After flirting with success for over a decade, Australian rock singer and guitarist Dan Sultan may have arrived in the big-time. His latest album, Blackbird, is slickly produced yet energetic, sexy and fun, with its seemingly effortless execution. The record screams accessibility while still remaining deeply credible and creative.
To a casual observer, the description might seem obvious once you combine Sultan’s movie-star good looks, James Dean-like swagger and blues-drenched rock’n’roll vocals. However, belying this strut is over 14 years of hard gigging that began in 2000 at an open mic night in the Melbourne suburb of Williamstown. It was a performance that led to Sultan’s friendship with fellow guitarist and songwriter Scott Wilson – a union that, in turn, inspired Sultan’s debut album, Homemade Biscuits (2006).
Blackbird, Sultan’s third effort (after Get Out While You Can in 2009)is a high-velocity release. “I think ‘fun’ is the big [descriptor], energetic as well,” Sultan says. “[Blackbird] feels like the most energetic record that I have made. Every record that you have made feels like practice for the one you are about to make, or the one that you are making at the time – you’re always wanting to go further with stuff.”
The latest single from the album, ‘The Same Man’, is a rollicking and rolling tune that pairs confessional lyrics with the inexorable bravado of the music. A particularly memorable aspect of the song is a hummed pre-chorus that calls to mind a Navajo Indian chant.
“When I first started the song it was just the chant and it was a lot slower, and sounded a bit Chinese,” says Sultan. “I was in a writing session and I decided to speed it up a bit and the song took shape from there.
“The song’s meaning is that, ‘This relationship is finished because you’ve changed’. I [the protagonist] haven’t changed, but maybe that’s the problem. Maybe ‘he’ needed to pull his head in,” explains Sultan. Does Sultan often find himself in the position of ‘he’, the protagonist, in his lyrics? “From time to time,” he smiles. “With the banjo and the chanting it is pretty fun as well, on the ears, but it has heavy content.”
The first taste of the album, ‘Under Your Skin’, marked Sultan’s return to the scene late last year. As comeback singles go, it was an interesting selection, given its subject matter.
“It’s a pretty creepy song. It started as a love song but then it became a stalker, drug addict song. It’s a song about obsession – whether that be of another person or a substance – and it’s not necessarily guy-to-girl or vice-versa; it could be a guy to a guy or girl to a girl.”
Lined up against his last release of four-and-a-half years ago, Get Out While You Can, Blackbird is a sassy and very different creature. The former won Sultan the Male Artist of the Year and Best Single Release awards at the Deadlys, celebrating individuals with an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage. Sultan was born to an Aboriginal mother and Irish father, and while he’s always embraced his ethnicity, he’s reluctant to discuss it at length.
“Over the last few years I have been wanting to avoid this,” Sultan says softly. “Just because I find… I’ll tell you why, I just won’t say ‘no’, I don’t want to be a dickhead about it. Archie Roach said it best in an interview a few years ago when he said, ‘No-one asks Paul Kelly about where he’s from.’ I know it’s coming from a place that is genuine but at the same time, as Aboriginal artists, we find it hard to just be allowed to be artists.”
Blackbird out Friday April 4 through Liberation.