By the age of 12, he had played his guitar on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Jimmy Kimmel Show. 

By the age of 18, he had shared stages with such guitar greats as Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Carlos Santana, Joe Bonamassa, Gary Clark Jr. and Jimmy Vaughn.

And now at the age of 23, New Bedford guitarist/singer/songwriter Quinn Sullivan has released an album with a top-notch Los Angeles producer and is earning national attention as a certified creative talent with the record “Wide Awake.” Sullivan worked with Oliver Leiber, whose credits include million-selling records with Paula Abdul, Rod Stewart, and The Corrs.

If you enjoy the sweet soulful guitar pop of John Mayer, you should take a liking to Sullivan’s latest collection of songs, his first since 2017’s “Midnight Highway.” As he is about to embark on a string of summertime shows across the nation, Sullivan talked about the creative process, meeting many of his musical heroes, and making the successful transition from being a childhood prodigy to becoming a respected adult performer and songwriter.

Quinn Sullivan enjoying time with friends at a backyard get together. Credit: Michael Morrissey / For The New Bedford Light

New Bedford Light: A lot of child stars go from novelty to obscurity. Why do you think you were able to make the transition from child prodigy to successful adult artist?

Quinn Sullivan: There are a lot of variables in that answer. The first thing I would say is just being surrounded by incredible people. I am very fortunate to have always been around really incredible, smart people that have taught me so much. For instance, being mentored by the great Buddy Guy for a decade in itself is something that a lot of people would never get to experience and never get the privilege to do. So being around people like him and having (writer/producer) Tom Hambridge as a mentor musically and personally, being around guys like that for so long shapes you and makes you the person that you are.  And I think growing up around that environment definitely was a major influence.

But, also, it didn’t make me think ‘Oh, my God, when I turn 18 what’s going to happen? I’m not going to be this kid anymore. I’m going to fall underneath everyone else.’

That does happen a little bit when you become 18 — the people that you maybe thought really loved you, but loved you only for the reason that you were young and not because they liked you for your music. So, I struggled with that part of things for a long time; it’s a continuous struggle. 

Now I feel like I’m finally sort of coming out of the child prodigy realm. People still call me that. I’ve never really liked the word; it was a jaded word. I feel like it’s not the best representation of me, but you can’t really change people’s ways of thinking about you, so I think I’ve gotten used to it. I’ve learned to appreciate it and just take it with a grain of salt.

NBL: You’ve met Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Jeff Beck. With all of your experiences around great musicians, are you any less starstruck at this point?

QS: It’s an experience of a lifetime. It’s something that you think is never really going to happen, and when it does it’s the most incredible thing in the world. For me, I’ve never really felt used to it. I’ve never been like, ‘Oh, I’ve arrived. This is normal.’

It’s never normal. Whenever I see Buddy (Guy) or spend some time with Carlos Santana or Joe Bonamassa over the years, you never feel like it’s a normal thing, because you looked up to these people and you have a certain thing in your head about who they are and what they mean to you. It’s always amazing.

For example, when you’re playing ‘Black Magic Woman’ in Las Vegas with the guy who made that song what it is, you can’t help yourself but to go ‘I can’t believe this is happening!’ It’s ridiculous. Whenever you’re in the presence of someone who you’ve admired for so long, you always get this feeling of, ‘Is this really happening right now?’ I’ve gotten to meet my heroes, people that I’ve looked up to as people and musicians. Some people say it’s never good to meet your heroes, but for me, every experience when it comes to hanging around those people has been positive.

When you become an artist, the real true goal is to be accepted by the people who came before you, the people you emulated as a kid. When you get accepted, you feel as though you’ve won the lottery, and you don’t need anything more to happen after that. It’s a feeling like no other.

NBL: You’re only 23, but how has your music evolved? How do you stay inspired to write new music? How has your creativity expanded over the last few records?

QS: For sure. I think that with this album, compared to the last one (“Midnight Highway”), it has definitely grown. I think it’s been my biggest growth as an artist, particularly with the musical part of it. The goal is to get better at it as you get older.

If I talk to you when I’m 30, I think I’ll have the same answer. You always try to learn new things — you can’t ever stop learning. Once you stop learning that’s when you’re in a danger zone. You shouldn’t continue doing it if you’re not learning something new about your guitar or whatever it is. We can live a long life and still not know everything about music. There’s just so many things that you can get into that you don’t know about. The discovery is endless. So that’s the really exciting thing about music for me — being able to discover new things as I continue on.

NBL: What misconceptions do most people have about the music industry? And growing up did you have any misconceptions about the music industry?

QS: Misconceptions that people have are that they think you’re just on this rock-and-roll ride all the time, that you’re never working much — you’re just playing, you’re having a bunch of fun. It is a lot of fun, it’s really a job I wouldn’t trade for anything else, but also at the same time there’s so much work involved that people don’t see or understand.

It’s hard to explain it to people because it’s such a unique industry. In the entertainment world, whether you’re an actor or a musician, people don’t think it’s a job. ‘Oh, he’s having this lavish life, he flies on private jets, he’s touring, he’s making millions of dollars.There’s all of this outlandish stuff, but if you try it out for a week we’ll see if you feel the same way about it. It’s a real job. It’s a real thing, and you have to treat it like a job.

NBL: You’ve done hundreds and hundreds of shows, you’ve been on stages around the world. What do you still enjoy about performing? What do you look forward to every night?

QS: I would say it’s the people who come out to the shows, because if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I look forward to just seeing familiar faces that I’ve seen for so long. There’s a lot of people who come to my shows that come up to me after and say, ‘I’ve seen you 20 times, or in some cases 30 or 40 times.’

It’s really crazy to see the people that have followed me for so long. The thing that never gets old for me is playing my guitar and singing my songs. I could do it forever and it still wouldn’t be enough. It sounds a bit corny to say, but I live and breathe what I do. It’s something that I feel super strong about and it’s something that I have to do. It’s almost like therapy to me, to go on stage every night and do that. You work things out that I don’t think you can work out anywhere but on the stage.

NBL: ‘Wide Awake’ is a straight guitar pop record, but it’s a little more mainstream than the previous record, ‘Midnight Highway.’ How does this album represent you at this point? Was there a definitive creative mission for this record? And what were you listening to when you wrote the album?

QS: Every record that I make I want to be better than the last one, more me, more of who I am, and that’s always changing. There’s always a progression, always something that is developing, and so I think I didn’t really have a certain attitude that these songs have to be hits, that they have to sound a certain way.

I went into it very open-mindedly. I definitely went into it with a lot of ideas of what I wanted it to sound like, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking about writing hits. When you go into it with that mindset it’s creatively limiting, so I try to go into every musical experience with an open mind. I think that has always been where I’ve gotten the greatest results is by being open-minded with what I’m doing.

I was listening to so much stuff, different kinds of stuff — a lot of soul and R&B — that influenced the record very heavily. ‘She’s So Irresistible’ is definitely influenced by Prince. My producer, Oliver Leiber, spent a lot of time in Minneapolis and spent a lot of time with people who knew Prince, so that obviously seeped into his influence which seeped into my influences. I was listening to a lot of older Al Green, Sly & The Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield. The Beatles are always a recurring thing to listen to, Bill Withers was a big influence, so many other people. John Mayer is a big influence, too. I think John’s amazing as far as songwriting and his guitar playing is amazing. Neil Young is another one who is huge for me.


NBL: Would you talk about what it’s like to create a record? You just don’t go into a studio, plug in your guitar and let it rip. There’s a lot that goes into it. Could you go into the process?

QS: Creating a record to me is documenting a certain part of your life, almost like a time capsule. Everyone has different ways of making music. For me, my process is different every time. For ‘Wide Awake’ I went into the studio with a bunch of voice memos that I had collected over a period of a year on my iPhone, and played them to Oliver.

Together, we wrote around 15 songs in a period of eight to 10 months. I’d fly to him where he lives in Los Angeles and would stay for a week at a time to write these songs. When we got to around 12 songs, we realized we had a full album. We then met back up a few months later in December of 2019 and began tracking.

Tracking took about two months. First, the band came in and played the basic tracks, and I came back a month later after Christmas and New Years and overdubbed all of my guitars and vocals. I’m truly proud of this body of work. It was a team effort between myself, Oliver, and all the musicians and engineers involved.

NBL: You’ve spent so much time in the music hubs of Nashville and Los Angeles. You’ve seen so much of the United States and the world. How do you see New Bedford after all of these experiences?

QS: New Bedford is a great place for music, and it’s often overlooked. I think New Bedford has so many talented artists that are here that maybe haven’t gotten out of New Bedford, that have made a living playing here. And I’ve certainly looked up to many of them over the years.

When I was a kid I would go see Neal McCarthy. He’s a huge influence to me as a guitar player. He brought me out when I was 5 years old at local shows and festivals in the area. So, I thank people like that, as well as the Pearly Baker Band, the Grateful Dead tribute band that my dad (drummer Terry Sullivan) played in for many years. Those guys have become such good friends of mine and supportive of my career.

I have a lot of ties to New Bedford, especially the music community. It’s something that will always be a part of me. There’s nowhere like this place, it’s home forever.

Sean McCarthy is a New Bedford area freelance writer.

Editor’s note: Neal McCarthy, mentioned by Quinn Sullivan as an influence, is the brother of the author of this story, Sean McCarthy.

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