There’s a lot of youthful enthusiasm in Quinn Sullivan’s voice when he talks about Midnight Highway, on which the 17-year-old guitar standout raises his collective game and successfully ventures beyond his beloved blues.
“It’s definitely a change of genre on some of these new songs,” Sullivan says, “but I’m still keeping it real — and I always will — and [keeping it] guitar-driven.”
Sullivan worked on developing his songwriting skills and sharpening his vocal chops leading up to Midnight Highway, his third album, released Jan. 27 in North America via Provogue/Mascot Label Group. And this time around, there was a big difference in the recording process: Instead of entering the studio to add his parts to previously recorded rhythm tracks, the Massachusetts-raised Sullivan (who turns 18 later this month) tracked with his backing band.
“I fell in love with that vibe of just all being together in the same room,” says Sullivan, who was supported on Midnight Highway by veterans of mentor Buddy Guy’s recording sessions, among them drummer-producer Tom Hambridge. “You play off each other, and the chemistry is really good. I’m playing with seasoned musicians, so all they have to do is listen to the song one time, and they’ve got it.”
And in the case of “Buffalo Nickel,” one time was all it took to nail a perfect take of the song.
“I think [at the end] we just said, ‘That was cool,’ ” Sullivan says with a laugh. “We felt really good about it and didn’t think another one needed to be done.”
When it came to what he calls the “poppier” songs — such as “Going” and “Eyes for You,” two of three tunes Sullivan had a hand in writing — “they were a bit more, ‘OK, let’s do this again,’ just to make sure we had the right amount of takes so we could pick the best ones.”
Medleyville.us: Anybody who still thinks of you as a blues prodigy might be surprised upon hearing “Tell Me I’m Not Dreaming” or “Eyes for You” from your new album. Talk about broadening your musical base with Midnight Highway and the decision to study with a vocal coach.
Quinn Sullivan: “I was always a huge fan of other music besides blues growing up. The first music that I listened to was The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and The Allman Brothers Band, so there was always a bluesy thing, but it was always the idea of a rock band. I wanted to showcase that on this record and that I’m very heavily influenced by other music. I really couldn’t stop at one thing, so I decided to branch out a little bit and see how far I could get musically.
“As far as the vocals go, I think my capability is much more apparent on this record because of [working with a] vocal coach, studying with different people, singing a lot and touring a lot.”
What did you work on with the vocal coach that helped get you to where you are now?
Sullivan: “It was a bit of everything. The first time I went to a vocal lesson, we did a lot of scales — [similar to] the kind of scales you would do on a guitar. That was the beginning, and then we did other stuff, including different ways to sing live because that’s important. If you can come out every night and really bring it — to me, that’s important.”
So now, before a show, how much time do you spend warming up your voice and warming up your hands? Has it changed since you’ve taken vocal lessons?
Sullivan: “Yeah, it has. Before a show, I spend about 10 to 15 minutes doing vocal warmups. I don’t want to warm up too much because then you strain your voice. And normally, I have a guitar with me, just kind of messing around with it. I don’t have a set [guitar warmup].
‘”When I was a little kid, I could sing whatever. The range was unlimited because my voice hadn’t changed. When it really hit that I should start focusing on [singing] more is when my voice changed — when I was about 14, I guess. It was a wakeup call to start focusing on that. Now it’s a 50-50 thing with the vocals and the guitar. The guitar was always there from an early age, but I think the vocals are stepping in more on the front end of what I’m doing.”
Covering a Beatles song must not be easy, both from a performance standpoint and in terms of the expected scrutiny that often comes from music fans. With your rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” you went out of your way to honor the original version. Why did you go that route, and what went into your research?
Sullivan: “The way it started was Tom Hambridge and I had an idea to do a cover song for this album. We had a few songs in mind, and that one came about because I’ve loved that song since I was 5 or 6 years old.
“I feel like that’s a song that you really don’t want to put too much of your own thing on. You want to stay true to the original. There are certain songs that you can cover and put your own thing on it, and it sounds really good. But if you cover, say, ‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles, you have to do that solo. You can’t fake that. So that was my thinking [with ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’].
“When we went to record it, Tom did a really good job with the research behind it, focusing on the mic placement, where to put certain things and the drum sound. I found a cool [guitar] tone with the Les Paul, an Ibanez Tube Screamer or something like that and an old Fender amp.”
What was a typical session like for this album with Tom at Blackbird Studio in Nashville, Tennessee?
Sullivan: “We would start around 11 a.m. Tom does things very quickly. What I love about Tom is he gives the artist a lot of input and creative space. He doesn’t deviate too much from what the artist wants to do. He really lets you go nuts. Tom plays drums on the record, too, so it helps to have the producer playing drums because he knows the songs well. We’ve developed a great friendship over the years as well because he’s been playing with me live going on seven years now.”
You’ve spent time with blues legends such as Buddy Guy and Eric Clapton. Have you crossed paths with John Mayer, Gary Clark Jr. or any other younger well-known blues players? And have you found there are common personality traits among blues guitarists, no matter what the age?
Sullivan: “Luckily, I’ve gotten to cross paths with both [Mayer and Clark] a few times. They’re really great guys — and honestly, my two biggest inspirations are those two guys, as far as what they’re doing now with music and everything they have done with music. I think they’re bringing blues and rock and pop and funk and mixing it together and making it their own.
“As far as personality goes, I haven’t been in their company enough times to know if we have the same personality, but I could probably make a pretty good hypothesis that we do have similarities. I’m sure we have [similar] music tastes … hopefully some collaborations are coming soon.”
— Introduction and interview by Chris M. Junior
Quinn Sullivan on tour (schedule subject to change):
• April 19: Neighborhood Theater — Charlotte, North Carolina
• April 20: Charleston Music Hall — Charleston, South Carolina
• April 21: Lincoln Theatre — Raleigh, North Carolina
• April 22: Jammin Java — Vienna, Virginia
• April 29: Theater at Westbury — Westbury, New York
• April 30: Park Theatre — Cranston, Rhode Island
• May 5: Tupelo Music Hall — Derry, New Hampshire
• May 6: Highline Ballroom — New York
• May 7: StageOne — Fairfield, Connecticut
• May 10: Brighton Music Hall — Allston, Massachusetts
• May 16: State Theatre — Falls Church, Virginia
• May 17: Count Basie Theatre — Red Bank, New Jersey
• May 18: Rochester Lilac Festival — Rochester, New York
• May 19: Aura — Portland, Maine
• May 20: Blue Ocean Music Hall — Salisbury, Massachusetts