Daniel Boud

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‘I’m a Lover, a Father, an Artist’: How Dan Sultan Rebuilt Himself

Inside the singer-songwriter's profound journey to his self-titled 2023 album

“It can be an empowering thing to not try and impress anyone anymore. I never was anyway.”

Behind the effortless croon and musicality of Dan Sultan, there exists a multi-layered and fiercely emotional soul – one that has been beautifully laid bare on his ARIA Award-winning, acclaimed self-titled fifth studio album.

Released in 2023 after a period of time dedicated to rebuilding and healing himself as the person behind the music – the human, the son, the lover, the brother, the father, the friend – this powerful collection arrived at a time when Sultan was ready to reintroduce himself to audiences through a new, authentic lens. 

The album is full of observations and honest commentary on life, love and forgiveness – threads of each weaving together in creating a realm of peace and fulfilment that Sultan has found himself living in; namely since becoming sober and building a family of his own. 

The stories the listener hears on Dan Sultan, from the emotionally arresting “Chance to Lose Control” and “Rise Up”, to the powerful balladry of “Wait in Love” and euphoric bends of “Ringing in My Ears”, are as candid as the memories Sultan shares of the steps he took to being capable of even creating such a collection of work.

“Some people might be able to do it, but I was never able to operate anywhere near my full capacity when I was affected by drugs and alcohol,” he plainly admits. 

“I got sober about a year before our first child was born. I was being as honest as I could be. I’ve done some stuff that I’m really proud of…it’s not all just a write off, by any means. I certainly feel that this is my best work, so far.”

Between the release of 2017’s Killer and his re-emergence last year, Sultan navigated some personal struggles that eventually became public, ultimately leading to his decision to change the direction his life was heading in. Perceptions of Sultan – chaotic, unpredictable – were mirrored back at him during this time, forcing him to acknowledge he was at a crossroads.

If one can’t take control of their own narrative and take an honest look at themselves and how they want to live life, then how can they expect others to see them for who they really are? Reflecting on what his ‘normal’ used to be, Sultan is frank about his actual reality.

“I was running at 40%, when I was cooking, it was at 70%, which is shit. You tell yourself you’re alright, and you tell yourself that no one noticed. Maybe they didn’t and that ties into the expectations, right? I’m not begrudging anybody for it. If I didn’t grab hold of this and take some ownership and some control over this narrative, then who am I to have any expectations on anyone else?”

Following an onstage incident at a 2018 show in Cairns that saw Sultan become a news headline nationwide, the musician made the decision to enter rehab. He remembers his mindset changing during sessions with his counsellor – leading to him engaging with himself and by extension, his relationships and artistry in a more honest way.

“My counsellor asked me if I’d been to a meeting the night before, and I told her I had when I hadn’t. A minute later I said, ‘Look sorry, but that’s not true.’ For me, that was it,” he says.

“Ever since then, it’s been so much easier. You’re doing all these backflips and mental gymnastics in order to assimilate and to keep up appearances, other than just being honest with yourself. That then is the same with parenthood, and it’s the same with my artistry: the fact is, I am a talented artist, and I’m being true to that. I’ve never been true to that before. Maybe the last time I was this true to it, I was five or six years old. It was so pure and raw, and so matter of fact.”

Sultan’s choice to enter rehab and better himself was made after spending a period of time bunkered down at the Ibis Hotel at Brisbane Airport with his now-wife Bron, supporting him through a tough series of withdrawals.

This experience led to Sultan penning “Wait in Love”, the emotional touchstone of Dan Sultan. At its simplest, it is a love song to a partner; at its most pure, it is a dedication to a kindred spirit. 

And while that 2018 experience in Cairns that led to such a beautiful song’s composition was an intensely humiliating one, Sultan openly admits it was the necessary catalyst for change.

“It saved my life, that humiliation. We weren’t married at the time, but it saved my relationship with my wife. It saved my family, my kids, who weren’t born yet. Everything I am now, saved. All of it. 

We sat in that room for four days. I dried out. I went downstairs to get us some dinner, and I saw the front of The Australian. It was so embarrassing and horrible. I got home a few days after that, and went straight to rehab. That’s what “Wait in Love” is about. It’s about Bron, waiting in love. After three months, we were pregnant; our daughter was due a year to the day that I stopped drinking. That was it.”

Credit: Daniel Boud

Dan Sultan was a project that brought Sultan back together with longtime collaborator and close friend, producer Joel Quartermain. Together, they reignited a chemistry in the studio that led to Sultan being able to hone in on elements of songwriting and evocative musicianship that had laid somewhat dormant in the years preceding this creative process. 

“[He is] one of my best mates and an amazing producer and songwriter. He has really helped me get to that place [of peace],” Sultan says. “The first song we wrote for the record was “Wait in Love”. It’s my favourite.” 

Human frailty, human complexity and human beauty – flaws and all – are explored on Dan Sultan, delivered with rejuvenated honesty. It is what makes the album so relatable and in turn, it has what made the reverence for Sultan’s performances in the months since its release so well-received.

“That’s the thing about good writing, it’s something deeply personal to me but at the same time, people are able to empathise with.” Sultan says. 

“There are some songs, like “Won’t Give You That”, it’s a song about liberation. 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.”

The release of the album in August proved a catalyst moment in redefining Dan Sultan the artist in the eyes of industry and fans – old and new alike. Debuting at #2 on the ARIA Australian Albums Chart, #4 on the Top 10 Vinyl Charts, and #15 on the overall ARIA Albums Chart, the immediate impact of Dan Sultan was clear.

“The sound of a man finding peace after dealing with a lot of noise,” described Double J, naming Dan Sultan their Feature Album during release week.

“…a comeback from an artist who never went away, but realises he carried a weight, and now has the maturity to explore it in song.” proclaimed Rolling Stone AU/NZ.

Reaffirming the above, Melbourne’s Beat Magazine also praised the record: “In career-best form as he prepares to embark on this new musical chapter, with clarity of vision and a renewed sense of purpose, Sultan’s time is now.”

Dan Sultan would earn three ARIA Award nominations, for Best Solo Artist, Best Independent Release and Best Adult Contemporary Album and come November, Sultan stood on the ARIA stage to accept the award for Best Adult Contemporary Album – a moment of humility and pure triumph.

“I’d never taken the other [wins] for granted, but this time, I realised how difficult it is. To get the noms and then to actually win one, and actually be able to say some things in that space, was something I really enjoyed,” he remembers. “It was a very rewarding experience for Bron and I, and our team. All of it.”

Along with online and radio praise, Sultan made his return to performing with this record and a new band in tow. 

The openness of the album has lent itself to an even more personal and dynamic live show, one that was able to be taken international in 2023. Sultan supported Vance Joy in North America, including a touchstone performance at the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre in Colorado, before returning home to plot out numerous sold-out shows of his own along the East Coast.

“I was able to centre myself again. It was pretty amazing,” Sultan says of his return to the US. “I really love North America, I look forward to exploring it more with work and on personal trips as well.” 

“It’s always a balance. It was the longest I had spent away from my kids, which sucked. It’s a big deal. I’m really proud; whether it’s a night or two, or in the case of going to the States for the Vance Joy shows, three weeks…my manager was with me too, and we’re both family people. Knowing that it’s not in vain; I’m not fucking up, I’m doing as good a job as I possibly can. I’m not wasting any time.”

Of his performance at the iconic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Sultan felt everything come into place: earning a standing ovation while on one of the most revered live stages in North America, the hard work, the time spent away from home, all of the stress and the dedication to reach this point, had paid off.

“It was dead quiet when I was playing and I didn’t know if it was landing; so to get a standing ovation… It’s the mother church of country music,” he says. “To be on that stage, singing my songs, and to get that reception. I really felt an appreciation in the States but particularly that night at The Ryman, that I’ve missed here. It was beautiful.”

To cap off a year of phenomenal live shows, Sultan’s appearance for Mushroom Records’ 50th anniversary event at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena, a nationally broadcast event, led to one of the night’s standout performances.

Delivering a poignant and heartfelt rendition of Archie Roach’s “Took the Children Away”, the performance earned rave reviews, as well as an overwhelmingly positive response inside the arena. With his wife, children and team present, it was another moment of purity for Sultan and this record – affirmation through the music.

“I’m honoured to sing it. It’s not a song that I sing, I made sure to clarify that to myself,” Sultan says. “It’s not something that I put in my set; it’s a song for everyone, it’s Uncle Archie’s song.” 

“To be able to show what I’m capable of in that space as far as production and arrangement is concerned, and then to be able to do it live with that great band… there’s something incredibly powerful about being able to just sing. It’s something that, when given the opportunity, I always thought I could do as an artist and performer. To be able to have had that opportunity and to do it, is something I’m really proud of.”

The place Sultan creates from today is one that doesn’t have the pressure of expectation hampering his central vision. Where in the past, outside influences or his own lack of self-esteem invited negativity and toxicity into the creative space, the present for Dan Sultan is one that is vivid, rich in sonic vibrancy. 

Awareness and peace in his life are two things that have eluded Sultan in the past, though the control and calm he maintains now is linked to a series of realisations that, though there have been opportunities that have passed him by, there have been better ones waiting for him in time.

Credit: Daniel Boud

With empowerment, comes fresh perspectives. Sultan knows this intimately, and all too well. 

“It’s something that I have wanted for a long time. Things happen when they happen, if they ever happen. If opportunities come up and someone isn’t in the position to take advantage of them, then they’re not really opportunities for whatever it was.

“For me, they were opportunities to learn. I actually don’t mind regrets, I have them. I think they have been important for me, I’ve really learned from them and I’m at peace with them. When I was ready to be where I needed to be, I made sure that I was. Those opportunities that have come up, they’ve been good for something.”

His personal journey, intrinsically tied with his artistry, has given fans and active audiences in their thousands the ability to connect with a man who has long held one of Australian music’s most charismatic voices and powerful songwriting pens. 

“Every time I’ve done something because I’ve been told I had to do it, because one plus one equals two… it’s never worked. When everything shuts down with COVID; I’m sure there’s a lot of artists who may be able to relate, when you’ve had the ass fall out of everything, it can be an empowering thing to not try and impress anyone anymore. I never was, anyway.”

For those fans who have been on the journey with Sultan, this album has proven to offer a beautiful moment of reconnection. For those who have discovered his music through this musical portrait, they now have an entry point to a fascinating and texturally diverse catalogue of music to explore.

The release of Dan Sultan was less of a return, more of a true arrival. An arrival to be proud of, by the artist and his community alike.

“To be able to move the stone in the direction I want it to be going is, again, a huge and difficult thing. It’s hard enough without flogging yourself; I’ve flogged myself for years,” he says. 

“But the one thing that’s been there, and has always been there… it’s one of the earliest things I remember knowing about myself and my identity, is that I’m an artist. I’m very fortunate. When it all blows up and catches on fire, like it has a couple of times, what am I? I’m a lover, a father, and an artist.”

Dan Sultan’s self-titled album is out now via Liberation Records. Sultan will join the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in NAIDOC Week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his critically acclaimed album, Blackbird, on July 12th (more information here). 

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