Sulene Premieres 'What We Had,' Blissful Bedroom Synthpop From a Globetrotting South African Guitarist

Ivan Clow


When the 26-year old, South African-born Sulene van der Walt applies for her visa, she lists music as her trade. The eyebrow-raising intrigue that comes with introducing yourself as a full-time musician over drinks or a dinner party is lost on United States Citizenship and Immigration Services; it’s incredibly difficult to secure this kind of visa, and if you can, you’re not allowed to earn income through anything else.

That might explain Sulene’s hustle. Through skilled versatility and shear necessity, she’s served as a live guitarist for Aussie alt-popper Betty Who, Nate Ruess’ post-Fun. solo project, and tri-state area pop-punkers Candy Hearts. She’s done vocals and composition work for several film scores, including 2014’s The Humbling, which starred Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig and was directed by one of her heroes, Barry Levinson. Day jobs aside, she’s committed to her own solo career as a pop artist.

Today (Jan. 26), Billboard presents “What We Had,” the wistful, sun-kissed opening track from her forthcoming EP Strange

“I wanted to make this record so bad,” she tells Billboard, calling from her current home base in Brooklyn. “I was chipping away at this for a long time.”

Much of those two years were spent on tour with Ruess, traversing North America, Europe and Asia, and even meeting Barack Obama at the White House. But she’d take time to herself, capturing voice memos on her cell and holing up in her hotel room during the day, making sure her own creative fire didn’t die. The lyrics of “What We Had” capture an artist who’s just returned home from touring, realizing every evening that despite the creative rush, there’s no stage to perform on. It also touches on a similar standby period of her past. 

“The refrain -- ‘All the times we waited’ -- we were waiting for our lives to begin coming out of college, we wanted to make it as musicians,” she says. “It’s about me and the [prog rock] band [Helicopria] I was in, and my close friend. I wrote the song because I realized those were some of the best times I’d actually had. I might’ve overlooked it; I was in such a rush to get into the real world.”

For now, Sulene says her “primary focus” is the new EP and her film-scoring work. She has some New York shows lined up and though she’s never toured solo before (one-offs along the East Coast are as far as she’s gotten), she hopes it becomes a possibility later in 2017, even with her visa expiring in July. “I’m definitely feeling the pressure to renew it sooner than I thought, and costs have gone up," she explains. 

This could be due to Donald Trump’s election (she’s hesitant to place too much of the shift on politics) but either way, work towards a new visa is underway, and with it, an extension on her dream that began in 2002, when she first left South Africa for America. But it doesn’t end there for Sulene.

“I would like to go back home at some point,“ she assures. “It’s a huge goal of mine to start a record label back home. I’d like to make the two seem a lot more connected, because South Africa is so isolated… They don’t even have Spotify… South African musicians don’t have a lot of the same opportunities and that bums me out.”


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