Brian Sullivan estimates he’s written about 150 songs since arriving in Juneau more than 20 years ago. It’s a collection of work that until now had existed only on paper, stacked in a binder in his living room, and had only been heard live in the barroom of the Alaskan Hotel & Bar during open mic night. Now, he’s finally captured a handful of his songs in a more lasting form — his first compact disc “Invisible Circus” is due to be released Saturday night.
Sullivan said he waited this long to make the album because he wanted to be sure he’d be happy with it.
“There’s a lot of things I wanted to learn. I wanted to make sure I was doing it right,” he said.
Recording under the name Five O’Clock Charlie, Sullivan asked friend C. Scott Fry to accompany him on the 11 tracks, all of which are originals.
“There’s four old ones, four new ones, and one or two that I’ve never played for anybody (before) — too personal,” he said.
For more than 20 years, Sullivan has played his music at the Thursday night open mic events at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar; he attended the very first one in 1991, organized by Dan Minuskin and Riley Woodford, and has missed only a few since then. Along the way he’s gotten to know and play with other musicians, such as Fry, learning from them as he goes.
On the album, both Sullivan and Fry play acoustic guitar, and Sullivan plays harmonica and sings. Recorded by Betsy Sims at Studio A, the album was recorded in one continuous session.
“The type of music is folk-gospel-blues, but it’s not church music,” Sullivan said. “It’s like hippie folk music.”
Sullivan said his lyrics reflect the interesting people he’s met and his experiences “like a musical journal.” He’s had lots of colorful material to draw on, having hitchhiked to all 50 states — with Alaska being his last stop — as well as through Canada and Mexico, and having lived through some pretty wild days in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1980s.
Even when things were wild, however, music and creativity were always at the center of his life, Sullivan said. He recalled composing poems with his flat-mates in San Francisco that they would print up and sell on street corners for grocery money, and playing covers of Bob Dylan songs in the subway stations of San Francisco and Seattle for change in the days before he wrote his own music.
“Music has always been important to me, it’s always been a part of me,” he said.
A chance run-in with a music promoter named Dave Whitaker started to make Sullivan think about his music in a different way. After performing at a couple of shows that Whitaker helped him set up, Sullivan found out through friends that Whitaker had worked with Dylan himself in his early days in Greenwich Village.
“I was totally embarrassed,” Sullivan said. “Because there’s someone who is doing all these things, encouraging people to be creative, and I had like two songs of my own. I didn’t have anything to show him. I was totally motivated after that.”
Not long afterward, he headed to Juneau, drawn by the skiing and the Alaska Folk Festival. Soon after, he got settled and began to look for help in taking his guitar playing to the next level.
“One of my goals was to find somebody to show me a real practical method on how to play the guitar,” he said. “I had bits and pieces, and I knew enough to read off the music, but I wanted to start on a writing project.
After asking around, he ended up spending time with three proficient teachers — Fry, John Unzicker and Jay Caputo, who together spent about three years sharing their music knowledge with him.
“I was real excited to find these people,” he said. “I knew people who could fake it on the guitar, but I’d never spent time with somebody who knew the whole guitar -- music theory and everything. So, I was fortunate enough to find people to spend some time with me.”
Sullivan was able to draw on some things he’d learned as a kid, including his experiences in elementary school band, when he played the French horn and saxophone, and on his experiences with creative writing and poetic form.
Those structures all came back to him when he began writing lyrics, he said.
“A lyric is just a musical poem,” he said. “A lot of people play well and some people actually sound like music, but most of them don’t have a clue about how to start the creative process. Luckily, I had a background. I’ve probably taught 20 or 30 people here a simple formula to writing lyrics.”
Now that he’s got one album down, others might be in the works, he said.
Longtime local musician Fry, one of the founding members of blues band Devil’s Club and a member of the Sean McCole Trio, said for his part on the album, he tried to keep the focus on Sullivan.
“I wanted to keep it simple enough so that you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was me or him,” he said. “I kept my part simple so it would be a Brian record, not a Brian-and-Scott record or a Scott-and-Brian record.”
Fry is also working on an album of his own — which he describes as “country-inspired, folk-inspired, blues-inspired rock and roll” – that he hopes to have done in a few months.
Overall, Sullivan said he’s very happy with “Invisible Circus.”
“This is something special here, I think, or I wouldn’t have printed it up,” he said. “It just blew me away how great it came out.”
Sullivan’s CD release party will get started around 9 p.m. Saturday night at the Alaskan Hotel & Bar, and will feature performances by Five O’Clock Charlie as well as Blues by Association and other special guests. CDs will be for sale at the show, and at Rainy Day Books.
Friday night the Alaskan will host a performance by Irene Muller and her band.
For more information, call 586-1000.