Jazz artist Sean Sullivan sharing the “spark” he caught early in life

Jazz musician Sean Sullivan used to perform for his parents' houseguests when he was only 8 years old.

Jazz musician Sean Sullivan used to perform for his parents’ houseguests when he was only 8 years old.

Picture an 8-year-old boy singing in his living room full of adults — this is how guitarist and singer-songwriter Sean Sullivan realized he wanted to be a jazz musician. When his parents had guests to the house, they asked their musical son to perform, giving the now 42-year-old musician his very first audiences.

“I noticed that people really started to enjoy it,” he said, “and that made a spark.”

Today, Sean is a jazz artist who can tap into many styles of music, including blues, swing, bebop, and ballads. But his guitar and voice is all he needs to put on a great show.

Following is an edited version of my recent interview with Sean, who recently released a new album, Hereafter.

Laura Bierbrauer, LSY! teen reporter, Mount St. Mary Academy

What are the biggest challenges of working as a professional musician?

Sean: So much of what you do comes organically from your own spirit and soul. Those things are intuitive. They’re difficult to capture in the written word. That’s the most difficult challenge: to be able to talk about yourself.

As you’ve advanced in the music world, have your relationships with friends and family changed?

Sean: I think that people are surprised. Your real friends wish you well, and then you find others that are envious. Sometimes it’s not the most natural choice in life to pursue an artistic career, and it often has some difficulties and people are concerned if you follow an artistic choice in life.

Sean Sullivan says he enjoys the immediate feedback that comes with performing.

Sean Sullivan says he enjoys the immediate feedback that comes with performing.

What are the biggest misconceptions people have about your life?

Sean: The amount of effort it takes to tour and write and project in your mind what you’re going to do on stage. I think when you get into it, you’ll be surprised on how much work it takes to present yourself in the spotlight.

What has the industry taught you about the concept of hard work?

Sean: I think hard work is necessary. It requires daily maintenance like an athlete or a dancer, or any other pursuit that requires hard work. You need to have all of the elements of singing, playing guitar, and writing. It’s not all glamour — it’s a great deal of focus.

Is there anything in the music industry you wish you could change?

Sean: I think that people have a tendency to want to get the goods quickly in music and I think in general that people aren’t concerned about taking a journey from A to Z. I want people to enjoy being an artist. I’d rather see more focus on the craft rather than the end game.

How do you get inspired to write a song?

Sean: I think we all have quiet moments when we reflect upon something that’s been said in a conversation, or something we may be thinking about. That’s what you start off with, and sometimes you don’t know where it comes from. It can come from out of the blue, and sometimes those are the best songs. I tend to work intuitively and try to stay out of the way of over-thinking, and focus on the natural feel. I believe lyrics can come from your gut, and that they should be intuitive and not intellectual.

Does writing music help you to cope with any problems you have going on in your life?

Sean: Oh yeah! Music is very therapeutic in general. It can help you with anything bugging you. I think that it helps to sit down and get it down on paper; it helps to unfold the difficulties in life.

Sean Sullivan recently released the album Hereafter.

Sean Sullivan recently released the album Hereafter.

Do you like writing music or lyrics better?

Sean: I would say that the lyrics are a bit easier, and I think the general idea comes more naturally than music. You pick up your guitar, and things just unfold from there. You can come up with something that others would like, and hopefully what you do is strong enough to pull people in to listen to your song. It’s important to have a good progression in your song so it starts from beginning to end. This is how all songs start — they need a structure. It can be very simple but it can be very complex. Sometimes the best songs can be very simple, as long as you feel it emotionally. It can also be something much crafted where you work word-by-word very slowly, and I like both.

Have you ever wished you could be doing something different?

Sean: I tell people I would probably be teaching a literature course in a university if I wasn’t playing music.

What drew you to music over the literature world?

Sean: Performing in front of an audience is just a kick. If you’re a writer people would have to publish you and you go through a long process. Whereas performing, for me, has more immediate feedback and there’s less tension.

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