With two brand new sonic chestnuts added to the ever-growing Sleeping At Last Christmas catalog this year, we chatted with lead singer-songwriter, producer, and composer Ryan O’Neal for our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One. During our interview with the multi-talented O’Neal, we discuss the history of Sleeping At Last’s yearly Christmas release, the two tracks that were added to the canon this year, the vinyl release of Christmas Collection, Vol. 1, and much more!
NoiseTrade: You’ve been releasing a yearly Christmas song (or two) for quite some time now. What first sparked this desire to record them as singles (as opposed to just recording a full Christmas album all at once) and what’s your favorite part of the whole process?
Ryan O’Neal: It started in 2004 with an invitation to play a Christmas party at a club in Chicago called The Metro. The idea was to have a bunch of artists come in and play a Christmas song or two, so we chose to play “Silver Bells” and decided to record it and give it away to listeners as a “thanks” for listening and to wish them a Merry Christmas! It was a lot of fun, so I’ve made it a tradition ever since. Recording one or two Christmas songs each year is my version of sending out a Christmas card. Over the years, it’s accumulated into Christmas Collection, Vol. 1. I absolutely love Christmas music, so it’s been so much fun to get to try to reimagine my favorites each year.
NT: This year’s additions are a tender string-led take on “The First Noel” and a sprightly “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” What inspired this year’s picks and do you have a favorite version of these tracks by other artists?
O’Neal: “The First Noel” has been on my “to-record” list for a long time, so this year felt like the right time in the context of the songs leading up to it. Additionally, I wanted to record “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” because I knew that Volume One of this collection should be completed this year and I felt like the album as a whole needed a touch more joyful spirit! I’ve always loved Andy William’s classic version of the song, so I tried to honor the feeling of that version in my cover. For both songs, I invited my dear friend and incredible cellist, Sharon Gerber to assemble her string quartet to be my “orchestra”. I loved the idea of both of these new covers being driven by strings, in the intimate setting of a live quartet and my voice. They played so beautifully, so it was a total joy to get to record these two new additions to the collection.
NT: I love that Christmas Collection, Vol. 1 stretches all the way back to your version of “Silver Bells” from 2004 and runs all the way up to this year’s new ones. What do you hear when you listen back over that 13-year stretch of writing, recording, and performing? What do you hope listeners here in that progression?
O’Neal: I love the tradition of recording these songs and on one hand, it’s so fun to listen that far back to remember the time in which those were recorded, but on the other hand, it’s kind of like looking at old pictures of yourself and being super embarrassed by your haircut or clothes! Thankfully there aren’t any drastic genre changes that happened in my music over the course of this collection, so there does seem to be some common threads between each year’s recording, but I still cringe a little bit listening back to how I recorded certain things way back when!
NT: Over the years, which track was completed the quickest from decision to finished product and which one took the longest to get to its “finalized” state?
O’Neal: My cover of “Christmas Is All Around” from the film Love Actually was recorded live and in a few minutes as a fun last-minute idea! So that was the quickest. There were several of these that took a long time for me to feel right about. I can’t remember which one though – probably because I’ve blocked it out of my memory!
NT: Amidst all of the covers and traditionals, you’ve also got an original called “Snow” that you wrote in 2010. What inspired you to write your own Christmas song and were there any songwriting obstacles with a Christmas song that you don’t normally confront in your non-seasonal original material?
O’Neal: My first and, so far, only original Christmas song! “Snow” was recorded as part of my “Yearbook” project, which consisted of writing three songs every month for a whole year. The 3-song EPs were released on the first of each month, titled by that month. “Snow” was written for the December EP, so it felt like the right time to try my hand at an original Christmas song. There is truly no shortage of Christmas music, so it was challenging to figure out what I wanted to write and sing about. Though the holidays, at their best, can be a joyful and wonderful time of year that brings people closer together and brings out the very best in each other, it can also be an incredibly difficult time for some. It’s a pressure cooker for challenging relationships. The holiday season tends to magnify the good in our lives and our families, but it can also magnify the brokenness in each of us and our relationships or remind us of those we’ve lost. So I wanted to write a Christmas song for those folks, whose holidays are bittersweet. Hopefully, it’s a song that acknowledges those difficult feelings and that ache, but also is a source of encouragement and hope that we can make new traditions and grow and heal.
NT: Finally, you pressed Christmas Collection, Vol. 1 on a two-disc snow white vinyl set with some gorgeous packaging artwork by Tim Damitz. Do you have any favorite Christmas vinyl LPs from other artists that you listen to every year (or remember listening to as a child)?
O’Neal: Yes! I’m so excited for this collection to live on vinyl for the first time, my very favorite music format (outside of Noisetrade, of course!) Musically, my very favorite Christmas album of all time is Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” but my favorite actual vinyl record, for color alone, is my christmas tree green vinyl of A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi Trio!
You can order Christmas Collection, Vol. 1 on snow white vinyl or cd here: http://www.sleepingatlast.bigcartel.com