Guitarist Quinn Sullivan Talks Following His Blues Trail & Musical Maturity (INTERVIEW)

You are never too old, or too young, to try different things. And for an artist, it’s the true goal, to never allow yourself to become stale, stagnant, or boring. Quinn Sullivan began that explorative journey on his 2017 album, Midnight Highway, and he continues to do so on his new 12-song release, Wide Awake, which arrived on Friday, June 4th

Bursting onto the music scene as a blues guitar prodigy when he was about eight years old, Sullivan followed the blues trail into a promising career. But he also had a great love for The Beatles so it was only natural that he wouldn’t necessarily stay on track with a single genre of music. Midnight Highway was his coming-out of sorts, exploring more the pop side of things, entangling them with blues chords. On Wide Awake, Sullivan immerses further into the music spectrum, especially with his funkiness shining through on songs like “She’s So Irresistible.” 

“I want to appeal to as many people as I can appeal to and better myself as a singer and a songwriter and all that good stuff,” Sullivan told me during a 2017 Glide interview. “That’s really what my goals are.” Working on those aspects have paid off. His new songs have a maturity that only comes with age and experiences under your belt. “She’s Gone,” “How Many Tears” and “All Around The World” showcase love and awareness, each taking on a new musical personality. But don’t worry, Sullivan doesn’t ignore his playing. He gets those blues licks in on “Strawberry Rain” and “She’s So Irresistible;” they just don’t make up the majority of the song.

And yet, his admiration for his inspiration has never faltered. Buddy Guy is still his hero. “Every single time you go see him, whether he’s sitting in a dressing room or on the bus or wherever, I always think of it as going into like a history class, cause you really learn something so interesting every single time you’re in his presence. He’s taught me so much about life in general, about the music business and about being a good person, always aware of things around you, always aware of what’s going on.”

With music venues starting to open back up, Sullivan is excited about getting back out there to play live. “It’s definitely something that you always want to do or always want to be doing.” It’s something he has been doing since he was a child, going to festivals with his little guitar and playing along to whoever was on the stage; then playing with the greats standing beside him – Guy, Carlos Santana, BB King – then ultimately holding his own in front of a sold-out crowd. 

I caught up with Sullivan recently to talk about his new album, his musical maturity, making videos, the magic of the Santanas, and the pressure of being the next big thing.

The new album is coming out really soon. Was the recording of it affected at all by the pandemic?

You know, it actually wasn’t. We actually began this album in the beginning of 2019 and we finished it in January of 2020, right before everything sort of hit. So we were good with that. I actually got to do some overdubbing at my house in March and April and May. I was just at home doing that stuff so it didn’t necessarily affect me too much. But I do know a lot of people that it did affect, unfortunately, so we feel very lucky that we were able to get it all done before the storm came.

Would you have done that normally if everything hadn’t started shutting down or did this just give you time to get back in there and play with the songs a little more?

I probably would have done the same but I honestly probably wouldn’t have had as much time to get it all done, because there’s always touring to do and things to be at. But yeah, I think, when everything shut down it was like I was able to sit with these songs for a lot longer than I probably would have imagined to sit with them. So it ended up being kind of nice to just be with them for a while and listen to them over and over again and be like, Oh, maybe we can do something like that, or Let’s do a little guitar part here or vocal harmony or something. It was definitely nice to be able to sit with them for a while.

When you decided you were going to make another record, what song was the one that kicked it off, got it all started?

Well, the first song that I wrote for this album is a song called “She’s Gone,” which I believe is Track 5 on the album. That was actually written with the producer of the album – he co-wrote most of the music on the new album with me – and his name is Oliver Leiber. I flew out to LA, I think in the winter or fall of 2018. I had just gotten off a tour and I was just ready to get down to business and start making some new music. 

So I flew out there and me and Oliver sort of hit it off, it was an immediate connection musically. We didn’t really have the mindset that he was going to be the producer at that moment in time but I think as we kept going back and forth to his house – we wrote most of it at his studio and we actually tracked the whole record at his studio too – the more we kind of went back and forth, I began to realize that this definitely would make a lot of sense for him to just produce the whole thing. And that’s what ended up happening. 

But “She’s Gone” was the first. I actually had the guitar melody for that song like years ago, like in 2017. I had did a little voice memo on my phone and the first time that Oliver and I got together, I played him some voice memos and that one was the one that he loved so we ended up going with that to write to and we did a song out of it.

Midnight Highway came out in 2017 and it’s now 2021. What do you see in this album that wasn’t there on the last one?

I think I see more of myself on this album than the last album. Not that Midnight Highway wasn’t me or anything but I think I just see more of my own voice, more of my own songwriting ability, and the guitar playing, I think, is a bit more mature now and definitely my vocals have matured over the last three or four years. I think, like I said, I just see more of myself on this album and it feels like the right moment to put this music out, this body of work. I feel like it’s everything that I’ve been into the last three or four years, all of my life experiences and all my trials and tribulations of life, so it’s kind of becoming full circle with this album. I feel like this one is definitely like a coming-of-age album for me. I feel like it’s everything I wanted to say and I’m super proud of it.

“All Around The World” seems to capture that new maturity or at least a heightened viewpoint, that only comes with age.

Absolutely, yeah. That one was an interesting song because we wrote that song actually way before everything started to unfold with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter, all of the social things that were going on in the world in 2020. We wrote it in the middle of 2019 and there has always been social issues going on but all of that stuff didn’t really come into effect until after we wrote the song. So it took on a different meaning and we were able to realize, wait, this is a single and I feel like we should definitely put this out as a single. 

So I talked to my record company and they were totally in agreement with it. It just made sense for the opening of 2021 to just put this out as the lead single for the album. We put out a video and it’s almost taken on a life of it’s own. That’s kind of the beauty of music to me, is you write a song and you hope that it translates over well to people and people kind of put their own meaning and their own twist to it. That’s what I like about that.

Was there something you did NOT want to infiltrate into this record?

Not consciously, no. I definitely wanted this one to be more about the songs than my guitar playing, because everybody that sort of knows me, knows me as a guitar player. That’s great and I’ve been brought up as that for the last ten or eleven years but I think on this one I just wanted people to see my maturity as a writer and as a singer, to just kind of focus more on those parts of me as an artist. There are a lot of different parts of me. I’m a guitar player but I’m also a songwriter and a singer. I think people may not have affiliated me with those words before so I think that was definitely something that I WAS thinking about as I was recording this album. But you know, whenever I step into a new musical territory I just go for it and go head first and see what happens. I try not to think too much about it while I’m making it cause I like to have most of it be as natural and organic the best I can. Then once you’re finished with it, then you start to do all the overthinking (laughs).

There is more funkiness on Wide Awake. Was that intentional or a natural evolution?

I think it’s more of a natural evolution. I’d like to say that Oliver, the producer, he is a huge Prince fan and he loves Lenny Kravitz and Sly & The Family Stone, all of this old-school really cool soul and funk stuff. So he was turning me on to a lot of stuff when we were making the album – writing the album anyways – and I would kind of go back home and listen to all this music. So I think it just naturally reflected in the writing of it. Like a song like “She’s So Irresistible” is directly inspired by Prince and Lenny Kravitz and those types of artists. I really wanted to capture that coolness of that style and try to incorporate it into the album as much as we could. Like you said, there is definitely a couple of more funkier tracks on the album. It’s natural for sure.

Are you saying you had a one-track mind as a kid music-wise?

Yeah, I mean, I was always influenced by everything growing up. I was a huge Beatles fan. That’s like my favorite band of all time but I was influenced by everything. My parents would play me like the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers Band but then they’d play me like Dire Straits and Santana and all of this cool music. My mom was a huge Joni Mitchell fan and Carole King fan and James Taylor so she was playing me all that singer-songwriter stuff from like the early seventies. So I was getting all of that mixed in with discovering the blues and discovering soul and people like BB King and Buddy Guy and other guitar players. It was all coming at me at one time so I was just absorbing it as a kid. I think when I got to make this album I think I kind of just soaked all of that up and tried to put it back in to my music someway.

I will say for this album, there were some career changes that I made and some management changes, a lot of different things and learning experiences and learning curves; a lot of things happened in these last four years. So I am definitely considering this kind of a new chapter in my musical career and it feels natural, it feels like what I’m supposed to be doing now; nothing feels forced. It just feels right. And my parents have always been fully behind me and supported me and all of the music they’ve thrown at me over the years to listen to, I guess just naturally seeps into what I’m doing now.

Incorporating that funk and soul into your music now, is there a drummer that you would love to play with?

Ooh, I like that question. There are so many different drummers but I have to mention there are some great drummers playing on this album. Abe Laboriel Jr is playing on some songs and he is Paul McCartney’s drummer, so that was like a full-circle crazy moment for me to have him. He’s on about five songs on the album and he absolutely crushed it. He’s filled with so many great stories and we got to spend the day together and it was great. There’s another guy, Aaron Sterling, who is another great drummer who plays a lot with John Mayer and he’s done some stuff with Taylor Swift. He’s another guy that’s an insane drummer. So it was really fun to have those guys in the studio.

I think live, if I had to pick like a dream drummer to do at least one show with one day, it would probably be Steve Jordan. I really love the way Steve plays and I just think he’s one of the greatest drummers ever. So it would be amazing to do some sort of gig with him. That would be awesome.

What about Cindy Blackman Santana, Carlos’ wife?

Oh that would be awesome too. She is like the sweetest person ever. I actually got to play with Carlos Santana a couple of years ago. He invited me to Las Vegas where he does his residency at the House Of Blues and it was literally a dream come true for me. He invited us to his house after and it was just a beautiful few days hanging out with him and Cindy. They’re just the sweetest, nicest, most spiritual people you’ll ever meet. They’re so real and so honest and Carlos, as a guitarist, he is obviously up there with my favorite guitarists of all-time. It was really a dream come true for me to be able to do something like that.

But Cindy, she is so cool. I have to tell you this cool story. The first time I ever got to play with Carlos was at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut and we were side stage and I’m all excited – I’m going to play with Carlos Santana! – and Cindy does like a drum solo in the middle of the show. So he actually took me by my arm and brought me over and we sat behind her drum set and watched her play this insane fifteen/twenty minute drum solo and that just blew my mind. It was a very out of body experience. She’s just the greatest.

Of the twelve songs on Wide Awake, which one changed the most when you got in there fiddling with it?

There are a lot of songs that sort of started as rough demos and they kind of made their way to becoming full songs. I think “Baby Please.” That’s a cool song, more of a Bill Withers-y kind of groove that we were kind of messing around with. That started as kind of an electronic beat, like a “Sexual Healing”/Marvin Gaye kind of thing that we were working on. I remember we changed a verse around and messed around with some of the approaches to singing it and somewhere down the line Oliver and I sort of had a conversation about the musical direction of the song and what we wanted the song to be. So as we were listening back to a couple of the other songs that we were recording, we were like, let’s bring in a real drummer and just make it happen instead of doing the whole drum machine thing, which I actually love and if it’s done right it can be really cool. But I think just conceptually, to make it cohesive and not have a song that doesn’t sound like anything else on the album, we ended up using Aaron Sterling, which actually made it sound way more killer, much more in the pocket of what we had in our heads anyway. So that would probably be the song that if you listen to the demo of it, it’s way different than it did on the final product.

Which guitar solo took you the longest to feel out?

Oh man, we messed around with a lot of great guitar sounds. I had an array of gear. Oliver is a guitar collector and he’s got every imaginable guitar so I got to mess with a lot of different tones. “How Many Tears,” that one took a little while to feel out when it comes to the solo section. We didn’t spend hours and hours on it but it definitely took a while to establish what I wanted to say musically on it. I think actually on that specific song that was one of the first solos that I did. At first we were like, we can get a better one, and we kept doing it over and over again but we ended up going back to the original solo. You know, a lot of times, as I get into this more, I realize that a lot of times you’ll go back to like a first or second take because sometimes that’s just the money take, it feels the most natural and organic.

You made a video for that song. What is fun about doing videos and what is not so fun?

I love making music videos and I’ve actually been able to get more involved with the concept of the videos. We worked with a great director named Trevor Banks out of Brooklyn, New York, on this and we shot that video at the Bronx Library, which was really interesting. We actually got to bring in this really talented dancer. She’s such a visual person and her name is Matilda Sakamoto. She’s also from New York and she did some cool dancing on it. So I really dug it. 

But usually, there is a lot of waiting around for stuff. There is set up and a lot of things that can be tedious so I guess those would be the things I’d say aren’t as flattering as the actual shooting of it and that takes more time than the actual shooting of the video. But you sort of get used to that sort of thing. But it’s mostly positive for sure.

How did “Strawberry Rain” come together? What came first, what came last?

“Strawberry Rain” is a fun song. I’m really excited to play it live and get into it with the band. We actually demoed like a quick little sample of that song six or seven months before we even finished the song. What came first, we were messing around with like a drum loop and playing these two chords together and just jamming on it. Then we kind of put it away and it’s funny because we realized, oh, we probably should write a few more songs, cause we only had like ten songs and we wanted to have more songs written just in case we wanted more. And we went back to that and we opened that session up – we had kind of forgotten about it – and were like, ooh, that’s cool, let’s finish this. So we ended up finishing the song in like two hours. I ended up also playing some bass on it. I put some guitars on it and then we overdubbed the solos you hear in the solo section and had a kick ass band play on it. That’s another track Abe Laboriel Jr is on. I remember walking into the studio that morning and he was already there tracking that song. That was a fun day. 

Did you play anything else on the album?

On the whole album itself, you could probably say I do some handclaps on some of the songs (laughs). But I played bass on that song and then mostly all guitar. We had a couple of guys, Michael Landau and John Shanks, playing guitars on some rhythm stuff on some of the tracks. But 90% of the guitars are mine on the album.

As a songwriter, what has been the hardest to achieve: the actual words or getting the emotions to come out?

I think for me, I guess my stronger side has always been music versus lyrics. Lyrics, a lot of times they come after I’ve finished the music, because I have a hard time writing something. I think I have to do it the opposite way, where I have a riff or I have a melody idea or a chord progression, whatever it is, and then I find it easier to then feel it out and go, how does this make me feel? Does this make me feel sad or positive or negative? I guess I let the music do its thing and listen to it a few times and then from there I can then think about a story or something that I’m going through at the time or whatever it is and then write to it. 

Like with “She’s Gone,” I think I had just gotten out of a long relationship at that time so I was filled up with emotions and I had a long conversation with Oliver, cause a lot of times when you do writing sessions with people you do a lot of talking (laughs). You talk for a long time, about life, and then if a song comes out you’re lucky and you feel really accomplished if that happens. And that just happened to be one of those days where we were throwing around some ideas and we kind of made a song out of it. So it’s very random, writing. There will be times where I have nothing, you know; then there will be other days where I will just be like, oh my God! Like yesterday, I was writing a song and it was just coming to me. I had the progression and it was just flowing naturally. Then other days it doesn’t happen.

Considering you were once called the new messiah of blues, did you feel the pressure?

Yeah, I think I did. I did feel this sort of unrealistic responsibility to do that because I don’t think anybody can necessarily be a savior of something. I think it takes a really huge group of people. You know, I love blues music and I love everything about the blues. I think it’s probably the most emotional music there is and it really comes from a very deep place, obviously. But I feel as an artist I’m influenced by so much and to stick to one genre and to only be doing that one thing, I don’t think I would be fulfilling myself in any way by doing that. Sometimes, unfortunately, if an audience or a bunch of people want you to do something just because they want you to do it, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right choice for you if you’re not feeling it in your heart to do that. 

So to answer that, I think there is definitely pressure and I think it relieved a lot of stress making this album because I was discovering really who I was as an artist. It really changed my outlook on a lot of things and I think I developed a lot by making this and by learning from Oliver and learning from the musicians that were in the room making it with me. I think it’s just one of those things where you have to just be true to you and make the music you want to make and stay being honest to you. I think there will always be a speck of blues in whatever I do because it’s so hard to get out of that, especially the guitar playing because I’m influenced by a lot of bluesier guitar players and it will definitely come through in the music someway. But I never really considered myself to be a blues artist. I consider myself to be a musician and whatever I’m making at the moment is what I’m making.

In terms of goals, after you made your first album, how did they change once you knew more of the realities of the business better?

There’s a lot of things about the music industry that are very shallow and terrible so I’ve just tried to soak that in by talking to different people, going through different things with other people that may have not worked and just learning from those things. I think that’s with anything, any job that you do, it takes 50% work but also 50% of the experience of it and actually doing it. I’ve learned a lot and I think I still have the same objectives and goals of just wanting to have longevity but I think that has always been something I’ve been cautious about, even when I was like fourteen. I’ve always just wanted to do this for a long time and be able to make music and make albums and tour and do that for a long time. But there are different things you have to do to get to that and I guess that just comes with time and lots of learning and listening and doing everything that you can to achieve those goals.

What is the coolest thing you’ve ever seen Buddy Guy do onstage?

There are so many cool things about Buddy Guy. He’s still going, it’s so remarkable, it’s so cool. I don’t know if he still does this but he used to go out in the crowd every single night and I always thought that was so amazing cause I’ve never really seen anybody do that, or if I’ve seen it, it’s never really been cool. I think that is probably one of the things I love so much about him: he’s so in tune with the crowd and he knows everything, he’s so naturally gifted, not just as a guitar player but as a performer. I think his performance skill and his stage presence is like no other. He’s so good at capturing an audience. I’ve seen him play for 250 people and I’ve seen him play for 20,000 people, and it really doesn’t matter cause he puts on the same show for any amount of people and I think that’s an amazing thing about him and something that I’ve learned. A lot of people have asked me, what advice has Buddy given you over the years, and I always say, and he never said this to me but it’s something I just took from him from watching him play over the years, and that is just his ability to give it 100% every show that he does. Even if he is tired or he’s sick or whatever, and I’ve been with him where he’s lost family members, and he still puts on the same show. You have to do that, it’s part of the job, but that’s the takeaway I’ve taken from him.

Are you going to have some tour dates for later this year?

Yes, we are. We’re actually working on some stuff right now. We have a couple of shows that have been announced so far. We’ve got a show in August in Connecticut and we’re doing the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival in September. So there are a couple things on the calendar. Things are still slowly opening so we’re seeing where things make sense to go play. But I am so excited to get back out there. It’s been a whole year since I’ve done a live show so I am eager to get back out and do it!


Portrait by Justin Borucki; live photo by Leslie Michele Derrough

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