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Sleeping At Last In London Was One of the Best Shows and Here’s Why

Photo By Ines Barny

In the heart of London, on a brisk afternoon ahead of his much-anticipated show at Union Chapel, I had the pleasure of meeting with Ryan O'Neal, the creative force behind Sleeping At Last. Amidst the city's vibrant energy, Ryan shared insights into his journey, his music, and what inspires his soulful compositions.

Sleeping At Last, the moniker for Chicago-based singer-songwriter, producer, and composer Ryan O'Neal, has become synonymous with heartfelt music that transcends the boundaries of genre. With a staggering 2.8 billion streams, his music has graced over 100 popular movies, TV shows, and adverts, showcasing his remarkable versatility and emotional depth. From the early days of indie rock to the cinematic and emotive soundscapes he now crafts, Ryan's journey is one of evolution and introspection.

Discovered by Billy Corgan and signed by Interscope Records, the initial indie rock band formation of Sleeping At Last embarked on a national tour following their major label debut. However, it was Ryan's solo continuation of the project that truly defined its path. Embracing a more cinematic and emotive sensibility, Ryan's music delves into the human experience, aiming to connect and comfort listeners around the globe.

Our conversation touched on the innovative projects that Ryan has embarked on over the past decade, including the ambitious 'Yearbook' series and 'Atlas,' a collection of music that explores human development and the universe's mysteries. Ryan also shared his excitement about ongoing projects like 'Astronomy' and 'Atoms,' which draw inspiration from celestial events and the beauty of the mundane.

As we delved deeper, Ryan reflected on the significance of thematic songwriting and how themes like love, loss, and longing inspire his work. His collaborations with artists like Ryan Reynolds and Andrew Lloyd Webber, along with the recognition of his music through platinum and gold RIAA certified singles, underscore his impact on the music industry.

Yet, it's Ryan's humility and genuine connection with his audience that resonate the most. His approach to music as a continuous journey of creativity, free from the pressures of traditional record labels, allows him to remain true to his artistic vision. Despite the challenges, such as navigating the aftermath of a merchandise partner's bankruptcy, Ryan's commitment to his craft and his fans remains unwavering.

As the interview concluded, Ryan's anticipation for the Union Chapel show was palpable. Joined by renowned cellist Philip Shepard and the Solemn Quartet, the performance promised to be a memorable one, showcasing new arrangements of his deeply moving songs.

In London, amidst the echoes of a city teeming with history and creativity, Ryan O'Neal's story is a testament to the power of music to connect, heal, and inspire. As he looks ahead to the future, with projects like 'Atlas III' and beyond, it's clear that Sleeping At Last will continue to captivate and comfort listeners for years to come.

You seem to release songs in collections, why this approach?

Initially, I adhered to the full-length album structure during the early stages of my career. However, the cycle of touring, promoting the record, and then taking a two-year break before creating a new one felt very disjointed. I found myself feeling nervous and scared about returning to writing, questioning if I still knew how to do it. This cycle created a significant learning curve every time I went back to writing an album. To address this issue, I initiated a project called Yearbook in 2010, aimed at keeping me writing consistently. The concept involved releasing three songs a month for one year, totaling 36 songs. This project pushed me to write as much as I could and to navigate beyond writer's block.

Do you constantly engage in writing?

Since embarking on the Yearbook project, yes. Prior to that, I was only writing around five songs a year, resulting in an album every three years, followed by a tour, and then the cycle of fear would start all over again. Yearbook marked the beginning of my continuous writing journey. Since then, I've been writing in themes and collections, which has led me to explore thematic writing further. I'm drawn to film scores and have found that limitations can be incredibly freeing creatively. Knowing the theme of a song guides my creative process, making me more creative and inspired. Themes also encourage me to research the topics I'm writing about.

What inspires you the most, given that your work is very thematic?

My inspiration comes from a mix of life, personal experiences, and abstract ideas. I work on three primary projects: Atlas, Astronomy, and Atoms. Atoms is about capturing the small, beautiful moments in life, like taking a short iPhone video of something beautiful and scoring it. Astronomy is inspired by astronomical events, like writing music that encapsulates what an eclipse might sound like. Atlas is more autobiographical, reflecting my experiences, life, faith, and struggles. It's where my lyric-led songs reside, and it helps me make sense of the world.

I noticed the presence of strings in your music. How significant are they to your sound?

Strings have always had a direct connection to my heart. Despite lacking formal musical training, I've always been drawn to string arrangements. Learning to write for strings without playing any string instruments myself was challenging. I began around 2003, using keyboards and humming parts before bringing them to a professional to transcribe into sheet music. Strings play a crucial role in my music, often evoking the original emotion of a song. For the Union Chapel show, renowned cellist Philip Shepard and the Solemn Quartet will join me, performing new arrangements of my songs.

What can we expect from your upcoming shows?

The shows will feature some overlapping songs but will also include new additions and variations in the setlist. The Solemn Quartet and Philip Shepard will likely join us again, and we might incorporate a few more musicians into the mix.

You mentioned starting music in 2003. What initially attracted you to music?

My love for music began when I was around ten years old, after experiencing goosebumps from a song for the first time. That physical response fueled my desire for more, and I started playing guitar with the aim of creating music that could evoke that same feeling in others and myself. I've come to realise that the sensation is about feeling understood and seen, experiencing beauty in a way that words can't fully capture. My goal is to navigate through my existence and share that journey in a manner that makes others feel less alone and hopeful.

What do you typically listen to?

I'm not great at keeping up with new music, but some of my all-time favorites include Nina Simone, Sunny Day Real Estate, and Radiohead. Their work, especially Radiohead's "OK Computer," has been a huge inspiration to me. I maintain a Spotify playlist of my favorite songs, which serves as my go-to music source.

Do you ever listen to your own music?

Rarely. The only time I do is when proofing albums for vinyl pressing, which requires listening from start to finish. While I dread this process, it often ends with me feeling proud of the work I've done.

This artist's journey through thematic songwriting and continuous exploration of music's emotional impact offers a unique insight into the creative process, illustrating the power of themes, inspiration, and the importance of continuous creativity in the realm of music.

With the incredible connection you've established with your fans, do you ever feel pressure to release music not just from them but perhaps from your team as well?

Interestingly, no. I consider myself extremely fortunate in this regard. Since parting ways with traditional record labels around 2003-2004, I've embraced full independence. My team is closely attuned to my creative process, ensuring an environment free from external pressures. I have a bit of an allergy to pressure, especially when it conflicts with my creative projects. However, when it comes to composing film scores or contributing to TV shows or movies, I thrive under pressure. It's a complete 180 from my usual stance—it actually drives my productivity. But the moment it feels like I'm crafting music for someone else's sake, it becomes a struggle.

I imagine being under a major label could also pressure you into playing more shows for financial reasons.

Exactly. It's all about the bottom line for them. But I'm blessed with a team, including my manager—who's a longtime friend—that respects my pace and creative freedom.

"Turning Page" is now over a decade old. It's hard to believe it's been that long.

Yes, it's either twelve or thirteen years now. Time flies.

Despite its age, it remains a beloved track. How do you feel it has influenced your career and your music now in 2024?

Reflecting on the longevity of "Turning Page" is surreal. Its enduring appeal has been a cornerstone of my career, reminding me of the timeless nature of music and its ability to connect with people across different eras. It's a testament to the emotional depth and universality of music, continually inspiring my creative process.

I am so grateful for that song. So, I wrote it for the film Twilight. And you kind of assume that when anytime, like a cool thing happens like that, you assume that there's a nice peak and then it comes immediately down back to the real world. And I was really fortunate with that song. I think people, especially the listeners of Twilight, ended up giving it a new life through weddings and birth announcements. So, it still carries on as this kind of wedding anthem, this song that gets used in those really special moments. I feel so grateful that people still care about it, in a way.

And you've recently released a music video.

After only eleven years. Well, twelve years now.

How come now?

So, I was never able to make a music video for it because when it came out as part of the soundtrack, there were stipulations. I was not with a label. The other artists on the record company were allowed to make music videos. So I had kind of like a block for me being able to make a music video for it. I think it was for a few years until later, and I've kind of thought about the idea for the last few years and I didn't have the right vision for it. And so when Derek Huff, he and I had kind of spent a little bit of time together, he was just like, we'd love to do something together. And somewhere about a year and a half ago, the idea just popped into my head."

I was so delighted. Normally, I'm very particular with my music, visuals, and every aspect of the Sleeping Laugh brand. This was one of those rare moments where I felt 100% confident entrusting Derek with the whole visual and idea. He ran some ideas by me, and I thought, 'Amazing. Go for it.' When they sent me the first cut, I thought, 'It's perfect.' I was relieved because during the months it took to make it, I worried, 'What if it's really bad? What if it sucks?' But I intuitively knew Derek is so talented and excellent at what he does. He assembled several people from 'So You Think You Can Dance' and 'Dancing with the Stars' for the video. It was really special. So now it finally has a music video check."

What's next for you now?

I'm working on Atlas Three. It's the third and final chapter in my Atlas project. By final, I mean it will have three collections, but I might weave in some other themes later. It's a trilogy thematically - past, present, future. It starts with a song called 'Darkness' and ends with a song called 'Death,' though I might give it a prettier name. There's a circular nature to it, tracking the evolution of all things. So thematically, I know it has to end there, but there might be an Atlas Appendix down the road. I've got two songs already out as part of Atlas Three, but then I took a massive break when my mom passed away. That was a gravitational shift in my world. So now I'm fully back to completing it."

It's also given me more time to home in on themes, which has made me excited. Atlas Three has been tricky to track because I've changed my mind about smaller themes multiple times. Now I have it fully laid out and feel excited about it. I've already written three songs for Atlas Three that are not out yet, so that'll be the fifth Atlas Three song. There will be about 20 more after that, chiseling away at slowly over the next couple of years.

Follow Sleeping At Last’s journey on @sleepingatlast.

Article By Sal Fasone, Photo By Ines Barny

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