Name: Adam Bernard Home: Fairfield, Connecticut, United States About Me: Entertainment journalist with 20 years of experience. Supporter of indie music. Lover of day baseball, and B-movies. Part time ninja. Kicked cancer’s ass. My memoir, ChemBro, is out now!
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How do you play the guitar if you only have one hand? If you’re Brooklyn musician Ryan-O’Neil the answer is, in such a way as to fall directly into the storied lineage of New York City’s folk singer-songwriters.
Although originally known throughout the area as a hip-hop artist, O’Neil notes rapping was just “the newest thing I did,” as his background includes studying at a performing arts high school, and becoming accomplished at everything from doo-wop to classical. His passion for hip-hop stalled a few years ago, as he explains, “The shows were always the same people, and their friends, and no one new, no one really doing anything interesting, myself included, so I just started to hit a wall creatively with the scene, and with myself.”
It was at this point that O’Neil picked up his guitar again, and started writing.
O’Neil’s first musical endeavors with the guitar were in college. “I was like 20,” he remembers, “I bought this really cheap guitar from this store, Area Records, in Geneva (New York).” Having been born without a right hand, O’Neil went about teaching himself how to play the instrument. “I just figured that my right hand was like a club, basically, and with the right amount of finesse I could play some chords.”
For his unique situation, instruction, O’Neil found, was tough to come by. “I took a class at school, one on one, with this professor,” he remembers, “and he was helpful with the chords and stuff, and what to do with my left hand, but he didn’t really know what to do with my right hand, so that was the end of that lesson.”
Although he worked his way to playing Beatles songs in his house, O’Neil had much larger goals for his music. A program called Guitars for Teachers helped him move towards those goals. “The whole point of it was for us to use the guitar in the classroom, (for) early childhood stuff,” he says of the program. “They gave me this really nice classical guitar, and that led to me to playing all the time. I learned how to pick, sort of, with my right hand, and just practiced, and got better. I was born with my hand like this, so to me it’s the normal way to do it.”
O’Neil, who is also a music teacher, embodied the program’s name, as he took his guitar into his classroom. “I think that kinda got me better at playing,” he says, noting, “I was playing all the time in front of kids, five and six year olds, at good old Trevor Day School (in New York City), and playing songs for clean up, or songs for transitioning, it’s time to go to lunch, and things like that.”
For his eponymous EP, which he released earlier this month, the subject matter is a little more grown up, as O’Neil dives into both his own life, and the art of storytelling. “A bit of it’s personal, but I like to let the imagination flow, (and) come up with these stories,” he explains. This is why there are songs like “She Don’t Get Me,” and “Cigarettes,” which he says are about a specific person, and “Brooklyn Bound,” which he describes as “my idea of a hipster pop tune, a pop folk tune,” as well as fare such as “Daydreamer,” which he says is his attempt at writing a Lennon-McCartney song. Purely fictional, O’Neil elaborates on “Daydreamer,” saying, “That’s just my imagination, just me coming up with a story in my head about a guy obsessed with a girl who’s not into him because she’s too obsessed with music.”
The cover art for O’Neil’s EP was done by one of his students, although at the time neither of them knew her work was going to be featured in that way. “I teach guitar privately now,” he explains, “and after our lesson we were hanging out at the table with her mom, and she was like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna draw you.’ Real quick she did this sketch, and I was like, ‘That’s awesome!’ and I kept it. A couple months later I needed an album cover, so I was like, ‘That’s it. That's what I’m gonna use.’”
Along with providing cover art, O’Neil’s students have also provided him with some of his favorite reviews of his work. During one February he prepared musical history lessons that coincided with Black History Month, covering a different Black musician, from Bob Marley, to Billie Holiday, to Louis Armstrong, every Friday. “I just pulled these guys up on the internet,” he says, “and showed (the kids) stuff they did, and songs they wrote.” During one of these introductions to a legendary artist, one of his students raised her hand, and made a connection he didn’t expect. “She said, ‘Mr. Edwards, you’re a Black musician,’ and I said, ‘Yes.’ Then she goes, ‘You’re Black history!’ I laughed, and said, ‘Not yet, but hopefully one day.’”
With his self-titled EP already out, and an EP of Bob Dylan covers, titled Dylan Black, due later this year, Ryan-O’Neil is on his way to making his student’s statement come true.