Interview: Sleeping At Last

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

Bloom – Beach House

bloom beach house

Beach House’s captivating synth cocktail sits well in the eardrums. Lush, without being overpowering or overdone, it’s equally appropriate for a drive, the quieter side of a house party, or perhaps a summery romp in a field. Everything about Victoria Legrand and Alex Scally’s tone and look is reminiscent of 80’s dream pop, conveying yearnings for simplicity amid the constancy of turbulent emotion. Legrand’s vocals and Scally’s guitar concoct something perhaps intended to soothe recoil from heartbreak: “fleeting moments of happiness before it all disappears”.

Anchor Guitar Studio, Vancouver

Anchor Guitar Studio: Home of an inventory of Sparrow Guitars and the new Anchor Guitar line. All guitars are assembled and set up in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Anchor Guitar Studio manufactures guitars, carries guitar parts and has a full in-house repair shop. The studio also supports the local Vancouver arts community. They are involved in music, photography, design, and film projects.

Located in the heart of Railtown Vancouver, the Anchor Guitar Studio was born out of a love for music, guitars, and community. We are a shop who values quality in all areas. The Studio is a place where you can check out some guitars, get your guitar repaired, play some music, or collaborate on a creative project.

Created in 2010, the Anchor Guitar Studio focuses on the highest quality products. Every guitar is handcrafted in Canada, and built with a high commitment to quality. Our guitars boast unbeatable tone, superior cosmetic appeal and playability second to none. You will cherish your Anchor Guitar for years.

We have an inventory of Sparrow guitars that are finished, assembled and set-up in our workshop. We have also been manufacturing a line of jr’s and teles that are built from the ground up. Each one is constructed here in Vancouver.




103-339 Railway Street, Vancouver, B.C.

Plus, they have the most amazing shirts: I’m sportin’ one… you should consider it too. (Pictures courtesy of Anchor Guitar Studio)

Brocken Spectre @ Converge Magazine Social

Brocken Spectre (Colin Ablitt, Nic Campbell, Colin Campbell, Scott Bjerkness) played our Converge Magazine social on Saturday, June 2, at the gorgeous Five Stones Church in New Westminster (exposed brick, hardwood floors, right on the river).

Playing an unfamiliar venue to a largely-unfamiliar crowd can be a big challenge. Being a social event with appetizers aplenty and drinks flowing, everyone is already pretty chatty. But halfway through their first song, “Parallel Dances“, something magical happened. A stillness was setting over the room; everyone was tuning in. A couple minutes later, and a big round of applause for a band that barely anyone in the room knew (yet).

Brocken Spectre will be playing a show with In Contra and Aida Saturday, June 16 at the Southside Community Church venue. Doors open at 6:39. Tickets are well-worth it at $10.

What Is Worship?

“In the company of Jesus, there are no experts; only beginners”, Jason Upton sings on a live recording of ‘Between the Graveyard and the Garden’ from his new album On The Rim Of The Visible World. This attitude is one of a humble heart – a soft heart that admits that God is God, and that I do not have everything together. It is a posture of worship.

In contrast, the church finds itself pressured into ‘professionalism’ in ministry and in worship. Professionalism is not a bad trait, but in the church setting, it can spring from roots of what the Bible calls the ‘fear of man’. “In a nutshell, the fear of man can either be a fear of what others think of us or will do to us, or a craving for approval and a fear of rejection”, writes Carolyn McCulley in her articleWhom Do You Fear?

Worship is not quite understood in some common contemporary interpretations. When a congregation is rehearsed into standing to face a particular spot in their building, they can be tempted to devote their attention to practiced musicians onstage and a bright PowerPoint overhead. To an alien, might it look as though the congregation was worshipping their own church?

I had a dream recently that I was in a church and the pastor stood up and announced that it was time to worship. At that moment, the ushers flung the doors open and the congregation poured out into the streets to minister to the homeless in downtown Vancouver. That would be beautiful worship to the Lord.

What is worship? Is it even best represented by music? (I say this as a worshipping musician.) If I allow myself to cling too tightly to a closed definition of what worship is or what it is not, I run the risk of making myself an ‘expert’ on a matter that belongs to God. In fact, arguments and judgments over what ‘styles of worship’ are suitable or unsuitable can divide a church. Might I suggest that there is no particular style of worship at all? Instead, a worshipper exhibits an authentic lifestyle that seeks to please God.

The Lord says this of some: “These people come near to me with their mouths and honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men” (Isaiah 29:13, NIV). What of those rules can we recognize in our own life or in our own community? The judgments we make about our worship, or worse, the worship of others, are a dangerous pitfall. That judgment could stem from different roots, but God’s response is the same: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” (Romans 14:4, NIV).

Seemingly, God created worship with an “outside the box” approach in mind. Besides singing, dancing, or playing music to God, how else is worship expressed? Surely I worship God when I sit back and recognize his power. He longs for us to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10) When I humble myself before God and recognize what little I have without him, I honour his wisdom, supremacy, provision, and power!

Worship, too, is trusting God. By trusting his word, I declare that I know him and I know who I am in his kingdom. After learning that his sons, daughters, livestock, and servants have all been brutally killed, the Old Testament prophet Job tore his robe and shaved his head, then fell to the ground in worship. After this, he declared, “naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised” (Job 1:20, NIV).

Worship is closely related to our attitude, perspective, and actions. God declares that he detests hypocritical praise, saying, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me! When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you. Wash your hands and stop doing wrong. Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:13-17, NIV).

Worship is in the practice of reconciliation; 2 Corinthians 5 expresses that we have been given a “ministry of reconciliation”. God loves reconciliation more than the offerings of our mouths.

Worship is a posture we assume before God. “Worship is the only possible response that we can have when we see Jesus for what he truly is,” muses Mark Watt, worship co-ordinator at Tenth Avenue Church in Kitsilano, Vancouver. “After we`ve realised the sheer vastness of everything God has done for us, and how he views us, our only response can be utter awe. After Jesus` resurrection, when he appeared in the room to visit his disciples, I`ll bet that some would have started weeping uncontrollably, and some laughing incredulously. Some were probably whimpering in utter amazement. When you are overwhelmed by Jesus, there`s just a gut response. We know they fell and clasped his feet in worship”.

Deep reflection and prayer for self-awareness may be required to overcome the “rules” we and those around us have constructed around worship. However, once we have realize that worship has little to do with form and everything to do with content (the heart), we`ll become more open to it not always looking as tidy as we once wanted and we`ll worship God the way he wants.