Dan Sultan On 'Becoming More Of The Person I Always Was'

17 August 2023 | 12:13 pm | Bryget Chrisfield

Dan Sultan talks his new album, moving a tour date to no longer clash with Paul McCartney and more.

Dan Sultan

Dan Sultan (Credit: Daniel Boud)

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From recounting one of his earliest memories – returning to the family home, aged four, to discover a racist note had been left on their doorstep – to establishing a nest on “the beautiful Georges River” in Sydney’s south and embracing domestic bliss with his wife and their two young children, Dan Sultan’s fifth album covers a lot of ground, both sonically and thematically. This award-winning Arrernte/Gurindji singer-songwriter’s self-titled latest set also finds him more at peace and in career-best form. 

“I'm looking out my window at the beautiful Georges River and, I mean, that informed it [his self-titled latest fifth record] as much as any song or piece of music,” Sultan explains. The Arrernte/Gurindji singer-songwriter chats to us from his family nest in Sydney’s south, where he lives with his wife Bron and their two young children.

When asked how becoming a dad has changed him, Sultan reveals, “I didn't really see it as changing; I saw it as just becoming more of the person I always was, you know? And, if anything, I stopped changing, which is a definite shift in perspective. It's beautiful. It's great. I love it. They’re awesome. We have a beautiful family and marriage, my wife and I.”

On whether his latest single Fortress (feat. Julia Stone) encapsulates the domestic bliss he’s describing, Sultan enlightens, “That's what I'm singing about in every song – you know, as far as the meaning and the emotion behind it – but, yeah! Fortress is about the family home or the home.

“For me, it's the family home and our beautiful little scene here. But it can mean anything to anyone: it can mean you get home and you lock the door and you get your favourite pair of trackies on, or whatever it is, you know what I mean? Just shutting everything else out for a moment and giving yourself a little bit of time to be still.”

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It took a little while just to get me here/ Father John Misty ringing in my ears…” – inspiration for another of this album’s singles, Ringing In My Ears, struck while Sultan was driving through the Northern NSW hinterland – with Misty’s Fear Fun record pumping through the car stezza – en route to a session with this song’s collaborator, Chris Collins. Sultan also posted a video on his socials explaining how a guitar line in this song – which explores one of Dan Sultan's key themes: positive transformation – was informed by Space Age Love Song (A Flock Of Seagulls).

“I really loved how that guitar line sorta danced around – like more of a rhythmic thing happening on top – and the feeling that that brings to Space Age Love Song while everything's just super-dreamy underneath it, with the synths like that,” he expands. “I really did enjoy how that made me feel, so I was excited to do something similar on Ringing In My Ears.”

Although he doesn't necessarily “internally dissect” what’s inspiring him during the songwriting process (“I'm just so in the moment”), Sultan shares, “There’s really clear nods throughout the record, to particular songs and particular feelings… I mean, a song like Wait In Love – there's Beatles influences in there. The end of Chance To Lose Control, that's [inspired by] The Beatles’ A Day In The Life.” 

Go with the winds of change/ A chance to lose control…” – Chance To Lose Control’s chorus encourages a gentle relinquishing of control: “We're all trying to figure something out at some point, which I think is fine – it's just human nature – but I know, for me, when things are more peaceful, it isn't because of what's going on outside, it's because of my approach to those things.”

Songwriting sessions for Dan Sultan commenced in September 2019, “before bushfires and Covid, and then floods and more Covid,” Sultan points out before lamenting, “We've been through a lot, and I think you can hear that in the record. 

“It was such a crazy time – during a fucking global pandemic, you know? – and, in my particular industry, it was pretty fucking scary. So it was tough. And that being said, I mean, my wife and I had just had our first [child] at that time, and we were really happy, so, yeah! [Chance To Lose Control] is about not trying to change things that are out of your control and getting to a place where you can try to be as much at peace as possible. That's not to say that I'm at peace all the time – of course not, you know; I don't think anybody is. But it's just about taking things a day at a time, like everyone else, and trying to do what you think is right.”

Undreamt Shores, which washes over like a comforting lullaby, is yet another album highlight that sees Sultan – who Paul Kelly once described as one of Australia’s great soul singers – embracing surrender as a means of control. “That's a beautiful song,” Sultan concurs. “Again, that's got a big ending similar to Chance To Lose Control. I was watching ‘Great Canal Journeys’ or something like that, right? One of those nice, quiet TV shows. The narrator was talking about coming around a little bend to undreamt shores, and I thought, ‘Oh, I'll nick that,’ and wrote it down – I'd never heard that [phrase] before.

“So that song's about a beautiful arrival to a really peaceful and powerful place. I think, if you're fortunate, you find yourself in new and exciting places within yourself and your spirit and your work and life; it's a nice thing.”

Sultan was one of the featured vocalists who breathed new life into Uncle Archie’s musical legacy, accompanied by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, during two consecutive One Song: The Music Of Archie Roach concerts last month. When asked how he found this experience, Sultan reflects, “It was very emotional… It was a memorial service for my friend as well as a show, obviously.”

This scribe was fortunate enough to be in attendance on opening night, and the Gunditjmara (Kirrae Whurrong/Djab Wurrung), Bundjalung elder, songman and truthteller’s presence was palpable within Hamer Hall’s walls. “Oh, [Uncle Archie] was there,” Sultan agrees. “I mean, it was his music and, you know, that's him… He was a true artist and a genius, and his work is such a massive part of his essence. So he was there. Literally.” 

As part of Mushroom Group's Mushroom 50 project – a special series of single releases featuring current Mushroom artists covering classic songs from across the label’s previous five decades – Sultan reimagined Roach’s signature redemption song, Took The Children Away, which won an international Human Rights Achievement Award – a first for any songwriter.

Sultan has described Roach’s heart-wrenching masterpiece as “the pinnacle of Artistic Endeavour” – so no pressure then. “Obviously, the song itself is something you don't take on lightly, and I wanted to do a good job,” he stresses, “and I feel like I've done a really good job. It’s my arrangement. Adrian [Keating, from the Sydney Lyric Orchestra] came in and played the strings, he was really great, but I did the arrangements. It’s something I’m really proud of.” 

Sultan’s mother, Roslyn, of the Eastern Aranda and Gurindji people, was taken from her family at the age of seven. She was eventually reunited with her mother, Loretta, and Sultan’s song Roslyn – from his debut record, Homemade Biscuits (2006) – chronicles their story. Kimberley Calling, from Sultan’s Blackbird album (2014), was written after he located his maternal grandmother’s grave at One Armed Point in the Kimberley, where she lived out her days. He’d always felt drawn to this region, Sultan has said, which suddenly made sense after he visited Loretta’s final resting place.   

There's a note on my door/ We don't want you around/ And I felt the fear/ The first time that I found out…” – Story, his new album’s powerful opening statement and lead single, recounts one of Sultan’s earliest memories. Aged four, he returned to his family home in Northcote, Melbourne, to discover a racist note had been left on their doorstep.

During a TEDx Talk Sultan delivered last October, he admitted this was his first time experiencing “the fear and terror that racism and bigotry bring” before acknowledging, “To turn something like that note all those years ago, something so ugly as that, into something beautiful for my kids – and for anyone who wants it – is gorgeous.” 

When told that, after having Dan Sultan on high rotation, we got a sense that he’s ready to step into his full power, Sultan offers, “I think I've always stepped into my full power, or at least I've always done as much as I've been able to do, over the years. I think I'm certainly able to do a lot more than I've ever been able to do now, you know, and so in that sense, I think you're right. That being said, I mean, I've always done as well as I could do – and the best I was able to do – at the time. And, if you're lucky, you get better, and you evolve, and your capabilities increase. I'm certainly very fortunate, and I feel very grateful and, yeah! It's a nice place to be. I think of myself as a creative person, and as an artist, I can really feel the development and the evolution.

“A friend of mine, a great songwriter, said to me, ‘The best time to be doing your best work is always now,’ you know what I mean?” he recalls, laughing. “And they’re right! I mean, I'm glad you like the record. I love it; I think it's beautiful. I'm really proud of it. I'm proud of the writing and the lyrics, and the production. Joel Quartermain is an amazing producer. He and I made the record together, and we played everything on the record. Except in Fortress, where Julia [Stone] plays the trumpet.”

In the presser for this album’s second single, Won’t Give You That, Sultan revealed: “There are some people who… it suited them when I was unwell. It suited their internal narrative about themselves. I let it happen, I wasn’t well enough, and I wasn’t strong enough. That’s not where I am anymore.”

Throughout this liberation anthem, Sultan plays clapsticks. “They're from central Australia, and, yeah, they're really beautiful,” he details. “To travel on the road, I actually bought a case for them. And it's such overkill: I picked it up from a gun shop, and it's a fuckin’ $400 gun case! So I went into the gun shop, and I was like, ‘Oh, my god,’ it was all a little bit confronting for me; it's just not anything that I'm used to, you know?” he admits, laughing. “So I got it, and it's just this big, padded case. It's pretty awesome.

“A lotta good guitar-case makers make gun cases as well, so it's pretty normal – it fits in pretty well with the rest of the guitar cases – but, yeah! They [the clapsticks] are really special things, so I wasn't just gonna muck around if I was gonna take ‘em on the road.” 

Most of the musicians who appear in the music videos for four of Sultan’s recent single releases – Won’t Give You That, Wait In Love (a self-described love song to himself and his wife), Ringing In My Ears and Fortress – will accompany him on tour: “We've got a couple of guys from The Delta Riggs, Elliott [Hammond] and Monte [Michael Tramonte]; Zeppelin Hamilton, who's a star and he's also got his own band called Velvet Trip; Jack Moffitt, who's very clever – an amazing guitar player and producer; and Ben Corbett, who's an incredible keys player – he's a bit of a hired gun and a lovely man.

“We had a few shows from about March through to May or June, a few festivals, and we did a lot of work for that – pre-production – and we were cookin’! So we’re ready.”

If you follow Sultan on social media, you would undoubtedly have clocked a cute recent post announcing that his upcoming gig at Melbourne Recital Centre has been shifted back a day, from Saturday 21 to Friday 20 October, so as not to clash with Sir Paul McCartney’s show at Marvel Stadium: “Paul McCartney was super disappointed that he was gonna miss my show on October 21st so I’ve moved it…” 

Paul McCartney was super disappointed that he was gonna miss my show on October 21st so I’ve moved it... FRIDAY OCTOBER...

Posted by Dan Sultan on Sunday, August 6, 2023

“Yeah, he was ropeable,” Sultan jests. “I said, ‘Paul, we'll sort it,’ you know? I said, ‘It's easier for me to move mine than it is for you to move yours, so it's all good’…” Then after a brief pause, Sultan clarifies: “Just to be clear, for the readers’ benefit, Paul doesn't know who I am [laughs]. But I have reached out and invited him [to my show]. I know he's got a day off, so we'll see how he goes.”

Dan Sultan is out on Friday, 18 August, through Liberation Records. Tickets to his upcoming Australian tour are on sale now.




Saturday, 30 September – Princess Theatre, Brisbane

Friday, 13 October – City Recital Hall, Sydney

Friday, 20 October – Melbourne Recital Centre, Melbourne