Songs of the Stars: An Interview with Sleeping at Last

When the shadow of the moon passed through the United States last August, Ryan O’Neal watched in awe and wonder just like millions of other Americans. But while most of us could only marvel at the cosmic spectacle, and later try to convey what we saw and felt and experienced, O’Neal had composed a song about it.

And with that song, aptly titled “August 21, 2017: Total Solar Eclipse,” O’Neal, who makes music under the name of Sleeping at Last, had officially launched his Astronomy series, an ongoing, ever-building repertoire of songs documenting cosmic events. The eclipse song is exactly the same length as the longest duration of totality—2:40.03—one of a number of creative nods to the uniqueness of the event itself.

The Astronomy series is now up to five songs, including the brand-new “Super Blue Blood Moon,” recently released to commemorate that very event yesterday.

Astronomy is just one of many projects O’Neal is juggling these days. He’s also working on phase two of his ambitious three-year Atlas project, which he describes as “an ongoing series of music based on the origins of the universe and life within it.” Year One literally begins before the Earth’s beginnings and gradually zooms into our solar system and, finally, the Earth.

Year Two (subscribe here), literally a work in progress, begins with the origins of life and gradually zeroes in on the things that make us uniquely human. O’Neal is working on the final round of songs of Year Two, each based on one of the nine personality types from the Enneagram. (We told you Atlas was ambitious. It’s a pretty remarkable work of art in progress, and we highly recommend giving it a spin.)

O’Neal unravels a lot of his creative process in his Sleeping at Last podcast, but ORBITER wanted to dig a little deeper. We caught up with him just before the release of “Super Blue Blood Moon.”

ORBITER: What sparked your interest in astronomy and cosmology?

Ryan O’Neal: I’ve been excited about all things space since I was as young as I can remember. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that no matter where we were on the globe, the beautiful universe above would be a consistent and incredibly inspiring source of light. I’ve always been obsessed with the stars, sci-fi, documentaries about space and NASA—everything space-related I’ve been excited about.

When I was pulling the concepts together for the Atlas project, I was most excited to write the songs inspired by our solar system. That led me to study as much as I could about the makeup of each planet, just to find musical ideas hidden within each planet, and somehow try to write a song that would do justice to the beauty of our solar system.

We’ll talk about Atlas in a bit, but let’s first talk about your Astronomy series, starting with the total solar eclipse song. What did it mean to you to compose this work for a unique North American solar eclipse?

It was good timing because I had the idea to do this Astronomy series, and this was the perfect first event. I drove to Kentucky with some friends and had the most transcendent and beautiful, incredible experience I could have imagined. But I had to write the song before the eclipse, so I listened to different podcasts about previous eclipses. I learned that there are groups of people that follow total solar eclipses around the globe, and they kept talking about it like it was this euphoric experience. [ORBITER interviewed psychologist and eclipse chaser Kate Russo about that “totally emotional” event.]

Did you listen to your own song during the eclipse? 

Ryan O'Neal of Sleeping at Last | ORBITER magazine

Courtesy of Ryan O’Neal

I’m funny about that. When I feel good about a piece of music or a song before it comes out—if I feel good enough to let go of it, and let it be released into the wild, I can’t listen to it again. Otherwise I’d be second-guessing everything, wishing I had done something differently. I’m just too insecure to hear my own music.

So, didn’t listen to it during the eclipse, but one of my friends did, and it was kind of awesome. We were in the shadow of the longest point of totality, and since I made the song to fit the exact length of totality, it did sync up perfectly for my friend. He’s my friend, so of course he’s going to say he had a nice experience with that.

You wrote a piece on the Cassini Grand Finale, and you got to experience the satellite’s final moments from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL). Tell us about that.

I had just done “Total Eclipse,” and got a call that NASA was gathering musicians to write pieces inspired by the grand finale of Cassini. They invited me, Joe Trapanese, a composer for film and TV, and Sarah Schachner, a composer for video games like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed. The three of us wrote a trilogy of Cassini-inspired music, and all three of us got to go JPL and watch the countdown to the finale with many of the people who had worked on the spacecraft. They made a trilogy of music videos, using a ton of NASA footage and real Cassini images. It was really fun, a dream come true as a space nerd. [Listen to and watch the trilogy here: Sleeping at Last, Schachner, and Trapanese.]

And now you’ve just released a song about the super blue blood moon.

Yes. It’s actually three lunar events all in one evening—a blue moon, which is two full moons in a single month; it’s also a super moon, which means the moon comes closest to Earth and appears bigger and brighter in the sky; and then there’s a blood moon, a total lunar eclipse, which tints the moon red.

 

When we look up at the stars, I think it reminds us that life is a gift, and it is precious to get to wake up and experience all these things.

—Ryan O’Neal, Sleeping at Last

Now let’s talk about the Atlas project. What’s the concept?

It’s an ongoing series of music inspired by the origins of the universe. It starts with Atlas: Year One—30 songs released on six thematic EPs: Darkness, Light, Space I, Space II, Land and Oceans. I wanted the arc of the themes to go from macro to micro, like a camera starting with the big picture and moving closer and closer to us, on Earth.

The most macro thing I could think of was darkness, the time before creation. One song is written from the perspective of someone who has lost their sight. Another is from the perspective of depression. Light represents the beginning of the universe, which I happen to believe is the Creation. Then Space I and II, songs inspired by the planets in our solar system. And then we get to Earth through Land and Oceans.

The part that means the most to me is the space songs. They were so much fun to research and try to find some musical ideas in all those planets.

How did you do that?

I joke that watching space documentaries is sort of like church for me—the more I learn about the universe, the more I’m filled with hope and wonder at how intricately beautiful it is.

I’ll give an example of how I came up with one of the planet songs. For Mercury, I learned about what makes up that planet [an iron core and silicate shell], and decided the music would be all metallic instruments. The drums are made of car parts, and it’s mostly French horn brass. For Mars, named after the god of war, I wove in the name of Mars within the lyrics. And I included Pluto, because in my book, it’s a special place. It’s the last song in the series, and I pushed the lyrics toward the feeling of being displaced.

Things like that are the fun rules and limitations in the creative process. Creatively, having rules is the most freeing thing. The blank canvas is truly the scariest thing in the world.

Oceans is the last of Atlas: Year One, and of course oceans and water lead to Life, the EP that begins Atlas: Year Two, which is what I’m working on now. Each theme brings the listener closer and closer to the origin of people. Year Two is about human development and the parts that we do not get to choose—our senses, the things we’re born with. And Year Three will be about the things we do choose—what we create, the voluntary human development part of our lives.

I really just want to write as many songs as possible that have that wonder and hope throughout each of these themes.

Your songs attach human emotions and questions to each planet. Pluto had a sense of distance. For Venus, you wrote about “astronomy in reverse, it was me who was discovered.” For Saturn, “how rare and beautiful it is that we exist.” Expand on that a little bit.

The song that begins the series isn’t about a planet, but the Sun, which needed its own song, and I wanted the tone to be as bright as possible, with as many bright instruments as possible. So that meant a mandolin and pianos in the higher range, and the EQ and production was all light and bright-minded. After that, I approached each song a little differently. I started from scratch on each, pretending I knew nothing about them and was learning these things for the first time as I did my research. I watched documentaries and talked to friends who are smarter than me. And I just followed that same process for each planet.

Saturn is the most visually beautiful planet, so I chose what I consider the most visually beautiful instrument—the cello. So cello and piano kind of became the rules for that song. I took a little liberty in some of the themes. They are personal songs, they mean a lot to me, and don’t always specifically correlate to data learned from each of the planets. I wanted them to be human songs that felt very much from the heart, while also pulling in some of the traits and feelings from what I was learning about each of the planets.

You mentioned space documentaries earlier. Which ones have inspired you?

In the Shadow of the Moon (available on Amazon Prime) is one that I really loved. A scene in that film was one of the most impactful moments in writing these songs—a scene where a couple of astronauts said that when they were in orbit, they could hide the earth behind their thumb. [The quotes are from Neil Armstrong and Jim Lovell.] There was some very spiritual experience that came with that—to be able to hide everything you know and love. It gives you a pretty incredible perspective. I like the idea of trying to write the songs from that perspective, even though I myself have not been to space. One day, one day. I don’t know if they let people go with zero training, but I’ll be first in line.

I also watched a lot of Cosmos, the new one with Neil deGrasse Tyson and the original with Carl Sagan. And a lot of different things on Vimeo and YouTube.

A lot of your lyrics interweave Big Questions of humanity and our existence. How does your own belief system intersect in your work?

One of the things that draws me to faith is mystery, and what better place to find mystery than in the galaxy and in the universe?

Science and faith have never felt like opposing forces to me. They’ve always felt like they should go hand in hand. They should be these beautiful questions being asked and unraveled. In my music, the themes of faith and my personal beliefs come through in an organic way.

When I started writing songs at a really young age, I always had the rule that I never force faith into my music, and I would never force it out of my music. That became my guiding light for how faith and how those questions should be incorporated into my songs. My fascination with space and even more earthly topics, like you see on Planet Earth and The Blue Planet—those feel like church to me. They’re a beautiful representation of that mystery. I call it God, and I think there are other names for it, but I always feel this sense of hope. And the more I learn about these themes and topics, it always reinforces my faith.

In diving into worlds beyond us, what have you learned about yourself, as a human being?

Nothing other than what’s obvious and has been stated many times, but the more your mind understands the universe and how much space there is, the more precious life becomes. It just gives me a little bit of perspective on the mundane in my life, and how many things needed to align in order for this mundane thing to happen. For this day to appear. That kind of stuff has just overall affected how I choose to live.

I’m continuing with my theme of Atlas and that story arc, but I started the Astronomy series so I could keep returning to space songs, which are inspired by astronomical events. I get to blend my love for film scores and for space, because I’m basically trying to write pieces of music that are written as a score or a soundtrack of sorts to the observable events in astronomy. That’s how I get back into that place of wonder—to write inspired by the magic of the universe.

Why do you think people are so captured by the cosmos? What does it say about us?

First, it’s incredibly beautiful. But I also think that one of the great sorrows of being human is just how easily things become “normal” to us. Every magical thing that happens—childbirth, becoming parents, getting to witness events in space, or just waking up and knowing that there is going to be a morning—we just get so used to these certainties that aren’t really certainties. We take them for granted.

When we look up at the stars, I think it reminds us that life is a gift, and it is precious to get to wake up and experience all these things.

Hopefully it removes you out of that that sense of normalcy: “That’s not normal, there’s a billion stars above us, it’s insane!” That’s the opposite of normal. The sheer size of the universe is so beyond our understanding, so big that our brains can’t even fathom it. We don’t have anything to compare that to. Looking up at the stars is a glimpse into all of that.

Learn more about Ryan O’Neal and Sleeping at Last at his website and on the Sleeping at Last Podcast


Editor’s Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Digital Media Director, ORBITER magazine