Dan Sultan: Sex. Rock. Soul

(Photo credit David Anderson)

Published in The Music Network


In Australian music circles, Dan Sultan has arrived in a massive way. But to the mainstream, he’s still the cute guy from Bran Nue Dae. Or he’s simply off the radar. That’s all about to change.

It’s the small hours of November 8, the post-ARIA Awards celebrations are in full-swing. One night-owl has more reason to celebrate than any other, Dan Sultan. Just hours earlier, the charismatic singer had joined INXS on stage and was separately anointed ARIA male artist of the year, beating out Guy Sebastian, John Butler, Paul Dempsey and Dan Kelly. It came as a shock to all, but a surprise to no-one who has followed his journey.

“This is awesome. No indigenous artist has ever won this award,” Sultan told this reporter, with an enthusiasm sadly missing in today’s rock fraternity. “Bands like Scrap Metal and Yothu Yindi, they’ve worked so hard over the years to break down the barriers. Tonight, we broke those barriers just a bit more.”

Sultan has a lot of love and respect for his community. He’s the youngest member of Black Arm Band, an ensemble of indigenous artists whose manifesto is to perform, promote and celebrate contemporary Australian indigenous music to the highest standard “as a symbol of resilience and hope in the spirit and action of reconciliation.”

The singer isn’t so much chipping away at the barriers, as kicking them in. Album sales are ticking away, but it’s at the critical end of the spectrum where he’s cracking the nod. Earlier last week, Sultan won the first of his two ARIAs, claiming the Best Blues & Roots Album award for his sophomore effort, Get Out While You Can. The Sydney Opera House has become a happy hunting ground. The famous venue was the setting of another brace of wins on Sept. 27, when Sultan took out best male artist at the Deadly Awards, the annual celebration of indigenous music.

Days later, Sultan scooped a pair of gongs at the Australian Independent Music Awards in Melbourne, including the prestigious best independent artist trophy. “I had no doubt he was going to win the male artist ARIA award,” notes his manager Buzz Thompson. “It seems the last audience that he’s going to win over is the young kids. He doesn’t fit anywhere. He’s just got such broad appeal. And his pure diversity has had him everywhere.”

That’s something of an understatement. Sultan has appeared on the big screen, on stage alongside Neil Finn, INXS and Paul Kelly. He’s been on the small screen, appearing on Spicks & Specks, Rockwiz and Good News Week and he’s played with You Am I at the National Rugby League Grand Final.

Clearly it’s been a remarkable 2010. The turnaround from struggling muso to stage-setter has been a remarkably swift one. “I’ve been living off my music for the last couple of years. But to be honest, it’s only been over the last 12 or so months that I’ve had a proper living from it. Now there’s food in the fridge. I’m 27, living off my music. I consider myself lucky to be able to do that.”

Luck has played only a small part in Dan’s tale. Born in Melbourne to an Irish father and Aboriginal mother, music was always flowing through the family home. There was a lot of rock music, and a lot of soul music. Those influences are all there in Sultan’s music, which has been interpreted in the music press as soul-rock.

“Essentially, it’s just rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “But if you want to get particular, it’s country-soul rock ‘n’ roll.”

Sultan is ambitious. He wants to take on the world, and win. Nothing unusual there. And it’s nothing that hasn’t been done before from these shores. It’ll be an uphill battle, Sultan admits, but he’s faced challenges his entire life.

“Indigenous people in this country — no matter what we do whether its sport or the arts – we have to be twice as good to get half as much attention,” he says. “I’ve won independent artist of the year at the AIR Awards, but I haven’t been on the cover of anything. But that’s ok. It doesn’t bother me.” After the ARIAs, a whole lot more attention should now come Sultan’s way.

With two albums to his name, the singer has grafted away on the road over the years, making many friends along the way. His 2006 debut Homemade Biscuits was co-written with guitarist and long-time collaborator Scott Wilson and released in 2006 with the help of John Butler’s Seed program, a project to support Australian artists from any background to have their voice heard.

The album merely tickled the sales charts, but it caught the ears of Paul Kelly who invited Sultan and Wilson to participate in a special Kev Carmody tribute concert Cannot Buy My Soul in 2008. Sultan would also pay homage to Kelly, performing on the Before Too Long tribute concerts in late 2009.

Along the way, another ARIA winner, Clare Bowditch, honoured Sultan with the affectionate nickname The Black Elvis. It’s a reference that just won’t go away. “She was giving me a compliment and I take it as a compliment,” he laughs. “I love Elvis, but at the same time I don’t believe it.”

Others did. His talents grabbed the attention of movie producers who cast him as the handsome badboy Lester in the popular 2009 theatrical release Bran Nue Dae, where he acted alongside Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush and another indigenous artist, Jessica Mauboy. Sultan has no pretences about his acting chops.

“It was a lot of hard work, probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I was out of my comfort zone, but I’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.”

In 2009, Sultan was back at his genre-busting game with Get Out While You Can, its themes touching on drug addiction and domestic violence, through to skydiving accidents, prison and worship of the fairer sex. Pulling guest performance slots from Ella Hooper and Vika and Linda Bull, his sophomore album debuted at No. 8 and raced to the top of the AIR independent albums chart, but peaked at only No. 90 on the ARIA sales chart.

Sultan also impressed the members of INXS. They contacted Sultan’s manager Buzz Thompson with an invite too good to refuse. Sultan would take frontman duties for a recording of the band’s classic early track, Just Keep Walking which appears on the November 8 release Original Sin, an album of re-imagined INXS classics. Sultan and Wilson cut the track between live dates in London.

The singer reunited with INXS to perform the song at the 2010 ARIA Awards. Last Friday saw the Sultan and Wilson wrap-up their national “Up Close & Acoustic” tour. Plans are to take a break after the Australian summer to write works for a third album, with Wilson again by his side. “I have some good ideas floating around,” he says. Having played a handful of UK shows this year, including Womad festival and a showcase at the Water Rats in central London, Europe’s festival circuit is on the cards for mid-2011.

“We want to base ourselves in London next summer and be there for perhaps 10 weeks, says his manager Buzz Thompson, who is in talks to secure international releases. “We’re really pumped for Europe,” says Thompson. Sultan will also play Canadian Music Week and will likely perform at next year’s SxSW festival.

For now, Sultan can enjoy the afterglow of his surprise ARIAs rewards. The magazine covers will come, and sales should spike. Everything is falling into place. And Sultan is happy to share to spoils.

“Every day it gets better for indigenous artists. That’s just because we keep fighting and working really hard,” he says. “There are stories of Scrap Metal, the Aboriginal band in the ‘80s, rocking up to the pub they’ve been booked to play for months and the publican saying ‘no, there’s no band here tonight.’ Now I get gigs where I either get a cab charge or a driver picking me up from the airport and I stay in nice hotels. That’s because of the work that they’ve done. And I’d like to think the work I’ve done, and the work Jess Mauboy has done, it’s going to make it a lot better for the next generation.

“Everyone is saying it’s getting better. What is happening is that other people’s attitudes towards us are getting better. It’s not us getting better. We’ve always been that good.”

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