Music for the soul: Pacific Beach musician finds emotional healing through songwriting

Musician and songwriter Chris Ryan, playing a five-string banjo, with his father, Roger Ryan.
Musician and songwriter Chris Ryan, playing a five-string banjo, with his father, Roger Ryan, who has been the inspiration for some of his son’s music. They are longtime Pacific Beach residents.
(Courtesy of Chris Ryan)

Some musicians say creating music is about tact, skill and training.

Although all of these things are important, Pacific Beach musician Chris Ryan says he has found during his nearly 50 years of playing music that it is more about allowing yourself to express and process the highs and lows of life.

Ryan, a second generation native San Diegan who lives two blocks from his parents’ PB home, played guitar and sang most of his life. This included busking with small bands at local scenes, performing solo on open mics and playing with the person who inspired a couple of his songs — his dad, Roger.

But, his mother was the first to put an instrument in his hands.

“My mother, she recently passed away, she insisted her children take music lessons,” Ryan said. “I took guitar lessons from maybe the age of 7 until 11 or 12. Then I quit. I started writing songs in my early teens.”

Around that time, Ryan faced hardship in his life, which led him to a space of creativity, an outlet for his struggles.

“My father was a heavy drinker and all his friends were alcoholics,” Ryan said. “They all died in their fifties. I have a song about that.”

Also struggling with substance abuse throughout his life, Ryan found that music was the thing that helped him cope.

“(I had) years and years of alcoholism. I’m sober now for a while,” Ryan said. “Through it all, I’ve been writing music since I was 12 years old and I’m now 61.”

In 1998, he chose abstinence and hasn’t returned to alcohol since. Through coping with his substance abuse, he says music became not only a way to entertain and connect with people, but also heal.

“I’ve used it (music) as everything from a social shield, to a Band-Aid, to a way to connect,” Ryan said.

The music he writes follows the genres of Americana, folk acoustic, blues and ballads. Most songs are inspired by his lived experiences or the experiences of those he interacts with.

“The inspiration for my songs is, I guess one would say, the human condition — the great feeling of what it means to be alive and conscious, and the extremes of emotions,” Ryan said.

According to Ryan, the songs often just come to him naturally because of the need to get through a challenging experience.

“The primary motivation for songwriting is to get what’s on the inside out. I need a way to express myself,” Ryan said. “The best songs I’ve created I feel like I didn’t create them at all. It’s not a conscious effort. It’s more like eating or sleeping. It just happens and it has to happen.”

Ryan said the music that results spontaneously and naturally not only helps him but often others too.

“I closed my eyes and sang a song recently and there was one woman in the audience who had her glasses off and she was crying because the music got inside her and allowed her to release the grief she was feeling,” Ryan said. “That’s what inspires me — great joy, great suffering, great pain in my own life and as I witness it in the lives of others.”

He intimately knows great suffering with the loss of his mom, his father’s friends and the current failing health of his father. In congruence with how he’s coped throughout his life, Ryan recently wrote the song “Another Night” while on an overnight care shift for his dad.

“My father is bedridden so it’s a lot of changing diapers, bed pans, feeding and helping him get out of bed,” Ryan said. “If you’re there overnight, it can be kind of heavy emotionally because you’re not supposed to be sleeping. He might need some help.

“There’s no way to (shut) your brain off,” he said. “I’m communing with these ghosts of the memories of my dad, the memories of his friends, the people that have passed and are on their way out. I’m feeling the depth of all this loss.”

That inspired the first line his song. “Another night with these ghosts. Another night on my own.”

From midnight to early morning, Ryan worked on the song, steps from his father’s bedside, playing softly and recording it on video to document the intimate moment.

As the song progresses, it’s less about his dad and the experience of being beside him through his sickness, and more about facing the end of life.

His dad was recovering from a series of strokes that resulted in dysphasia and difficulty with speaking, but a few days after that night, Ryan said he got to share that song and other favorites.

“I was playing him a lot of the songs that he had taught me as a child, which was old folk music from the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s — railroad songs,” Ryan said. “At one point, he said, ‘That was good.’”

Ryan said moments where he gets to write about hardship and relate to others through his music, as he did with his dad, are what make music writing so important to him.

“A lot of my songs are about hardship and pain, loss and grief,” Ryan said. “The experience of my life is that we help others by the struggles we’ve been through ourselves. When we do that, it redeems our suffering in a way. When someone else benefits from the darkness I’ve been through, it becomes a gift to that other person and a gift to me I think.”

Ryan said he is grateful for what he’s been through because the songs that have resulted brought relief in his life and others.

Although the difficulties may persist with his father’s health and all other unpredictable life circumstances, music writing will continue to be a grounding force. He’s even trying to work on a few songs about the joys in addition to the sorrows.

“I’m grateful in a way for all the things I’ve been through and that I can express them in a way that can help someone else,” Ryan said.

To listen to his music and stay up to date on his work, follow Ryan on Instagram at @cryaninsta or visit