Sulene van der Walt slips vodka into a bottle of ginger ale before walking out the door for tacos. The 24-year-old alternative musician doesn’t have to be so surreptitious — the restaurant is BYOB — but something in her nature compels her to hide what she’s doing in plain sight. “Drinking this way makes me feel like I’m in college again,” the Berklee graduate says.
Such diversions weren’t really feasible for van der Walt this time last year. While she’s currently preparing for her solo show (as Sulene) at Muchmore’s in Williamsburg on April 25, the South African singer and guitarist had a work visa set to expire in July 2014 that required months of legal wrangling to ensure she could stay in Brooklyn. The process wound up absorbing all of her free time. “Dealing with this nightmare was all-consuming,” she says. “It almost made me immobile.”
Work visas for international musicians are notoriously difficult to obtain. Applications are $600 in theory, but most successful applicants hire a lawyer or specialist to guide them, leading to costs in the thousands. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services don’t hand out firm rejections, but instead soft passes that ask for further evidence to prove that a given musician is qualified to make a living stateside, with no set criteria other than “extraordinary ability in the arts, [i.e.,] distinction.” Sulene was passed on and asked how high her albums charted, what national press she’s had, and whether she’s been on national television. (She may have benefited from a temporary job as Betty Who’s guitarist.)
“It feels like they’re asking, ‘Where’s your Grammy?’ ” van der Walt says. The near-rejection often leads to another wave of applications and lawyer fees, leaving musicians in limbo for months with no legal income. “My visa was in the process of being rejected,” she says, “which left me in a purgatory. I couldn’t make any plans, for work or for life, and I couldn’t leave, or else I may not have been able to come back to New York and get any of my stuff.”
After graduating from Berklee with a film-scoring degree in 2013, van der Walt set out to find work as a composer. Instead of floundering, as many do in a brutal industry, van der Walt succeeded: She’s done uncredited work on Golden Globe–winning show The Affair, and her IMDb page notes singing for Steven Spielberg’s Extant and composing for Showtime’s Ray Donovan. “I’ve been living in America for ten years now and worked on a film that starred Al Pacino,” she says. “But none of that was enough for the USCIS on the first go-around.”
She mixes the vodka with lime soda before digging in to her vegetarian tacos. “This place has such a vibe,” she says, admiring the Bushwick establishment’s neon lights. “I took my mom here on New Year’s Eve; it was packed and we ended up chatting it up with total strangers.
“My mom got hit on,” van der Walt continues with a laugh. “That’s the real story. She didn’t even realize it.”
This used to be van der Walt’s neighborhood, but after the first rejection, her final American hours of 2014 were spent on tour as the lead guitarist for pop-punk act Candy Hearts. It was here she met her hero, Paramore’s Hayley Williams; her boyfriend, David Mackinder (from Pitchfork-championed punk band Fireworks); and Chad Gilbert, the New Found Glory guitarist who then asked her to join his solo project, What’s Eating Gilbert, on tour. While in Ireland with Candy Hearts, van der Walt’s visa got approved. She spent two months at home in Cape Town before moving to Bed-Stuy in March.
She applauds after a nearby table sings “Happy Birthday” to a nineteen-year-old, and talks about how New York feels like home. “I always wanted to live in this city at some point in my life,” she says. “All my musician friends are here, and it’s where the opportunities are as a composer and performer.”
That mentality led to the writing of her upcoming EP, I Have Surfaced, which she plans to shop to record labels. She’ll head into the studio this spring with Guitar Center Drum-Off winner J.P. Bouvet on drums, dubstep producer Drew Ofthe Drew on bass, and Mackinder on guitar. The lyrics on the EP are all van der Walt’s, as is most of the music; the only other songwriting credit goes to Mackinder, who co-wrote two songs.
Sulene washes muscular melodies and stadium choruses through tides of angst from her visa battle and the role gender plays in music. On “Waves,” she compares her struggle to escaping an undertow: “Everything is clearer now. I have surfaced, show me it’s worth it.” Another song, “Animal Ways,” is about someone presenting the keys to the castle — or the industry — through sex. “Empowered men offer you a way to further your career,” she says. “It’s something I think all women go through, though I can only speak for myself. It’s a disappointing and disgusting way to see people get treated.”
Though van der Walt can now live in New York, her work situation remains complicated — because of the visa, instead of in spite of it. “I can only legally work jobs related to music,” she says. “I plan to release my EP in the fall and tour as part of What’s Eating Gilbert this year.” She squirms when talking about how she currently pays rent. “I barely do. I teach lessons, I play guitar on records, I do some assistant work, and I compose. It’s never simple and it’s not constant. It’s a risky game every month, but I have friends and roommates who are fully aware of my situation and have swooped in a few times to help me out.”
One of those friends agreed to go to her upcoming show if van der Walt would spend a night out clubbing. “I view wearing heels as a personal challenge,” she says, “so I had to accept it.” Her sense of style doesn’t normally jibe with dancing; she’s more Wayne’s World than Girls. “I used to watch Sex and the City and think, ‘I want to be fabulous!’ Now look at me and my kneehole jeans.”
After finishing her tacos, she polishes off her drink and confesses what really worries her.
“The next visa expires in July 2017, but I said I’d give myself a year before I’d worry about it again,” van der Walt says. “Just one year before I start the whole process over. Considering the unforeseeable curveballs from last time, I have no idea what to expect. They could get rid of the O-1 artist’s visa altogether or change the rules under my feet.”
She winces thinking about it, but catches herself before she gets too down.
“I’ll go through the motions; I’m already prepared. It’s not something I look forward to, but I know I’ve learned. The first time taught me to take nothing for granted. Just the idea that I do have a shot means so much to me. You can’t win the lottery without buying a ticket, and before, I couldn’t even buy a ticket. Playing music that means something to me with people I care about, I know I’ve already won.”
Sulene plays Muchmore’s on April 25 with Old Best Friend, Manic Pixi and Tea & Water. Tickets are available here.
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