WHEN Dan Sultan was four someone left a note on the front door of his family's new Melbourne home.
On it was an offensive and racist slur that made it brutally clear that Sultan's Indigenous family were not welcome in the Northcote neighbourhood.
The trauma of that note has stayed with Sultan all his life. Finally at the age of 39, the singer-songwriter has felt comfortable enough in his own skin to sing of that memory.
Story is the emotional opening track on Sultan's self-titled fifth album. An album which is undoubtedly the most personal of the four-time ARIA Award-winner's career.
"When I was ready, I was ready," Sultan says of Story over Zoom. "I wrote it and it's a great song.
"With that sort of stuff, writing is challenging, but as an artist to be in a place where you're resting on your laurels and not challenged, that's the hardest thing an artist can go through.
These challenges of writing a song like Story, as challenging and confronting as they are, it's much easier than not dipping your toes in those waters.- Dan Sultan
"These challenges of writing a song like Story, as challenging and confronting as they are, it's much easier than not dipping your toes in those waters."
Sultan has been exorcising many demons in recent years. Last October he gave a TEDx talk in Canberra about discovering that racist note as a child.
The father-of-two is also sober, after enduring a very public stumble during a shambolic and drunken performance at a concert in Cairns in 2018.
The public fall from grace led to a stint in rehabilitation and an healthier outlook.
Sultan, also says, it's led to greater creativity.
"I don't think so much that it's a re-set," he says. "I understand the sentiment, and I guess it's just semantics for me to say it's not that. In a lot of ways it is, but every record is a re-set.
"But just being able to get to a more stable and comfortable place, the more comfortable and stable I am, the more uncomfortable I can get with my work."
Sultan's previous studio albums - Homemade Biscuits (2006), the ARIA Award-winning Get Out While You Can (2009), Blackbird (2014) and Killer (2017) - have featured illustrations on the covers.
On Dan Sultan his face is front and centre. Sultan believes this is the most vulnerable he's ever allowed himself to be.
On Won't Give You That he addresses his darker days with a renewed confidence when he sings: You can try to bury me with my past/ But I'm coming with the wind in my back/ You build me up to see me collapse/ But I won't give you that.
The anthemic single Ringing In My Ears also speaks of moving beyond his alcohol-fuelled past.
I would wake up in the evenings/ I would bring myself to life/ I would kiss you in the morning/ Only just to say good night.
"For this record there's a smaller bridge between what's inside to what's on the record, then I've ever had," he says.
"That's always the challenge for me when making records and making music; trying to have as little distance between the feeling and the spirit of the piece to the manifestation of it. I feel this record is the smallest bridge that I've had."
The album was co-produced with Eskimo Joe's Joel Quartermain, with the two close friends playing almost every instrument on the album.
The one outside contribution was from indie-folk songstress Julia Stone, who provided her angelic vocals and trumpet to the song Fortress.
The R'n'B-flavoured slice of grooves and indie-pop signals the biggest departure from Sultan's traditional blues-rock sound.
"We did a writing session and we wrote a couple of beautiful songs and we'd written Fortress and Joel [Quartermaine] had an idea that it would be a good idea for her [Stone] to duet on," he says.
"I was umming and ahhing on it. The next day we were doing a bit of show-and-tell with Julia and she said, 'I wanna be on that'."
Sultan's intensity as a performer has always been among his greatest strengths. The audience knows he cares.
When discussing the upcoming referendum on constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians and the Voice to Parliament, Sultan's trademark intensity is there. You understand he's deeply passionate.
"As far as the Voice is concerned, I think it's very important," he says.
"Having something set up in our Constitution and within our government where really great advice can be heard and implemented, as opposed to way it's been for a long time, which is obviously not working, is very important.
"There's a lot of people who are cynical about it because they don't understand."
Sultan says he's been disappointed, but not surprised, by the discourse surrounding the issue.
"Some of it is pretty nasty and some of it is false, and deliberately false, in order to get some eyeballs, some clicks," he says.
"I think it would be a lot easier if we all stopped screaming at each other."
Dan Sultan's self-titled album is out now.