June 20, 2021

Oh my god, I’m about to go on stage with Buddy Guy…

It’s a big deal when a blues legend like Buddy Guy plays in your home town. It’s an even bigger deal if you have the kind of dad who takes you to meet him backstage at a gig when you’re still of kindergarten age. Massachusetts guitar prodigy Quinn Sullivan’s good fortune is not lost on him, and he recounts the anecdote with something approaching reverence. “I had seen Buddy Guy play on a Crossroads Guitar Festival DVD that my dad got me when I was probably six or seven. He came out on stage, and I was just immediately just blown away at his manner and his stage presence. The whole thing just grabbed me right away, his playing style, how he pretty much blew everybody off the stage, he was just that freaking good. And when we found out that he was coming to play at our local theatre, we had to go; I was eight years old. We found ourselves backstage and we got to hang out with Buddy for a few minutes before the show. This was before I got a full-size Strat; I had my little half-size Squier with me and he signed it for me and asked me to play some stuff on the guitar. So I did, and before I knew it, he was like, ‘You be ready when I call you’. So me and my dad went back to the crowd, and we sat down and watched the show – all the time I’m going, Oh my god, I’m about to go on stage with Buddy Guy. And you know, in an eight-year-old kid’s mind, not much is going on in there but like – holy shit! But once it happened, it was great, very cool. You never know when an event will just change your life completely, but that night really did change my whole life.”

Photo by Justin Borucki

Sullivan played on-stage with Guy many times after that, and in fact supported him on tour in 2009, as well as appearing with several other famous names. “He opened a ton of doors for me as an artist, and really why I’m standing here today is because of Buddy Guy, his support and love and His mentorship. I’m able to do what I do now, because of him. If I ever achieve any sort of recognition, I have to thank him for everything he’s done.”

And so the world turns, and Sullivan is now celebrating the release of his fourth full album, having just turned 22 years of age. The title Wide Awake is a reference to his participation in the socially-aware generation of which he is a part, as he explains: “We actually had a lot of different ideas for titles for this album. But as we kept listening to the songs, and as we kept figuring out what this body of work means, I felt like Wide Awake captured the meaning of the album, which is not only that I’m ‘woke’ in the sense that I’m very, very awake in this society that we live in – but also, musically, I feel like this is new territory for me and almost like a coming of age album.”

It’s clear that Sullivan’s musical growth is deeply rooted in the blues, but he has made a deliberate effort to grow and develop his style into other areas. “I really wanted to focus on songs coming first before the guitar. I made a conscious decision to do that early on, when we first started working on the album.” Sullivan’s main collaborator is producer Oliver Leiber, and this set is a true collaboration between them. But although Sullivan’s instrumental skill has never been in doubt, he is starting to find his own voice. “Yeah, previous albums were basically written by one person, and I had some writing credit on a few of the songs. But this is the first time I have a co-writing credit on every single song, so I’m very proud of that for sure. That was definitely one of those career moments, a huge milestone for me.”

I’m interested to explore this development, because of course, improving as a player is generally a matter of putting in the time. Although there are ways of developing a wider style, the basic equation is that practice = improvement. Developing a creative side though, is more difficult, as it requires learning to think in a new way. Sullivan agrees that while playing comes easily to him, writing is another animal completely. “It’s a completely different part of my brain. If I’m sitting down playing a guitar, I can figure stuff out pretty quickly, and I can navigate it pretty well at this point, but the song-writing is always – I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a struggle – but it’s definitely something that I have to work at way more. Ideas and inspiration kind of come out of nowhere; you could be sitting down one day, and all of a sudden, something just strikes you and you have to sit down and write. I think the best lesson that I’ve learned from other songwriters is that when you have an idea, wherever you are – I actually heard Paul McCartney saying this in an interview recently – he said he puts all of his ideas in his iPhone. When he has an idea, he has to stop what he’s doing and go to a studio and just create it, or at least get a demo down or something. So that’s kind of what I do; that’s the great thing about iPhones now; you can just click record and go nuts on whatever you’ve got.”

When I got to be about 15, I realised that my voice started to change and it started to crack on stage…

Some of us remember a time when blues was a natural fit for a young guitarist learning his craft. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, every second pub act was a blues band of some kind. But those days are behind us, and electronica or alternative rock has been the way of choice for more recent young bucks. Those like Sullivan, who are introduced to the blues at a young age, seem inevitably to break out of their 12-bar shackles at some point; most of the blues-based guitarists making a name for themselves these days diverge into pop, soul, or American R’n’B. Sullivan is doing the same thing, and although his early training gives a bluesy edge to his soloing, it’s difficult to find anything on this new album that could really be defined as a blues song. He is candid in his assessment of this development. “The blues to me is such authentic, insanely great music. And I think all really good music stems from blues music from the 1800s and 1900s; I mean, it goes back so far. But when I look at guys like Buddy Guy and BB King, Buddy’s kind of the last one standing as a real authentic guy that’s still doing it, and it’s really hard as an artist to try to emulate that. Although there are some younger blues people out there that are killing it right now, for me, I just didn’t think I could do that justice and do it right. So, somewhere along the line, you have to really find out who you are as an artist and what you want to say and what you want to put out there musically and what you want to give out to people; music that represents you. I’m influenced not only by the blues, but soul music; I love pop music and rock music and alternative music; I love a lot of different styles. So I consider myself to be a genre-less artist in a way, because I never really was a blues artist. I mean, I was on tour with the blues legends for a long time and I acknowledge that as being a huge highlight of my career, but it was sort of my launching point; I never really considered it to be my stop. I knew inside that I wanted to do more and get more out there, so I think that’s just naturally what happened on this album.”

Photo by Justin Borucki

So for a youthful, enthusiastic performer, brimming with ideas, I’m curious to know why it has been so long, relatively, since his last album; Midnight Highway was released in 2017, when Sullivan was still 17 years old. Turns out there’s a lot going on, as always, plus it takes a long time to get some things rolling. “I didn’t imagine it to be this long. I imagined it being about two years, but it ended up being a lot longer. There were some personnel changes in my team and a lot of different things that I was I was dealing with, so it took a little bit of time to get to it. But when I was finally able to have the creative freedom to get in a studio to write, the songs started to come out really quickly, I really didn’t have a tough time. It just was a very organic and seamless process, and Oliver Leiber, the producer who also co-wrote a lot of the songs with me, really helped me navigate that, letting me do my thing and listening to what I had to offer, and he just enhanced all the ideas I had, and made them really, really cool. The actual album process probably took about a year and a half to two years, from the first writing session to the last recording session before we were done, and luckily, we finished the whole thing before the pandemic. We finished it in January 2020, so it was bittersweet, because we wanted it to come out that year – but on the other hand, the body of work was already done, so at least I didn’t have to worry about getting it finished. I was happy that it was accomplished.”

Sullivan is identified mainly with Stratocasters, but he was spoiled for guitar choice while making this record. “Oliver, I have to say, has a very extensive guitar and pedal collection,” he enthuses. “I got to use like a real UniVibe and a Dallas Arbiter Fuzz Face from the ‘60s and I got to use a real Vox wah-wah pedal from like, ‘68. At least 97 or 98% of the album was done on vintage gear and all vintage amps; I actually got to use a Dumble Overdrive special on a couple of songs. I used a ‘59 Les Paul on some songs, I used a ‘58 flying V, a lot of actual Fender Strats, and on the acoustic stuff I use some mid ‘40s, early ‘50s Martins and Guilds. He had me pick twelve, because he’s like, we can’t really use all of these, you know, but, yeah, I picked about a dozen and we just chose from them!”

For all his six-string bravado, Sullivan’s vocal skill should not be overlooked. It’s something he has been working on, practicing, and getting professional coaching, and it pays off in spades on this set, in which the vocals are at least as impressive as the axe work. “I’ve spent a lot of time figuring my voice out over the years,” he says. “I mean, when I got to be about 15, I realised that my voice started to change and it started to crack on stage a lot, you know, my voice would kind of do weird things. So I immediately started seeing a vocal coach and getting that in check and making sure that I wasn’t damaging my voice. Because your voice is so much more fragile than your hands in some ways, especially as a younger guy. I mean, as you get older, you can develop arthritis and things like that, but as a 22 year old, I’m not stressing too much about my hands. I’m stressing more about this larynx and the voice, you know. And yeah, being able to sing every night and not losing your voice in the middle of a tour, and there are a lot of different ways, and different exercises that you can do to try to avoid bad things happening like that. So I’ve had a lot of help.”

It’s Quinn’s face and his name on the album cover, but so far the only collaborator’s name who has come up is Oliver Leiber. I decide it’s time to ask who else plays on the album, and whether it’s the same band all the way through. The answer is no; in fact it’s a virtual Who’s Who of talent. “Actually, the album has a lot of different styles, a lot of different players on it. I was lucky enough to have guys come in that absolutely nailed the songs, enhanced them so much. Abe Laboriel jr. is playing drums, who is Paul McCartney’s drummer, and Aaron Sterling, another fantastic drummer; John Shanks and Michael Landau play rhythm guitar on some tracks. We have Mike Finnegan playing some Hammond B3; he was on Electric Ladyland, so it was a true honour to have him as part of this album! Paul Peterson (from Prince’s The Family) playing bass, and Dan Rothschild (from Heart) also on bass, just so many great musicians on this album, who truly made everything – just better!”

That’s interesting, inasmuch as the ice-cool video for lead single All Around The World shows Sullivan playing with a youthful trio of musicians, clearly not the guys name-checked above. They put in a pretty convincing display, but it turns out they’re not actually playing on the number at all. “Those guys are really talented; they’re actually my friends from upstate New York, they have their own band. I went up there to do that video, and we actually did a couple of other videos that we’ll be putting out at some point for live stuff. I called the drummer, Lee Falco, and asked if they wanted to be in this video, then we went up to their studio. They’re called The Restless Age. They’re brilliant musicians and great songwriters and singers too.”

All Around The World is a groovy, feel-good anthem with a social conscience. It takes me a while to work out what it reminds me of, and then it hits me – the first time I ever heard of BB King was when he gained a lot of UK airplay with a song called Better Not Look Down, back in 1979. Part sung, part spoken word, it name-checks a number of people, including the Queen, who winds down the window of her limo and asks BB for some life advice. The incidental guitar playing between the vocal lines is very distinctive, and it strikes me that Sullivan is imitating that style in his opening number. Sullivan wasn’t even a glint in anyone’s eye in 1979, but still, it turns out that I was on the money with the playing style. “Man, that’s high praise, I appreciate that!” he says. “I was definitely going for that BB look at the end; I’m glad you caught that. That’s cool. I mean, that song is a very special song to me; it was written in 2019 by Oliver and myself. And we didn’t know anything about what was going to happen in 2020, but then it just started resonating more and more as the year went on, and it started to bring on a new meaning. And my favourite thing about music is when people take the song and put their own meaning on it; I think that’s a sign of a really cool songs. So yeah, I think that song has seemed to resonate a lot with people. That’s why it had to be the first single, because it just resonated the most socially, and it’s definitely one of my favourite ones as well on the album.”

Read Velvet Thunder’s review of Quinn Sullivan’s new album Wide Awake

While we’re on the subject of videos, I’m keen to know who the dancer was in the video for How Many Tears, featured at the foot of this page. Sullivan is full of praise for her contribution. “Her name is Matilda Sakamoto from Brooklyn, New York, and she’s an interpretive dancer. She just took the song to another level, you know, and really brought out the true emotion in that song. I just loved working with her, she was really just a brilliant, brilliant dancer, and it was my first time ever doing a video with somebody else. I think it brought a different colour and a different texture that wouldn’t have been there with just me doing it. That was shot in April or May at this cool place in New York called the Bronx Library.”

London-based blues fans may have been lucky enough to catch the Provogue label showcase tour, Rockin’ The Blues, in March 2018. Quinn Sullivan played on a three-band line-up in between Gary Hoey and the mighty Eric Gales, with Lance Lopez of The Supersonic Blues Machine as a special guest, all EmCeed by Big Boy Bloater. The combo played five nights in Germany and one in the Netherlands before climaxing the tour at The Garage in Islington. Sullivan looks back on those occasions with fondness. “Eric was headlining, and we all got together at the end with Lance and all jammed on a couple of songs at the end of the show, which was my favourite part of the whole thing – being able to play with those massively good guitar players and friends of mine. That was a lot of fun.” Having been there on the night, one thing that struck me was the easy good nature of it all. When all four guitarists were on stage at the end, plus the rest of Gales’ band, the stage was a bit cosy to say the least, but no one cut across anyone else’s solos, there was no evident competitiveness, and everyone gave everyone else room to breathe and do their thing. Sullivan even had the luxury of his own guest guitarist on the night, Andy Cortes from the James Bay Band. “Yeah, I think the guitar players and musicians that I’ve run into over the years, 95% of them have been really gracious and really cool. And really not into ego or arrogance at all, like they’re straightforward, really nice people. Eric Gales is really a true testament to that. And obviously Gary as well, and Lance is such a great guy, and super cool. And so yeah, I was lucky to be around those people. There really wasn’t any bad air around. It’s just pretty, pretty seamless the entire time. So it was fun. It was a really fun time.”

Like all gigging musicians in the current climate, Sullivan is champing at the bit to get back out on tour. “We’re working super hard right now to get some shows booked. And I really want to come back to Europe next year; my goal has always been to really establish myself more in Europe. So I really want to get back there sooner rather than later to play for you guys. The next thing we want to tackle is just touring this album, playing it live, getting it out there. People have been away from live music for so long. You know, I was just watching this thing that they put on in New York City called Love Rocks. And it’s really cool; it’s like a show that supports this foundation that supports homeless people in New York City. I was watching it on a live stream last night, and the Beacon Theatre, it was just packed with people. It just felt really good to see that many people in a room again. So I have high hopes that things are starting to come back, and we’ll hopefully be able to get out there soon.”

I don’t think there will be any argument on that score from anyone on this side of the pond.

Quinn Sullivan’s album Wide Awake is now available via Provogue