During the pandemic, Ryan O’Neal was watching a TV show with his wife that featured a band playing a live show in a bar — the sort of thing he’s spent most of his life doing as Sleeping at Last.
“Guess the percentage of how much I miss touring,” he told his wife.
“25 percent?” she guessed.
“And I’m like, ‘Minus a thousand percent,’” he tells me, laughing. “That is one thing that I don’t miss. Just the terror that I feel every time I play these songs.”
He’s a little sheepish about it and admits that “some of my favorite moments in my career have actually been on tour,” but playing live is not O’Neal’s favorite part of his job. Which is just as well, maybe, since Sleeping at Last feels more like a headphone band anyway. O’Neal’s music can feel too personal, too intimate, maybe even too delicate for the sticky floors and back row chatter of a music venue — whenever those start being available again.
No, Sleeping at Last’s music is at its best when you’re on your own, trying to make sense of your interior life or the world around you or maybe even the cosmos above you. O’Neal uses music to map the shape of the soul, and draws lines between us, creation and the Creator. Sleeping at Last’s music may be best known for appearances on shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice or the Twilight soundtrack, but O’Neal’s fans treat his music with reverence befitting ancient choral music or holy writ. Whether it’s his spiraling Atlas project — an ongoing project with a focus that starts with the origin of the universe and zooms in over time to the deepest contours of the human heart — or his Astronomy collection that soundtracks the heavenly bodies — O’Neal’s approach to music sparks respect, devotion and maybe a little obsession.
O’Neal treats his own music with reverence too, laboring obsessively over his music with a meticulous perfectionism that he’s honed over the years. Sleeping at Last has come a long way since 2000, when they attracted the attention of Smashing Pumpkins’ Billy Corgan, who helped O’Neal get connected with a major label. These days, he’s barely even interested in the idea of an album, as we normally think of it. His music projects are lengthy, evolving things that unveil like chapters in a book. And if Sleeping at Last’s musical projects are hard to wrap your head around, well, that’s probably because O’Neal himself is still trying to figure it out, too.
In the Beginning
At first, Sleeping at Last was fastidious and fussy, pouring an astonishing amount of time into a trial-by-error method of songwriting in which O’Neal would road test every conceivable avenue for a song before selecting a favorite.
“If I didn’t try every single idea, then I have failed the songs,” he recalls. “But the problem with that is that by the end of recording those songs, you end up losing the thread of what you liked about it in the first place. You’ve gone too far down the road.”
You can hear this in early recordings, a little. Albums like Ghosts and Keep No Score still land, but there’s a meticulousness to the proceedings that speaks to the process of writing them. “I heard this amazing quote from Paul Simon that said the reason that he loves the studio is that there’s nothing that can’t be fixed in the studio.” The sentiment resonates with him, but he says that it’s “as much of a positive as it is a negative, because I’m just sitting there torturing myself until it’s perfect.”
These days, O’Neal’s methodology has changed a little. He still has a perfectionist bent to him, but he’s learned that streamlining his songwriting process has made for some great music too. He started setting deadlines for himself, vowing to complete three songs a month for a year. He accomplished it, even if he had to forego his usual meticulousness. And what he found surprised him. “The funny result was that I really, deeply love those songs,” he says. “They feel closer to the source.”
The experience taught him to take a looser approach to songwriting — one that gives his music a little more room to breathe. And while he’s gotten much better at figuring out what does and doesn’t work for him when it comes to writing music, he’s got a long ways to go when it comes to the part of the art that has resonated so deeply with fans: the lyrics.
There Was the Words
“I try to sound like I have read books, but I really have only read two,” he laughs.
He’s kidding, mostly. Anyone who’s listened to O’Neal’s music will attest that he’s a well-read guy. He’s come a long ways from the typical songwriting muses — falling in love, breakups, that sort of thing. These days, he’s writing about concepts. He has noticed that reading is good for his songwriting, but the real trick he’s picked up over the years is limitation — learning how to narrow his lyrical focus and create obstacles that force him to dig deeper.
“Putting these creative restraints on myself have actually been really, really helpful and informative to how I’m approaching the lyrics,” he says.
“If I’m writing a song called, I don’t know, ‘Hearing,’ I know that there’s a lot of things that won’t work with that concept of hearing,” he explains. “It creates a framework for me to kind of play around in. And then when I’m starting to work on the lyrics, that’s when I get really excited about all the research for Human Development and all the different types of things that I’ve had the privilege of writing about.”
He’s talking about the most recent chapter of his Atlas project: Enneagram. Nine songs written about the nine different types of Enneagram Personalities. It felt like the natural next move for him after his first Atlas project, which dealt with the created world around us. But it wasn’t until he dug in and started writing that he realized just how thorny of a topic he’d taken on.
“The moment I started actually digging into it, I realized that not only do I not know very much about the Enneagram at all, but I also there’s a responsibility to make sure I don’t get that wrong because the Enneagram means a lot to some people,” he says. “I really wanted to honor each type as we went along.”
To do that, O’Neal made a few decisions. First, he asked about 100 friends to send him small audio clips, which he then sorted by their individual Enneagram types and then dropped into songs like Easter Eggs. Then he built a different band for each of the nine songs — each made up exclusively of the Enneagram type for the song they’d be playing on. So, for example, if you listen to “Four” on Enneagram, every instrument is being played by an Enneagram Four.
“I felt like, OK, I will never fully understand what it’s like to be a Type Seven or a Type Three, but there was a point in writing those songs where I felt like I could feel the hurt and I could also feel the redemption in each type,” O’Neal explains. “And it took a long time to get to that for each of those songs.”
As it turned out, the hardest one to write was O’Neal’s own Type, the last one on the album: Nine. In fact, he threw the first draft out entirely. “I was almost writing about a Type Nine,” O’Neal says. “Like, other people that I know that are Type Nines. I was completely keeping myself out of it.”
“And then the song kind of broke me open.”
An Ongoing Creation
He’s working on the next chapter of Atlas now. The first installment was about creation, which was the past. The second, which was the Enneagram chapter, was rooted to the present. In his mind, Atlas III will have an eye towards the future — less how we got here and who we are than what we choose to do with days allotted to us. He won’t say much just yet, but he’s willing to open up about at least part of what he’s got in mind.
“I will write a song for each of the definitions of love,” he says. “We have forms of love throughout every part of life, from the moment we’re born through the end.”
He’s thinking of the Greek words for love, like agape (charity), eros (passion) and philia (friendship). He calls it “voluntary human development” — the parts of our personalities that we can control and even improve. His own therapy has often come through writing, and what he’s learned is that he needs to get better at leaving his ego out of it. O’Neal is at his healthiest when he’s shed all the excess stuff of his interior life. He thinks we all are.
“Every system of thinking, every philosophy, every theory that exists, if you look at the healthier levels of every step of the way, it’s just a form of letting go,” he says. “In every teaching that I keep coming across the best version of that, the healthiest version of that is this massive form of letting go. And I think that that can only happen through that internal work.”
So that’s how O’Neal has grown over the years: Letting go of his perfectionist instincts, embracing longform lyrical chaos that has led to startling moments of beauty and evolved into a rarified talent whose creative journey hints at great things yet to come. And who knows? Maybe he’ll even discover a love for live shows. He’s considering it, anyway.
“I’ve joked around with a couple of buddies that used to tour with me,” he says. “I’m like, ‘We should go on a tour, but forget the shows, just go on a tour, just hang out in a van and have fun.’”