As mindfulness app Calm releases a new ‘sleep story’ narrated by Harry Styles, Stylist sits down with the head of sleep stories at Calm, Chris Advansun, to find out more about how bedtime listening can aid our sleep.
If you’ve been struggling with your sleep during lockdown, you’re not alone. Whether it’s because of worries about money, general health anxiety or simply because of all the vivid dreams we’ve been having, research from King’s College London published last month suggests that more than half of the UK population have suffered sleep problems during the pandemic.
Because of this, the demand for effective sleep aids, hacks and techniques is higher than ever. From weighted blankets to mindfulness meditation and CBD oils, the number of approaches, products and programmes designed to help us fall asleep quicker – and stay asleep – is always growing.
One particular approach which seems to work for a lot of people is listening to something soothing before bed – whether that’s a podcast, piece of relaxing music, or audiobook. Closing your eyes and casting your mind elsewhere is a great way to relieve anxiety and relax your body before bed, making it much easier to fall asleep.
And now, in a new collaboration with the mindfulness app Calm, Harry Styles has produced his very own ‘sleep story’ – Calm’s ‘adult bedtime stories’ designed to help listeners fall into a peaceful slumber. Called ‘Dream With Me’, the 30-minute track is populated by Styles’ calming voice against a background of calming, rhythmic music.
As I listened to the story (for purely journalistic purposes, of course) I couldn’t help but wonder what goes in to putting one of these sleep stories together – especially when the goal of the whole thing is to make sure the listener is asleep before the end. I was also pretty curious to find out more about how they worked – after 10 minutes of listening to Harry, I was definitely feeling pretty sleepy.
What makes a sleep story different to a normal story?
“A lot of us had that experience of being told a bedtime story as a kid, and it being this comforting soothing experience, but we somehow left that behind in childhood. And the seed of inspiration for sleep stories really was: can we recreate that for everyone, no matter your age? Can we recreate that peaceful experience? And where that brought us was the question, ‘what is it about a story at night, a bedtime story specifically, that produces that effect?’
“You could say ‘well, wait a minute, storytelling is storytelling, couldn’t I just read a novel or open Netflix?’. But the thing is, those forms of storytelling, whether it’s an action movie, spy novel or a rom com even, serve to get folks animated – they contain drama, and the heart of drama is conflict and high stakes and obstacles and tension.
“What we’ve done with sleep stories is flipped all of that. We’ve taken some of the elements of traditional storytelling but eliminated a lot of the other ones, and really just focused on a beautiful guided journey through a beautiful physical location. So there is a narrative, there’s usually a character perspective that we experience the story through, and there’s also basic things such as a beginning, middle and end. But what there isn’t is conflict, or a chase scene, or anything terribly suspenseful.
“So instead of in traditional storytelling where there’s a build-up of drama and tension throughout the story, there’s actually an unwind and the whole thing is designed to be progressively peaceful – the rhythm is progressively soothing as we go through.”
What goes in to a sleep story?
“Sleep stories are bedtime stories that mix really beautiful soporific voices with writing that’s designed to be also relaxing and peaceful. We also use a musical score and sound effects, and all together it creates this alchemy of rest and relaxation.
“At every level we think about creating that experience – it goes into the writing, it goes into how we cast, the work we do when we direct the talent to get the performance as well, right down to the post production and how much time we spend on making the audio experience really beautiful and soothing.”
How do they work to aid sleep?
“As a writer I’ve come to really appreciate when I hear people say ‘I love your sleep stories, I never get to the end’ because that is exactly the design of them. It’s sort of a balance because you want the listener to be engaged in the visual experience – the visual description and visualisation of the setting is very important. I think that’s what helps deactivate the anxious thinking that happens at night for so many people.
“So the story does need to do something to hold the listeners attention, but the way I think about it is that it’s holding that attention very gently, as opposed to an action movie which holds you by the collar – what sleep stories do is hold that attention very gently, so that they can guide you off to sleep in a really gentle way.”
How did Harry Styles’ sleep story come together?
“Well the Harry Styles one is interesting because that came purely from Harry Styles himself. The idea of Harry Styles was very compelling for us and in fact we started to get interest in Harry narrating a sleep story from his fans long before we were even in conversations with him or anything like that.
“So in a case like his it’s really driven by someone who’s got something special. He’s got an incredible voice, he’s adored by his fans he’s charming and he’s charismatic. He has a very distinctive voice that a lot of people know and love, so it’s sort of like let’s build something around that.
“And in his case we took the approach of creating a sort of musical epic poem – he doesn’t sing, it’s spoken with poetry, but there’s a sort of musical sound bed to it and it’s pulling on things and themes that Harry’s fans really adore about him and associate with him. So his story was driven really by him – we really created a concept around him.”