vocals, emotive music and industry accolades (including six Juno Awards). What you might not know about the Toronto-based singer-songwriter: she’s an avid cottager and a leading mental health advocate.
Over the past decade, Ryder has shared her experiences and lent star power to wellness initiatives such as Bell Let’s Talk, WE Day, and Unison Benevolent Fund. In 2018, Ryder received the Margaret Trudeau Mental Health Advocacy Award, which honours people who have dedicated their lives to reducing the stigma and improving the dialogue about mental illness.
Ryder’s latest album, The Art of Falling Apart, chronicles her mental wellness journey. We talked to Ryder about the album, her wellness program for artists and creatives, and the little cottage that gives her solace.
You grew up in cottage country, and you have a cottage now. What’s your personal getaway like?
I was able to buy a cottage with one of my best friends. He and I have this really beautiful, tiny, flat-roofed, 600-square-foot cottage that is just perfect. It’s very simple, and so when I go there, I feel life is much less complicated.
Being in nature is one of the most healing things we can do for ourselves. Simply sitting on a dock or jumping into the water is quite profound in the healing that can happen in your life. Even just working the land, raking leaves, planting things, and having campfires—it declutters a lot of unnecessary weight that we put on ourselves.
Your music videos for the first three singles from The Art of Falling Apart—“Candy,” “Waterfall,” and “Kid Gloves”—are set in the great outdoors. What inspired that artistic decision?
I feel like nature is the most profound place to articulate emotion without having to spell it out. Mental wellness is really about seasons, and the seasons of nature mirror the seasons of emotion and the internal seasons. The video mirrored my mental wellness journey. Sarain Fox danced in the first video we did together, “Waterfall.” She is such a beautiful and inspiring human being, activist, artist, dancer, speaker, and storyteller, and now creator—she just made a documentary called Inendi. Having her in the video was integral for the vision of where I feel like my music is living.
You’ve been a mental health advocate for several years. Can you tell me about your journey to wellness and your advocacy work?
Being a mental health advocate stemmed from my own personal experience with mental wellness and struggling for years and years with different ways of pathologizing what I was experiencing. From the time I was very young, I struggled with severe depression and didn’t really have words for what I was going through. In our society, if you’re experiencing sadness or depression, it’s seen as something you need to fix. Through the years, it was a constant battle of me thinking something was wrong with me, and that I needed to fix it.
I’ve been touring for the last 20 years, and that lifestyle is quite intense. I kind of fragmented myself by only telling one side of myself on stage and in interviews, and thinking that I needed to be perfect—whatever that meant. I’ve realized that being more transparent and open about my experiences has allowed me to connect with other people. In my darkest moments, the hardest thing was feeling so alone, and really believing that nobody else could possibly know what I was experiencing. A lot of my healing has come from being open and finding others who have experienced the same thing.
The one thing I wanted so badly was to hear other stories that were similar to mine. That sense of community really changed my life and allowed me to heal, and it inspired my advocacy work. We’re not alone, and speaking out about my experiences is the only way I’ll be able to make a change.
On The Art of Falling Apart, you bring listeners on that journey with you, from breakdown to recovery. Your music has always been very personal, but was this a different experience, writing about your mental health?
Absolutely. I feel like it’s interesting, our definitions of breakdown and recovery. The definition we use of recovery is getting better, or feeling like you won’t keep making the same “mistakes.” But the breakthrough and the transformation only come from the breakdowns. It’s not something that’s ever finished, because if it was finished, you wouldn’t need to be here anymore. We’re constantly learning from ourselves; our experience is our greatest teacher.
This album, for me, was almost like a snippet of my life, of one of my journeys. You’re going to have different seasons in your life. I may again be very sad, and I may again feel alone and all of those things, but I’m okay with that, because I know that there’s another season on the other side. And as human beings, I think it’s so important to not hold on to “oh, I’m better now,” or “I’m fixed.” We exist in cyclical patterns, and repeating those experiences that feel negative is only another opportunity to see it from a different perspective—because you’re not the same person. There’s so much wisdom and beauty in that. I think that’s a great part of the healing process: not holding on to feeling good or feeling bad. It’s key to surrender.
Last summer, you launched The Art of Wellness, a free mindfulness program for artists and creatives. What inspired that initiative, and how is it going?
Me and my womanager, Sandy Pandya, have been working together very closely for years. Because of my mental wellness journey and Sandy’s experience with me and other artists, we realized the importance of the platform that we have—me as an artist and her as a manager—to be of service in a way that doesn’t pathologize people’s suffering. It’s so important for people to not feel alone—to feel like they have a community but also to foster the wisdom that we have in ourselves. So often in mental health, there’s a polarized perspective of “do this, and if you don’t do this you’re going to be sick.” That is complete bullshit. The wisdom and healing tools we have inside ourselves are the only ways we’re going to be at peace with our mental health.
At the beginning of the pandemic, that was the spark: we need to start this right now, because there’s a huge crisis that’s happening with mental health. People don’t have the means to find their own help, so this needs to be something that’s free.
We created online programs that are four weeks long. Once a week for an hour and a half, people have an opportunity to be in a group setting with a healer, counsellor, doctor—we have lots of different people who run the courses. We have a program that’s just LGBTQ2S+, one just for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour, and one based on Indigenous teachings. Different communities feel safe, supported, and able to find their internal wisdom. It’s been amazing to be part of it, and it’s almost turned into its own thing. We’ve run 12 of them so far, and it doesn’t seem to be stopping anytime soon.
How have you nurtured your own mental health during the pandemic?
I think it’s been a great opportunity to look at myself. It’s created a really insular space. We can’t run away from ourselves in these times, and as someone who’s been travelling a lot over the last 20 years, it’s allowed me to slow down and to build trust in myself. It’s easy to get lost in your identity as a person and in the perceptions of other people. A lot of those things aren’t really who you are, so for me it’s been key—who am I just with myself?
Do you write songs at the cottage?
The thing I love about the cottage is bringing out the guitar and honouring other people’s music. I don’t really think about my own music while I’m up there. I do a lot of dancing and listening to stuff and singing cover songs. Singalongs around the campfire are the best thing ever, and it’s something I want to do more of. I went to summer camp growing up, at Maple Creek Ranch, and I rode horses and did archery and sang campfire songs every night. It was a really integral part of connecting with nature and music. It was awesome.
Is it true that you had a home recording studio in Toronto nicknamed “The Cottage”?
Yes! I set up one of my first studios in my boyfriend’s back garage. We decorated it together and put cedar planks on the inside, so it felt like a cottage, this little 250-square-foot garage. That’s where I recorded most of my vocals for Harmony and stuff like that. Now I have a studio called Arthaus, and that’s also really beautiful. It’s all barnboard and burlap, and it’s got one of those horn chandeliers. I like to make everything feel like a cottage for sure.
Are you working on any projects you can share with our readers?
I’ve been doing a lot of collaborations with other artists, so I have two or three new songs that I’m going to release pretty soon that I’m excited about. People can access the resources from Arthaus—especially our mental wellness program—at arthausmusic.com. And if anybody wants to connect with me, I’m on Instagram, @serenaryder.
This interview has been condensed and edited.