Interview: Sully and the Benevolent Folk on their debut album “The Odd Sea”

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Two years ago, Broadway actor Chris “Sully” Sullivan decided to do something he’d never done before.  He decided to make music.  Armed with a ukulele (an instrument he had never played) and a group of friends with various artistic backgrounds, Sully set out on an “Odyssey” to explore uncharted territories of talent he had yet to discover deep within.  In 30 days, he vowed to write 30 songs.  The result, his debut album, a magical journey through different genres of music ranging from Blues & Soul sensuality to deep-root southern Americana twang and all the way back across the board to a Vaudeville sideshow.  The album is a rollercoaster rush of emotions containing powerful harmonies, sorrowful poetry, and orchestral chords capable of sending chills down your spine.   In an in-depth interview with Sully and his wife, Rachel (also a collaborator), we go discuss the inspirations, motivations and challenges behind this melodic masterpiece titled “The Odd Sea.”

KL:  After you finished writing the album, you decided to perform it live?

CS:  We use to play once a month at this little café in the Village that was just me and any friends who wanted to come down to play.  We haven’t done it in a while but, after this show (release), we will pick that back up.  We want to do something different for the live show, something theatrical.  Not just regurgitate the album.

KL:  What do you have planned for the show theatrically?  Do you have props and costumes?

CS:  No not anything that’s going to be like a Spinal Tap show but, there is going to be a clarinet player and there’s a going to be a violin player who played on a couple of tracks on the record.

KL:  I was going to say, you have a lot of orchestra on the album, are you saying those people are not a part of the regular band?

CS:  The violin is.  I guess the album has featured artists who play on only one or two songs but the violin player has become full time.  He played only two songs on the record but has now played on nine.

KL:  I must say, the album is amazing.  I had no idea.  I knew you were an actor in theater, did improv and had a voice that could really carry but, I had no idea you could MAKE music.

CS:  Neither did we.  This all started two years ago (when I moved here).  The song “Good Man”, there’s a demo on the record and the studio version of it, it was the first song I ever wrote.  Basically what happened was is we moved here and I bought a ukulele and I was trying to find…when you are doing a Broadway show, you are doing it like eight times a week and eventually there’s still a creative element to it that’s fulfilling but, it gets to be a like a schedule. Like a ritual where some of the creative element is gone from it now because it is set.

And so I was looking for a different creative outlet so, I bought this ukulele.  Cause’ I always thought it was a charming instrument.  And in order to learn to play this thing, I challenged myself to write 30 songs in 30 days.  So every morning, regardless of what I did the night before, I would get up at 9(ish) and I would write whatever came to mind and then I would start putting it to music and then I would record it and post it online.   And I would do it everyday for 30 days.  Essentially it’s an exercise that forces me to get out of my own way…cause’ I would try to write songs and I would get halfway through the course and thought,  “This is stupid” and I would crumple up the paper and throw it away.  And so when I have this handful of partially written songs and you have no context of song writing, I came up with the exercise to good, bad, otherwise, just to write songs.  And to just finish them and post them online… and let them go. So umm, it became all day, The Ukulele Odyssey.  It became the challenge.

KL:  How did you share it with others?

CS:  I did my own little daily podcast where I posted it online through Facebook.  In order to get through it, I would ask friends, “If anyone has any poetry or short stories or a lyric to an unfinished song…send it my way.”  It gave me inspiration and it became this giant collaborative concept.  After the whole thing was said and done, I would have these 30 songs and thought that would be the end of it but it wasn’t the end of it.  Now I wanted to play them live.  And so we picked about 18 of them and did a show that was theatrical at the time.  I really thought to myself…so there was 25 musicians of all different types; accordion players, guitar players…

KL:  How do you rehearse that at all?

CS:  I don’t know how we did it.  Once you start the process, once you make it collaborative, once you give people the freedom to create… They’ll do …people in general want that outlet and as soon as you provide it, people will go to the ends of the Earth for it.  My friends put everything into it.  No one got paid, I didn’t get paid and this show, on top of that, I sent out to all my filmmaker friends, to make videos for the songs.  We actually have 2 executive producers, Kelli O’Hare, one of the queens of Broadway and Dan Lauria (from Lombardi) he played the dad on Wonder Years, put in half the money and if we ever make it back…we’ll pay it back.

KL:  So Dan’s a collaborator?

I think he was always a poet.  He started emailing me these things and they were incredible.  The musings…and they were from a perspective of a 60 year old man that I wont have for another 30 years, you know what I mean?  The stuff he was writing came from a totally different place.  And there’s one song called “The Simple Heart” that is essentially almost a direct poem of his but it didn’t rhyme so I had to take the first line and then I wrote the second line to rhyme with the first one.  So every other line is his so, it’s literally half written by him and half written by me.  But, yeah, so I just put this creative collaboration out there and he just wanted to be a part of it.

RS:  …And the spirit of it.  The impact.  The whole premise of impact is to just say “yes”.  I know a lot of artists who create something and all of a sudden feel like they have to protect it.  And maybe don’t want to share it with people.  They don’t want to let other people get involved in that creative process because they are scared it is going to change and afraid that it’s going to be different.  It’s a place of vulnerability, letting people into that space.  That’s really the reason all of us come back to this spot, to allow people to have confidence and be a part of it.  That’s what our band is. It’s not like a set number of people for the album.  It has a certain number of people sure, that would probably be there core but you’ll see at the show there are so many more people performing.  We’ve already been asked to play in Chicago and Sacramento and we will be performing with people there that will be learning the music before we get there and will be performing with us.  So, it’s not your typical “Oh now we have a band and we’re going to perform and we have this group and we’re just going to travel”… It’s really more of a collaborative process and having people be a part of it.

CS:  As an artist, once you create something it no longer belongs to you.  No matter what it is.  You create something and it now belongs to the person viewing it, listening it, or tasting it… the things that you create.  But the things that you create are released into the universe and there’s no way you can control it.  If I try to control the songs and the way that I think they should be but, if I let them go and give them to other musicians and I say, “What do you think this song should be?” and it goes in a direction I never thought it would go and it becomes something I never thought it would become.  It has nothing to do with it.IMG_2545

KL:  Do you think that this style of collaboration is a completely new platform for music writing for you?

CS:  I think so, I mean it’s hard, doing it for that long (30 days) but I don’t think you can accomplish the same thing if you don’t do it for that long.  It comes in spurts. For like 5 days I will be stuck on something and then there will be spurts for 5 days where it’s like wow, the stuff that came out was worth…developed…or is worth looking at.

KL:  Are there days where you’re like ugh, I don’t like this song?

CS:  There is a whole song called “Nothing to say” that’s a song about how I have nothing to say and about staring at a piece of paper and all of the words flying away and all the words flying from my head and that became metaphor for the song about trying to chase these words down and attach them, put them on the paper.  So it’s just working with what literally just writing about what I was feeling that day which was nothing to write about.

KL:  Is that song on the album?

CS:  No but, I do like that song.

KL:  How many songs did you choose for the album?

CS:  There are eleven. “Dry Well Blues”…

KL:  Drywall blues?

CS:  “Dry Well Blues”.  There’s a whole song about the well running dry.  Literally what is a metaphor for having nothing to say and the important part is not about not having anything to say but just the process.  Even if you have nothing to say, write the song.  Write the song.  Write the song.  Write the song.  Don’t judge it; don’t think about it, just write the song.  And then, after 30 days, there were songs that I had forgotten.  I went back and listened.  Not only listened but, there’s one song that I really liked but, I can’t figure out how to play…I don’t remember the chords.

KL:  I think there are apps for that now.

CS:  So yeah, it was about not judging myself and just moving on.  And it worked.

KL:  How long have you been songwriting?

CS:  This is it, since the beginning of the process.  The only way I did it was by emulating the artists that I love.  There is Tom Waits, The Avett Brothers, storytellers like, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.  I would literally look at songs of theirs and look at the words written out and chords.  What cords do you play to get a song to sound like that?  And it was 4 cords, and I would play those four chords until I came up with my own version of those four chords.

Most songs have those same 4 chords in a different form.  If I didn’t know what song I was going to write that day, I would go, “How do I write a song…how do I sing like Jeff Buckley?”  How do I do that?  And so that “Wondering” song is just all about how to sing falsetto, like, how to sing a real high (in high falsetto voice) “You stare at the same thing…”

It was literally trying to figure out, ok how does he do that?  Or how do you write a dark song?  How do you write an evil sounding song?  Like Tom Waits, and his chords and percussion.  You say, ok, who did Tom Waits listen to?  Who are his influences?  And you go and listen to them and then it becomes this tree of…

KL:  Wow, so you’ve done a lot of research.

CS:  I’ve never stopped.  I’ve always listened to music.  The first song I remember hearing was “Angel From Montgomery” by John Prine and he was this singer song-writer from the late 60s/70s who just truly told these amazing stories and my dad played them for me a lot and, looking back…you’ve heard John Prine?  Um…they’re very adult songs.  I mean, its songs about a whore, its songs about heroin addictions but it still is, as a child it painted these pictures for me that I didn’t understand…

The very first image for me in a song, that affected me, that made me feel things…There’s a John Prine song that goes “There’s a hole in Daddy’s arm, where all the money goes…” and as a child I would try to figure out how you would take money and where a hole in your arm would be…and how you’d stick money under your skin.  (Sully demonstrates trying to stick imaginary money into his arm and you can’t help but laugh at the idea)  And obviously it’s about heroin addiction but, uh, I would play these songs and my Mom would be like, “You were playing this for our children?!” like, 6, 7, 8 years old but, images like that.  Don Mclean, another early songwriter, well known for American Pie.   The album that song is on is one of the best folk albums ever written.  The song on there, American Pie, would be the least of the accomplishments on that record.  But yeah, to get through the process it was a lot of leaning on other songwriters.

RS:  (Of Sully) You bring a very different perspective to songwriting and maybe you don’t.  Like, I don’t know what a normal songwriter does but a lot of the songs on “The Odd Sea” the reason it’s called “The Odd Sea” is because every song is so different and written from a completely different perspective.  You write them all but, they’re all written from a character perspective so you kinda put on this character hat about how this person feels and how similar is that to the character work you do when you are trying for an audition or a show?  You have this script so you have to get into character but here you reverse the process and have to get into character first and then you write the script.

CS:  A lot of songs are getting into the perspective of the character.

KL:  To me your album sounds very much like Mumford and Sons, Civil Wars, and The Decemberists.  Some of the songs have a very seafarer sound, where did that come from?

CS:  My favorite part of music is harmony.  I love harmony.  A lot of the music I listen to whether it be the Civil Wars or…I think the thing happening is that a lot of the songs that were brought together for the record have that theme in common.  There’s harmony pretty much in every song.  That’s mostly Rachel and me.

KL:  (To Rachel):  Your voice is amazing.  It’s like a siren.  Again with the seafarer theme, it’s like a mermaid luring the sailors in.  Why don’t, or do you pursue music outside of your day job?

RS:  That’s a good question.  This is the very beginning.  Harmonies are also my favorite part.  For that reason, I sang in choirs and in groups.  Just recently I’ve been trying to find my own voice and find where that sits and where that is.

KL:  No pun intended.

RS:  (laughs) No pun intended.  So, as he was writing “The Odd Sea”, I would just hear these parts.  I would hear these different voices that would be complimentary.

KL:  And how did that come to be?  Did he just extend the open invitation (to sing)?

RS:  Oh, that wasn’t just me, anybody who wanted to come and help with the songs could.  And my commentary to the songs was to find the right harmony.

CS:  She came up as a choral singer and she has an unbelievable ear for harmony.  And a couple of the songs on the demos, I would come home and be like, this needs harmony…here.  And in 4 takes she would knock out a 4-part harmony on her own.  What’s happened with the record and how she’s getting more into music is now she’s started a local workshop where she’s begun to develop her solo voice.  Strengthen her own voice so it’s not to blend but to stand out.  In between the demos and the record, her voice was already beautiful.  It gained in strength, which by the time we got in the studio they were certain things I’d never heard her sing before.  There are some high notes at the end of “Gypsy Queen”, we were all in the booth going (demonstrates jaw dropping). She’s like, “Give me a couple passes at it…” She did one low, one medium and one super high.

RS:  We’re still trying to figure out where this is gonna go.

KL:  I understand that Sting asked for a copy of your album?

CS:  I was doing a workshop of a musical show by Sting and the album happened to be released the day of the show.  I put a poster up and Sting walks by and asks about the show and if he can have the album.  The next morning he said he listened to the record and said, “it was great”.  He also asked who my bassist was and complimented him.  I texted him (Corey Kaiser) immediately and was like, “Sting said you are a great bass player.”  After that, Jimmy Nail (Sting’s best friend) came up to me and said “Sting told me your album is interesting, I want to listen to it…”

KL:  Wow, talk about word of mouth!  So, what is your long-term goal?

CS:  To be a published singer-songwriter and spread to TV, Film. (Their music has already been chosen for two documentaries)

KL:  Actor or musician first?

CS:  Actor first.  I don’t want to tour as a musician and be in a different place every night for months on end.

KL:  What if a record label approaches you and offers you a deal?

CS:  Then I could see that being an option.

Here’s my favorite song:  The Old Man

JoesPubPosterSully and the Benevolent Folk official record release is Sunday June 2nd at Joe’s Pub at 9.30pm located at 425 Lafayette Street between East 4th and Astor Place in New York City’s East Village.

You can currently see Sully playing on Broadway along side Matthew Broderick in “Nice Work If You Can Get It” at the Imperial Theater, NY, NY.

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