Interview: Kevin Sullivan

Singer-songwriter Kevin Sullivan, from Gerringong on the south coast of New South Wales, has been slowly but surely making his mark in Australian country music. His very first single, ‘Outback Australia’ debuted at #5 on the iTunes Country chart and his first album, Belonging, debuted at #2. Earlier this year he released the single ‘Pilgrimage’, which was written about ANZAC Day and was #1 for three consecutive weeks on the Australian Country Tracks chart.

Sullivan’s latest single is ‘Against the Tide’, and when asked how he’s gone against the tide in his own life he says, ‘I say about my life it’s that lived in the safe zone, and people laugh because I was a former forensic policeman, and I was a bomb technician. It’s 20 years since the Sydney Olympics and I was the bomb tech that ran all the police and defence force bomb techs for the Olympics. And people say, “How were you ever in the safe zone, doing that?”

‘I had a career that I loved but my real passion was music. And even though I played music I probably had this burning sensation that just wanted to get out. I’ve had a mortgage and life and family, which has all been fantastic, but I think for me the “against the tide” part of it is more embracing my age and my appearance and my sound and, and truly who I am. I think that’s what it’s about. And not being afraid to swim against the tide to get there.

‘And there’s been some challenges music wise with my age and other things, because I’m starting late in life that I, but I just haven’t given up and I’m still not giving up,’ he says, laughing.

Sullivan’s path away from his career came in an unexpected way.

‘I ended up as an inspector at Redfern in Sydney,’ he says. ‘I came off my pushbike and broke my right arm in seven places. I was coming home from work. That’s back in 2009, that happened. I loved the police, don’t get me wrong. I loved every day of it. I was a forensic policeman. I was doing major crime and it was pretty full-on and interesting and challenging. But when I broke my arm I was off work for two years. In 27 years I think I had about three sick days, which sounds crazy, but I just loved going to work and I loved the police, the whole investigation.

‘While I was off I then developed post-traumatic stress with all those jobs I had. So I had all these mental health issues. I worked through that and I think it made me sit back and think, What am I doing? Because I was surrounded by a lot of trauma. I did things like the Waterfall train disaster and I worked on the backpacker murder investigation. I did all these crazy, crazy jobs. I just thought, I’ve got to give this a go. And my wife was always telling me, “You should have always been a musician.” She said, “God has thrown you off that pushbike.” I said, “I don’t believe God throws people off pushbikes.” She said, “Well, you weren’t listening! You should have always done music.” Maybe I’m a slow learner!

‘I say to people that I believe now that I’m really following my destiny. I know that sounds like something out of Star Wars, but I really feel like I’m doing what I should’ve been doing. And it’s been good for the soul and for my mental health to really be to doing what I maybe should have always been doing.’

Sullivan says that working on ‘Against the Tide’, in particular, has made him realise that ‘you’ve got to be in a good place but you’ve also got to have the right team around you. So I worked with Matt Fell, who’s just an amazing producer. And I had the opportunity of working in Nashville with him. This single, “Against the Tide”, it will be the third single off what will be my new album.

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‘I released a song called “Just Don’t Mention Christmas” in December, which has a bit of a push-back for all the political correctness. And that actually did pretty well. I got back from Gallipoli in 2015 and I went with my brother for the centenary, so I wrote a song called “Pilgrimage”. I released that in April, which was an Anzac Day song that did really well. And now “Against the Tide” will be the third single off my new album, which will also be called Against the Tide. That’ll be out the end of next year, I would say, with this crazy world.

‘I recorded part of this in Nashville – and I’ve performed in Nashville as well when I was there – and the rest of it in Sydney. And I play with some amazing musicians … When I say “swimming against the tide”, you have age and experience when you’re a bit more mature aged. But you’re also quick to pick up – if you make a mistake you tend not to make it twice. So I’m just learning. There’s a pretty steep learning curve I’m going through. But I think I’m making headway.’

Part of him making headway was attending the CMAA Senior Academy of Country Music.

‘I saw it online, the Senior Academy of Country Music course – and the most amazing thing I ever did for my music, I might add – but it was advertised as the Senior Academy. I didn’t quite know what it was. So I applied and just before I got there, they sent an email out that said, “We’d like to congratulate all the students coming to the Senior Academy.” So here am I thinking it’s all these mature-aged people. And they said, “And the students are aged from 17 to 54.”

‘I said to my wife, “Well, I know who the 54-year-old is!”‘ he says with a laugh. ‘So I had a bit of an anxiety attack. I thought, What the jolly heck am I doing here? But what I found is it was the Senior Academy in that the people who were doing it had all been performing, writing songs, and even the very young ones. And when I got there, we were all in the same sort of boat. We had a passion for a singer-songwriter [style] a passion for country music. And I was like a sponge.

‘My tutor was Kevin Bennett. He was just fantastic. And I really clicked with Lyn Bowtell and Roger Corbett. And actually the first single I released, “Outback Australia”, Lyn Bowtell and Kevin Bennett do a bit of backing vocals for me. I met the likes of Amber Lawrence, who sat me down for an hour and just talked about the business side of things. And these amazing musicians – Kasey Chambers turned up and Adam Brand, and they talked about their journey.

‘I’d really recommend anyone thinking of doing country music seriously should do the Senior Academy. They even have a Junior Academy. It’s such a great, great thing that I did.’

Bennett joined Sullivan to play at the Gerringong Bowlo, and even that was a learning experience. ‘We were going through the songs and he’s just such a great professional musician. After the gig he said, “Look, you should give some thought to doing this. When you do that song, maybe consider doing this and doing that.” My wife said, “You’re just so lucky to have met him.” And he does it in just the most encouraging, supportive way.

‘And I continue to learn. I think being a bit more mature age, I try not to have my head up in the clouds. People tell you things and I think, No worries. I’m just really open and I just want to learn as much as I can.’

Sullivan has been writing songs and playing music from a young age. ‘I’m one of six,’ he says, ‘and my dad, he’s 90 – we just actually moved in with my dad because we’re about to go on tour – he was a Dixieland jazz pianist and he still plays piano, even at 90. So we were always singing as little guys … and from a very early age, 10, 11, 12. I was writing and making up little songs – nothing of any great substance, but from a very early age I was making up songs. And my mum – who sadly isn’t with us anymore, God rest her soul – she loved country music. So she liked Charley Pride and Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Slim Dusty.

‘So I had this really lovely mix of a jazz influence from my dad and then country music. I’ve got a song that I released my first album called “No Saxophone” and in the middle of it there’s this big, screaming saxophone solo … So I’ve really had an infusion of different instruments in a lot of my music, and there’s still a really strong foundation of country music. But I’ve got sort of clarinet and different sounds from the keyboards and different instruments coming back. And I think country music is such a wide genre that it’s good to do that. And sometimes people say to me, “What the hell are you?” I’m a country musician and it has a strong foundation. But it’s just this cool acoustic sort of riff and groove and lyrics that I’m bringing out of songs for my life and experience.’

Sullivan has drawn on his previous career for some songs, like ‘Unknown People’ from his first album. ‘There’s a few others that sort of skirt around the themes,’ he says, ‘and not so much dedicated to other crime scene stories exactly, but I think I take a lot of the emotion. There’s a lot of my experience from the mental health side of things. I think I’ve learned to write a lot of that and lift the songs a bit.

‘There’s a song I wrote called “Play ‘Shameless’ For Me”, which is not about a crime scene job. It’s about a girl I met at the Innamincka races. I played the Innamincka races for three years and I played Birdsville. And I met a girl who kept asking me to play this Garth Brooks song “Shameless”. I didn’t learn it the first year. When I came back she said, “Did you learn it?” And I said, “No, I’ve forgotten. I promise I’ll learn it next year.” So in 2013 I learnt it. It’s a really hard song, it’s got about a million chords, but I learned it.

‘And when I got there, I said to the people doing the food, “Where’s my friend Jess?” And they all started crying. There was a double murder in South Australia and Jess was murdered. A young girl was murdered and Jess saw the murderer … and he killed her as well. And I thought, I’ve lived this crime scene life. And then I’ve had this experience with this girl. And so I went home and wrote “Play ‘Shameless’ For Me”. But reflecting on my crime scene days, I thought, I’m not going to make this a sad song. And I wanted to celebrate Jess’s life as well. So it’s a very Dixieland jazz country song, and a real lovely, happy celebration of Jess’s life … When I write, I obviously take the experience from the crime scene in it, but I’m trying to come out the other side and lift the spirits in a lot of the songs I write.’

While his work in the police could have shut Sullivan off from people, it seems to have done the opposite, opening his mind and perhaps opening his heart to other people and their stories.

‘I think it’s done a bit of both,’ he says. ‘I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of death investigations and really full-on, so much so that I was desensitised.But it was never the gore that upset me – and different people are affected by different things. It wasn’t the blood, which I’ve just seen so much of, for me. It was the emotional connection. And I’ve worked through that with my PTSD. I’ve seen multiple deaths at scenes. But it was the emotional attachment of someone at the scene, a bystander who was upset. That would upset me …

‘But what I did throughout my policing career, and forever, is that I was always singing. So when I was in the police, on days off, on annual leave, I was in bands and I’d be away playing with bands and singing. My friends weren’t police officers – [although] I actually married a policewoman. But I always had people around me who weren’t police. So we were doing gigs and music, as you probably know, is a very good leveller. It’s a very great medium. And so I was doing something far removed from my forensic and police days. But I always sang.

‘In the last few years people have been calling me an emerging artist, which I find cute and nice,’ he says, laughing. ‘I think I’m very slow emerging, I’m the the slowest caterpillar who’s ever come out of a cocoon! So I’ve always sung, but now I’m just really, really going for it. And I do feel I have had to swim against the tide because of my age. And I have had it thrown at me a few times from some in the industry – “This is a young person’s thing” – and it does hit you, because we all have emotions and feelings, and even when you’ve been around the block a few times, in those moments you stop and you think, Should I give up? And then I thought, No, no. Country music is a little bit ageless. Johnny Cash was still performing when he was 90.’

Sullivan has gone all-in for his music – he and his wife have rented out their house and are preparing to go on the road.

‘We’ve got a partnership with a caravan company in Queensland called Sunland, who are building us a massive fan with three bunks and beds and shower and toilet and stuff. I still don’t have a vehicle, so if anyone from Toyota is reading they can give me a bell! But we’re going on the road for seven months and we’re taking our children out of school and we’re just going for it. So I’m practising what I’m preaching. I’m going against the tide. I’m just going for it.

I’ve got the Man from Snowy River festival in Corryong in Victoria from the 8th to the 11th of April, supporting Troy Cassar-Daley, and then I’m back at the Big Country festival in Berry. So we’re planning to get our caravan and just go and see where the four winds take us. But “Against the Tide” is all about that. And I really am chasing my dream, and it’s never too late to chase your dream too. And I’m proving that.’

Sullivan is certainly a man of dedication – first to his career in the police and now to his music – and his passion and perseverance have resulted in distinctive, memorable songs, with more to come.

kevinsullivanmusic.com