When I was in university, I knew Serena Ryder prior to her becoming famous.
Now, let me be clear on this. I’m not trying to name drop here. I wouldn’t say that we were good friends or anything like that, but we did run in some of the same circles despite a bit of an age difference. I spent most of my life living in Peterborough, Ontario and Serena was born and raised in the nearby village of Millbrook. In fact, if you drive into Millbrook today you’ll see a sign that proudly announces that it is the “Home of Serena Ryder.” Now, although I didn’t play any instruments (well, very well anyways), I hung out with a lot of musicians during my youth. Peterborough was, and continues to still be, a hotbed for musical talent with a lot of stars coming out of the area. We might not have all been tight with one another, but all of the music folks were all woven together and everybody sort of knew each other, and if you were part of that scene at the end of the 1990’s in Peterborough you were bound to run into Serena Ryder.
I actually remember the first time I met her. There was this little place called The Great Little Bread Company in downtown Peterborough that catered to the university crowd. Local artists hung their art on the walls, and you could drink endless cups of coffee all night without the staff kicking you out, and they hosted some of the best live music that I ever saw in downtown Peterborough.
A Toronto based artist had been booked to play, and Serena was brought in as the opening act. I remember the place was packed far beyond fire regulations, with people sitting on the floors throughout the café. Serena was this ninth grader who went to the local downtown high school and none of my friends had ever heard of her, but it became very clear that the majority of the sold-out audience was made up of kids from Serena’s school who were privy to a talent that the rest of us older crowd hadn’t heard yet.
So, this little blonde girl comes out with her guitar, full of confidence and spunk, and she had a big voice and a bluesy guitar style, and she just killed it. Her audience went wild for her, and the rest of us were left in awe. I remember I had the promoter of the show, who was a guy I used to hang out with a lot, introduce me to her afterwards and I told her that she had the soul of Tracy Chapman and the power of Janis Joplin and was she was one of the best musicians I’d seen in a long time. Serena smiled at me sweetly and thanked me for my thoughts. It was my first brush with a future Canadian music icon, but what did I know? I really never thought in the terms that anybody I knew would ever become famous.
Who was the musician Serena opened for? I don’t remember. It doesn’t matter. After Serena’s performance, nobody was listening anymore anyhow. I don’t think they ever came back to town.
So, while she was a lot younger than the crowd I ran with, if there was a party or a gathering going on, Serena often got wind of it and showed up, often with her guitar in hand. She was always a welcomed addition to our crowd, but as I said, I can’t say we were friends as much as we had a passing familiarity with one another.
But over time Serena became a big presence in the local music scene. She gigged a lot, made a lot of fans, both amongst the public and professionals, got a lot of attention and even recorded a little album on a local indie label. Although I got rid of most of my CDs a long time ago, I still have my copy of her first release, “Falling Out,” around here somewhere.
Most of my memories of that period of my life are a bit hazy, but I clearly remember the last time I ever spoke to Serena as if it just happened.
There is this pizza parlor in Peterborough called The Night Kitchen. Located on Water St, which is the heart of Peterborough’s arts and dining district, its had a number of different make overs but remains to be a local institution. The Night Kitchen offers a healthier brand of pizza with alternative toppings not found in most places, and although it is no longer opened late at night for slices, back in my downtown days there’d be line ups out the door late at night from people trying to get that one last slice after the bars got out.
Well, about twenty years ago I stopped in one early evening to get a slice for my dinner. Nearby the local bus depot, I often grabbed dinner there while on the run, and I was surprised to see Serena making pizza and serving slices behind the counter. I hadn’t seen her for a while and by this point Serena was on the rise, and was getting plenty of attention on CBC Radio, but was obviously still a struggling musician who needed to fling pizzas to survive.
“Hey Serena!” I greeted her, “How long have you been working here?”
“Only about a week,” Serena replied, “But I won’t be here very long. I’m off to Australia as a supporting act for Hawksley Workman.”
“Wow! That’s exciting!” I replied enthusiastically, and I picked out a pizza slice. Serena threw it in the oven, and after a few minutes, gave me the heated slab.
“Thanks for the slice,” I said to Serena, throwing a dollar in her tip jar. “Good luck in Australia! I’ll see you win you get back!”
But Serena never came back. The only time I’ve seen her since then is on the stage and watching from the audience.
As late as 2021 Serena was still making ground breaking music and winning awards for her latest album “The Art of Falling Apart.” An advocate for mental and emotional health, Serena speaks openly about her own journey, helping to ease the stigma that surrounds millions of people who ar3e affected by it across Canada and throughout the world. One of the biggest talents I ever met in my life, we should have all known that Serena Ryder would have become a massively successful music star. To this day I kick myself for not getting her autograph when I had the chance.