From Avon Lake to a stage with John Mayer, musician keeps Ohio close to her heart

By Nicole Hennessy

“There’s music everywhere (in Nashville). … Every single person is a musician: your Uber driver, your waitress, everyone,” said Callie Sullivan, only a few weeks settled into her new home.

(L-R) John Mayer and Callie Sullivan discussing her song, “The Sinner,” for a recent master class. (Photo,  Kelly Davidson)

The Avon Lake native – an alternative pop singer/songwriter with unshakable 1980s rock roots – graduated from Boston’s Berklee College of Music in May. Almost immediately after she finished unpacking in Nashville, one of her Berklee professors summoned her back to Boston to workshop an original song with John Mayer (also a Berklee graduate) for a master class.

“I couldn’t say no,” Sullivan said.

Back at Berklee, with her black Taylor 214ce guitar and floral strap, a focused and relaxed Sullivan played her new song, “The Sinner,” sharing a light-up stage with Mayer, who played along and harmonized as he listened.

As the last chords quieted, Sullivan eagerly waited for feedback.

“It was really special,” she said. Mayer immediately told her the song was great how it was, and not to change anything – aside from adding one chord in a different key than the rest of the song.

“Which makes it kind of abstract and cool,” Sullivan said, eager to add the small tweak, which will make the cut on the upcoming album for her solo “Virago” project.

Virago, which refers to a hard-to-tear-down woman of great strength, courage and stature, is Sullivan’s new pop alter ego of sorts – “a force to be reckoned with” that pairs carefully crafted lyrics and “smooth, consuming synth sounds.”  Virago, or Sullivan, though, often plays live shows acoustic.

“Just my guitar and my voice,” she explained, her parents’ ever-present ’80s rock always rattling around in her head – Pat Benatar, Stevie Nicks and Akron rock goddess Chrissie Hynde there for her like old friends.

Sullivan, who attended Avon Lake High School from 2009 to 2011 before heading to Lake Ridge Academy, says she carries a Northeast Ohio roots rock vibe with her and drops into small hometown venues like the Quarry whenever she can. She has no local shows lined up at the moment, as she’s busy in Nashville playing gigs and pursuing a career in music licensing, aiming for a low-key, more behind-the-scenes life.

Daughter of the high school’s hockey coach, Fran Sullivan, Callie was surrounded by hockey her whole life. It was her own path to gravitate toward anything musical.

Fran, who described his daughter as “very driven,”  said the running family joke is that Callie “came out of the womb singing.”

Remembering picking up Callie from performances, attending shows with her, blasting endless playlists on Pandora during long drives , Fran says she’s always been humble and willing to put in the work.

To young people currently searching for their own paths, Sullivan says, just stay focused.

“It’s OK to stay in on the weekends and practice,” said Sullivan. “I always beat myself up when I would turn my friends down to hang out or skip football games because I was stuck on a chorus or a song. It pays off. It’s worth it, and you’ll still have those friends. It’s OK to put your music first.”

Virago’s album of the same name is currently being released song-by-song with “Let the Past Go” in April and “Habit” in June. The next single will be released in August.

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