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Ian McCullough, aka Cullah, wrote one of the greatest songs about being a full time musician I’ve ever heard

Ian McCullough has released 11 albums since 2006. Every one of those albums was released on his birthday, April 27. This is not by accident, as he explains, quite sensibly, that people gravitate towards you on your birthday. The hypothetical conversation as you could imagine would go something like this:

“Happy Birthday, Ian.” 
“Hey, thanks. By the way, I released my new album, today.”

A seamless exchange, unforced, natural. The perfect mirror for Cullah’s songwriting. His songs begin as explorations; he follows a riff or a melody, a drumbeat or a synth riff. Nothing forced. “The lyrics come last,” he told me, as we sat down in his band’s rehearsal space above Company Brewing on Center Street. I was so engrossed by Ian that we met twice, the second time at Beerline Café (great smoothies) where we discussed more specifically one of the tracks on his new album, “Cullahsus” called “Be Nine To Thrive.” The song is an inner monologue, Ian talking to himself about being a full time musician, the sacrifices, the grind, and the hard work of making music. “I let the sound of the song tell me what to do,” he says, as if that’s the easiest thing in the world to accomplish.

Above and beyond the sentiment, the production and the musicianship of the song is the pure energy of “Be Nine To Thrive.” It’s a jam. The song is a passionate paean that comes bursting out of the speakers, all groove and 8 bit synth riff and Fatboy Slim references and 90s hip hop. The song begins with the chorus:

Where you run
Where you hide
Don't matter much when you're down on your luck

What you smoke
What you drink
Don't matter much if you don't want to think

You get the sense that he’s looking at himself in the mirror. Coming to terms with the direction your life is headed, and being true to that feeling is at the core of the song, the acknowledgment that you can’t escape your own reality no matter how hard you try. Ian says, “Everyone has an escape – you have to be aware of your own vices and your own reality to find the balance – thinking about what you’re doing, being intentional – sometimes it’s good to not think.”

Pretty grounded for a twenty-something year old who makes music in his bedroom.

But here’s the other thing about Ian’s music: his inner monologue is a bit more effective than others in one sense – his singing voice is an otherworldly musical instrument.

In other words, Ian has a huge voice. Immense. One part Jack White, one part Dan Auerbach and one part Jeff Buckley. I’m not sure there is a better pure vocalist in Milwaukee (or possibly even in the 500 mile radius). There are even parallels to Fiona Apple, whose unassuming presence exists in stark contrast to her voluminous vocal chords. If you get the chance to meet Ian, it is difficult to imagine the sound of his voice coming out of his body. But it is his singing voice that makes that inner monologue so much more powerful. Listening isn’t optional, you’re going to hear it whether you like it or not.

Ian McCullough, photographed at Beerline Cafe.

Ian is also a student of the musical game. He produces and records all of his own material. His life as a fulltime musician consists, as he describes it, of “sending a lot of e-mails, organizing events, making connections with bands – booking outside Milwaukee, press releasing and promoting and working a lot on video.” As hard as he works, he’s very humble, relaxed, grounded. He comes from a huge family, and on his mother’s side of the family Ian is one of about 100 grandkids. (Yeah, you read that right.) The only other vocalist on “Cullahsus?” His sister.

Ian went to Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland and has a Masters of Philosophy in Music and Media Technology. He can carry a conversation about Psychoacoustics effortlessly. He shared with me his master’s thesis, titled “MEDITENTION -- An audio-visual performance and tape piece expressing the emotional state of a performer via brain sensing and the use of four audio-visual themes.” Still with me?

It’s hard to listen to Cullah without thinking deep thought went into every word, every note, every part. As “Be Nine To Thrive” winds down, he continues to preach to himself, a self-mantra in an extremely catchy call and response manifesto:

I gotta bone to pick
It really makes me sick
I think it's poisonous
Most employment is
I'll tell ya quick
I got a choice of this

And then, in a early 2000s throwback Fatboy style complete with the beats and the delay he asks himself:

(Are you) a slave to a debt or a slave to sweat?

Good question. I suppose down the road Ian will have his answer, admitting that his songs are like a library of his emotional states at the time he wrote them. Kind of like a large emotional reference file.

“Maybe I’m a digitized emotional hoarder," he ponders. "I take periods of my life and put them into different songs, and I listen and it takes me back to that.”


Explore Cullah's discography and more at cullah.com

About the author

Co-founder, Editor-in-Chief, Commonstate.com

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