Serena Ryder on battling depression and finding musical solace

Six-time Juno Award winner Serena Ryder reflects on how music can improve your mental health.

By Jill Buchner

Serena Ryder on battling depression and finding musical solace
Photography by Kiriako Iatridis
Serena Ryder was nervous. She was going to perform her hit "What I Wouldn't Do," which she had sung a million times before. But this was a special performance. She wasn't in front of a packed concert hall; she was on a tiny stage in Montreal's Dans la Rue day centre for homeless youth, and her small audience consisted of kids who had come in from the streets on a cold December day for a hot meal.

After the show, she hung out to meet some people and tour the centre. When she was about to leave, a teen approached her. "He was a kid, and he seemed really nervous," recalls Serena. "He said, ‘I live on the street and whenever I've been having a really, really rough time, your song comes on at just the right moment—whether I'm in a store or in a car—and reminds me that everything is going to be OK.'" He told her that he had come to Dans la Rue that day because he was hungry and had been having a hard day. Then he saw her onstage, playing that very song.

Serena was blown away. "He was this young kid who didn't have a home. And this was a song that I wrote in my garage, when I had a roof and food, and I was writing about love."

Musical medicine
This is exactly what Serena loves about music—it reaches people in all kinds of ways. "You know when there is a song that makes you think, ‘Wow, I feel like that song is literally about me'? That's priceless," she says. "Music can make you feel like you are truly understood. That's the most intense and beautiful feeling in the world, because the root of all sadness and anger is people thinking that nobody understands, nobody relates to them, and that they're alone."

Serena feels that special power of music in her own life, and is quite vocal about the role music has played in her struggle with depression. In the past, she sought help for her illness and got better with the help of antidepressants. Today, she also takes control of her mental health in other ways. Onstage, Serena often talks about how music is a form of medicine that can make people feel better when they're down. She even sings about it. In her song, "Stompa," she sings, "Nothing is wrong if you move to the beat."

So when Serena talked to the boy on that cold December day, it was more than just his connection to music that resonated with her. "It gave me a big reality check because, when I was going through depression, it would have been easy for me to end up on the streets. It's not something that is difficult. It's not a rare thing to be homeless."

Fortunately, Serena is now in a great place in her life. She hosted the Junos this past spring and went home with two awards. Her latest record, Harmony, has gone platinum. And she is happy and healthy. To keep herself well, she knows that she has to listen to her physical, emotional and mental needs. Music is a big part of that. Serena recharges after long bouts of touring by lying on the couch watching rock documentaries, then goes into writing mode. "In the last year, there's been a lot to write about," she says. "Writing is cathartic and a really nice way to rejuvenate and to reflect.

"There are just so many ways that music is magic. It brings people together." On that day in Montreal, music brought that boy to her, and that's a memory she'll treasure forever.

Our Canadian summer playlist
Sometimes good music can make your summer. Last year, we were playing Serena Ryder's "What I Wouldn't Do" and "Stompa" on repeat. Here are some of the other great Canadian songs we'll be adding to our summer playlists.

Find out Serena Ryder's favourite things about Canada.
                                               
This story was originally titled "Striking A Chord" in the August 2014 issue.
           
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