Stumbling upon Sleeping At Last’s music in a harrowing time of my life was a miraculous blessing that, a couple of years later, still reverberates in every part of me. The first song I heard was “Saturn,” a moving aurora of music that wrapped me in its embrace with heartfelt lyrics and from then on his music has never failed to evoke the same response. Recently, I reached out to that spring of emotion and asked some questions to Ryan O’Neal, who provided insight into his creative process.
Ryan O’Neal is a singer-songwriter producer and composer, based in Chicago, who’s widely known for his ongoing Atlas: Year I project, a series of thirty EPs launched in 2014 that received glowing praise from his audience. “Sun,” one of my personal favorites from the album, is emblematic of the profound subject matter he touches on — transcendent love, friendship, family, sorrow, loss and a plethora of other human complexities. The album also features planets, oceans and cardinal directions, revealing an influence from the natural world that isn’t valued enough these days in pop culture.
In every element of his work up to the posts O’Neal shares on Instagram, the natural world is a recurring vedette and he explains his fascination with the world around us, saying, “I’ve been in love with the mystery and beauty of nature since I can remember! In the books, music, art, films that I’ve been most drawn to throughout my life, most tend to have a natural world focus – whether its space movies, or David Attenborough nature documentary series, or songs about the ocean.. or landscape paintings and photography. Nature is like Church to me. In my writing, I can’t help but pull inspiration from it in the form of analogies in my lyrics, visuals in my music art and even in the overarching themes of my projects (ie. “Space” “Land” Oceans”, etc.).”
Another stylistic choice I found unique was that he often strikes balances between lyrics and instrumentals — occasionally, he doesn’t use lyrics, or he simply uses vocals as an enhancer. He also produces smaller songs capable of intense feeling, which he presents in artistic micro-music videos. “I like to switch things up a little — helps keep me on my toes! I’d also say that part of my love of instrumental music comes from my lifelong appreciation for film music,” O’Neal says about his unconventional approach. “So, in my writing, every once in a while I get to feel like I’m writing a film score and I really enjoy — thinking of music in that way emotionally and even visually is really fun for me!”
Last year, he released Atlas: Year II, which revolves around the sensory human experience and development, much as Year I is a study of the beauty of nature. Within this project, he constructed nine songs representing each of the nine Enneagram types, a model of the human psyche with distinct motives and traits. His Enneagram songs capture different essences of the human spirit and I wondered how he fleshed out the nuances of each number to inject such specificity in his music.
“The initial concept of my Enneagram songs was to research and learn as much as I possibly could about each of the nine types and somehow write a song from their unique perspective,” he recalls from his experience. “Shortly after beginning that writing process, I realized that it was also vital to my understanding of the type, to be able to see parts of myself in each of the nine types. Though each of the Enneagram songs are very much meant to honor and bear the heart of each type, I found that seeing life through other’s eyes helped me not only to figure out how each type ticks, but also to better understand myself in the process.”
“Learning about everyone else helped me find myself. The process of writing each of those songs involved a ton of conversations with friends and folks that identify as the type I was writing about,” he says on his researching. “It also involved reading heaps of Enneagram books, conversations with my Enneagram teacher Chris Heuertz and just a lot of mapping out what makes each of the nine types unique but also beautiful and how that might translate into a song and into a story.”
“I am type Nine, so writing my ‘Nine’ song proved to be not only the hardest, but the most personal song I’ve ever written,” he says. “I’m really thankful that I started on ‘One’ and had to write my song (Nine), last.”
Irrespective of type preference, the lyrical power of each song enables the album to resonate with everyone in some way. With an incontrovertible brand of intimacy that appeals to the broken and the healed, O’Neal describes his epiphany of the gravity of his work. “My Enneagram songs did present a unique challenge for me unlike any of my projects before,” he admits. “I didn’t quite realize the weight of the challenge of writing those songs until I began on the first song and suddenly I was very aware of the pressure of getting it right.
“For instance, when I wrote a song about the Sun, some folks liked it and others didn’t and that was okay, the Sun itself wasn’t too concerned. However, if I write a song that is meant to speak on behalf of a 1/9th of the population, I suddenly realized what I got myself into. I so deeply wanted to honor all 9 types and that added bit of pressure made me dig deeper, research further, learn more and more and more until I felt like I truly understood, and could attempt to capture the beauty and challenges of the type.”
O’Neal has been featured in various TV shows and films such as The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part 1), Grey’s Anatomy, The Fault in Our Stars, Jane The Virgin, and Criminal Minds. He’s also collaborated and sung with artists such as Natasha Bedingfield, Christina Perri, Rita Wilson, Chris Mann, and a slew of others.
A prolific singer-songwriter who has rapidly gained recognition for his atmospheric pieces over the years, O’Neal reflects on his musical career, saying, “I’ve held on to one rule since I started writing songs and that is to write as personally as I can, always. So my approach hasn’t changed all that much over the years — I’m probably more confident than I used to be in some ways and more insecure in others! I’ve learned a lot of technical skills to be able to go from the thought of a song to a fully formed one that I can release into the wild, but it really always comes back to asking myself if I was being honest or not.”
Sleeping At Last has demonstrated to me and millions of others the soul-rending beauty of our earth and that the most visceral experiences of being human are what matter the most. In a fast-paced world where people are constantly looking towards the horizon instead of within, we all need music like his to remind us of this truth.
Photo Courtesy of Ryan O’Neal