Exclusive: Sultan on refugees, racism and his ‘big’ gig on Play School
Rocker Dan Sultan, he of the combed back hair, black jeans and stop-you-in-your-tracks sex appeal, is as excited as a little kid.
The ARIA award-winning singer-songwriter and Bran Nue Dae film star will make his debut in front of the nation’s preschoolers as a guest on the iconic children’s program Play School in July, as part of the program’s 50th anniversary celebrations.
Sultan filmed an episode for the show with Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning and Sydney rock band You Am I. He says he was star struck when he found himself in the company of the characters from his childhood such as Big Ted, Little Ted, Jemima and Humpty Dumpty.
He even turns his famous voice to singing the children’s song, Wheels on the Bus.
“It’s awesome. It’s a dream come true. I had friends calling me up that I hadn’t spoken to in years saying ‘You finally made it. You’re on Play School’,” he tells NIT.
“I watched it as a kid. Absolutely. I don’t have kids of my own but I have lots of nieces and nephews. It’s an institution.”
Since the high drama of filming Play School, Sultan has returned to more familiar turf — a Melbourne recording studio where he is working on his next, as yet unnamed, album. He hopes to have a new single or two out by the end of the year with the album out early in 2017.
Sultan says it will be his bravest work yet with song lyrics running a gamut of inspirations from social causes to love.
“I think I’m going lyrically where I haven’t been before,” he says. “I don’t consider myself political, I just consider myself opinionated and I’ve always been that way normally. I think I’m going there lyrically with this album too.”
Among the causes Sultan feels strongly about is the world refugee crisis. He performed at a Walk for Justice for Refugees rally in Melbourne on Palm Sunday.
“I think it’s pretty basic,” he says. “Everyone wants to be safe and everyone wants to be happy, everyone wants to be secure and some people are scared. I think that inspires what turns out to be something pretty dangerous in racism.
“It comes from a place where people just want to be secure and feel that they are going to be okay and their family is going to be okay, but that’s why people get on a boat and try to come here as well because they want those exact same things.
“Everyone is on the same page just looking at it from a different place.
“We live in a country like Australia where everyone except my family came here by boat. I think to live in a country like Australia and not welcome refugees — I mean how desperate are you going to have to be to put yourself on a leaky boat to try to find something better.
“How bad must it be where you are?
“Everyone should just look after each other and be nice to each other. It sounds pretty simple and pretty naive but at the same time it’s the truth.
“Everyone should just chill out and be cool and be nice to each other. I think in 2016 it’s about growing up. Just grow up. There’s no excuse for racism or misogyny or sexism or homophobia. There’s no excuse for that. We are better. Be nice.”
From his turn on Play School to his views on the refugee crisis, there’s a depth to Sultan, who burst onto the Australian music scene a decade ago at the age of 22 with his first album, Homemade Biscuits.
Since then he’s won three ARIA awards and starred in the 2010 musical Bran Nue Dae, alongside Geoffrey Rush, Jessica Mauboy and Missy Higgins.
He’s also become something of an idol to generations of children who are inspired by his success, though he says “I think there are much better role models than me”.
Sultan admits at the outset he didn’t know how the whole music business would work out for him.
“You never know whether it’s going to work or not, you just want to hang out with your mates and play music and if other people happen to like it …
It’s up to everyone else whether it works or not. It’s not up to me,” he says.
“I can give myself the best chance by looking after myself and making sure I do all the right things — which I don’t always do, but that’s okay — but it’s up to everyone else whether they like it or not. We’re just here to make music.
“If people dig it and they’re into it, then that’s great. But you aren’t doing yourself many favours if you are setting out wanting to make it happen because it’s not up to you. You’ll just agonise over that your whole life.”
Sultan says success is something of a lucky dip.
“You need three things,” he says. “You need to be good, you need to work really hard and you need to be lucky. And all those things need to happen at once.
“If they don’t, then they don’t. You are better off just taking it easy on yourself and not being too hard on yourself and try to enjoy it.”
Sultan’s own career hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Several years ago he was reportedly in a rut and just wasn’t inspired to write. He pulled himself out of it, bouncing back with an ARIA-award winning album. He says it helps to treat yourself well.
“Try to look after yourself. Things are better when you are better, he says.
That could mean getting an early night. That could mean doing a bit of exercise. That could mean just doing the little things that add up.”
Sultan is descended from the Arrernte and Gurindji people on his mother’s side. His father was of Irish descent and a lawyer for the Aboriginal Legal Service.
At school Sultan says he battled with dyslexia, which wasn’t diagnosed until he was aged 17.
“I basically bullshitted my way through school up until then,” he says. “Up until then I couldn’t read properly. I still can’t read properly. Like I can read, but I can’t sit down and read a book. It’s not an enjoyable thing for me.
“It’s got a whole lot of connotations that come along with it. Anxiety. It’s not a relaxing thing to do. I kind of regret that. I got by because of what I was good at. I’d like to know more. Absolutely. I’d like to be more educated and have a lot more knowledge than I do.
“I will. There’s plenty of time.”
But Sultan has always had a gift for music.
Growing up in Fitzroy in Melbourne and Cairns, he began playing the guitar as a young child and reportedly wrote his first song at aged 10.
Homemade Biscuits, his first album, was released in March 2006 and followed by Get Out While You Can in 2009, and Blackbird in 2014.
He won his first two ARIA awards in 2010 for Best Male Artist and Best Blues and Roots Album for Get Out While You Can, and picked up his third in 2014 for Best Rock Album for Blackbird.
The same year he supported rock legend Bruce Springsteen on part of his Australian tour.
Sultan’s appearance on the big screen in Bran Nue Dae in 2010 has so far been his only acting gig, but he has not ruled out doing another film if the right role comes up, though he doesn’t consider himself an actor.
For the foreseeable future he’s focused on his new album.
“Every album that you’ve done feels like practise for the next one,” he says. “You always want to keep on pushing it and you know, you always want to keep firing it up, keeping it fresh.
“I’ve got a short attention span so I can’t really do anything more than once, personally. I have to keep on changing it up to keep myself interested.”
As for his stint on Play School, Sultan is waiting to hear from the ABC as to when the episode will air. Then he has plans for that day.
“I want to watch it with them (my nephews and nieces),” he says. “I’ve got a two-year-old niece who loves it and I want to sit down and watch it with her and watch her flip out, see her reaction.
“At the same time, I’m singing the Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round so it might be a bit embarrassing. I don’t know! You can’t take yourself too seriously when it comes to kids.”
So in 2016 Sultan finds himself facing some of his toughest critics, no matter that some of them are still in nappies. He knows just how discerning that pre-schooler Play School audience can be — after all he was one of them.
- Dan Sultan will be performing at Crown Perth on June 18 at a black tie ball organised by Madalah, a not for profit organisation that provides scholarships for indigenous students in WA. Tickets are available through the Madalah website at madalah.com.au
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