SERENA RYDER with ASHLEY MacISAAC , PRIYA THOMAS and BOB WISEMAN as part of the Toronto City Roots Song Celebration at the Distillery District (55 Mill), Sunday (September 5). $25, weekend pass $60. 416-870-8000, www.torontocityroots.com. Rating: NNNNN
If in the mid-90s you'd been a music fan in the small hamlet of Millbrook, Ontario (just south of Peterborough), you might've witnessed a wildly implausible character ripping it up at open mic nights.
At the height of the grunge explosion, you could walk into a bar and be treated to a mini-Robert Smith doppelganger - replete with wild black hair, white makeup and loads of lipstick - cranking out, er, hurtin' country tunes on an acoustic guitar.
You can see why, at 13, Serena Ryder was a little too much for Millbrook.
Now, not quite a decade later, Ryder's ditched the goth get-up and a bit of the twang, but her career's taking off. She's played her hooky jazz- and roots-inflected rock for fans from Nashville to Australia, including a stint on Fred Eaglesmith's cross-Canada Roots On The Rails tour.
Her powerful pipes, evoking Tracy Chapman and Janis Joplin in equal measure, have impressed the likes of Steve Earle, who invited her to tour with him Down Under, and Hawksley Workman, who produced her recent Unlikely Emergency album, the first release on his indie label, Isadora.
I'm still trying to wrap my head around the image of an adolescent goth kid playing country music.
"It stemmed from my obsession with vampires," laughs Ryder over a coffee-and-beer brunch on a downtown patio. "I saw The Lost Boys when I was five and fell in love, and watched Interview With The Vampire about 80 times when I was a preteen.
"I've never had any problems embracing a darker side, cuz I don't think anything's really bad or evil. I mean, you need a balance, but at that time I definitely wasn't into the lightness."
But she'd been raised singing Buddy Holly and Linda Ronstadt songs and immersed herself in her parents' record collection, which ranged from Culture Club and Julio Iglesias to Arlo Guthrie and John Prine.
When her dad bought her a guitar at age 13, Ryder fused those influences into a heady, rootsy blend, learned a handful of chords and started setting her manic scribblings to music.
Unlikely Emergency reflects the singer's eclectic roots, ranging from naked a cappella spirituals (album opener Sing Sing feels like a contemporary spin on those old Alan Lomax field recordings) to glossier alt-pop anthems. But Ryder's voice is what stands out on the disc. There's a cocksure flamboyance in her delivery that makes you understand why Workman, a similarly larger-than-life personality, was attracted to her.
Her reverence for the bare-bones aesthetic of roots music and the diversity of her tunes fit right in with the mandate of the Toronto City Roots Song Celebration festival, which takes over the Distillery District this weekend. Along with Bob Wiseman, Priya Thomas and Ashley MacIsaac, Ryder performs on a bill that might surprise people who write off folkish fests as stodgy and old-guard.
Says Jennifer Claveau, who organized the fest with Howard Gladstone, "Our tag line is, 'A mosaic of music, a celebration of spirit.' We wanted to reflect the multicultural aspect. When we discovered how few exposure opportunities independent songwriters have in any genre, we homed in on that niche. Our focus became the songs, which is reflected in calling the event a song celebration."
While the usual suspects are well represented (legendary folkie Sylvia Tyson, who some say was the inspiration for Catherine O'Hara's character in A Mighty Wind, headlines one night, while Canuck indie roots icon Fred Eaglesmith headlines another), there's also the Independent Artists' workshop stage, with talent curated by folks like SOCAN's Howard Druckman and sleeve art designer Michael "A Man Called" Wrycraft to attract those who wouldn't touch Winterfolk with a 10-foot pole.