Dan Sultan: Blackbird singing around Australia

Dan Sultan’s Australian tour is already underway, but he still found time to speak with Kyle Butcher while in Melbourne about playing at the National Indigenous Music Awards held in August, Indigenous musicians and his latest album Blackbird.
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Dan Sultan is no stranger to the National Indigenous Music Awards (NIMAs) and has played extensively across the country supporting his past albums. But he is excited about this year’s event held in Darwin, and especially about playing new tracks from Blackbird..

“Yeah it’s going to be great. I always go, when I am nominated and when I’m not. I love that place, it’s a great night and it’s a beautiful part of the world up there in Darwin and it’s a really nice amphitheatre, it’s one of the nicest stages I’ve ever played in. I get about a forty minutes to an hour set.”

Dan Sultan has had a few lineup changes throughout the years , but says the process of getting new members isn’t quite as dragged out and tedious as you would expect. He explained how his latest rhythm lineup just fell into place.

“They were both last minute replacements. I had a great rhythm section before and we’re still friends, one is in Canada and the other is in Darwin. We were in a festival where they had to freight our gear along with every other band’s gear. We got pushed back and my drummer had another gig back in Melbourne so he had to go. Our bass player at the time called up his friend Peter Marin and he came down and sat in the car for a few hours and learnt the songs off the record and we got up and played it. He’s been my drummer ever since. My last bass player recommended Joshua Jones when he couldn’t play a few songs and when he decided to move to Canada Josh was the natural choice

Any fan of Dan Sultan would know his composition has progressed enormously from his first album Homemade Biscuits, released eight years ago, to his latest album, Get Out While You Can. He’s had years to refine his art and it’s clear how much his craftsmanship has developed.

“I think with Blackbird I had a lot more freedom and I felt a lot more liberated. I was able to go out and make the record I’ve always wanted to make. I love Get Out While You Can and my first record and I’m proud of each of those but with records as soon as you’ve finished it, it just feels like practice for the next one. I’ve started writing the next one and I’m still in the midst of Blackbird at the moment but pretty soon I think it’ll start feeling like practice for the next one.”

Blackbird received some special treatment from Dan Sultan as well. He recorded the album in Nashville where managed to take time out to visit the home of rock ‘n’ roll legend Elvis Presley, the mansion-now-museum Graceland. He spent only a short time there but found it powerful and inspirational to walk the halls where one of the founders of rock lived.

“The whole recording was bit of a ritual, we’d work six days a week and we’d be in the studio from ten to eleven in the morning until midnight. On Sunday I’d just sit on the couch to watch television. It wasn’t monotonous, it was great to have the routine but it was hard.”

The large gaps between albums have allowed Sultan to bring his music to the masses with extensive tours, and a firsthand chance to see the changes in the music industry and mainstream genres. I asked Dan how he thought the music industry has changed from the start of his career to now.

It’s hard to say, I still feel like I’m at the start of my career. There’s a lot of good things happening and a lot of mediocre things happening and I call it ‘Musak’, it’s not really music, it’s stuff that happens around you rather than going through you and there’s always been ‘musak’ and that’s alright.”

“In saying that there’s a lot of good music being released too. The big change for me was that I was independent for so long and I’ve recently signed to a label and now Blackbird was released with them. Independent music is being taken a lot more seriously than it has been and now there are awards at the ARIAs for independent artists and there are more opportunities for artists to go on and do it themselves,” said Sultan.

“I feel like people are paying a lot more attention to Aboriginal artists as well. It’s not like we just started playing good music but now it’s flared up again in a big way since the first flare in the 80s. I think the industry is paying more attention.”
“We don’t want to be carried, if we’re good enough then we’re good enough and the fact is that a lot of us are. The fact that we’re Aboriginal is secondary. We’re always asked to explain ourselves but at the end of the day we’re just musicians. I play rock ‘n’ roll, that’s what we do. Nokturnl came out in the 90s and they weren’t necessarily an Aboriginal metal band, they were a metal band that were up of Aboriginal people,” he said.

Dan Sultan names many influences from Australia’s classic 80s artists, including Paul Kelly and has been fortunate enough to play alongside many of his inspirations. It was Paul Kelly who personally contacted Sultan to contribute to the Kev Carmody tribute album Cannot Buy My Soul. The artists who contributed to the album also played accompanying live shows in Sydney and Queensland.

Sultan also had the opportunity to play with INXS at the 2010 ARIA awards in an electric performance containing INXS’s hit Just Keep Walking. Not only did Dan Sultan have this honour but he also contributed a track to their compilation album. The album Original Sin was re-released by INXS containing tracks like Don’t Change, Never Tear Us Apart and Mystify re-recorded with guest vocalists for each track. Dan Sultan recorded Just Keep Walking, regarded as one of the best tracks on Original Sin.

Dan’s talent doesn’t stop at music however, he has dabbled in acting; starring in Australian award-winning movie Bran Nue Dae, which boasted famous actors like Geoffrey Rush and Ernie Dingo. Dan played the role of Lester, the boyfriend of Rosie, played by Jessica Mauboy. He also contributed the title track along with three other compositions to the soundtrack. I asked Dan whether he would continue acting alongside his music career.

I don’t think so, I don’t really consider myself to be an actor. With Bran Nue Dae everything lined up and it was pretty perfect and I couldn’t refuse. If something like that came up again I’d definitely consider it. I’ve worked alongside Geoffrey Rush on Bran Nue Dae and I see how hard they work on their craft but I definitely don’t consider myself an actor.”

Sultan was also given the honour of being selected to join The Black Arm Band, a group of Australia’s premier Indigenous artists, which was created by Steven Richardson to promote and celebrate the music created by Indigenous Australians.

The Black Arm Band consists of over forty musicians such as Gurrumul, Paul Young, Archie Roach and Emma Donovan. The band has played in Australia and once overseas in London. It is amazing to think Dan Sultan considers this as the early stages of his music career despite having already achieved so much. His extensive list of accolades and his passion for music is certainly a sign of things to come from this talented musician.

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