Sulene isn’t wasting her time. The South African New York singer-songwriter, composer and multi-instrumentalist has done more in her 20s than most people get around to in a lifetime. As lead guitarist for Nate Ruess, she performed everywhere from DIY clubs in Brooklyn to The White House (yes, she has met President Obama and he is charming). Her voice has been featured in films and TV shows to accompany everything from Halle Berry showering to Al Pacino stagediving. Her music has scored Ray Donovan, The Affair, Extant and multiple films. She has played on Late Night With Seth Meyers, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, The Today Show, VH1, and more, as well as graced the stages of Fuji Rock in Japan, Austin City Limits, iHeart Radio, and NHL Winter Classic. Last Friday, she released her latest EP he•don•ic. Today, she takes a run at my dumb questions (so maybe that thing about not wasting her time wasn’t so true after all). Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Introduce yourself: Name, age (feel free to lie), home base and any other details you’d care to share — height / weight / identifying marks / astrology sign / your choice.
My name’s Sulene van der Walt (pronounced fun-der-vault) and I go by the stage name Sulene. I was born and raised in South Africa and my first language is Afrikaans. I moved to the U.S. in 2009 and have been here since. I’m a Leo, I’m obsessed with King of the Hill, and I write music for commercials/TV/films for a living.
What is your musical origin story?
I grew up with music all around me — my mom was a classical pianist so I don’t really remember when I started playing piano. I started playing guitar when I was 13 years old and had a badass female guitar instructor who inspired me. She had a nose piercing and that’s why I have the same nose piercing to this day. When I was a teenager I started playing bass and drums and singing as well. In college I studied film scoring and after that I got into music production, mixing, and mastering.
What’s your latest project? Tell us everything we need to know.
he•don•ic is written about addiction and hedonic pleasures. In the last two years or so I’ve really taken a look at my (and society’s) relationship with alcohol. The first track I wrote was whiskey.weed.sex.candy. which is about how our focus on consumerism makes us unable to feel whole or at peace a lot of the time.
What truly sets you apart from other artists?
My life story. I think I’m able to relate to many people from different walks of life.
Tell us about the first song you wrote and/or gig you played.
The first gig I played was when I was 13. It was for a singer-songwriter showcase in South Africa called Like Honey. I was so scared that I asked my friend to accompany me on guitar. I remember feeling insanely nervous before I went on stage and wondering how am I ever going to do this for a living? Lol.
What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you have given?
My best memory of a performance was the last show I played because the pandemic hit. It was my EP release show for my previous record Fire Escaping. I’d had this dream to have a live show with dancers and that was the very first one I had two dancers with me. I’d choreographed the show and also programmed the light show. The crowd was full of energy and singing the words and the record wasn’t even out yet. They knew it from prior shows. After that we all went to a friend’s nearby and had a bonfire and DJed.
What is the best / worst / strangest / most memorable performance you’ve seen?
I saw Nine Inch Nails play a secret show at Webster Hall a few years ago. It was the best show I’ve ever seen. I still think about it all the time.
What living or dead artists would you collaborate with if you could?
Jeff Buckley, Madonna, Mike Judge.
What artist or style of music do you love that would surprise people?
Jon Brion. But that would only surprise you if you didn’t know me.
What useful (or useless) skills do you have outside of music?
I can tell you anything ever about King of the Hill.
What do you collect?
Haruki Murakami books.
What would you like to be reincarnated as?
A water buffalo.
What’s your idea of perfect happiness?
Financial freedom and endless time to create/hang out with friends.
What’s your greatest regret?
Not taking it easy more in college. I was so serious about everything and didn’t realize how real life would get once I left.
What are you afraid of?
What would be the title of your autobiography?
Hedonic South African New Yorker.
Who should play you in the movie of your life?
What’s your motto?
You must take responsibility for everything in your life.
What’s always in your refrigerator?
Does freezer count? Ice cream.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
My insecurity. It manifests in weird ways like interrupting people or talking over them at parties.
What’s the silliest thing you believed as a child?
That when people in the movies kiss it’s not a regular kiss. My parents told me that’s not how people actually kiss, so for a long time I was confused about how you’re actually supposed to kiss. Thanks, mom and dad.
What’s the best and / or worst advice you were ever given?
Best advice I was given was to always hit a home run no matter what when you’re given an opportunity in music. I’ve always tried my best and never made excuses. I work hard and most of the time that leads to cool stuff.