Dan Sultan Is Rising Above The “Bullshit” Of Songwriting, Protest And The Music Industry
When I first meet Dan Sultan he’s sitting in a pub in Sydney’s Surry Hills, beer in hand.
It’s just gone lunchtime on a Friday, and we’re here to talk shop. But there’s more pressing matters at hand — like the fact that I really should get a drink of my own before we continue. “It’s album release day!” he tells me. “We’re celebrating.”
The album we’re toasting to is Killer, an LP that sees Sultan draw on subject matter as far ranging as his own personal demons and the Wave Hill walk-off of 1966, where 200 Gurindji workers and their families went on strike to protest poor conditions. It’s a beautiful record, and one full of the stuff that’s made him one of Australia’s most celebrated musicians — that voice, his energy, and some very candid songwriting.
In person, Sultan’s warm, jovial and down-to-earth. He’ll lean in and tap you on the arm when he’d really trying to get a point across, and give the dude at the next table a healthy amount of shit when he asks to borrow a spare seat. For the next half-hour, we talk empathy, Paul Kelly, anti-protest music and why he’s happy to forgo the “fucking cesspit” of LA in favour of Australia.
We could keep talking, but eventually Dan calls time so he can go pee. Famous people: they’re just like us.
Junkee: So it’s been a few years since your last album. What’s kept you busiest since then?
Dan Sultan: Well, we toured the album for about a year-and-a-half. And then the last year-and-a-half after that, I’ve been writing this one. I haven’t really stopped.
I know that you have said that Blackbird — your last album — was kind of preceded by a period where you weren’t feeling super inspired creatively. Was it a different story this time around?
Blackbird was the first time in years that I’d really started writing again, and I haven’t really stopped since then. It kind of opened up the floodgates. I mean, I’m a writer, you know? If I’m not writing, then what am I doing? It was good to be doing what I need to do, and to be able to do what I need to do.
So you were writing this one for a year-and-a-half?
Yeah, but at the same time, you’re always writing the record. Since Blackbird, I’ve written about 150 songs. That’s 150 songs since the start of Blackbird, and 13 of those went on Blackbird, and 11 of them have gone on Killer. So there’s a lot of shit.
“I’m a writer — if I’m not writing, then what am I doing?”
There’s also a lot of really great songs that we love, but you just gotta be a bit of a mercenary and go “Well, it doesn’t fit on the record,” and the record is ultimately the boss. The record decides what it wants to do, and it’s up to us to honour that, to listen and pay attention to what the record is calling for.
How much of this album was written about your own life and your own personal experiences, and how much of it was about broader issues?
Well this one’s probably more personal than others. No, I don’t want to say that. They’re all very personal — I mean, even if it’s fiction, even if you’re writing about something that you’ve made up. What you need to do as a writer and as a performer is have a huge capacity for empathy. So you believe it and you see it, as if it’s happened to you. It’s all personal, in that sense. But in the literal sense, quite a lot of it’s personal.
There are songs on there, like ‘Cul-De-Sac’ and ‘Easier Man’, that felt pretty candid.
Yeah, they really go there! They are very candid, that’s fine. I mean, fuck it — it’s why I’m here, you know?
Is it hard to write those songs and know that you’re going to have to stand on stage and sing them to a bunch of strangers?
No. You’d think it would be, but no it’s not. Once you write it, it’s gone. It’s taken up so much space in your heart and in your head, but once it’s written and it’s out there and you make room for more bullshit. And then you write about that.
“I’m a pretty emotional person, so I feel very fortunate that I have the outlet that I do as a songwriter to be able to work through stuff.”
It’s a real process — you go through heaps of shit and you put yourself through heaps of shit. Then you write about it, then you record it and you release it, then you talk about it in interviews, you perform it, and then you go through more shit and you write about more shit.
I’m a pretty emotional person, so I feel very fortunate that I have the outlet that I do as a songwriter to be able to work through stuff. It’s very cathartic.
Let’s talk about the opening track, ‘Drover’, which I know is about the Wake Hill walk-off and written as a prequel to Paul Kelly’s ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow’.
Well it ended up being a prequel. Initially, I just wrote it about the story itself, but it ended up being a prequel about two brothers who work on the cattle station, and again, that’s historical fiction. It’s about something that happened, and I’m sure there were brothers working on the cattle station who spoke about how “we’re gonna strike soon and we’re gonna do a walk out”. I’m sure there was, but I don’t know these people specifically.
I thought it was an interesting perspective on a major event in world history.
What made you decide to write that track now?
Well I didn’t decide, really. It just sort of happened. Songs just happen, they do. It’s up to me, as a writer — if I’m able to catch one every now and then — to honour it.
Is storytelling in music something that you’re particularly interested by?
Well that’s what music is. That’s what civilisation is. It’s storytelling, that’s what education is, that’s what enlightenment is — telling stories and passing stuff on. That’s the whole deal. It’s the whole point. It is. It’s learning, and teaching, and telling stories, and learning. That’s the whole point.
So is Paul Kelly an artist you have a lot of respect for?
Of course, yeah. I think everybody does. Paul’s great. He’s helped me out a lot and he’s given me a lot of work, which is great, but he’s helped me out so much and just been a mentor. He’s always just at the end of the phone, if needed. He’s someone who I have immense respect for and a lot of love for as well. We’ve worked together a lot and I hope to continue doing that for as long as possible.
How did you guys first cross paths?
He called me. Out of the blue.
I went to high school with his nephew. And I was kicking around a bit, and we had old family friends and stuff like that, but I’d never met Paul. I get a phone call one night and it’s Paul Kelly asking me to be involved in a project and that was that.
And when Paul Kelly calls, you say yes.
Yeah, I’ll have rustle some papers and pretend to check my schedule. “Oh, looks like I can move some things around!”
And you did ‘January 26’ with A.B. Original last year. Do you think it’s important that protest music is being made right now in Australia?
I think it’s always important to speak up. I don’t see that as a protest, I see it as pointing to the scoreboard.
It is what it is, whether people want to believe it or not. It’s completely beside the point. It’s the fucking history of this country. It’s not our opinion, it’s fucking what happened, and is happening. So it’s the opposite of a protest, it’s just what’s up. A spade is a spade. It’s not a protest at all. If anything, it’s a protest to deny it.
“It’s not our opinion, it’s fucking history”
It’s not our opinion, it’s fucking history. And if there’s anyone out there whose connection to this place is so fucking fragile and flimsy that someone giving them a history lesson about the place that they apparently love so much is threatening, then they can go fuck themselves. They’re not patriots, they’re nationalists and they’re racists. Why is their fucking security threatened by us feeling more secure?
They’re bigots and the can go fuck themselves. They’re just white and entitled. It’s a thing. It is. And the biggest thing about white entitlement is that they think it’s a myth. Like, it’s not up to them to decide what I’m offended by — it’s up to me whether I’m offended.
As well as the A.B. guys and Paul Kelly, you’ve also got a show coming up in Alice Springs with Midnight Oil. They’re all artists with a history of making pretty political music — do you naturally gravitate to those more socially conscious artists?
I will go where the work is. If Paul calls me, I’ll go. If A.B. Original call, I’ll go. We’re kindred spirits and we’re fighting the good fight. It’s not a matter of opinion, it’s the right thing to do. So, yeah, it’s good. Rednecks all hang out with each other and good people hang out with each other too. It’s like ‘Good, be over there, fucking bigots’.
“Rednecks all hang out with each other and good people hang out with each other too”
I know that you’ve said that you listen to hip-hop, and I’m always keen to find out what music artists listen to — are you into Australian stuff or international stuff?
Australian stuff. I’ve got a lot of mates who make some great hip-hop — Thundamentals are awesome, Hilltops, obviously. A.B. Original, Drapht — there’s a lot of really great stuff.
A topic we’ve covered a bit before is how viable a career in music is and how hard it is to make money as a musician. You’ve been doing this a long time and had a lot of success, but is it still a struggle at your level?
Of course, always. You’ve always gotta make it work.
There needs to be regulation and legislation put into the music streaming stuff, because the labels get paid a lot by the streaming companies — and it’s not the streaming companies fault, it’s not the fault of the kids streaming the music — but the labels get paid, and the musicians get paid fuck all. For one play on Spotify, we get .007 percent of a cent. Of one cent. The labels are getting paid, but we’re not, so there needs to be some legislation put in place that regulates the industry.
Again, we’re the ones that are doing the work and making the magic, but we’re the last people to get paid. But other than that, it’s good. You tour, you sell t-shirts. People can’t stream a t-shirt.
Another topic I think is interesting is whether breaking it overseas, specifically in the US, is still the end goal for Australian artists. Is it something you think about?
I think about it. I’d love to do it, but I haven’t been able to do it. It’s hard. I don’t belong to a genre where I “click,” which is great in a lot of ways because I can write a soul record with Paul Kelly, I can write a hip-hop hit with A.B. Original, and I can play in my own rock ‘n roll band. I can do whatever I want.
But I don’t belong to a genre, so over there, they don’t know. And they’re lazy. They’re not going to take a chance, they’re not going to try to see what happens and put work in. They want something that’s ready to go, make a bit of cash, and if it keeps going, great, and if it doesn’t they can fuck it off and go over to the next thing. They’re not artists, so I can’t blame them. They’re fucking bean counters. But I’m not ready.
“We’re very fortunate that, being such a small pond, there’s a lot more respect for the art [in Australia].”
If I was to get signed overseas, I’d have to take someone with a lot of balls. I’d have to take someone who’s an artist, because that’s what I am. I’d love to perform and release and tour as many places as I possibly could, and I will. I’m not going stop. I know that I’m more than capable.
But for someone to just give me a record deal outright — they’re gonna have to have some guts to do it. Because what they do is they just latch onto something that they know is gonna work for six months, and if it works for years, great, but if it doesn’t, whatever. Fuck ’em off and then latch onto something else. They’re bottom feeders.
It’s alright, though. My label here in Australia is great to me. We’re very fortunate that, being such a small pond, there’s a lot more attention to detail and a lot more respect for the art here.
LA’s a fucking cesspit. Just bunch of fucking idiots, sitting around taking selfies. And I love LA — that’s how I talk about a place that I love! I’ve got a lot dear friends in LA, but as far as the industry’s concerned, it’s just some dudes sitting around, writing lyrics like “You be my peanut butter, I’ll be your jelly” and shit like that. It’s like, fuck off, idiot. They’re not artists. They’re not.
They are what they are. But they’re not me and I’m not them and I never will be. I’m more than happy to never get signed overseas and never do anything overseas because if it means that I stay who I am and what I am, then I’m more than happy.
Dan Sultan’s new album Killer is out now via Liberation Music.
Katie Cunningham is the Editor of Music Junkee and inthemix. She is on Twitter.
Photo credit: Luke Henerey