Scarlett Sullivan and her father, Spencer, sit together on the living-room couch of their Madison, Miss., home. Behind them, Scarlett’s 10-year-old sister, Nora, bounces happily through the dining room. When she notices Nora, Scarlett’s face softens into a proud, shy smile—a welcome sight.
Doctors diagnosed Nora with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in December 2019. ALL is a type of cancer in which the affected person’s bone marrow produces too many immature lymphocytes. Immature blood cells, referred to as lymphoblasts, do not have the ability to fight infection. The lymphoblasts overproduce and crowd out normal blood-forming cells in the bone marrow. Medical professionals treat the disease, one of the most common forms of children’s leukemia, with chemotherapy.
“I remember being shocked and thinking, ‘Why us?’ It was so unreal,” Scarlett Sullivan told the Mississippi Free Press over Zoom. “I was thinking that out of everybody, why did this happen to us? I just felt scared for her. Then I wrote a song for her so that she would be strong and get through it.”
The 14-year-old released the song, “Iron Shield,” in February of this year. In the song, the multi-genre artist expresses her feelings regarding her sister’s diagnosis. The single also depicts her love for her family and her Christian faith. The song contains metaphors about religion, family, strength and hope.
“Iron is strong, and she is strong like that,” Scarlett said of Nora. “I feel like if you listened to it, you wouldn’t immediately know, but it is kind of a way for me to put my feelings out there. But also, if people were to go to my Facebook and read about it, I would definitely want them to be more aware of leukemia.”
Scarlett performed the song live at the 2020 Make-A-Wish Foundation gala. Her father joined the foundation board in 2019 and attended one meeting before learning of Nora’s diagnosis. The family has continued to support the organization, which announced that it would grant Nora’s wish for a trip to Hershey, Pa.
“Our families work with Make-A-Wish to help raise money at different points along the way and in particular last year at the gala and the board,” said Spencer, who works as a pediatric hematologist oncologist. “As we got more and more involved, they asked Scarlett if she would perform (her song) at their annual gala.”
Nora Sullivan finished her treatments at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital last year and has since returned to school and to participating in sports.
‘Lightning in a Bottle’
Local musician Chad Wesley, who guides Scarlett Sullivan through guitar lessons at Eternal Beyond Studio where she records, helped produce the version of “Iron Shield” presently available on streaming platforms.
The young songstress named the track after taking inspiration from the Marvel Cinematic Universe of films.
“She got the idea of an ‘Iron Shield,’ I believe, from Captain America,” Wesley told the Mississippi Free Press. “That just correlated with how she felt both watching what her sister was going through and feeling like a protector of her sister and how strong and tough her sister was for surviving everything.”
A multi-award-winning local music artist, Wesley wrote the instrumental arrangement for “Iron Shield” to support Sullivan’s powerful vocals. The heartfelt ballad features sounds using acoustic and electric guitars, drums, keyboards, the cello and the violin.
“When she initially started singing it, I could tell that it was a power ballad,” Wesley said. “I could tell it had a lot of emotional context, and I knew immediately that it needed to be heavily reinforced with as much production as possible because the song was that strong.”
“For the longest time we had a version that was just her, an acoustic guitar and a little bit of piano,” he added. “But in the back of my mind I thought this song needs all of that stuff because the song itself can support that kind of production.”
Over the course of a year, Wesley played with variations of arrangements—adding drums to one part and guitar to another. Lead engineer, Nathan Maines, suggested ditching the synthesized strings for live recordings.
“That turned out to be probably the best decision for the production,” Wesley said. “We ended up getting lightning in a bottle, but it wasn’t an overnight thing. It definitely was a result that proved that patience and hard work and trusting instincts and then working as a team can definitely pay off.”
‘Through the Roof’
Scarlett Sullivan developed a love of music at an early age. Family radios played an eclectic mix of sounds from country to hip-hop and pop. She began learning guitar and writing songs when she was 10 years old. In addition to her guitar lessons with Chad Wesley, the Madison Middle School student takes weekly voice lessons from her school choir director, Jan Bruening. She also participates in the school choir and show choir.
“She just had a natural talent but also the work ethic to develop it,” Wesley said. “She is extremely open to creative art, constructive criticism and creative points. So (when) we got her enrolled in some vocal lessons, she just jumped leaps and bounds. From that point on, her songwriting started going even more through the roof because the more she learned how to sing, the more she learned how to create her own vocal melodies.”
Scarlett’s sound blends pop, gospel, blues, country and rock ’n’ roll. Sullivan has released three pop singles, and she released “Everything,” a contemporary Christian single, on Good Friday, April 7. She plans to release a country song during Mother’s Day weekend in May.
“We’ve encouraged her to not worry about a specific sound or a specific genre or type of music,” Spencer, who also serves as Scarlett’s manager, said. “We (encourage) her that if (she) feels something she wants to write, write it. That’s why you’ll see a mix of songs.”
That ability to sing multiple genres of music is what Wesley believes sets her apart.
“What makes Scarlett so unique, especially for her age, is that she’s completely what we call ‘non-degenreable’; she doesn’t have a specific genre she sticks to,” he explained. “I think if anything, that is the perfect example of the modern artists not binding themselves to be held under any particular genre. (Scarlett) wants to try it all, so I think these songs are going to be a huge hit for a while because they give the listeners a taste of so much variety.”
During the Sullivan family’s call with the MFP, Spencer called Nora to the camera, and she gave a quick wave.
“I’m happy that she got through it,” Scarlett said. “She’s able to carry on and come back stronger.”
For more information about Scarlett Sullivan’s music or to listen to her currently available singles, visit scarlettsullivanmusic.com or find the artist on Spotify, Apple Music and other streaming platforms. Follow her professional social-media presence on Facebook or Instagram.