'Big wake-up call': How Dan Sultan changed his life after public fall
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'Big wake-up call': How Dan Sultan changed his life after public fall

On the last day of 2017, Dan Sultan was with friends, all getting ready to welcome the New Year.

It was a relaxed atmosphere, far from fireworks and music festivals happening across the country, yet the problem for Sultan, whose Killer album debuted at No.5 just six months prior, was the "devastation" he felt at not bringing his music to a New Year's Eve audience. It was a missed opportunity, he says, and one he struggled to put behind him.

Dan Sultan.

Dan Sultan.Credit:Justin McManus

Fast forward five months and the gnawing sense of disappointment he still felt, coupled with his alcohol consumption, tipped him over an edge he'd been leaning towards since late last year.

It was on stage in Cairns when a "rambling" Sultan, as some fans later described him on Facebook, came to the crossroads that has since become a major factor in his decision-making.

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"I was out of it, drunk on stage," he says. "It kind of snuck up on me a bit, a lot. It was pretty full on, a very big wake-up call and very embarrassing. I was halfway through a 44-date tour, I was heading overseas, a lot of stuff was going on and I just had to stop."

Immediately after the Cairns show his management issued a statement saying, "Dan's health and wellbeing is our highest priority" and he immediately entered a rehabilitation program.

"I went to a place for a month, every day for rehab. I stayed at home and got up every morning and went there and came home at night, which was really good.

"I felt OK but what had started to happen was that I'd started to black out leading up to that and you don't feel yourself blacking out, you don't know where you're at ... when you're drinking like that."

The period since early June, when he pulled the plug on his tour and began making significant changes in his life, has included a return to regular physical exercise, boxing training and quitting those moments when going for a drink was too easily brushed off as normal.

"Drug addiction and alcoholism in the music industry can be kind of glorified," he said. "The whole idea of a badge of honour ... is bulls--t. It's certainly nothing I wear as a badge of honour.

"For me the drinking was just drinking, it's everywhere and when you have a good day you celebrate, when you have a bad day you commiserate, but for someone who's got a problem with alcohol, that's really dangerous."

He's stopped drinking alcohol and has his sights set on a healthier, brighter future.

A long-time Melbourne resident, Sultan came swaggering onto the Australian music scene with his country, soul and rock'n'roll in the early 2000s and released his debut album Homemade Biscuits in 2006. He's been playing guitar since he was four years old, but it was his powerful voice that soon captured so many ears.

One of those who recognised his talent early on was Paul Kelly, who asked Sultan to record the Kev Carmody song This Land is Mine for a compilation album of Carmody's work in 2007. Later that year Sultan performed at the National Sorry Day concert. He released his second album Get Out While You Can in 2009 and has since played hundreds of shows.

He's had multiple ARIA nominations, three wins including best male in 2010, as well as chart success with Killer and his previous album Blackbird, which won the 2014 ARIA for best rock album.

He's rarely taken his foot off the pedal since emerging onto the scene, winning fans around the country with powerful solo shows as well as fronting his own band. The overseas tour he had planned for late this year was postponed, as were remaining dates of his solo tour in the wake of June's meltdown in Queensland.

It was all the more difficult for Sultan and those close to him to deal with, coming hot on the heels of his successful collaboration with other artists on his Killer Under a Blood Moon EP, featuring re-workings of his own songs.

"I like working, I enjoy doing what I do and I've worked really hard," he told Fairfax Media. "The last year or so is when my mental health and emotional health took a hit. I lost that connection with myself. When that happens, what they call 'stinking thinking' can make you sick and it is terrible. You can either keep working and basically get your head out of your arse or make yourself sick about it.

"If someone doesn't play your song on radio, for example, that might not seem like a big thing but for the person who's not getting played, who's pouring their f---ing heart out and for the people whose job it is to get you on the radio, it's everything. So there were some disappointing times, I was over-thinking things and getting depressed, I was cooking myself."

Rather than avoid dealing with his behaviour in Cairns, Sultan is keen to address what's ultimately led to necessary changes in his life. The 35-year-old says he's fortunate to have "a huge support network around me" as he makes important personal and career decisions. He's also looking forward to attending the official ARIA ceremony in Sydney on November 28. Last month he was nominated for two ARIA awards, best male and best adult contemporary for Killer Under a Blood Moon.

Dan Sultan on stage in 2016.

Dan Sultan on stage in 2016.Credit:Simone De Peak

"There's a lot to be proud of ... Killer charted really well and there was a lot to be happy about but there were a few things that were disappointing and that's what my mind was focusing on. It was a whirlwind of over-thinking ... it wasn't good. The fact of the matter is life isn't an equation and I can be a bit clinical sometimes. I need to chill out a bit, give myself a bit of a break."

Next week, Sultan and his band headline the opening night of the Queenscliff Music Festival. He's been looking forward to it for many months, back in the spotlight for all the right reasons. Before then he'll be in solo mode at St Kilda's refurbished Esplanade Hotel on November 30 and December 1.

He's thrown himself into rehearsal and enjoyed a rewarding period of writing. Time away from the stage has also made him more appreciative of upcoming shows, including a New Year's Eve performance at the Woodford Folk Festival.

"To be able to do something that is so fulfilling ... I feel very fortunate," he said. "That's something I've been focusing more on, which is only a positive."

Martin Boulton is editor of EG at The Age and Shortlist at the Sydney Morning Herald.

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