I have had the opportunity to watch 17-year old Massachusetts native Quinn Sullivan open for blues legend Buddy Guy on numerous occasions, as well as perform on the Experience Hendrix tour. What I know for certain is that this guitar player has come a long way from being discovered by Buddy Guy in New Bedford, Mass when he was 7. That's right. . . seven.
His newest CD, Midnight Highway was just released and he has been touring Europe and the U.S. in support of it. I sat down with Quinn recently to ask him some questions about his new album, his influences, and the mentor who changed his life.
JL: How old were you when you first started to play the guitar?
QS: I started playing guitar when I was around 3-years old. My parents had so much music in the house when I was growing up, from The Beatles to The Rolling Stones, from The Grateful Dead to The Allman Brothers Band. I think I always wanted to play the guitar--it was so cool to watch someone on stage playing. So one Christmas, when I was three, my parents got me a little First Act acoustic guitar. I grabbed it and went with it. By 5-years old I was taking lessons full-time and getting more serious with it--it's always something that I love to do.
JL: Do you think the ability to learn and understand music is something that comes from within, or is it something that must be taught?
QS: Growing up, I had a lot of people like my parents and family who introduced me to lot of good music. I think for some people it does come from within, and for some people it doesn't. For me, I loved everything about music. I loved the sound of music--it was a feeling that nothing else gave me. Most kids when they grow up, they get introduced to baseball or football, or whatever--I got introduced to music. Honestly by six or seven, I knew it was what I wanted to do.
JL: Did you gravitate toward any other type of music besides the Blues?
QS: Of course. At the beginning, I was a huge Beatles nut. The Beatles are still my all-time favorite band. I remember my parents would put on a Beatles record and I would try to emulate what they were doing, especially John--he was my favorite Beatle. I remember watching a DVD of their Ed Sullivan Show appearance and trying to copy the chords that they played--I was so mesmerized by it. It wasn't until my dad showed me Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival from 2004 that I really dove into Blues music. So I didn't get into Buddy Guy or B.B. King until Crossroads.
JL: At seven years old you got the opportunity to play on stage with blues legend Buddy Guy--some may say, a life-altering experience. How much of that first time on stage with him do you actually remember?
QS: I remember everything. I remember walking in to see him and he was such a cool, gracious guy. After I saw the Crossroads Festival, I found out about a year or two later that he was coming to my hometown of New Bedford, Massachusetts, and I was like, I gotta check this guy out--I gotta see what he's doing. Luckily, my dad knew some people who worked at the theater where he was playing and we found our way backstage, and somehow they made it work out so I could hang out with him for a few minutes before he went on. Buddy is one of the warmest guys in the world. He had no idea who I was, but acted as if he did know who I was. He was very welcoming, and it was a comfortable environment. I had my little Squire Fender Stratocaster with me for him to sign. He asked me to play a few licks for him on the guitar because he wanted to know if I could actually play--because, here's some 7-year-old kid coming in with a suit on and a polka dot tie and saying, I love your stuff. So I played a few licks and then he said, you be ready when I call you--and that was it.
JL: How is having a mentor like Buddy changed your life?
QS: Musically, he has changed my life in so many ways. Being around him, now we're going on ten years, I have to say that there is no fakeness about Buddy. Everything about him is real. He's kind of instilled that in me. For instance, a valuable lesson that I learned from Buddy is when you go out and play, whether it is for five people, or five thousand people, you give them the best that you've got every single time and show them why you are there. You never really know who's in the audience and watching. Also, being on tour with him for many years. He started having me open up shows for him when I was nine or ten around Boston, New Hampshire, New Jersey and New York. And then he brought me to the rest of the world, from Europe to India to Canada. Everything that I'm doing now is all because of him and I thank him so much for all of it.
JL: On listening to your new album Midnight Highway, I found it well-rounded, with hints at your blues background, but a lot of songs with a pop sensibility. Is this something that has been a gradual growth in your music, or are you looking to move into a different direction and connect with different audiences?
QS: It's very important to know that Blues people--at blues festivals, at clubs--diehard blues fans who come out to see you, they expect a certain type of music. And I respect that so much. There aren't a lot of people who just like one type of music and will do anything to go just see that person or band and dig it, and love it, and buy all their records and support them. But then you might have some of those people turn on you if you aren't doing the 12-bar blues thing. And I've been kind of careful about that, especially with this new record. I'm influenced by so many other types of music. I'm labeled as a blues prodigy, but I don't identify myself as that. I identify more as a singer/songwriter that is heavily influenced by blues music, but would like to move in my own direction.
JL: How much of the songwriting did you get to contribute on the album?
QS: I contributed quite a bit. I co-wrote four or five of the songs with my producer Tom Hambridge. I'm getting more into that now. I co-wrote a song called Going, and a song called Lifting Off--those are two of my favorites. And as I get older, I'm sure I'll get even more into it. My goal is to put out an album that is all written by me.
JL: I'm guessing now that you are in your teenage years, your songs are becoming more personal as you have more experiences. Are you finding that's the case? And can you give us an example?
QS: Yeah, obviously as I'm getting a lot older, I'm experiencing stuff that any other teenager will go through, and that can come through in songwriting for sure. There are few songs on the record that are personal for me, like the song Going. I had an idea and lick on the guitar and put it away for a little bit, but then showed it to Tom and he had an idea for a lyric and I had a little bit of an idea of what I wanted the song to be about based on what the lick was representing musically.
JL: So, as big Beatles fan, how excited were you to cover While My Guitar Gently Weeps on your new album?
QS: Very excited, man! I've been playing it on the guitar since I was 5-years old. I wanted to stay true to what The Beatles did on that song. I was very fortunate enough to have Tom, who is also a huge Beatles fan, research everything that went into recording that track--from how the drums sound, to how the guitars sound, to even the organ. And having all of the amazing musicians who played on the record with me, I think it had a lot to do with how well it turned out.
JL: What is your most memorable moment on stage?
QS: Oh, there's a lot of them. I think this one will be the most memorable one for a long time--it was playing the Crossroads Guitar Festival with Buddy Guy at Madison Square Garden. It was a half an hour on stage, but it was THE biggest moment in my life. To be able to be associated with all of these musicians that I have looked up to all my life--to be sharing the same stage with people like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and B.B. King is beyond words.
JL: What is the best bit of advice that a fellow musician has ever given you?
QS: I get valuable advice every day from different people. But the best bit of advice that I've received from a musician is from Buddy. The cool thing about Buddy Guy is, he won't sit you down and say, listen to me Quinn, this is the advice that I'm going to give you right now. It's almost like being in a course in high school where you are taking notes knowing that the teacher is not going to give you the answers, you have to use context clues--that's how it is with Buddy. You have to really listen to what he's saying.
For more information about Quinn Sullivan, visit: www.quinnsullivanmusic.com