Tanya Ryan. Courtesy, Natalie Pinchak.Natalie Pinchak

Mom-to-be Tanya Ryan opens up to explore love and self-discovery with first album


Tanya Ryan figures she was seven years old when she wrote her first song.

It had to do with a young girl whose father goes off to war. The girl’s mother later informs her that he has died and isn’t coming back.

It was a little . . .  morbid, Ryan acknowledges.

“It’s her feelings digesting that whole experience thereafter,”  says the singer-songwriter, in an interview from her home in Okotoks. “So that was my first song at seven years old.”

“I did have a very healthy and happy childhood,” she quickly adds with a laugh.

It may have been an early lesson for Ryan in how dark songs can come from happy places, just as hopeful songs can come from dark places. The Saskatoon native’s first full-length record, Open, is meant to be an exploration of love in all its complexities. The funky So.Damn.Good seems to tackle the more carnal aspects of love. Dimes is a ballad about a late mother’s message to her son on his wedding day. Love Like That unravels the complications of a romantic relationship.

But it was the album’s debut single, My Heart Song, that may have had the biggest impact on the singer. It was actually the last song added to the album and was written when the singer had fallen into a dark place mentally.  It’s not a downer, though. In fact, it soars from sad and fragile to anthemic, becoming an ode to resilience and recovery based around the mantra “My heart knows how to save me. ”

“I was in the thick of that depression at the time,” Ryan says. “I was in a space where nothing felt good. It felt pretty dire. It was quite bleak. It was one of the deepest depressions I’ve experienced to date. When writing the song, it was like my hand wrote it and I didn’t. I was so disconnected from so many parts of myself. When I read and sang the song back to myself, it lifted me up. It was like ‘I just accidentally wrote the answer to my issue.’ So, yeah, it was hugely cathartic. It may be a bit cliched to say, but it was almost therapeutic.”

She hopes by sharing her experiences, it opens up dialogue and shuts down the stigma felt by those suffering from mental health issues.

“Historically, we’ve buried all this stuff,” she says. “We’ve put it under and we’ve not talked about it and then people have to walk around feeling alone, feeling ashamed of what they’re going through and feeling like they’re isolated from everyone. I wanted to be one of the people saying ‘Hey, I’ve been through some stuff. If you want to talk about some stuff, I’m here. Here’s my very candid dialogue about that’ and hopefully inspire someone else to open up and go ‘I’ve been through that, too.’ Then we can all get a little bit braver and more connected as a community.”

Whatever outreach the song may provide, it also shows that Ryan has no reservations about being deeply personal when it comes to her writing. In fact, she sees it as a requirement when it comes to her own work. As with many performers who dabble in mainstream country, Ryan made a pilgrimage to Nashville not long ago to write. It’s a rite of passage for country singers, but particularly one who placed third in the 2017 Project WILD Country Artist Development, a contest run by new country radio station Wild 95.3 that puts participants through challenges that help them develop both musical chops and business acumen. Going to Music City to take advantage of its hit-making machinery is certainly proven to be a savvy business move for a number of young singers. But only the bluesy I Want You was a result of the Nashville jaunt, the album’s sole co-write with Steve Mitchell. She says she may have soaked up the city’s musical and careerist vibes through osmosis, but she generally sees writing as a solitary endeavour.

“My theory or philosophy is that I need to be sharing what is closest to my own heart,” she says. “So the words need to come from me in order for me to make that connection. That’s how I create, I know everyone is a little bit different. But for me, it’s really important that the words are mine.”

Ryan will be taking the songs from Open on a mini-tour of Alberta, which kicks off at the Ironwood Stage and Grill on Feb. 16 before moving on to High River’s Sheppard Family Park on Feb. 18 and The Westwood in Black Diamond on Feb. 19.  After that, the future is a bit up in the air for the Okotoks singer. One of the other biographical tidbits she has been sharing while on promotional duties for Open is that she will soon be a mother herself. She is expecting her first child in late April, which means developing any near-future career strategies have fallen to the wayside.

“You have to understand, I’ve been planning my life out since I was nine years old,” Ryan says. “I have no plan after April 1. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done in my life. To have no plan is terrifying for me. So I’m kind of embracing this fear. Something is occurring here because I’m so scared that there must be something good that’s going to come out of this. Because whenever you’re tackling a fear, and hopefully overcoming that fear, something awesome happens. That’s just the pattern of human life.”

Tanya Ryan plays the Ironwood Stage and Grill with Mariya Stokes on Feb. 16 at 8 p.m., The Sheppard Family Park in High River with Lyndsay Butler on Feb. 18 at 7 p.m. and the Westwood in Black Diamond on Feb. 19 at 7 p.m.