I hate the radio. I’m impatient; I don’t want to hear vacuum repair commercials or the crappy, overproduced pop du jour. However, there are a few songs that, when they fill my rinky-dink, factory speakers, allow me to sink back in total driving pleasure for at least three whole minutes. Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” is one of those songs.
I can’t sing. I wish to God I could, and if I were blessed with this particular talent, I wouldn’t go all American Idol, this I pledge right here and now. I’d just belt out “Me and Bobby McGee” at every karaoke bar in the tri-state area. And I’d sing in my car when that song fills my rinky-dink, factory speakers.
To me, Joplin is compelling because of her power: her growling, gravel road voice, her howls at the moon, her vicious guitar playing. When she died in 1970, an endangered species all but became extinct. An inordinate number of female artists have claimed to draw inspiration from the Joplin well, but few have actually followed down her trail-blazed path.
Serena Ryder, a Canadian singer-songwriter and winner of the 2008 Juno Award for Best New Artist, is helping to resurrect that dying breed. She’s a wonderfully confusing blend of tough and tender, unabashedly comfortable in her ferocity and her vulnerability. When asked how she reconciles the two sides of her personality, Ryder replies: “I think it’s a shame that we feel the need to be of one certain way. This is something that I struggle with often… Yes, I like a whisky and a good old fashion dirty joke, but I also need my introspective healing time. There’s a balance in life where one thing would not exist without its opposite. I’m still trying to come to terms with that fact.”
Endlessly self-aware, Ryder uses that dichotomy to full effect. Her quaking vocals make resolute statements. Her lyrics swiftly jump perspectives from driver’s seat to passenger’s side, from teasing temptress to unrequited lover. In “Brand New Love,” she sings, “I can’t take your breath away / but I’ll show you a brand new way / with brand new love.” She contrasts that cool confidence with utter defenselessness in “Weak in the Knees” when she sings, “I’m weak in the knees for you / But I’ll stand if you want me to / My legs are strong and I move on / But honey, I’m weak in the knees for you.” Feeling good is definitely easy when she sings the blues.
Ryder has a diverse list of musical influences that includes John Prine, Neil Young, Wham!, and Culture Club. Despite an uncanny likeness to ladies of classic rock fame such as Joplin and Stevie Nicks, she wasn’t familiar with their work as a younger musician. Though, she claims, “I am honored to be put in that category! I think those women rocked. I didn’t grow up listening to any of their music, but now I am paying a lot more attention to my teachers in music who came before me. I think, if anything, I’m learning more from their mistakes than their successes.”
If one hopes to effectively uphold Joplin’s legacy, learning from her mistakes is clearly a solid approach. Music needs more pioneers like Ryder to prop open the proverbial doors to success for female musicians. Ryder responds, “I feel like the doors have been as wide as our eyes have been open.”
Touché, Serena Ryder, touché.
Here’s hoping that Ryder remains in position to beat down those doors for a long time to come.
Official Serena Ryder Channel on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/serenaryder