In addition these successful recordings, O'Neal has even worked with Billy (Smashing Pumpkins) Corgan, and lived to tell the tale. If that's not a survival instinct, what is?
Ryan O'Neal: That is correct.
Songfacts: Maybe you can tell me a little bit about how that all came together?
O'Neal: Absolutely. About six months ago I had the idea enter my mind after being a fan of the previous Twilight soundtrack, because they always have such incredible music on there, that wouldn't it be absurd and crazy if I just tried to write something for this upcoming film as far as the soundtrack. So I watched all three films back to back for the first time and after watching and doing a little homework to try to figure out what's coming up next in the next film and what's going to develop with the relationships, I sat down and tried to write my first song for a movie.
And after about a week – I think it only took me about four or five days to put the song together – I sent the song over as just a blind submission. I didn't hear anything back, and then a few months after that I got that incredible call that they told me that it made it into the final cut of the film. So needless to say, it was a good day.
Songfacts: Have you seen how they work it into the film, and are you happy with that they've done with it?
O'Neal: Absolutely. I'm so thrilled. I saw the movie for the first time, and so I had known they were going to use it for about a month or so prior to the release of the film. I hadn't seen it for that entire month, and I had the incredible privilege of being invited to the premiere in Hollywood. So I got to see it for the first time in that incredible setting. And I'm so so excited with where they used it. They actually used it two times in very nice scenes. The first time is the instrumental version of it, when the Bella character walks down the aisle to be married. And then again, it reprises with the vocal in the honeymoon scene, in the love scene.
Songfacts: Did you create both an instrumental and a vocal version, or did they ask to have both?
O'Neal: I've had stuff placed in TV before, and I've made it a habit in my recording process to always have an instrumental on hand. So I didn't intentionally record an instrumental just for that section, it is literally just minus the vocal. They usually ask for a vocal-only track, and then they ask for an instrumental version as well as the master of the regular version, as well.
Songfacts: I guess the other things I really wanted to talk to you about was this ambitious new – can we call it an album?
O'Neal: (Laughing) That's what I was trying to figure out.
Songfacts: You have kind of a yearbook, which is what, I guess, three songs from each month of the year.
Songfacts: Where did you get that crazy idea?
O'Neal: You know, about a year and a half ago, I was sitting down at a restaurant with my manager, and we were sorting out the plans for the upcoming year. And it started out as a very simple question. It's like what is the one thing about being a musician and being a part of Sleeping at Last that I love the most. And that was definitely songwriting. And it then occurred to me how very, very slow of a songwriter I am (laughs), averaging about one full-length album every three years for the past ten years.
So I thought, okay, I need to do something to change that. I need to be more immersed in the creative process, and I need to write much, much more intensively. So I came up with three songs a month for a year. And I knew it was going to be a really, really challenging project, which was definitely the point. But I also thought three songs a month was do-able for me. And it felt like a substantial offering for true listeners of Sleeping at Last, it felt like just enough that it would not be forgotten, but at the same time it would hopefully sustain people from waiting for the next EP. So the idea of Yearbook kind of came from that.
I wasn't quite sure if I would be able to finish it, actually. I had this idea in the back of my mind that it was a win/win either way, because if I finished it, then it would be great, and I would be a better songwriter for it. And if I couldn't quite do it, I would still be a better songwriter for it. (Laughs) And thankfully I made it all the way through.
Songfacts: Wow. 36 songs. That's a lot of songs.
O'Neal: 36 songs. Yeah, I think I doubled my life's catalogue music in one year. Took me 12 or so years to build up the first 30-whatever songs.
Songfacts: How did you get yourself in the right frame of mind to do it? The songs for December talk about Christmas and that kind of thing. So did you say, Okay, what significant things generally happen in this month of the year, and let me write songs that kind of focus on that?
O'Neal: Yeah, that was a tough situation looking at it. Because I was thinking, do I want to highlight parts of the year that everyone celebrates, or do I want to just kind of document my year? So I ended up going with just documenting my year. But then when Christmas came along, I thought, okay, that'd be an interesting challenge to try to write my very first Christmas song. So I took a stab at that, and that's called "Snow." So that's my very first actual holiday song. But the rest of it was more just a documentation of my year. But it definitely took a lot of discipline to be inspired on command like that for three songs a month, because it doesn't always come. So having to sit through those moments when it's not coming was definitely a challenge. But thankfully, I met all the deadlines and they all happened.
Songfacts: Did you pray for a really eventful year so the songs would be eventful?
O'Neal: Definitely. And about halfway through I started to feel like I was running out of steam, and that's, of course, when you find the better ideas is when you start feeling that way. But I ended up realizing, okay, my whole year has been spent sitting in the same 14'x 14' room, staring at the computer screen and staring at my piano keys and trying to write. So I was nervous about that interviewing with inspiration. But thankfully, I was able to pull through.
Songfacts: You're in Los Angeles now, right? Because you're going to be part of this Invisible Children concert?
Songfacts: So why is it important for artists to involve themselves in these kinds of events? Why is this an important thing?
O'Neal: I think some of the territory – or some of the privilege that comes along with being a musician and having people listen to your voice is being able to use it for good as much as you can. Even when I was younger, I felt that even if it's 5 people sitting in a room, giving you their attention to listen to your songs, that's a nice responsibility, and isn't something that should be taken too lightly. So organizations like Invisible Children and To Write Love on Her Arms have resonated with my beliefs and with my ache, I guess, for different broken parts of the world. So music is kind of unique in that it gives you all these really great opportunities to partner up in ways that I wouldn't ever have imagined, like shows and compilations and stuff like that. So something to be part of, for sure.
Songfacts: Now, you're the only remaining original member in Sleeping at Last, so why continue with the band name when it's just you?
O'Neal: You know, I've always been the primary songwriter, and I felt like Sleeping at Last, I always intended to make it such a personal project. My catalog of songs, per se, is such a personal collection of songs, that I felt like I wanted to keep that going. I felt like I had these strings to just switch it out to my name, and that might imply that I'm intending to come and go in an entirely different direction, when I'm really hoping just to evolve my sound through Sleeping at Last.
Songfacts: So there's no plans to just go into your name permanently, the name of the group will always live on?
O'Neal: I think so. I think Sleeping at Last will always be the name I make music under. I've been really excited about the idea of doing film scoring at some point and I've had opportunities to do bits and pieces of that with my friends. And then even the song placed in Twilight, it gives me that itch again to try to write with specific stories in mind. And I kind of like the idea of putting that under Ryan O'Neal instead of Sleeping at Last for maybe some of my my future original film scoring.
Songfacts: You talk about people who are great at arranging and scoring. You worked with Van Dyke Parks.
O'Neal: I did.
Songfacts: How did that come together?
O'Neal: It was incredible. He's a complete musical hero to me. I wrote him a letter a couple of years ago. It was just a fan letter, just expressing my appreciation, just kind of a shot in the dark, kind of letter. And he was so sweet and wrote back pretty quickly and said how much he appreciated the kind words. In my response to that, I wrapped it up and said I'm a musician as well, and maybe one day we could work together. Just threw it in there. And he wrote back right away and said, "Why wait till one day? Let's make it now." So he listened to some of my stuff and appreciated what I was doing. I was actually right in the middle of working on a record at that point, and there was one song left where the bones of the song had been built - the piano and the vocal. But the arrangement that I was planning to work on, I hadn't quite had time yet to do it, so I think magically that worked out, where it was the perfect song to send to him. And I asked him to do an arrangement for it. We actually agreed upon doing a string quartet, my thinking I didn't want to burden him with doing a full-out arrangement. And he ended up sending me back I think a 17-piece arrangement. It was incredible. He has become a very good friend, and I love him to death. He's the sweetest.
Songfacts: What song was that that he worked on with you?
O'Neal: That was a song on an album called Storyboards, and that came out in 2009, and the song is called "Clockwork." It stands out. It's got that Van Dyke Parks style going on in the arrangement and it's so beautiful. It's one of my favorite moments of Sleeping at Last.
Songfacts: Where did you get introduced to his music? For me it was the things that he did with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys and that kind of thing. Where was your introduction to the music of Van Dyke Parks?
O'Neal: It definitely started there. But then I started really appreciating an artist named Joanna Newsom, and he collaborated with her on a record called Ys. And I fell in love with just the kind of audacity of his arrangements. They're so absurdly detailed and beautiful, especially for her records - she's a harpist. I don't know if you're familiar with her stuff, but she's sort of a singer/songwriter folk harpist and vocalist. And having his arrangements in that world mixed together was something that kind of blew my mind. I think that's in my top 5 records ever. So that's where I really became a Van Dyke Parks fan.
Songfacts: Now there was one song, I think maybe it was on Facebook I was listening to it, that you did with Jon Foreman. Is that "Birthright," is that what that was called?
O'Neal: Yeah, that's what it was called.
Songfacts: How far back does your working relationship with Jon Foreman go?
O'Neal: You know, it's actually almost at the beginning of Sleeping at Last. So at least a decade now. My band at the time, we had the opportunity to open up for Switchfoot at a local venue. So we played our show, and they were just the sweetest kind of people we had ever met. I think Chad, the drummer from Switchfoot, took some video of our performance and started passing it around to labels and it's like so ridiculously sweet for another band to extend that branch. And so we just kept in touch with them for several years. And then they were kind enough to take Sleeping at Last out on their first US tour, too. That was in 2003-2004. So they kind of broke us into the touring scene.
Songfacts: I've had a chance to talk to Jon a couple of times. I have a friend who says musicians should sing and not talk, because a lot of times they're not all that bright. But Jon's one of those guys that I could listen to all day, because he's just so articulate.
O'Neal: Isn't he? He's so great. He's one of those most inspiring people I've ever been around. You spend 20 minutes around him and you want to be a better person. That's the mark of a really good person.
Songfacts: I like that. Tell me about Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins. Another artist that took a liking to you, I guess.
O'Neal: (Laughs) Yeah, that was another very crazy moment in my history. So I was playing just another Chicago show, and he happened to be passing by the venue and I gave him a CD, which is kind of out of character for me; I always felt weird about imposing my music onto people. But I was totally freaking out, because being such a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan, I sheepishly handed him a CD and he actually called my house the next morning and said that he was interested in working together if I was interested. So of course, I said, "No way." (Laughs) Just kidding. Absolutely. Of course I would do that. And so we worked together for a couple of years. He kind of mentored Sleeping at Last into understanding how the record industry worked at that time, and he also gathered up quite a bit of label interest, which led to me signing to Interscope Records. So it was an incredible moment, for sure, to know him and to receive such awesome support.
Songfacts: It seems like he works with a lot of people who are pretty openly spiritual, Christians. And he seems to be very spiritual, too. Have you ever had any conversations with him along spiritual lines, and is that something, a topic that he likes to talk about?
O'Neal: In his personal life, at least in that window of time that I became pretty close with him, he didn't talk a lot about his spirituality. He definitely explores it in his songwriting. And I don't think it's something he's shy about at all. But yeah, I definitely notice that, as well. It seems like he tends to work with people who are up front about their beliefs.
Songfacts: The other interesting thing about him, he's always sort of struck me – and this is going to sound like a terrible comparison – but almost like sort of an Axl Rose like guy. Because you look at all the people that have been in and out of Smashing Pumpkins, and as an outsider, I get the impression that he's this control freak. Was he a lot easier to work with than people might imagine?
O'Neal: I was really lucky in that, I think in that time in his life, it was in a very transitional period for him. It was right at the end of the Smashing Pumpkins, and then right before he got his Zwan project started. So when I worked with him, he was incredibly sweet and very, very easy to work with. But he certainly has the reputation of other parts of his personality. But thankfully, the time that I worked with him, he was a very generous and very kind person.
Songfacts: Were there particular songwriters that you look to when you were starting out and said, "Man, I want to be able to write songs like those songs." Can you name any songwriters that fit that bill?
O'Neal: Yeah. Absolutely. The very first, I guess, roster of bands that I was really excited about were Smashing Pumpkins and things like that in the alternative world that I grew up in. So when I got my first guitar at 13, I would say it was definitely Smashing Pumpkins, and obviously Billy's songwriting. Which led me to a lot of other bands that I probably didn't stick with. But when Radiohead came along in my world, that was a pretty revolutionary music experience for me. It's like, you can do that with music? A band called Sunny Day Real Estate was another game changer in my writing. It's like, "You can sing like that?" You know, all these very exciting sounds to a 15-year-old, or 14-year-old at that time. And I think Simon & Garfunkel, too. When I was very young, I used to go around to all these different resale shops and just gather up different vinyls that I felt looked cool. And Simon & Garfunkel, I grabbed tons of their records, having no clue who they were at the time, and that was another kind of like, Wow, this is significantly better than all the other records I bought.
Songfacts: I still think "The Boxer" is one of the greatest songs of all time.
O'Neal: I think so, too. Absolutely. Such an insanely just right song. It's just very right. Everything about it, it goes everywhere you want it to. It sounds like it was recorded in the right time. It's one of those songs.
Songfacts: I've seen you labeled as an emo artist.
Songfacts: You laugh.
O'Neal: It seems extra funny nowadays, because emo used to be such a thing. And maybe I'm just not aware of it being that thing now. But it seems very much not a thing anymore. So it's sort of like another genre that's passed. Ska, maybe? (Laughing) I don't want to offend any ska people, maybe it's alive and well.
Songfacts: Sunny Day Real Estate, I think that was definitely a band that was influential on whatever emo was. Did you ever think of yourself as an emo group, or do you think that's just what people did because they like to label things?
O'Neal: The cool answer would be no, I never wanted to label my music. But, the real answer is when I was listening to Sunny Day Real Estate and a lot of those bands, the word emo became the very tangible name for the style of music that I wanted to play and what I wanted to write. So at that time I definitely wanted to be an emo band, and I think it stuck a little longer than I wanted it to. (laughs)
Songfacts: Well, your music is very emotional. So it's kind of a stupid way to label groups, but there is a kernel of truth to it, right?
O'Neal: There totally is. It should be called Heart-on-your-sleeve type of music, because that's basically the point of emo music. But yeah, that definitely stuck with me, for sure. I've always looked at songwriting as being this very personal journal and type of process. And it's funny, because it's true. I haven't really imagined writing something very objective. I'm just writing about something I know nothing about. I don't know what that says about me, but I always tend to put personal experience into it somehow.
Songfacts: We began by talking about the Yearbook, which was a huge project. Did that drain you of all your songs for a while, or did it fuel you to actually inspire you to want to write more songs?
O'Neal: Definitely. It was right at the end of writing the final song of Yearbook, I definitely felt like, okay, I'm going to take a long break. But a couple weeks after that I started writing again just because it just felt wrong not to. So it created an edge that needed to be itched. The one thing I learned with pursuing so much music was discipline - creating or carving out time in my day to free write, or record small melody ideas and things like that. That's something that I think really affected me, because it may feel like on the surface that you have nothing to say right now, that you have nothing inside you that wants to come out or maybe you're even too tired. But once you sit down and actually start doing that, then, for me at least, I started realizing there's quite a bit more left in there.
We spoke with Ryan O'Neal on January 15, 2012.
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