There can be no mistaking the raw emotion of an album which is written from the heart. Direct, emotional and packed with a personal yet relatable meaning, Little Steps is the debut solo album from Kildare man Shane Sullivan.
Armed with a voice which is both captivating and direct, Shane carries a well established sound and delivers the vocal performance of a man who has been there and done it.
The album is a diverse blend of upbeat yet dreamy acoustic sounds and a range of almost thankful emotions. Little Steps carries a wonderfully unique feeling – that as a record it is a genuine means of communication, leaving the audience with a deep sense of privilege as we eavesdrop upon a ten track album which is lyrically perfect – highlighted beautifully by the spellbinding Always. Intensely emotional, perfectly personal and refreshingly frank the track is captivating and sure to tug at your heartstrings – wonderful.
Sullivan represents the voice of experience – he is confidently self-assured – a man with nothing to prove and everything to give. He is self-taught yet gratefully draws upon the experience of others to enhance a sound already described as addictive. Indeed, experience is key for the Athy man. His work ethic shines through his cool, reflective manner and radiates from the album. He is not averse to travelling to Nashville – not for the mere experience, but to immerse himself with a culture in which his music is deep-rooted, as Shane says himself “it isn’t about going to these places, it’s about what you bring back.”
We met in a swanky hotel lobby in his native Athy, county Kildare. The man oozes a cool charisma and the belief that comes from a burning enthusiasm for all things musical – and boy, he knows his stuff!
Our chat coincided with preparations for the launch party of Little Steps – the event set to take place at the Clanard Court Hotel, Athy on April 30 – exciting and hectic times for Sullivan, although you wouldn’t think it from his cool, calm and collected manner.
Reflecting upon a period of huge personal transition yet focused upon a future packed with endless potential, here’s our exclusive Shane Sullivan interview in full:
LDIM – Firstly, congrats on the album! It’s been wonderfully received and picking up great reviews. It’s your first solo album, and people will know you from your work with Lowtown. Was the transition to soloist a difficult one to make?
SS – Thank you! Well it’s a funny thing – I knew the name of the album was going to be Little Steps, and that’s exactly what it was – the progression from working with other bands and session vocalists and the transition towards where I was going. It’s a transition that can’t be rushed and I took my time because I wanted to make sure I felt ready and that the material I had in mind was right for the album. Eventually, once I felt the time was right I said to myself ok, I’m on my own now and I’m going to do this and have full control. It wasn’t that it was difficult, but it’s the thought that you’ve always had somebody to fall back on and you’ve sang as a harmony based group, and suddenly I’m working with other harmony based singers – obviously they’re all very good, but the harmonic blend between brothers who grew up together will always be a difficult one to replicate.
LDIM – The album is hugely diverse and you clearly take on board a huge range of influences, and I was surprised to discover that Aaron Till guested on the album. What does it mean to have someone like him on board?
SS – Yeah, Aaron actually played with me on my first gig in Nashville, he played fiddle for us and guested on the album for me on one of the old style country tunes that I wrote called Past Caring Stranger. Aaron’s a fantastic instrumentalist but he’s also one of the best singers I’ve ever heard.
LDIM – How much input does he bring and how much pride do you take from the fact that someone like Aaron Till wants to be a part of your album?
SS – It’s amazing to have him and to know that he respects my music enough to come on to the album and be part of such a brilliant track. But making contact with these types of musicians and respecting the quality that they bring is very important because you’ll always have them there. That’s really important to me because Aaron Till is a guy who I really look up to.
LDIM – The entire album feels extremely personal. Many people will relate to title track Little Steps. It deals with the fallout of a huge break-up.
SS – It does but it also deals with several other things that I feel people will relate to, in particular loss and the feeling of bereavement. I think the video demonstrates this very well and hopefully when people see it they’ll realise that the song actually explores a huge range of emotions.
LDIM – When you write a song as personal and emotional as that, is it difficult to put yourself back into that position and perhaps revisit a particular time?
SS – It is. I lost one of my closest friends two years ago and this song has aspects of that loss. I put myself in a position where I try to reflect somewhat – I’ve seen my friends break up and the ways in which that kind of loss can affect them and I’ve placed aspects of that in the song too. So there were all these huge emotions that I wanted to explore and let out there in the song.
LDIM – Do you think that having the ability to write a song as powerful and emotional as that is a good way for you to personally express and release your own sense of loss in some way?
SS – Well for me it’s the only way to release it because it’s actually a form of therapy in itself. Some people find it easier to sit with someone and talk things through, whereas I find it easier to write it down. It’s a way for me to deal with things when I can see them in front of me.
LDIM – The song Henry Hill has a really cool upbeat, traditional country sound. Was trad music important to you growing up?
SS – Trad music hasn’t really influenced me to any great extent, although my grandfather used to play the fiddle so I would obviously hear that. But this song was written about an Irish soldier during the American civil war, Henry Hill being the site of one of the first major battles of that conflict, and it’s about the fact that we knew there were Irish soldiers there involved. We know that some were killed, we know that some got out, so I wanted to put myself in their shoes to see if I could get some sort of emotional connection. I wanted to explore how I would perhaps feel if I was writing a letter home to my partner or to my family. The the song is more or less a letter written home.
It’s co-written with a wonderfully talented songwriter called Gary Ferguson, and he actually lives just down the road from Henry Hill. From a research point of view he was amazing – I needed the facts of what had actually happened during the battle to correctly portray the emotions that I wanted to express if I was in that position, writing that letter home. Although the song is very transatlantic I wanted to get the Irish feel within it, plus the authenticity of that low whistle to capture the familiar sounds of actually being in that battlefield environment – to have the feel of the music that you would have heard there. Plus, it’s being played by one of the top traditional players in the country, a guy called Brian Hughes.
LDIM – From a writing point of view is it difficult to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, especially when you’re trying to capture a very specific type of emotion?
SS – Yes it very often is because you never want people to say ‘well he was never on a battlefield’, but for me it isn’t about that. It’s more the mindset of someone in that position, and for me the way I would probably write my letter would be through song – obviously there would be more chat, more paragraphs, more words but when you’re dealing with a three minute song you’ve got to make it to the point. I think I got it right.
LDIM – Obviously your debut solo album is born entirely of your own vision and creativity, but it takes many people to bring an album together. What kind of input do you let others have, and how important is it to trust those people?
SS – Trust is hugely important because you always strive to work with people who share the same vision and enthusiasm for your work as you do. I think in this regard it’s vital to work with people that you respect and admire, and that’s exactly what I did. I think it’s important for me to say that the album wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the input of those people, so needless to say I’m extremely grateful. The work ethic and input of multi-instrumentalist Donnie Allen, bass player Dean Marold, Brian Pruitt taking care of drums and percussion, Mark Burch on piano, all these guys bring their own unique brand to what I’m trying to achieve. Siobhan Smith and Megan Palmer on fiddle, Craig Fletcher on pedal steel and of course Ireland’s own Brian Hughes on low whistle and uilleann pipes. I can’t overstate the input Jeff Burke had. To have such a gifted guitarist beside me was invaluable, he’s a gifted mandolin player too and all these influences just add to it. And it all came together in the amazing environment of Prime Recording Nashville under the watchful eye of Engineer Josh Keith and Studio Manager Derek Garten. – all these hugely talented people bring individual elements that enhance the overall product. They’re all amazing and I simply cannot thank them enough.
LDIM – I really wanted to ask you about the track Always. This is an incredibly personal song, and I don’t mind admitting it really struck a chord with me. It’s clearly dedicated to your children, and speaking as a father I was genuinely teary-eyed as I listened with my little girl. It’s a beautiful tribute to them, but if it has that effect on me as a listener, how do you sing it? Is there a way for you to detach yourself, or is that emotion the key to what makes the song?
SS – When it’s so personal you’ve got to bring that emotion into the song. I’ve written songs for my kids along the way, but I’d never actually sat down and thought about what they genuinely mean mean to me, because we all know that our children are everything to us. But every now and again they give us little reminders, and it might be the way they look up at us or some other small thing that just makes us stop and think. For me it was when I was looking up at a plane with my daughter, and we both turned to look at each other at the same time, and just that split second glance with her big eyes made me say to myself ‘my God’…
And my son does the same. They have such different little personalities but now and again they do or say something in similar ways and it goes straight to the heart. I remember thinking that I have the perfect song for these guys – it sums things up in a way and demonstrates that bond. Perhaps one day if my daughter gets married she might use it, or my son likewise. But either way it’s always there for them and it lets them know how I feel, and that’s important. But there’s also a sad side to it too, I mean you know that one day they’re going to grow up and move on, but I just wanted them to know that no matter what, I’ll always be there.
LDIM – We touched upon how well your music has been received. Do you feel that there’s currently a healthy resurgence in Irish country music?
SS – Yes because when we look at Irish country music we see so many artists doing covers, and I know that has to be done, but there are so many great songwriters out there who could write songs for these guys and perhaps reinvent country music over here. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t still have all the stuff that we may be used to, but my feeling is why not be progressive too? My music has been described in Nashville as being indie country, which is something I’m happy to go with (whatever that really means). Over here would I be classed as Irish country? Would I be classed as indie country? Or would it be an emerging sound coming to Ireland? – I’m not really sure, but as long as it’s well received and that continues, then it’s all good.
LDIM – Does the way in which people may label or classify your music ever bother you?
SS – No because the main thing is that people are listening and taking different things from the album. I think opinions will differ because that’s music, but the album is true to me and thankfully has so far been well received, and as long as that continues I’m happy for people to class it however they like.
LDIM – Has audience reaction been as enthusiastic as the great feedback you get online?
SS – Yes absolutely, and that’s great because this is new to the audience who are used to seeing me perform with my brother, but it sparks interest because firstly it’s a solo project by one of the guys, and secondly it’s different. Perhaps people are somewhat cautious at first which I think is natural, but once they hear the music and get a feel for what it is that I’m about, they react in the way that I hope they would. It’s being received very well at the moment and that’s down to all the people I’ve had involved along the way and the people who influence me. I’m hugely thankful in particular to Jeff Burke because as I’ve discovered, even solo artists need to count on people, and the work that he did for me is undoubtedly one of the reasons the album came together so well and has been received as well as it has – I’m truly thankful.
LDIM – Tell us about the launch party.
SS – Obviously I’m really looking forward to it! The party takes place here at the Clanard Court Hotel in Athy, county Kildare on April 30 at 8pm. There’s no charge, it’s all about encouraging a new fan base and pointing them in the direction of my music. So basically anyone that wants to come and see me play is invited, and obviously the new album will be available on the night.
LDIM – Finally, what does the rest of the year have in store for you?
SS – I’m speaking to promoters at the moment. Obviously I want to promote my album but I also want to tour. I have gigs booked but I really want to do an acoustic tour, so perhaps just me on stage with two other musicians as opposed to a full band is the way I’d like to do it, and that’s something that we’re exploring as we go forward. I like the small, intimate venues. I like to create an atmosphere with the candles on the stage and I feel that’s how my music best translates. Mainly Ireland, UK and Germany with the possibility of tour dates in Europe.
Shane Sullivan launches his breathtaking debut solo album on Thursday April 30, 8pm at the Clanard Court Hotel, Athy county Kildare, all are welcome.
The album Little Steps is available on digital download from April 30. Stay tuned for updates from Shane Sullivan, in the meantime check out the video and title track, Little Steps.
Follow Shane on Facebook by searching Shane Sullivan Music, and also on Twitter @ShanesullyMusic.