For two albums, singer-songwriter Dan Sultan was ‘a collaborator’. Now he is himself. By Kate Holden.

Dan Sultan’s rules

Country soul rock’n’roll artist Dan Sultan.

“I’d never be rude about it, but —” “It’s okay. Just look mysterious and gaze into the distance and —” “No, I won’t be mysterious at all; I’ll just say no … but never rude, never rude.” 

Dan Sultan would never be rude. He’s courteous to a fault, to an interviewer’s exasperation. If he doesn’t want to talk about a subject, as he warns, he will politely say so. When he regrets some candour, he says nicely that he’d rather it weren’t in the published interview, and I reassure him of course not. He speaks thoughtfully about most issues, and though in person he comes across as serious, even subdued when we meet, his recorded voice chats away with chuckles, agreements and reflection. Every time he approaches a normal, urbane whinge about something  – “Everyone just wants to photograph their dinner. I don’t give a fuck what you’re eating!” – he is quick to moderate his prejudice – “It’s not for me to tell them they’re wrong…”. In any case, Dan Sultan has better things to do at the moment than bitch. 

Since its release in April, he’s been toting – roaring out through the strings of his guitar – his third studio album, Blackbird: the most passionate, privately necessary, personally vindicating, triumphant third album of what he calls “country soul rock’n’roll”. Recorded in Nashville under producer Jacquire King, what “feels like my first album, really” is 13 tracks of Aussie rock’n’roll, inflected with barnstorming fury, gospel, blues, banjo-twiddling and ballad-sincere crooning. Already the shows have begun, and the vibe is good.

“I’ve had tours where I’ve been dreading it,” he says, honestly, “perhaps not going into it with the best attitude… because sometimes you just want to stay at home.” But this one should be fun. He’ll be touring Australia from Byron Bay to Margaret River, Broome to Hobart, shows sold out months in advance; preparing for summer festivals overseas, summer festivals back here to follow. This is his moment, when, after three years of writer’s block, years more of jammed ambition, of restive discontent with his management and his creative partnership – after the split with both that had to come, early last year – and the bold move of recording the album of his dreams, he can finally let rip. The glory, the energy, the fulfilment. This is the one for the doubters. 

Not that there are many, it appears. Dan Sultan is one of those music figures roundly regarded as charismatic, talented and worthwhile. That’s nice, but perhaps not always easy: he doesn’t smile as he reflects on his public image. 

“People are going to see you how they’re going to see you. It’s nothing to do with me. There are people who see me as really shy, because I can be really shy, and people who see me as really extroverted and really full on, and there are people out there who don’t like me and others who put me on a fucking pedestal. And it’s got nothing to do with me. How people see me.” Looking away across the room, flicking back hard. “It’s got nothing to do with me. All I can do is do what I do. I know who my friends are, and who my family is.” 

And yourself? “Yeah. I know who I am. Getting to know.” A dry laugh. “I turn 30 in September and it’s when you really start, for me anyway, to feel comfortable in your own skin. Over the past years, more and more so. You know, there’s a time and a place for running amok, and I certainly did that, and I can still have fun. It’s about picking my moments and taking care of myself.”

1 . A private person

To be honest, he’s not looking entirely buzzed when we meet at a cafe-bar next to the ABC studios in Southbank, Melbourne. It’s 10.30am and he’s slouched on a leather banquette with a small blue-handled cup of coffee neatly turned over on its saucer in front of him and the strap of his satchel still slung across his shoulder; stubble, a cap on his head and dark-rimmed glasses on. A long day of distance interviews with regional ABC stations is ahead. He says hello politely but doesn’t radiate cheer. 

To his credit, Sultan hauls out his thoughts, patiently explains the bothered look on his face. “Just working. Not really worried. Just in the middle of it. Working.” Something makes me feel I’m wearing him out, and we’re only five minutes into the conversation. “I’d tell you. I fidget a lot. It’s got nothing to do with you.”

He clears his throat. “I’m a very private person. I need to be diplomatic. I definitely have rehearsed answers for a lot of things. Some of it’s bullshit. Some of it’s just about giving an answer without actually answering the question.” 

Well, he’s honest, at least. Not fond of interviews? He’s been noted before as impatient with too many personal questions, whether they’re about his Aboriginal heritage or his romantic life. “A lot of time I just want to talk about the record. I haven’t made an album in four years, it debuts in the top five, it’s the best thing I’ve done in a long time, and you want to talk about my dad and my mum? Let’s just talk about the album.” Sure. But the publicist is hovering nearby, everyone’s interested, you’ve got your Twitter and your Instagram and your Facebook all popping… It turns out management does most of that, but he’s careful to reassure that anything posted under his name is genuine. The curse of the modern muso, the drear business of promotion. 

You’re more comfortable on stage? It must be ecstasy, playing music as fierce and loud as this. The rapture, the amp stack thrumming, the crowds exulting… Sultan is renowned for his committed, thrilling, spine-tingling live performances. “Yeah. It’s great.” Eyes again seeking the door. I’m just making a mental note about taciturn rock stars and one-syllable answers when he goes on. He’s a bit unnerved when he looks out mid-song and sees only a sea of phone lights, hears the chatter of a festival crowd. “You feel very self-conscious and you want to put on a good show, and it goes through your mind that you’re something that’s happening in between people having a good time. I just feel like I don’t… Like I don’t really fit, something like that. But that makes for a good performance.” He considers, mumbles something about not wanting to tell other people how to behave and being lucky to play his music. “I feel like I’m trying to really just, you know… You never feel like you’ve got it in the bag and if you never take it for granted and you’re always working for the crowd and working to put on a good show and give the people what you think they want and need, then you’re never really safe – and that’s a positive thing I think.” 

The slice of needing to win the crowd clearly cuts with him. But he’s a powerful presence onstage; he’s a looker. Girls, it is reputed, throw underpants. Surely he’s past doubt? “But people want something to talk about. If you give them something to talk about they’ll talk about it. Just let me finish…” Sultan’s blue eyes, behind the glasses, are wide with feeling. “When you put on a great show, or have a great photo shoot, or you’ve lost heaps of weight, they’ll go ‘Wow’, and on the other hand if you’ve spent two weeks drinking beer and eating pizza and you do a television appearance and you’ve put on a kilo or two, they’re like —” He grimaces. “I find it interesting that it’s so fucking fascinating. I don’t read my own press and I don’t read my own reviews and I never really have. I might look at a photo now and then. I don’t really buy into it. It can be frustrating. But then, this is what I do. No one’s forced me to do it so I can’t complain too much. But it can be frustrating. That people are so fucking interested in how much weight you’ve put on or lost or…”

Evidently it’s a sore point. On this tour he’s not drinking. At all. “Not even afterwards to unwind. It’s harder to go to bed but it’s a lot easier to wake up. I find that drinking really takes the edge off, which is a good thing, when you want that, but what I’ve noticed more recently is that I like being present, I like that feeling. It’s scary at first, it’s really intense, but it’s a good feeling.” He’d rather not talk about it too much, which is a nice change from musos who want to gush about how wrecked they’ve been. Sultan shrugs. It’s just nice to be healthy. Music’s his job, not partying. “I really got sick of it being a lifestyle. It can’t be a lifestyle. Not for me.” 

It would be easy to imagine him already weary of boyish mayhem, and after a decade of fame, now prudently turning in early of an evening and watching his cholesterol. He began playing guitar at four; was “discovered” at 17. Was there ever a possibility that he’d, you know, be a landscape designer, or a lawyer like his father? A dentist? Work with animals? He looks nonplussed. “I was always going to be a musician – in my mind. I don’t know how I feel about destiny. I believe in it to a certain extent… it’s not going to happen unless you want it.” Put it this way: “I didn’t sit around for 30 years and all of a sudden I’m Dan Sultan.”

2 . Finding himself

Becoming Dan Sultan is what’s happening now, perhaps, in a way that it hasn’t before. Most of his career, including his first album Homemade Biscuits (2006) and Get Out While You Can (2009), has been in collaboration with Scott Wilson, the punk-rock/R&B guitarist who encountered Sultan competing in a karaoke round and began writing songs for him. The older musician was a mentor, a lead guitarist in the band, a songwriting supervisor – and ultimately, in timeless psychological gambit, the heavy hand who had to go. 

“He taught me when it’s a song, and when it’s just an idea. I think I wrote a lot of ideas back then.” Sultan speaks unhappily of compromise, too many songs coming from one direction, not enough being accepted in the other. “I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it at all. I’m really proud of our first two records and I think we came up with some really beautiful stuff, and we had a really good time for a lot of it. But it’d run its course and I wasn’t feeling very good about it for a long time before I moved on, so it was important for me to do that. I didn’t really have the guts to do it. And I’m not saying this person did it intentionally, but I felt pretty intimidated by him. Such a great songwriter and such a great guitar player – I was in awe of him for a lot of it, so it was very scary, but it was something I knew I had to do.” Kind of like farewelling a Liam Neeson-style hero mentor, I try to joke. Was it like in superhero movies, when you finally leave the cave and set off on your adventures? 

“No, not really. No, I got to the point where I felt we were equals and I wasn’t really able to explore that as much as I thought I should have been, so I had to just do it by myself. That’s what I wanted to do, and needed to do, and even when we first started working together. It was just a matter of time, in a way, ’til I was ready. 

“I felt like everything was on me anyway, even before I took that step. I felt like, if things didn’t work out it was my fault, and if they did it was ‘a collaboration’, so I felt that was a bit out of balance, too. Whether that was true or not, that’s how it felt.”

Now he’s his own man. The new Wilson-less album, so radiantly defiant, is a triumph. After three years of block, out sprang 40 songs in six months. Sultan followed his intuition and it led him to the rainbow. It’s an excellent lesson for the future, right? “Yeah, just fire everyone!” I encourage the humour. One minute you’re crouched naked under the bed, rocking back and forth, chewing on a towel… He’s finally laughing. “Then you just fire everybody...” It might make future staff a bit nervous. “No,” he says behind his glasses, from under his cap, eyeing the door and the next interview, “I think I’m good now.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "Sultan's rule".

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Kate Holden is the author of The Winter Road.