Chapter 13: Letting Go of Your Art

Ryan O’Neal is one of the most unassuming humans you will ever meet. You would never know upon shaking his hand that his music has been featured in films, he’s scored documentaries and TV shows, and is beloved by fans around the world. When I met him at a little indie coffeeshop in the suburbs of Chicago, I almost missed him hiding behind a baseball cap. He is the man behind Sleeping At Last, music which has brought such peace into my soul as well as that of so many others in many dark moments. Ryan has a gentle heart and there is sweet authenticity to his words which places you at home immediately in his presence. This is an excerpt from our conversation last October.

Melissa: Tell me about your latest project.

Ryan: I’m working on Atlas Year Two. The concept of Atlas was to tell the story of the Universe through different themed EP’s and releases. Atlas Year One began with Darkness. I kind of like the idea of starting before we understand where the start is. The second EP is called Light which is what I believe to be our understanding and acknowledgement of God and the beginning of the Universe and the planets. The third and fourth EP are Space 1 and Space 2, which are songs for the planets in our solar system. Then it goes on to Oceans and Land and so now the second year of the project, it’s all about life. I kind of like the idea of a video camera being as far away as humanly possible and then slowly working it’s way closer and closer to all the nuance of what it means to be a person. This next year will be Atlas Year Two and will be twenty-four songs long and I’ll release it in singles. It’s an on-going project that I’ll be doing and I have the whole thematic thing mapped out for several years.

Melissa: This is fascinating. This is kind of an unusual way of doing it, right?

Ryan: It is. The traditional music model is to record a record. Go on tour for two or three years. Rinse and repeat. What I found which works for me is I love writing and creating. I love performing as well but writing and creating is where my passion and love for music comes into play most. Three or four years ago I created a project called Yearbook and it was basically me writing and creating. It’s thirty-six songs long and the idea behind it was just to challenge myself to write three songs every month for a year. I want to push myself but also put out things that I was proud of. This kind of set the tone for Atlas and everything that followed. It’s unusual but I love it.

Melissa: How does touring work for you then?

Ryan: I still do it but it’s definitely fewer and farther between. In between doing Yearbook and Atlas, I did a year of touring but now I’ll do spot dates. It works better for me to tour less and then I really appreciate it more and end up writing and recording more.

Melissa: What does it look like for you to pursue your family, your wife and your daughter, while you’re pursuing your dream? And how do you make sure you have balance there?

Ryan: I think that’s the key word there. Balance. I’ve become obsessed with that only because I don’t think I have it figured out. I think I have a tendency to overwork — -

Melissa: As ALL DREAMERS DO!

Ryan: as all dreamers do! But you have to temper that. Especially when you have family…when you have a baby. That has been a conversation my wife and I have at least four times a week. Because doing your dream job is a gift but at the same time there are no hours. I can’t leave work. I don’t come home after five. It’s kind of like everything runs together because you love that and you love your family.

Your heart is putting a fingerprint on everything.

It’s a huge gift but balance and efficiency are two words I’m really obsessed with right now. Efficiency because I feel like if I could do my work more efficiently if I could compartmentalize it and organize it in a way where after a certain time I could be more physically and emotionally present with my family. As opposed to “today the lyrics didn’t really come together so I’m going to keep working on them in my head while I’m on this date but I’m going to pretend like I’m not.” So, getting stuff done when I need to get stuff done and keeping those boundaries in place.

My wife and I have been together for fifteen years. We were together for ten years before we got married. We met right around the time I began pursuing music. The first decade of our relationship was me pursuing my dream with no guarantee behind it, which every dreamer has the same problem. When it became something that could actually support us, that’s when the balance became more important. This surprised me. I thought it was almost selfish to pursue your dream with no guarantee behind it, but it’s also necessary to pursue your dream with no guarantee behind it. When things started actually working and I started actually making money doing what I loved, that’s when I had to learn how to fully put myself into my music and art and make it as personal as possible but not at the cost of my relationship. We talked a little bit earlier about your heart expanding. I feel like it does that for your dream as well.

There’s no capacity for love. It’s endless. It should be.

Melissa: How do you as a writer feel about putting your whole heart and your life and vulnerability into what you write, but not sharing someone else’s story? What does that look like for you?

Ryan: For some reason when I was very young and I started writing about my own personal experiences, that’s when I felt like music was real to me. I know as you said some artists can tell other people’s stories really well and in a personal way but I felt like my music became an audio journal for myself. I actually think it’s a huge gift to be able to have that outlet to sort out my thoughts.

Melissa: My question is actually how difficult is it to only tell your story in your music as opposed to those of your relationships?

Ryan: Ohhhhhhh. Music is such a sneaky thing where you can include people’s stories and details —

Melissa: Ha. They’ll say, “Oh, hey that’s my story.” And you’ll respond, “No. No. I’m just making words up…”

Ryan: Hahah. Yes. Poetry. Totally not, but yes. I’ve never had to really think through that because the writing is so much more visual.

Melissa: Oh, man. I need to start writing music. Then I could write whatever I wanted and no one would even know what I was talking about. (laughter)

Ryan: I do feel like there’s that magic trick in music where you can write about whatever you want in music as long as you keep it fairly abstract and don’t put names in it. In my particular type of songwriting, it wouldn’t fit to be specific.

Melissa: It’s weird to ask this of someone who has accomplished so much, but do you feel like you’re living your big dream? Or is there something more?

Ryan: I do. But I have to catch myself. My wife and I, over the past six months, have begun doing this thing before bed each night where we say three things we are thankful for. That practice of gratitude is huge. The first couple of weeks you start to say the obvious things, but then after that you dig in a little deeper and realize there is so much to be thankful for. A big part of mine is being able to do what I love. I don’t want to say I take it for granted, but I do sometimes forget the stresses in my life are real but my work eliminates so much anxiety that life can toss my way. There is nothing else in the world I can imagine doing.

Melissa: As you look towards the future, all dreams flow out of this one?

Ryan: Yes. In terms of music, I have dreams. I dream of scoring a Pixar movie. Those are destinations on my path but I am already on the path that I want to be on.

Melissa: Where do you find rest as you’re pursuing your dreams? As dreamers we’re always going a hundred miles per hour and then you are also pursuing your family and all these things…how do you find rest?

Ryan: I’m not good at it. I love TV and movies.

Melissa: But you’re probably thinking of the score and all of that.

Ryan: That or I’m completely numbing out and wanting to be transported. I don’t think that’s a refill, though I think it has a very important role in everyone’s life — to be transported by someone else’s story — the refill and actually resting are hard to come by. So, I love photography and have been pursuing that more. My mom and wife bought me a new camera right before the baby was born and I have been enjoying creatively expressing myself through something other than songs and lyrics. There’s no pressure on it. No one is waiting on my next picture. I’m still trying to figure it out. Rest is hard. I’m the kind of person who when I go on vacation, I’ll ask for a couple of hours to do email first.

My best lesson in it was probably with Bob Goff. He invited a few friends to his lodge in Canada and the rule is no cell service. I’ve never done that before. My phone feels like a limb of mine. It feels disorienting. But I came back and I saw things differently. I noticed color and —

Melissa: Did it change what you wrote after that for a bit?

Ryan: It did actually. I was in the middle of writing Atlas Year One and I felt finally like filled up again. This is the problem of spending time with Bob Goff. You want to be a better person. That was a huge lesson.

Melissa: How do you take moments like that and make space for them in the everyday? I think it’s a question we’re all struggling with. I’ve had this conversation with everyone I’ve talked to on this trip and we’re all the worst at it. I’m sure if someone in the psychological profession profiled us, we’d all be high performing personalities and overachievers. We all understand, because we’re also highly intelligent, that we need to find this.

Ryan: I think relationships are probably the answer. Usually you fit relationships in around your creativity and I don’t think that’s always the answer. I think you should fit creativity in around your relationships. As a writer, you do have to draw from something. Even in my Yearbook project, I noticed that at a certain point after twenty songs, I was starting to write about writing. It was a full circle loop. It actually helped me. I needed to go somewhere and do something.

I think relationships are the answer; valuing the time you have with people and letting go of your art for a little bit.

I’m implementing a new challenge that I’m borrowing from a friend. It’s called the Five Senses Rule. He uses it more for his family which I will also be using. Every time I go to a dinner, my five senses are with the people I’m with. There’s no phone, no anything, just my five senses. I’m going to taste the food. I’m going to see you. I’m going to smell the air. I’m going to listen.