Mahindra Blues Festival 2017: Quinn Sullivan on moving beyond his 'child prodigy' tag
Quinn Sullivan has shared the stage with the likes of Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy, and has had the honour of opening for Blues royalty BB King. He’s coy and candid, prodigious and humble too, and has spent a good part of the last decade wowing audiences around the world. His last visit to India was two years ago, when he accompanied his mentor Buddy Guy on the Mahindra Blues Festival stage, and he left the audience awestruck with his gifted guitar-playing. With his second performance at the Mahindra Blues Festival just a few days away, Quinn, who stands at the threshold of adulthood, looks back at being called a “child prodigy” and recognises how his transformation to a serious, mature artiste will be a test to come.
“My whole life has revolved around music. I think of it as an everlasting and evolving journey. The more you think about it, the more it becomes overwhelming, so that's why I don't think about that part (fame) of it much. I always seem to find myself thinking about the next gig versus being considered ‘famous’,” Quinn says, with an earnestness that has come to typify him. Quinn, who started taking guitar lessons at 3 years old, first found fame when he appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show as a six-year-old child prodigy. A year later, he mesmerised the great Blues legend Buddy Guy, whom his father took him to meet. The rest has been a decade-long story of genius and worldwide fame.
Life as a 17-year-old is confusing, chaotic and in a constant state of flux usually; add to it the acclaim to deal with like Quinn does and his tours and travels, and the situation gets far more daunting. And in the midst of this all, Quinn released his third album Midnight Highway. “When I was heading in the studio to do this new record, I had just been through the whole voice changing episode. I had a couple of vocal coaches help me immensely so I could have a stronger and edgier approach to the songs. They helped me through when my voice was changing so that greatly benefited me, and I notice it now as I'm doing more and more shows,” he says.
With coaches to help him through physiological changes, Quinn may have benefited immensely, but the state of adolescence is most frenzied because of the emotional upheavals it brings with it. With remarkable clarity, he admits, “I wake up thinking about my future every day and where it's going to go. The thought that this could one day not be here scares me at times. You almost wait and wait and wait for a specific moment to happen and then when it doesn’t, it’s a bit disappointing. I’ve gotten a lot better with dealing with disappointments as I’m getting older now. My life at the moment is great because I'm leaving high school with a full mapped out idea of what I want my life to be like, and that to me is what matters. I see a lot of people not knowing what they're doing with their lives and I luckily found it when I was 5 years old. The test now is to transform from the ‘child prodigy’ to a grown-up mature artist being taken seriously.”
Exalted as a blues maestro, Quinn has been playing with some of the biggest names in the genre and has travelled the world performing at various festivals. Yet, Quinn’s Midnight Highway, while having strong blues overtones, has songs that spans genres… almost to say that there’s more to him than being a blues artiste. “Yeah, people have said that about me for years. It worked when I was 10 but I think now, since then, I've just had such a turn around with who I am now as an artist. It's evolved into something much more pure and cleaned up. I'd like to think of myself now as more of a singer-songwriter that is Blues based but has evolved into pop and rock and soul music. Those are what my roots were growing up as a kid. The Beatles, the Stones, the Grateful Dead and now people like John Mayer, Derek Trucks, Gary Clark Jr, Ed Sheeran, James Bay, and Hozier are the people I'm digging. The goal for me is to see how far I can get musically with songwriting, singing and guitar playing.”
He has come a long way from the night he first met Buddy Guy backstage in 2007. After sharing the stage a few more times with him, Guy invited him to join him on tours, giving him a chance to learn like an apprentice with a master craftsmen. Today, Quinn is world famous, with a close set of friends, family and an amazing girlfriend (sorry, ladies) to keep him rooted. Guy remains a large figure in his life as a mentor, philosopher and guide. “Buddy has taught me some incredible things that no one else could have ever taught me. Once Buddy and I were hanging in his dressing room, just me and him, talking. Buddy told me that you don't need drugs or alcohol to play better. So many greats died from that stuff and Buddy always surpassed those people with his dedication to the music and the determination to make it. That's what I focus on every day.”
This time Quinn will be coming to India without Buddy Guy, and will be headlining the first day of the Blues weekend (11-12 February). The John Lennon-loving musician, whose taste in music ranges from old soul records to rock and roll, pop to rap and hip hop, has fond memories of his last India trip. “I remember India being one of my favourite places I got to go. It's a beautiful place with so many beautiful people that surround you with love and support. The fans over there I remember were insanely supportive and genuine so I'm quite excited to be going back in February.”
The 7th Mahindra Blues Festival will be held over 11-12 February at the Mehboob Studios. Tickets available here.