A few weeks ago I was able to catch my friend Ryan O’Neil of Sleeping At Last and ask him about beauty, his craft and the intersection of the artist and the church. Not only is Ryan a superb songwriter and performer, but he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet: sincere, fun and unveneered.
Ryan's Yearbook project earned him very little sleep as well as a song placement ("Turning Page") in the third Twilight film. If you haven't checked out his Yearbook project, do so immediately! In the meantime, enjoy this little interview and share with your friends.
Tim: Ryan, thanks for sharing your time and thoughts. Let's jump right in. How do you define beauty?
Ryan: Beauty is hope. The overwhelming feeling of awe. The cause of goosebumps. Light. A combination of things that resonate deeply somewhere within our souls. Beauty is the remnants of God.
Tim: How does beauty factor into your artistic rubric? That is to say, is beauty part of or the lone indicator that your art is "good"?
Ryan: I've always been inspired by very visual and emotional music, so beauty became the goal and the mile marker, right when I started writing songs. When I was really young and falling in love with music for the first time, I would notice that on many of my favorite albums, there would be one or two songs that would be so beautiful that they would give me goosebumps. I loved that and it stuck with me as a goal as I began to write my own songs—I wanted to write only songs that delivered goosebumps.
So even now, I still use the goosebump test ... if a song I'm writing gives me goosebumps at one time or another, that's how I know I'm on the right track. If it doesn't, I toss it away.
Tim: How do you reconcile the tension of commercial viability (making a living at what you do) and your own artistic integrity? Or is there even a tension?
Ryan: I'm really fortunate in that the opportunities to make my music more commercially viable have come without the requirement of compromising my music in any way.
Maybe that's a result of me being very, very stubborn in my music from an early age. Not sure, but I've never felt the persuasion to write anything but the music I want to write.
Tim: What obstacles do you encounter during your creative process?
My self-consiousness gets in the way pretty often, and trips up my inspiration from time to time. I also psych myself out pretty good sometimes. For example, if I'm about to begin writing a song, a voice in the back of my mind will whisper something to the effect, "Do you even know how to write a song anymore?" or "What if this song isn't any good?"
Thanks to being stubborn, I'm mostly able to jump those hurdles over time, but without fail, I always derail a little when it happens.
Tim: Briefly describe your "Yearbook" project. Why did you choose to do that? What can you say about focusing too hard on a work you're involved in? Is it possible to be too critical with a song? What makes a song fail in your opinion?
Ryan: "Yearbook" was the concept which challenged my (at the time) very slow song-writing schedule. Rather than writing a few songs a year and releasing one full-length record every few years, I decided to commit to the Yearbook project, which consisted of writing, recording, and releasing three songs every month for one year, thirty-six new songs in total.
I knew that it would be a very difficult year, but I also knew that even if it went terribly wrong I'd come out a better songwriter for the experience of the project. Thankfully, I was able to complete the project and I feel very proud of it. In fact, I learned that there's something really special about diving in headfirst and not having too much time to over-analyze everything.
It meant the songs were most true to their source of inspiration, which perhaps made the songs even more genuine.
So that was a really special surprise. The only criteria I had for each of the songs was that I had to be really proud of it. That small rule really held the whole thing together.
As for the downsides of such a life-consuming project, it required me to lose a bit of balance in the other areas of my life: family, friendships, health (exercise, nutrition, etc.). Being so consumed in any "job" will make those other aspects of life balance more challenging, so the project made it difficult to find that balance.
As for the end of the question, "What makes a song fail?" I'd say not being truly proud of the song, knowing it is not in line with my own best quality in my writing. And there were a few songs that I tossed out because of that feeling. Not being proud of a song, for me, is often directly related to something about the song not being genuine, something forced or an approach I caught myself applying from an outside intention rather than from following my intuition.
So, every once in awhile, I'll have to be honest with myself and trash a song that required a lot of work but just didn't end up being true.
Tim: We are called to be "makers" according to the so-called "creation mandate." What is the relationship between your art and your calling? How do you see yourself fulfilling your calling through your art?
Ryan: I believe that God gives us passion and abilities for very specific purposes. I am beyond thankful that I found music so many years ago and that I've been blessed enough to get to call it a "living" ever since. It's literally my dream job and what I believe I was put on the earth to do.
The struggle that comes with that is to do it well, to love people well both inside and outside of music, and to live a life that is balanced and constantly able to calibrated differently, if necessary.
Tim: How is truth related to beauty, in your opinion?
Ryan: The beauty of beauty is that it comes in all shapes and sizes. But I feel like beauty is a direct result of truth. Whether that's a personal truth, or a divine truth, beauty is absolutely intertwined with truth.
Tim: What can the church do better with its artists? How do you see churches working to foster deeper interest in the arts? Or do you?
Ryan: Due to the fact that artists are, more often than not, extremely sensitive people, love and nurture from people closest to them results in massive and vital encouragement. To push forward in the arts is a vulnerable and sometimes foolish-feeling pursuit of which to dedicate one’s life.
So, having a community of people rooting for you in a profession, which is so lacking in guarantees literally means the world. It makes artists brave, which in turn encourages bravery in their art.
If nothing else, that is "church" at its best: a community, which nurtures and encourages others to live bravely.
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Timothy Willard is the author of five books, including Longing For More: Daily Reflections on Finding God in the Rhythms of Life and the forthcoming The Life-Giving Adventure of Chasing Beauty (Eerdmans, 2019). He has collaborated on over 20 books and has written, consulted and served as spiritual director for organizations such as Chick-fil-A, Catalyst, Q Ideas and Praxis Labs. When he’s not riding the trails in the Appalachian mountains you can find him by the fire with his three daughters and his wife making up stories about Tom the back yard badger. He lives somewhere in the south Charlotte woods.