Quick Q and A with Erin Ash Sullivan

Erin Ash Sullivan is a Harvard, Massachusetts based musician who has just recently released an album of original songs entitled We Can Hear Each Other. Her name was totally new to me and I was intrigued about what she had to say and sing about. I learned immediately that she had a way to grab the listener’s ear and pull them in one word and one note at a time. Erin’s songs are insightful and empowering in all the right ways.

To learn more about Erin, visit her website.

I’d love to know about your early experiences with music. Did you grow up as a listener or a player?  Do tell!

Music has always been a huge part of my life, and my grandmother (more on her below) was very much a role model for me as a singer and performer. I started out with recorder lessons early on (sorry, neighbors!) and moved on to piano when I was 10. Throughout high school and college, I was always seeking out opportunities to sing and perform—mostly musical theater in high school, and then a cappella in college (which is where Amy and I first sang together). I started playing guitar and writing music after college.

You are a born storyteller. The last song on the album “Radio Show” gives us a glimpse into your younger self (and your sister) as you created your own radio show — and it features an interview.  Did these early experiences with a tape recorder give you the bug to get into recording music?

Yes! “Radio Show” is 100% true—my sister (who is six years younger than I am) and I did in fact move every two years until I was 12, which meant that despite the age difference we often turned to each other for entertainment and companionship. Our TEAC tape deck was a beloved possession—it provided hours of fun and sparked a lot of creativity. (I’ve found that I’m not alone in this—I’ve run into a lot of people who grew up in the 70s and 80s and loved their tape decks!) I also remember getting a boom box in high school with a dual tape deck—that was a whole new rabbit hole to go down, once I figured out that I could overdub my own voice with additional harmonies.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to ask you about your first recording called Tattooed Queen as part of a duo called Edith O with singer-songwriter, Amy Speace.  First of all, I’ve got to ask…. Edith O.  Was the duo named after a real Edith?  I went down a rabbit hole and discovered a couple of possibilities who had interesting histories, but I want to hear it from the horse’s mouth.  Who was Edith and why was she important to you and Amy?

Ah! I’ll try to keep this answer streamlined. So our original band name was Edith of Ohio. I had just finished a master’s program in education and had read a book about children’s language development that included a chapter on children raised “in the wild”—and the list included a beautifully exotic list of names (the Indian Panther Child, The Maurentian Gazelle-Child, Tomko of Zips, the Wolf-Children of Mindapore) and at the end of the list…Edith of Ohio. We were so tickled by that that we chose it for our band name. However, it just so happened that at the exact same time in NYC, there was another band playing out called Eddie from Ohio. We heard through mutual friends that Eddie from Ohio would very much like us to change our name, please and thank you, and because at the time they had a much bigger following than we did, we capitulated and simplified our name to Edith O.

I’d love to know more about your early songwriting and performing career.  What was it like playing at music clubs in Greenwich Village and beyond? And is it true that your last gig was one that you forgot to go to….?  Please fill us in on these details.

Playing out in NYC with Amy and our band in the early 90s was a blast. Two of our favorite spots were CBGB’s 313 Gallery and the Bitter End. At the time, I was teaching third grade on the Upper East Side, and you can imagine my horror one night at the Bitter End when we showed up to discover that the entire front row of tables had been taken up by a gaggle of eight-year-old girls and their moms…that did not do much for my street cred!

And as for missing our last gig, that is true, alas. I was pregnant throughout the recording and mixing of our album, Tattooed Queen, and my daughter was born right around the time of our record release. Like most young moms, I spent the next six weeks in a haze of half-sleep and covered in another human’s bodily fluids, and so one evening around 8:00 pm I was just finishing up a diaper change when I got a panicked call from Amy. It was the night of our record release show AND I HAD COMPLETELY FORGOTTEN TO GO. My husband and I were living in Astoria at the time, so there was no way I could have made it there in time. Amy was heroic and did the full show solo. It’s a miracle she still speaks to me!

Fast forward a bit and you’ve made a new life for yourself as an educator, wife, and mother.  Did you always have a feeling that you’d get the calling to go back out there and make another record and start performing again?

While the musician part of me went almost completely dormant for a number of years while my children were small, my husband Danno Sullivan remained active in the music world (he’s a ukulele player and uke teacher/community organizer here in the Boston area). In 2017, we participated in a uke camp up in New Hampshire, and that experience was the catalyst. After a week of making music with the wonderful folks up there, I started writing again, and that fall, I took the leap and started playing at some of the open mics near me. Let me just say that the open mic community here in Boston is unbelievably welcoming and inclusive—the encouragement and support I found in those listening rooms was what really motivated me to return to creating and performing. People like Dan Tappan, Rich Eilbert, John Ferullo, Dan Cloutier, and Aaron Tornberg do such important work in creating spaces that celebrate the creative risks that all the performers are taking when they get up on stage.  

It sounds as though you’ve had some songs percolating within you for a while.  How long did you work with Doug Kwartler at Hollow Body Studios on the creation of We Can Hear Each Other? Also, tell us about the last push when Doug rebooted his Volvo into a mobile recording studio and how you were able to produce those songs during the pandemic.

Doug and I started working on the album in the fall of 2019 and were making pretty good progress when the pandemic hit, and then we put the project on pause for about six months. This past September, Doug suggested going mobile and created a portable iteration of his studio that he was able to pack into his Volvo. He set up all of his gear on my front porch and snaked the cables in through a partially open window to the living room, where I was set up with my uke, guitar, and microphone. We lucked into great weather, and the session was a success! Doug is an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist and producer, and his creative ideas for the arrangements really elevated the tracks.

Your songs about big and small moments in people’s lives are quite poignant. For instance, in “Train to Gary” you sing about your grandmother who was on the road to be a professional singer and left it all to marry your grandfather.  Talk about wanting to know more!  Isn’t it amazing to learn the stories about one’s relatives and not having the wherewithal to ask questions at the time!  How was this story relayed to you and how did it embed itself with you enough to turn it into a song?

My grandmother, Dorothy Foose, was one of my personal idols. She grew up in Gary, Indiana, during the Depression; her mother took on extra work to pay for her daughter’s voice lessons, and as soon as she was able, Dorothy headed to New York City, where she sang in USO clubs and even got cast in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma before deciding to leave the city (before the show opened) and marry my grandfather.

By the time I knew Dottie, she was very much the matriarch—but she had also maintained her identity as a singer, primarily of opera. She traveled the world with my grandfather, and wherever he was working, she found her way into the local music community and performed as a soloist. But for all that she was still a musician, she was still defined by her marriage to my grandfather, and her music career was limited by those parameters. Her early career and her adventures as an independent single person faded into myth, and she never talked about those days…and it never occurred to me to sit her down and get those stories from her when I could.

The lyrics to “Train From Gary” came out in a flood one afternoon during a writing exercise focused on a completely different song. I was trying to get “inside” her head and generate a list of questions that I thought would shed more light on her character—and then I realized that the questions themselves could be lyrics.

Likewise, your song called “Take It From There” is about a childhood friend and the circumstances surrounding her life in homeless shelters.  It’s a sad story but you still manage to show her tenacity and the love for her children.  What prompted you to turn that story into a song?

“Take It From There” was written to honor a schoolmate of mine named Kim Dobbie, who was tragically murdered in 2018. When I moved back to my hometown as an adult after having been away for many years, Kim was one of the first people I ran into, in the pediatrician’s office, and at that time I also met her twins, the loves of her life. Since our kids were around the same age, we ran into each other frequently—walking our kids in strollers, reading at the library, swimming at the pond—and she was unfailingly upbeat and unequivocally dedicated to her boys.

In subsequent years, Kim hit some tough times, and she moved up to Maine, where her road continued to be challenging. She kept in touch with her Harvard friends through Facebook, through detailed posts that documented every moment of her days with her kids. It was clear that life wasn’t easy. But here’s the thing: in every post, she wrote about the joy she found in her kids, the miracles of kindness she encountered, and the comfort of small moments. She faced down the turmoil and was figuring out how to create a home for her kids.

When I learned that Kim had died, I read through her Facebook feed again and was once again moved by her single-minded focus on maintaining comfort and continuity for her children. I wanted to write a song that honored Kim, and that honored the drive to protect that (to me, at least) is at the very heart of being a parent. I used some of the language and details from Kim’s posts as a starting point and built the rest of the lyrics from there. I wanted to shine a light on how hard it is to be a parent no matter what you’re facing, and how every moment of loving a kid into adulthood is a victory.

Have you played much with your daughter, Emma?  “Spring Come Running” is quite a departure from other songs on the album and it’s a delight.

“Spring Come Running” is my COVID song! Right after everything shut down in March 2020, Dan Cloutier (who runs the open mic at The Burren in Somerville) gave the open mic folks the prompt of “Spring” for writing a new song. I wanted to write something that was hopeful and that spoke to the need for being resilient during tough times. Emma, who was teaching in Los Angeles at the time, came home for a four-month stay, and she very kindly agreed to add her voice. She’s a talented singer-songwriter in her own right—and I’ll grab any opportunity I can to make music with her!

So many of your songs deal with humanity and ways to connect with each other.  You show us the “threads of our lives” in a gentle and appealing way and make everything seem possible.  Is that mindset one that you’ve always possessed or is it something that you worked on and can perhaps give us some guidance on how to keep positivity alive?

Kathy, that’s such a lovely thing to say—and I’m glad that sentiment comes through in the music. I chose the title “We Can Hear Each Other” intentionally, because I believe so strongly in the power of listening to people and making them feel known. Maybe that comes from so many years of teaching and finding ways to connect with students—who knows? I’ve always been a “glass half full” kind of person who is looking for the bright spots even when things are grim.

Now that the world seems to be opening up once again, do you have any short and long-term goals you’d like to accomplish?

I have a new batch of music that I’ve started recording—so that’s exciting! And I’m really looking forward to lining up some shows in the coming year. I feel like such a newbie as I learn how to navigate this world, but I’ve been lucky to meet and work with people who are helping me find my way.