by Craig Ketchum
Ryan O’ Neal, the man behind the admired musical act Sleeping At Last, has been releasing albums since 1999. He’s toured with Plain White T’s, Switchfoot, and Yellowcard. He is involved with the non-profit organization To Write Love On Her Arms. But the most interesting thing about Ryan is his penchant for launching and completing exceptionally challenging musical projects. Two years ago he created an EP every month for 12 months. Now he is launching a series of six EPs exploring the universe, entitled Atlas. I just had to get inside his head, and he was gracious enough to take the time to respond – practically in the middle of recording!
CK: Atlas is going to cover a whole lot more than the earth! Tell me about what this project is going to look like.
Ryan: Yes, “Atlas” actually tells a large, overarching story via the sequence of EP themes and concepts. It’s the story of how all things came to be – starting with darkness (the unknown) and eventually, light… which leads to space and the heavens, which leads to the solar system, which leads to our planet, our land, which leads to our waters, our oceans, and so on. I have about 3 or so years worth of themes relating to that story, all mapped out in my head. If you can imagine a video camera as deep into space as possible, slowly pulling in, getting closer to and closer to the details of the universe… that’s what Atlas is about. And inside each of those broader themes, I explore as many interpretations of the theme as possible in my songwriting. I really enjoy the process!
CK: What are sources of inspiration for your songs? What are you currently reading, listening to or looking at to fuel your work?
“Earth” artwork by Geoff Benzing for Atlas: Space 1
Ryan: Well, I love movies a lot. I’ve realized more recently that I connect with things visually more than anything else and as a result, I’ve noticed that my appreciation for movies has made my lyric writing very visual. So I pull quite a bit of inspiration from watching tons of movies. Right now, I’m on a Space documentary and sci-fi kick! All “research” for my Space EPs, but I can’t get enough of ‘em! “In The Shadow of the Moon” was one recently that I pulled a lot of inspiration from. “For All Mankind” is another! As for books, I’m also reading some space-related stuff. C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy for the first time, and loving it. Ender’s Game is up next. Aside from media though, I get inspired by experiences, stories, relationships, faith, etc. I treat my songs like a journal. Since I don’t keep a journal, it all goes into my music.
CK: You’ve done something very well: marketing your music, and doing so with a personal touch. The Yearbook and Atlas subscriptions were such a cool idea, bringing anticipation for your music. What lessons have you learned as you promote your art?
Ryan: Thank you so much! The idea for the subscription model came out of asking myself what I would like from an artist I listen to. The answer for me was lots of music. I’m impatient and wish bands would put out albums all the time! So I thought, maybe I could do something with that idea and a) challenge myself creatively to write more than I’ve ever written before, and with deadlines, and b) to offer up music to my listeners far faster and more frequently than I ever had before. The subscription concept came as a result of those ideas. It was the obvious vehicle for making first Yearbook work, and now Atlas.
CK: Your upbringing must have been filled with music for you to have become accomplished at all those instruments. What was your childhood like?
Ryan: No one in my family was musical, actually! My parents listened to great things as I was growing up, but I benefited most from my mom’s encouragement in whatever I wanted to do. Music was it and she nurtured my love for it very early on. I got my first guitar when I was thirteen and that’s when I feel completely for music.
CK: How do your family and friends affect your songwriting?
Ryan: I often ask my mom or my wife for their opinion on a song, or lyric… but what we’ve all realized is that what I’m asking for is not an opinion at all, but a chance to hear the song through new ears (which is what happens when you show someone you care about something you made… you see it differently.) So my family is very, very patient with me and my misleading “tell me what you think of this!” questions.
CK: Your lyrics are incredibly poetic. Do you start with the words? Tell me about your process.
Ryan: Every song comes about a little differently. But I’ve learned some practices that work for me to help the process along. I constantly collect. Melodies and words. They usually begin separately… for instance, I try to sit down and write words as often as possible. I collect ‘em… throughout my day, I’ll hear a word and suddenly it sounds interesting to me, so I write it down. And other times I’ll just collect my thoughts. The same goes for music… any time I sit down and play my piano or guitar, I keep a little recorder handy, and if there’s a little melody that sounds interesting, I’ll hit record. I collect these little 30 second snippets and go back to them later… and all of a sudden I’ll forget about a melody and hear a song in it.. so I’ll pluck it from the bunch and start carving out a song. Then, once I sort out a little arrangement and sing nonsense over it, I dig around in my word collections and see what resonates with the feeling of the song and begin a little clipboard of ideas and lines that might work. That’s basically my process… but as I said, each song has its own way and cares very little about my recipes.
CK: You seem to write to people in many of your songs. Is that a conscious decision?
Ryan: It is a conscious decision. With every song, there comes a point in the writing where the message of the song is clear to me… then I have to decide who it belongs to. Am I singing this to someone? Is it about me? Is it a universal thought? So I choose accordingly.
CK: What’s with the motif of a “guardian” character on Darkness EP? To whom are those songs addressed?
Ryan: Lately I’ve been writing very narratively. No clue where that’s coming from, but I’ve been enjoying my hand at more direct storytelling like this. The “guardian” perspective you mentioned is actually a story I came up with, based on several true stories I’ve brushed up against in my life. The Darkness EP ends with a song called “Uneven Odds” which is part 1 of a story about a child who loses his parents, and is having to face a true darkness at a very young age. The song is written from the perspective of the legal guardian, who is left with the task of explaining what darkness is, and how it will pass to a pure and innocent child. The Light EP opens with its title track, which is part 2 of that same story… the boy grows up and has a child of his own, and is now tasked with articulating the light and beauty of life to his brand-new little one. It’s a story about hope.
CK: What’s important to you in your music?
Ryan: It’s also important to me that the songs I write be as honest and sincere as possible. Also, hope. I never really consciously insert hope into my songs, but I’m very grateful that light and hope tend to find their way into just about any topic I write about. Over the years that has become very important to me.
CK: What are you drawn to when listening to other people’s music?
Ryan: I love rich melody… and creative production.
CK: What’s your favourite creative project by another person?
Ryan: Whoa, that’s a big question! I can’t think of anything to point to… too many movies and creativity to narrow down!
CK: Do you have a favourite place?
Ryan: Just about anywhere in Hawaii.
CK: If you had to survive on a diet of one food, what would it be?
Ryan: Pizza. No question. In fact, from an outsider’s point of view, it probably looks like I do survive on a diet of just Pizza.
CK: sleepingATLASt: Did the idea come from wanting to cover the world around us, or from a play on words?
Ryan: The world around us… but I noticed and liked that Atlas is already hidden in my music name.
Ryan’s third EP in the series has just launched on iTunes. It’s entitled SPACE 1, and there will be a second SPACE EP coming soon. It comes hot on the heels of “LIGHT” and “DARKNESS”. Read more about the project on his blog.
Photo by Jeremy Cowart for Sleeping At Last