Story by Tiffany Hervey
Photo by Tommy Shih
Ian O’Sullivan was eight years old when he performed for the first time, hiding in a bush in his Mokule‘ia neighborhood on April Fools’ Day. He played the ice cream truck song—partly to trick neighborhood kids into false hopes of frozen treats but mostly to create and be heard.
“I wanted to play music ever since I can remember,” O’Sullivan says, but instead of guitar lessons he had to settle for picking up songs by ear. He took his first bona fide lesson years later while attending the University of Hawai‘i, where he’d initially set out to become a marine biologist. “I didn’t know you could major in music,” he says. With mentors like Grammy-winning slack key guitarist Jeff Peterson, O’Sullivan learned fast. He graduated from UH’s music program and spent the better part of his 20s honing his skills through master classes and performing. Now 31, O’Sullivan ranks among the best guitarists in the state; he recently became the first person from Hawai‘i to earn a master’s degree in guitar from Yale University and one of only two students in the country to receive a full scholarship to the program.
His sparkling debut album, Born and Raised, epitomizes the emerging genre of “Hawaiian classical guitar,” which applies classical technique and composition to Hawaiian music forms. Featuring pieces by fellow Island composers Darin Au, Bailey Matsuda, Peterson, Byron Yasui and Michael-Thomas Foumai, “It’s a compilation that represents Hawai‘i’s born-andraised composers who are steeped in the classical music tradition,” O’Sullivan says. Producer Bailey Matsuda explains that O’Sullivan is a part of a musical lineage, both classical and Hawaiian. “What makes Ian special is his identity,” Matsuda says. “He is a classically trained musician, but he is also a Hawaiian, with all the diversity and richness that entails. That’s the nostalgia and approachability you feel listening to his music.”
You can hear those qualities in two of O’Sullivan’s original compositions, “Mokule‘ia” and “Waialua,” both homages to his Island roots. They’re meant, he says, to evoke the view of farmlands stretching down to the North Shore and out to an ocean-filled horizon. “I write songs about places,” he says. “It’s music written for the land.”