Dan Sultan: Way of The Blackbird

This Aussie artist: Melbourne singer/songwriter, producer, musician and guitarist; one who can vocally rip through a gliss of notes, churn out steady rhythms on a steel string or hollow body, or unleash a pretty phrase in an original track. Dan Sultan can stand out as quite the musical imp, balancing that centre stage boldness with a sense of empathy, only barely contained beneath the surface of his songs. While Dan has been a fixture in the Australian music scene for some time, his stint on Like A Version in March was a definitive slam that he was ready and in top condition; and with a performance like that, Boy and Bear no doubt wish they had his fine form too.

With a career that spans across eight years of releasing albums and singles and a lifetime of developing his vocal and guitar chops, Dan Sultan is certainly coming into his own; this unique Australian troubadour who surrounds himself in a knot of sounds and musical colours. Holding an alternative and indie musicality dependent upon standard blues, his is a voice all its own. One that resonates with the vocal timbre of Joe Cocker; yet simultaneously echoes the throbbing soul of Al Green, Otis Redding and Ben E King with tones surging towards the textural balladic strength and power of a rockified Tom Jones. Such a unique sound carries him easily through the panache of west coast blues, pounding rock n roll or pulsing soul. And likewise, his Arrernte and Gurindji heritage can surface in his tracks where his ethnic roots strongly complement his clear tastes and respect for country. He is an enigma, this Dan Sultan. And while he might harbour the long-suffering artistic blues that is elementary to his vocation, this musical sphinx knows how to please; for at the end of the day, good music is good music, no matter what paper it’s wrapped up in.

Having taken out a couple of ARIA awards recognising his formidable singer/songwriting talents previously, gigs around all across the country in festivals, stages and concerts, we see the recent release of album #3 and an epic 21 gigs for the tour of his latest work, Blackbird: a reflection of his latest found freedom, where he can freely walk the earth and swim in an ocean of talent, his star continuing to soar. Such is the way of The Blackbird. And in the lead up to his Brisbane show at Eaton’s Hill Hotel, this modern minstrel sits down with My City Life to chat about never quite fitting in, the process involved with his latest album, and how he hopes his show will translate this Saturday night.

You’re a bit of an anomaly to Australian music: you’re indie, you’re alternative, you’re roots, you’re blues, you’re country, you’re soul, you’re rock n roll. Essentially, you’re a singer/songwriter where there’s so much that makes you, you. You don’t sit in the one place or genre: where do you draw your inspiration from?
I just try to write and perform the music that I like to listen to. I enjoy listening to hip hop but obviously, I haven’t done hip hop in the past, and I enjoy listening to classical music though I’ve never written any classical music. Generally speaking, I love rock n roll – which is a very broad term. You never really know what you’re gonna get when we perform a festival somewhere. We don’t know if the crowd will be into it or not – it can be a little bit complicated. But I think that’s okay. People don’t need everything wrapped up in a little package. People are smart enough to decide if they like something or not. I feel very fortunate for the loyal fans I do have, but we have moments where people don’t know what we are doing, and they will come see a show. There are plenty of opportunities to make new fans. I’ve never really fit anywhere – not just in my career, but in my life. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes it’s a little bit trying. I accept that about myself – I’ve never really had a way of doing things. There are a lot of things going on at once. It doesn’t necessarily match up with what a lot of other people are doing, but I like that.

With all these shifting areas that you’ve got within your music, what is your signature sound?
With the band and my voice, there is that cohesiveness through the music. My voice is definitely a large card. As a band, we’ve been together a pretty long time. My rhythm section has been on my last two albums and we know each other where performing is concerned and personally, as well. It’s the personnel: the same people doing it. There’s that code.

You’ve just released your new album Blackbird. There’s that underlying current of blues and dialogue, but what was the process that bought you to Nashville with the album coming together as it did?
We wanted to work with producer Jacquire King: we are fans and he has made some amazing records in the past and is really diverse. The idea was to work with Jaquire King more than anything else, and everything else went from there. He has done everything from Kings of Leon to Tom Lakes, Buddy Guyer and Norah Jones. We went after him from the start. We had a few producers in mind and he was definitely at the top of the list. He wanted to work with us as well which was very flattering and very humbling. If he was working out of Brisbane, we would have gone to Brisbane. Wherever he was working out of, we were willing to go. We were just fortunate and lucky enough we got to record Blackbird in Nashville – an amazing place to make music in and an incredible recording studio. It worked out that way.

Clearly, it’s been a very organic process for you and one that’s been very important. How has the response been?
It’s been really good and encouraging. Writing songs and putting it out there is a personal journey. I can only try to be true to myself in that regard.  

With the album behind you and still touring, the journey doesn’t end there. You’ll always be an artist. What’s next on the horizon for you?
We are starting to get things going overseas and getting good responses from over there – we’ll be playing in London, New York and LA. It’s all very encouraging. As you said, it all just keeps going: you go through what you go through, and then you write about it and make a record and tour it in as many places as you can. You just do that, and then you just do it all again. And you keep doing it.

You’ve gathered so much material as an artist across the years. But for you to continue to develop, there are challenges and obstacles that you musically need to face. What do you think you need to overcome to see you continue to musically develop?
I’m not sure. I’ve recently just come out the other side of a huge journey in that regard. But if I’m not happy with it, then it’s up to me to make sure that I make some changes. I wasn’t writing any music – didn’t have any confidence. I just needed a bit of time out from the busy life of it all, and really think about what I was doing. So I’ve literally just come from one of those situations. And I’m not really sure what happens next. I’m feeling good and writing a lot of music – which is important because it’s important to be writing. Yeah, I’m feeling good. I’ve got a lot of material coming up, so when we see the time making itself available on the horizon, we will release a new record.


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