Photo credit: Craig Harris
How old were you when you started playing guitar?
I’m a late bloomer! I didn’t start playing guitar or writing music until after I graduated from college.
What was your first guitar? Did you buy it yourself? Do you still have it?
My first guitar was a Simon & Patrick that I bought used from a dear friend. I heard him play it one day and did not stop harassing him until he agreed to sell it to me. I still have that guitar, many years later – it has been critically injured and repaired twice, but it still has a gorgeous rich sound that I’ve been unable to replicate with any other guitar.
Did your parents or grandparents play any instruments? If so, what did they play? Did you ever get a chance to play with them?
My grandmother was a piano and voice teacher, and some of my earliest memories are of hanging out in the back of her house while I heard her run through warmups and scales with her students. She taught me, as well, and I’m so grateful that we shared a common love of music as a point of connection.
Erin's grandmother, Dottie--who took a train from Gary, Indiana to Broadway,
and was cast in the original Broadway production of Oklahoma.
Erin's song about her grandmother's leap of faith to pursue her dream.
What are the guitars that you play? Do you have a favorite? If so, why is it your favorite?
I have a RainSong A-WS1000 that I love. I initially bought it because I wanted something sturdy for some upcoming travel, and it has quickly become my go-to instrument. The action is fantastic, and it has a wonderful resonant sound. I also love that it is indestructible! I also have a Baby Taylor that is super fun to play, and its sound is great especially given its compact size.
Erin with her RainSong guitar. Photo credit: Chris LaVancher
What strings do you use (brands and gauges)? How often do you change your strings?
Elixir Nanoweb Phosphor Bronze Extra Lights! I recently switched over to the Elixirs and really appreciate how long they last. I tend to change my strings about once a month unless I’m playing a lot – then I change them more frequently.
Do you use a pick? If so, what brand and thickness?
I do! I use the Fender Mojo Grip Celluloid medium picks and especially like their extra grip and thickness.
Do you use any effect pedals? If so, what are your favorites?
Nope – I tend to keep things pretty simple and pedal-free when I’m playing.
Do you work on your own guitars or do you bring them to a guitar tech? Are there any guitar techs that you would like to recommend?
I definitely do NOT work on my own guitars! I know enough about guitars to know that I know almost nothing, and I’ve been super lucky to work with Earle Pughe, a talented player and teacher and amazing guitar tech. He brought my Simon & Patrick back from the dead and has done setup on a number of my guitars over the years. He’s been incredibly patient with my relative lack of knowledge and does a great job of explaining what he’s done.
Do you have a favorite guitar shop? What makes it a good shop?
The Minor Chord in Littleton, Massachusetts is/was my favorite shop—such nice people and a great selection of guitars. Sadly they closed at the end of 2022 because the owner retired.
At what age did you start writing songs?
Well – there’s the first first song that I wrote when I was six which we shall not discuss, but I was 22 when I wrote my first actual song.
What is your songwriting process? Is it the music or the lyrics that usually come to you first? Do you write old school on paper, or electronically?
Typically each song starts with a phrase or an idea that sticks with me, and then the lyrics and melody develop in tandem. I’m most productive when I’m walking—away from instruments or screens or anything else that can distract me—and I can play with melodies and rhythms in my head. I use the Voice Memos app on my phone to keep track of what I’m doing, and once I’ve got the basic structure down I write the lyrics and chords down in a notebook. I try to keep things as low-tech as possible. I’m a huge fan of February Album Writing Month (fawm.org). The FAWM challenge is to write 14 songs in 28 days; the FAWM community is incredibly supportive, and I’ve found the tight deadline a great way for me to stop second-guessing myself and just start getting the ideas out there.
Photo credit: Dan Tappan
Who are the top three musicians or bands that have had a major influence on you?
Patty Griffin for her ability to tell a story and break your heart with lyrics that seem deceptively simple. Paul Simon for his gift for language and ability to sew words together in amazing ways. Joni Mitchell because everything.
If you could jam with one person, living or dead, who would it be?
Oh boy. Brandi Carlile, please.
What are your top three “desert island” albums?
Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Patty Griffin’s 1000 Kisses. Paul Simon’s Negotiations and Love Songs.
What was the first concert you attended? What was the last concert you attended?
First concert was an outdoor Neil Diamond concert with my parents. The last show I went to was the Formal Showcase at NERFA (New England Regional Folk Alliance) in the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey, which included amazing folks like Grace Morrison, The Sea The Sea, Aaron Nathans & Michael G. Ronstadt, Abbie Gardner, and Jonathan Byrd.
The Beatles or the Stones?
Where and when was your first paid gig? How much did you make?
Edith O (1997)
What has been the highlight of your musical career so far?
I had the privilege of being selected for the Grassy Hill Emerging Artists Showcase at the 2022 Falcon Ridge Folk Festival and was so grateful to be on the stage with so many other talented performers. I learned recently that I was selected as one of the “Most Wanted” from that cohort, so I’ll be heading back in 2023 to play alongside the other Most Wanted performers—Grace Morrison, Sam Robbins, and Phil Henry. I can’t wait!
What has been your worst gig so far and why? (You don’t have to name names).
A number of years ago, Amy and I had a manager who claimed that he had secured us a gig opening for the Beach Boys in Maryland. We were young and clueless and neglected to do some basic things, like, say, get anything in writing. Long story short – lots of family members bought lots of expensive tickets and traveled long distances to attend this mythical gig. We showed up only to discover that we were definitely not the openers for the Beach Boys because they already had an opening act….a troupe of MARIONETTES. A hard way to learn an important lesson.
What are some of the venues you enjoy performing at the most? What things make the venue enjoyable for the performer (location, equipment, setup, organizers)?
I love love love playing listening rooms. When I’m lucky enough to be in a space where folks are there to listen to the stories AND there’s a great sound engineer at the board, there is literally nothing better.
Photo credit: Ron Rudy
How do you work out your setlist?
That’s tricky! I have to balance what my favorite songs are to play currently (which are usually the songs I’ve written most recently) with what songs will go over the best and that demonstrate a good range in terms of mood and tempo. I try to keep in mind that the show is for the audience (not me!) and that the goal is to create an experience that is enjoyable and entertaining. That often means that I have to resist the urge to pull out all of my saddest songs and think strategically about streamlining intros so that I’m not filling the set with too much blather.
Is there any advice you wish someone had given you when you were first starting out in the music business?
When I was younger I was definitely more anxious about putting myself out there and revealing my weaknesses and the gaps in my knowledge. I wish someone had told me to ask more questions and to not be afraid to ask for help and advice. The worst thing people can say is no!
Do you have any suggestions for a guitarist or songwriter who might be stuck in a musical rut?
Find a song you like and then play the chord progression backwards. It might sound terrible. Or it might trigger a new idea!
If you weren’t a singer-songwriter, what would you be doing for work?
I am very very lucky to have spent most of my professional life also working in the field of education as a teacher/administrator. I love schools, and I love working with students and teachers and parents—it’s incredibly rewarding work.
Please list some of your upcoming shows, plug your music and provide links to your merchandise.
Find me here!
Website - erinashsullivan.com
Instagram - Instagram.com/erinashsullivanmusic
Sunday, April 23: Robbins Library (Arlington, MA)
Saturday, May 6: Somerville Songwriter Sessions at the Armory with Beth DeSombre and Phil Henry (Somerville, MA)
Sunday, May 21, 2023: Stage 33 Live co bill with Meadowlark (Bellows Falls, VT)
Buy my album!
We Can Hear Each Other (2021) - #8 on the FAI Folk DJ Chart, July 2021