If you combined the soulfulness of Ben Harper, the heartbreaking honesty of Tracy Chapman and the syncopated acoustic rhythms of Ani DiFranco, you would have Bay Area musician Khalil Sullivan and his band Mad Noise.
A gifted songwriter in Northern California’s independent music scene, Sullivan possesses a unique talent for creating intelligent pop music. His honest, atmospheric brand of folk R&B covers relatable themes like getting it on, unrequited love, and desire. But Mad Noise‘s recent EP release, “Noise Complaint,” is the first recording he feels truly represents his sound.
Backed by Chris Weir on upright bass, Mogli on drums, and Pharoah on blues harp, Sullivan busques the streets of San Francisco, plays house parties, art galleries, and even weddings. “We’re basically a party band, but we like to party with people of all ages and cultures,” said Sullivan.
But Sullivan’s music is so much more than a party. The Princeton alum, who’s currently pursuing a PhD in English at UC Berkeley, offers a substance and sincerity in his songwriting too often absent from pop music. Perhaps this is because his songwriting is informed by his sexuality and relationship experiences.
“I write songs that are overtly sexual, changing the gender sometimes during the performance to reflect my own bisexuality. And it confuses people,” Sullivan said. “I watch people’s reactions. ‘What will they think when they hear this lyric? Or this phrase? Or this word?’ My band watches as well. They’re straight, so I think they get a kick out seeing the jaws drop.”
But Sullivan wasn’t always so out in his music. For a long time he wasn’t ready to let his sexuality be known to everyone, particularly his family. “Bisexuality doesn’t get a good reputation in the national discourse. So I didn’t feel comfortable engaging in a discourse that required me to educate so many people. I just wanted to make art,” said the songwriter. “But art has a way of changing us. I got frustrated with the need to hide so much, especially if I use music to open up, to transform others and to be transformed.”
So Sullivan wrote a coming out song called “Thief” in early 2009. The song blends sustained haunting melodies with a military rhythm that captures inner conflict and lyrics describing bedroom thieves and pirates. The multi-layered tune inspired Sullivan to form his band, so he could play its intricate arrangements live.
“Thief” will appear on Mad Noise‘s next EP, which will undoubtedly be filled with more of Sullivan’s trademark relationship angst, which expresses both his longing and frustrations. “In a relationship, I am for intimacy, so any of my own concerns come up through dialogue. I think my lovers are pleasantly surprised to see me tackle all of those issues in my music, too. I deal with my bisexuality in the music because I use the medium to deal with all of my issues.”
In the politically correct Bay Area, Sullivan doesn’t mind raising issues, either. Sometimes, particularly if he’s performing solo, he performs spirituals in Blackface, which usually shocks the hell out of Bay Area audiences. The idea sprung from his interest in a Blackface minstrel type called the “Black Dandy,” which Sullivan researched as a Princeton undergraduate. “One day, I woke up and realized I can scare people if I want to,” he said. “I was always taught to be nice and sincere, and that element comes out in the Blackface performance. But I needed to remind people that racial identity is highly complex, especially when it overlaps with other identity.”