Former child prodigy travels beyond the blues in third album

Quinn Sullivan performing at Buddy Guy's Legends
Quinn Sullivan performing at Buddy Guy's Legends on January 21. (Video still from video courtesy of Buddy Guy's Legends)

By Mike Davis

The teenage years tend to be a time of identity crisis. Whether striving to be a member of the crowd, or a separation of it, finding oneself is the root of the journey.

Perhaps that’s what makes Quinn Sullivan, 17 years old, so refreshing. He seems to have found it a long, long time ago — yet he’s so, so young.

Sullivan mastered the guitar early in childhood. He started playing at the age of five and quickly started gaining national attention once he performed on the Ellen DeGeneres Show at six-years-old. But it wasn’t until a backstage encounter with the legend Buddy Guy that he found a not only a mentor, but a calling.

Sitting in the green room, ready to join his now 80-year-old mentor on stage at his own club, Buddy Guy’s Legends in Chicago, Sullivan seems anxious, yet at ease.

And now, at the age of 17, Sullivan is surprising us again with the recent release of his third studio album, Midnight Highway. This time Sullivan delivers more than just the blues. In an deliberate effort to expand his sound, Sullivan dabbles and delivers pop, rock, and some americana — reshaping the musician we, and perhaps even he thought he was.

Sullivan chatted in a question and answer interview to expand on these new directions:

DAVIS: You got a toy guitar at three. You were really playing by five. By six you’re on “Ellen,” and you’re playing the blues at such a young age, how has your perspective or just definition of the blues evolved, now being 17?

SULLIVAN: It’s definitely changed. I think when I first started playing and getting into that kind of music, I thought of it a lot differently. I’ve lived a lot since I was obviously seven or eight getting into that, so there’s just been a lot more life experience and honestly I’ve just learned so much more about playing live because I’ve done a lot of shows now and played a lot and kind of lived that life a little bit you know growing up, so its helped me a lot. And obviously hanging out with Buddy Guy a lot and touring with him, and him showing me a lot of stuff really has helped me out too.

DAVIS: I guess the traditional question, that’s probably so annoying that everyone always asks is – “What does a young kid know about the blues?” When you start thinking about Robert Johnson, you think about Muddy Waters, all these great guys, what was your answer for that all the time, or at least in your head?

SULLIVAN: Well, I mean, when I first got into that music, it was actually seeing Buddy on Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival. I wasn’t really hip to any of the other stuff, like before Buddy, like Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf and the Chicago guys, and the Mississippi guys, Texas, all that stuff before Buddy, so it was really just watching Buddy for the first time, and that really is what kind of grabbed my attention, in that sort of way. And just seeing him, you know, he’s such a character when he’s onstage, in such a great positive way. The mannerisms that he has and the way he projects in the crowd, not even just his guitar playing, but just the way he carries himself on stage, to me, just stuck out. Like he was on stage with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Vaughn and Hubert Sumlin on the 2004 Crossroads Festival and I think they played “Sweet Home Chicago,” and that was the first time I heard blues music. You know, like, when I grew up I was listening to the Beatles, I was listening to the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers, so that was really what I grew up on. It wasn’t really “blues” necessarily, but when I first saw Buddy for the first time, it really made me go, ok, this is cool too, let me check this stuff out.

DAVIS: So now at five, I mean it’s so frustrating, my dad’s been trying to play a chord for years, okay, he can barely do it, he’s fifty-something, so you in a lot of interviews just said, “I just know how to do it.” Is it god given talent, how do you describe that?

SULLIVAN: I don’t know, I mean, I guess it could be that. But you know, I never let anything get to my head. I mean, I started playing when I was three and by five I started taking lessons professionally, and learning songs and chords and different notes and stuff. I had a lot of great teachers along the way, I had two very important guys that taught me the basics and what I needed to know. And I think by listening to a lot of records over the years and kind of just absorbing as much as I can absorb, in different kinds of music, really kind of helped me you know play guitar and learn different things about the guitar.

DAVIS: So you can’t explain why you were that good at that age?

SULLIVAN: I don’t know. I appreciate you saying that man. Because yeah, I don’t know, it was just there, it was always there. Music was there man. It was like listening to the Beatles and the Grateful Dead with huge headphones on, on the stereo, my parents were just constantly playing it, and I don’t know if it was because I wasn’t into anything else growing up, I don’t know what it was, because most kids you know they start playing football, baseball, I was playing music, that was my thing.

DAVIS: How do people treat you in high school? Does every girl want to date you?

SULLIVAN: No, I have a girlfriend, but yeah it really hasn’t been crazy like that. They obviously think what I do is really cool, but they think that me going on Ellen, is — makes me the most famous guy in the world versus me playing here with Buddy, you know, they think it’s cool, but they don’t understand it. You know, I feel like a lot of people and there’s a great story, because I took my two friends one time to one of my shows, and they got to see, I was telling someone this the other day, and they’ve never seen a show before, never seen a live show, and the first show was obviously me and Buddy. And they saw Buddy and they were like this is one of the greatest freakin’ things I’ve ever seen in my life. So if you don’t get that growing up, and you don’t get that exposure to that kind of music, you’re not going to be into it. Most kids now, they listen to hip-hop and rap and I listen to that too, but I was lucky enough to have parents growing up that showed me blues and rock and that whole thing.

DAVIS: So if you were like doing One Direction music, it would be, the intensity would be different?

SULLIVAN: Exactly, yeah.

DAVIS: Do you feel that your fans are mostly out of your age range, out of your demographic?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. I think it’s coming a little more now, I’ve been seeing a lot of younger people at shows lately, it’s primarily middle aged people — at the moment, but I hope with this new record coming out to introduce some new young people into it.

DAVIS: Yeah, because I was listening to a lot of the new stuff, it seems like you’re making a very John Mayer-y type of transition…

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Well, that’s what I’m trying to do. Yeah, he’s a huge inspiration of mine. I value that a lot and I take a lot from what he’s done over the years. But yeah, so that’s definitely an influence for sure.

DAVIS: And this third studio album, Midnight Highway, it’s very cool, I guess this is the first album that really has a lot of different – it has some pop, some rock, some Americana like you were saying earlier. Do you really think that you’re almost making a transition from a blues kind of genre and you’re really becoming more of a wholesome type of musician?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. That’s definitely what I’m trying to do. I mean, blues will always be there and it will always be the base kind of what I do, the baseline of what I do. But, I think as an artist and as a musician, I feel like because I’ve been influenced by so many different types of music I just think that, I don’t know, I always found myself going like, asking myself like why stop there, you know, just keep going and doing whatever you think feels right you know, I feel like music is music and if it feels right and sounds right I think you’re on a good track, so that’s what I’m trying to do.

DAVIS: Who else are you listening to, I know you said Bruno Mars, who’s like your favorite rapper?

SULLIVAN: J. Cole is one of my favorite rappers, yeah, he’s pretty cool. As far as artists go and entertainers I love, I’m really into Ed Sheeran, love his stuff. A lot of singer-songwriter people like, I like this band called Dawes that’s really cool. Alabama Shakes, Tedeschi Trucks Band. I’ve been getting into this kid lately, his name is Marcus King, he’s got a band out now called Marcus King Band, he’s on Warren Haynes label I think, so yeah that whole things really cool. And yeah, The Weeknd, Bruno, all those people and Alicia Keys. I mean it really goes on and on, that’s what’s so cool about it.

DAVIS: Cool, last question. I know you wrote three or four songs with your producer on this next album, tell me, I know the guitar came so easy to you, songwriting is a tough thing, you know, I think I just read something – I love John Mayer’s’ new four songs he put out.

SULLIVAN: Oh, it’s great right? It’s awesome. Oh my god.

DAVIS: Been listening to it on repeat all over.

SULLIVAN: Oh yeah, “Love on the Weekend,” that’s it man.

DAVIS: But the thing is, [John Mayer is] really saying, when he leaves this earth, he wants to be known as a writer, so like just tell me about the songwriting process, and the steps you’re taking to become a great songwriter…

SULLIVAN: Well, the way I’ve done it over the years, and I started this when I was like 11 or 12, and I’ve been getting into it a lot more now, but its, sometimes it just starts with a simple for me, anyways, it starts with just clicking record on my phone and playing whatever I feel sounds cool at the moment that I’m working on, whether it’s a melody, or if I sing something into my phone, or if it’s a lyric idea and then, I put it down unless it’s really, really, unless you have something you really have to write down or record on the guitar, most of the time it’s just I click record and then I put it away a little bit, then I go back to it and see if that still sounds good to me, to my ear, and then I go from there, you know. And the way you know, when you co-write with someone and I’ve gotten the opportunity to co-write with Tom Hambridge, my producer of this record, and yeah, you know, it kind of works the same way. We talk a lot, I talk about what’s going on in my life at the moment, and he talks about stuff and then you know I normally have a guitar idea and something like that, and then it goes from there. And then we just start writing and collaborating and he normally already has some ideas as well, that’s the cool thing about working with people like Tom is, they always have something up their sleeves, you know they’re always going, “Oh, let’s try this, because I started writing this the other day,” or I said I have this guitar part that would sound cool, so yeah that’s how it’s been working for me lately, but I hope that I’ll get more into that as I get older, and you know life experiences has a lot to do with it, and just traveling the world I think has a lot to do with it too and I have so many ideas for the next album already.”

Photo at top: Quinn Sullivan performing at Buddy Guy’s Legends on January 21. (Video still from video courtesy of Buddy Guy’s Legends)