“He puts out a lot of albums.”
That was the single-clause phrase consistently returned to my inquiry about Riverwest songwriter Ian McCullough, known as Cullah, while preparing to interview the prolific artist and Milwaukee County native.
Fifteen albums in 15 years; each one released on his birthday (April 27th). That was the statistic.
Consistency, I thought, it breeds a certain character.
I had built that character in my head and – wanting to keep the initial experience fresh – I chose not to research Cullah (his age, hometown or even a picture of the guy).
Cullah did not match the image I concocted.
For one, he was 29 years old (about to turn 30). While I know some motivated 15-year-olds, I cannot say any of them have the propensity to write one bar of music, let alone several thousand. Stated simpler: I thought Cullah would be older.
My second takeaway: Cullah seemed particularly free inside his own volition or – at the very least – he embraced the opportunity to (at the bare minimum) wax philosophical with a complete stranger. Often, as a journalist, it is rare to speak with people who are neither ostentatious nor disconnected.
“From a purely energetic sense, I think music is deeper than language,” said Cullah at one point, without an iota of pretention. “It’s even more primal.”
I was relieved to realize quickly that a tête-à-tête with Cullah would not include a compulsive note-by-note analysis of any music nor, on the flip side, would it be a one-way conversation with an artist too far in his own head to provide coherent responses.
What unfolded, instead, was a several-hours-long discussion about accountability, maturity, acceptance and identity.
We sat at a picnic table outside a bodega with a six-pack of beer – a hobby built out of compromise and uncertainty. At times, it snowed – each of us took turns shivering in our own sweatshirts until the sun would return and precipitation would cease.
We used several vehicles to discuss these topics. Sometimes the backdrop of our own lives, sometimes through references to Greek mythology or to prominent authors/thinkers/psychologists.
“Back to psychology just about ‘owning’ our feelings or ‘dealing with’ our feelings,” said Cullah, at a point where the line between interview and reflection had disappeared. “That’s where I feel like the music and the art… You can escape from all that nonsense.”
If Cullah sounds dismissive, it is neither of the ethos nor of the pursuit of understanding that comes with wrapping one’s head around the relationship between psychology and etymology. Instead, the escape – it appears – is from his own pursuit; one that, at times, might consume him.
Cullah speaks with a veracity that is endearing, but also with a speed that can be challenging. If he is capable of talking about this many things, I wonder how much he is capable of thinking about. Certainly, at times, a brain that never stops wondering can be a ghastly curse.
“I feel like, once you hit around 25 to 30, things change. Your body actually changes, your metabolism changes, your hormones start to shift. I started to get hair on my back and in my nose and all this stuff. It’s clear that it’s a different time,” he said, finding comfort in outwardly acknowledging this. “These different things are turning on in my head and in my body, and I’m getting different instincts and different types of things that are flooding into me.”
The best word to describe Cullah’s music might, also, be a fitting word to describe him: amalgamation.
While his music relies on the root sounds of base genres like rock and roll, blues and hip-hop, each individual piece ends up expertly synergized by Cullah into a final product that sounds more cohesive than other fusion contemporaries.
But this definition works for the man, as well.
He has lived most of his life in the Milwaukee area, save for a two-year trip to Ireland to complete a masters program in music, but he speaks with the worldliness of a well-travelled statesman. He expressed admiration for Daft Punk and Joni Mitchell in the same breath. He prefers tea to coffee. He hunts deer. He reads Carl Jung. He sings in a choir.
Cullah’s mother was one of 17 children to his grandfather and grandmother. The family was raised devoutly Catholic, but Cullah’s grandfather was also a musician, and he paid his children’s college tuition by forming a family band.
“He was raised by gypsies and during the Great Depression, and he was kind of disowned by his family… given to the orphanage,” said Cullah of his grandfather.
He added that, for his grandfather, music was a means of survival. He learned to play violin on the streets to make money.
“I was taught… at an early age the experiential aspects of music,” said Cullah, who added that his family’s relationship with music helped shape his. “They made a big-band style band and travelled all over the Midwest playing corporate gigs and stuff.”
Cullah added that his grandmother and uncles would write music for masses, as well. He said, while he never felt connected to the Catholic religion, that divinely inspired Renaissance music can be empirically spiritual, a sensation he feels has heightened with age.
“’Responsibility’ is something I could go on a tangent about,” he admits, in a way that reveals he has a new perspective on the term. “A lot of my exploration into that has been through the lens of trying to understand my own mature masculinity and understand what masculinity is.”
And as an amalgamated individual, that discovery requires a constant awareness of self and an understanding on how one social structure affects the others. As quickly as Cullah ponders his own masculinity, he just as swiftly finds himself in his father’s shoes.
“The closest thing I could think of becoming a man… I came back [after] the first couple weeks of college and my dad threw me a can of beer, and I caught it,” he said, smiling at the surface-level nature of what he called a “pseudo-ritual.”
All of Cullah’s self-discovery surrounding socio-familial relationships, however, tends to benefit the listener. Cullah’s mathematics background (he studied engineering in college) means the sonic elements of music work together but equally so do the literary aspects.
Calling out the names of Greek gods and relying on myths in the Judeo-Christian pedagogy, Cullah’s latest album, he said, relied heavily on the Jungian concept of “shadow work.”
“What shadow work does; it essentially tries to expose or tries to illuminate the aspects of yourself that you suppressed,” he clarified.
What resulted is an album that ponders age-old questions using ancient deities among a progressive sonic landscape.
But the beauty of releasing an album every year is its timeliness.
While Cullah relies on historical backdrops, he is still writing for a modern audience and contemplating contemporary issues.
“I joined [protests for racial equality] this last summer, and I brought my field recorder and recorded a lot of chants and different experiences,” said Cullah, who said bytes from that audio have made it onto the album.
The day before our meeting, George Floyd’s murderer was found guilty on all three counts levied against him.
We close our conversation on the topic of equality, though it lasts for more than half-an-hour.
Since I know that two 30-year-old white men from Milwaukee cannot, through an honest discussion with one another, change the nature of this country, I will allow those words to remain in the ether.
We did conclude with this:
“Everyone is just in despair. Our life expectancy is decreasing. Politics don’t matter if everyone is just sick,” said Cullah, then asking pseudo-rhetorically what his role and motives are. “How do I empower people? Am I living my life on guilt?”
Cullah then thought of the ancient fire keepers; the people, who, after watching lightning strike a tree, discover the primeval power of fire.
He equated the fire keepers to the activists, artists, volunteers, lawyers, philanthropists and anyone who has fought tooth-and-nail to make the country more equitable.
“You have to make sure you’re empowering the individual,” he said. “You can’t just believe in yourself. It wouldn’t make any sense for me to be a musician and not understand collective cooperation. That’s what the music is all about.”
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