Dan Sultan describes it as a moment of clarity. A long day of recording was behind him. The Tennessee Titans were about to take the field. Fireworks shot into the evening sky, lighting the stadium crowd, as a woman stepped up to a microphone to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. Sultan looked down the row of seats to the faces of his posse: band mates Joshua Jones and Peter Marin, as well as man-of-the-hour U.S. producer Jacquire King and renowned engineer Lowell Reynolds.
This was it. He was where he needed to be.
The moment hadn’t arrived without difficulty and a fair amount of soul-searching. Following Sultan’s acclaimed 2009 album, Get Out While You Can, a period of uncertainty about his musical future kicked in. He wasn’t writing; he split with his management and parted ways with guitarist Scott Wilson. That upheaval tested Sultan’s drive and weakened his self-belief.
But, slowly, Sultan’s uncertainty was replaced with a need to make a record that truly realised his musical vision. A record that would live up to the column inches proclaiming him the honest baton-holder of Australian rock and roll, the man who could take working-class blues and shift its gaze to Indigenous Australia and a brand new day.
To do that, Sultan would need to go out on a limb. He’d need to seek out a visionary team, look beyond the inner-city band rooms and sweeping country plains that had delivered to him so many won hearts, only to bring back something deeply rooted in those places. And here he was, in Nashville, Tennessee. In the thick of it. Making a record with a producer who cut his teeth on Tom Waits and helped Kings Of Leon find their world-beating sound.
Sultan’s plan was coming together.
The result is Blackbird, Dan Sultan’s third studio album. As raw and honest as it is necessarily prodigious, the album sets Sultan’s wide-ranging talent as a songwriter and performer at the fore. The powerhouse riffs of first single ‘Under Your Skin’ (written with Sparkadia’s Alexander Burnett and TZU’s Pip Norman) are met by crackling gospel interludes, old-school rock and roll jams, pure country tones, bare and aching ballads, harmonies, horns, banjos – even an Arabic scale or two.
Though it draws inspiration from afar, Blackbird is also a simple journey of a man singing about love, desire and identity. The album describes the years of searching that came before it. It’s there in the charging second single ‘The Same Man’; it’s in the ode to country ‘Kimberley Calling’ and in Blackbird’s stripped back final track, ‘Gullible Few’.
The album was recorded over two months inside Nashville’s famous Blackbird Studios, from which it takes its title. Sultan and his band, along with producer Jacquire King (Tom Waits, Buddy Guy, Kings Of Leon), pulled twelve-hour shifts in the studio each day, six days a week. At midnight, Sultan would retire to his hotel room to listen back to the day’s work, ready for another energetic session with King the following morning.
The pair formed a strong bond. “We became pretty close,” Sultan says. “We had a really good time making the record. And there were some amazing moments. They have an old guitar there that they get some artists to sign and I was asked to sign it – you engrave your name into it. And my name was between Neil Young and Buddy Guy on this guitar. That’s a moment. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
As well as his stable rhythm section of bassist Joshua Jones and drummer Peter Marin, the studio sessions saw a revolving cast of additional Nashville players, including Russian-born bluegrass player Ilya Toshinsky, who played banjo on ‘The Same Man’.
“He’s an incredible musician,” Sultan says. “The song goes from this hillbilly sound to Arabic scales to just flat-out shredding, and it’s on an Australian rock and roll song. And we recorded it in Nashville. That’s pretty weird, but it all comes together.”
Blackbird’s final song, the spine-tingling piano ballad ‘Gullible Few’, almost never made it to the record. In the song’s original band form, King was uncertain it would suit the tone of the album. Unable to let it go, Sultan stepped into the studio one night to lay down a guide track from which the rest of the band could work the following day. King and his team were listening from the control room.
“I came in from playing the guide and there was a group of grown men welling up and we just decided to leave it as that,” Sultan tells. “Just piano and voice. It was one of those moments: when you hear someone like Jacquire and Lowell Reynolds, his engineer and the engineer on the record, who’ve both made incredible stuff and have been a part of a lot of special things, to hear them say that was one of them was pretty cool.”
There were few distractions – a night watching the Tennessee Titans and a visit to Graceland can’t be held as indulgences. Blackbird is a portrait of Dan Sultan in a time and place; the record’s personal themes unfold as it plays out, just as they unfolded in the studio over the American summer.
“When you’re recording, the song is a part of that day and that day is a part of that song,” Sultan says about the experience of making Blackbird. “It’s like therapy. You go through what you’re going through and that can be pretty heavy. And then you write about what you’ve been through, which can be therapeutic. And then you record it and you hone it and you finish it. It’s something I feel very fortunate to be able to do, to get all that stuff out.”
Of course, there are reasons Dan Sultan has a collection of ARIA, Deadly and AIR Awards to his name, having recently won the 2014 ARIA for Best Rock Album. It’s an Australian musician coming into his own, stepping out to show the country and the world the many facets of his identity and artistry.
The next moment of clarity is ours to experience.