A few years ago he was stranded in Byron bay with no money, no shoes, no means of a way home and using a pay phone to make a reverse call. That was the conversation that turned Dan Sultan's life around.
"I was in Byron with no money and I called my dad just to let him know that I was okay and that I’d be coming home eventually or whatever."
Earlier the Arrernte/Gurindji man had applied for a music grant, and it was during that call where his dad told him he received mail from the Australia Council.
"There I was with no money, no shoes, a pay phone making reverse charges and he told me they’d given me something like $13,700 to make a record... I stuck my thumb out the next day and got home a couple of days later and since then I just haven’t stopped.”
Sultan grew up in the cosmopolitan inner Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy, which he says was like a little village despite its proximity to the CBD of a major Australian city.
“Fitzroy was a place where we lived but we also lived in other places around Melbourne, but Fitzroy was sort of a place that we always came back to. Whether it was at friends’ houses or friends’ cafes you know? it was a real community and things weren’t that easy growing up and it was our little village. I mean it’s a great place, I love Melbourne and I love Fitzroy and being a young, aspiring musician and artist and song-writer it was a good place to absorb.”
With an Arrernte/Gurindji mother and an Irish father Sultan’s heritage has shaped the person he is today.
“I mean it must have, you know, just like anyone else, you know, you’re a product of your environment and your upbringing,” he says.
"I’ve always known where I’ve come from both in Australia and in Ireland. Sultan being our name, it’s a pretty big name through Central Australia with the Afghan camel traders and camel herders. So I’ve always known where we are from and who we are."
"I was the only, or one of the only Aboriginal kids in school."
Sultan said he sympathises for those people who don't know their heritgae backstory.
"I feel that’s where sometimes it can get a bit confusing for some people, you know, people who aren’t Aboriginal when we say things like 'this is our country and it’s not theirs' you know because this is all we’ve ever known. I think we’re very fortunate to be in a place where we’ve been for a very, very long time.”
Sultan has also travelled to his father’s country in Ireland which he says is a poweruful experience to go back and visit the roots of your family heritage.
“It was amazing, same feeling as I get when I go to Central Australia, or Fitzroy, you know. I think, for anyone out there who has, I think it’s worth looking into, to see where your family is from and not everybody has the opportunities to travel, to the other side of the world but I think even just having that knowledge is ah, it’s something that I have always appreciated."
For Sultan, who was often the only Indigenous kid at school, growing up was a generally positive experience.
“It was great, I enjoyed it. I mean I always had a lot of friends; I had a great time at school most of the time. I mean you know I was a teenager just like anyone else and it can get pretty rough and pretty hard just like anybody else. In Melbourne I was the only, or one of the only Aboriginal kids, I lived in Cairns for a few years where I wasn’t," he explained.
“I also lived in Darwin for not quite a year in grade six or something. And that was great too and being in the territory in Darwin, there were a lot of cousins. How much of them were actually cousins, you never know but…”
Discovering Rock and Roll
According to his family, Sultan was joining in song and ceremony before he could walk.
"Being out in Yuendumu there’s a lot of singing and ceremony and my dad said I would join in whenever I got the chance."
But it was all thanks to a cool band with tight clothing and combed hair that caught his attention and exposed him to the music scene.
"I remember being about four in Fitzroy - a place there called the Black Cat. There was a band called The Crocs who used to play on a Sunday afternoon. A rockabilly band that wore black jeans, tight jeans and tight shirts and played big guitars and combed their hair and they were just the coolest, coolest people I had ever seen, so that was it.”
Sultan was instantly hooked and knew he wanted to follw music.
“So that was it, yeah, and I just thought that’s what you do when you grow up, at least get older, not grow up, you know. It was just rock and roll. A very broad term rock and roll, but that’s the best way I can put it, hanging out with your mates, playing guitars and having fun, and mucking around.”
Soon there was guitar playing and then composing original songs with a heavy influence from Rock and Soul music.
“Rock and roll, electric guitars, it was just all about electric guitars, yeah, I mean Jimi Hendrix, ACDC, the great Australian bands too, INXS, Midnight Oil, obviously ACDC is Australian, yeah rock and roll, and like old 50s rock and roll like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard you know,” he says.
“Sugar Pie Honey Bunch is a ripper, Give Me Shelter, Rolling Stones, there’s a few in there.”
During his teenage years, Sultan used to follow pub karaoke competitions. He was allowed in despite being underage and not being able to drink because he could sing.
“I used to go and follow it around the pubs. I was too young to drink in the pubs and I didn’t really drink anyway, they used to let me enter the karaoke comp because I could sing and I used to hustle. There were cash prizes for second and third place, I got second which was $250 - a fortune for a 17 year old without a job!
As for first prize, well let's just say Sultan won't be able to get Celion Dion out of his head for a long time...
"First prize was $500, but the girl who won first prize was the daughter of the woman who ran the competition and she was terrible... I don’t care, she was terrible, you know who you are. You sang Celine Dion and it was terrible.”
Career kick off
Sultan says his first album was at a time when he was down and out when his luck changed. It was during his time in Byron where he was living life day by day, dollar by dollar when he recieved news that he won a music grant that helped him kick of his career.
In 2009 Sultan recorded his second album in Nashville which proved a turning point.
“Then with Blackbird I mean, it debuted at number four, which I’d never been in the charts ever before, and it debuted in top five and stayed in the top ten for a few weeks.”
“It was an adventure, that’s great. I lived in Nashville for two months, Blackbird studios, which obviously, named the record after Blackbird studios. Which is just one of the most incredible recording studios on the planet, amazing gear, great people, Jacquire King made the record with us.”
Now he is releasing his fourth album Killer.
“I’m really proud of it, I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. I wrote a lot of music, not necessarily for this record but just I write music because that’s what I do and that’s what I am.”