Back in November, Tash Sultana did something most artists around the world would kill for. At the tail-end of one of the strangest years in history, Sultana played a proper, in-person live show.
Of course, it wasn’t quite a normal live show. Rows of seating lined the usually shoulder-to-shoulder floor of Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion, with ticket-buyers advised to mask up, “practice high-level hygiene” and stay two seats away from anyone they didn’t know. Standing up or dancing was prohibited — not that a room of up-for-it Tash Sultana fans always followed protocol.
“They had to be told to sit down many times, because the venue was going to turn the power off,” Sultana recalls when we catch up months later. “I was like, ‘Thank you very much everyone, but you need to sit the fuck down or they’re going to cut the show!’”
You can’t really fault the Hordern crowd for getting on its feet. Sultana’s set — which also streamed to a rapt international audience on YouTube — was typically masterful. The musical polymath strolled onstage in darkness, crisply strumming Fender’s trademarked Tash Sultana Stratocaster. A familiar neon tableau — flamingo, rainbow, and cactus — back-lit the stage. Gradually the lights came up on a riser cosily arranged with the star’s go-to gear.
Over the next two hours, they moved between instruments and loop pedals with an ease that came as no surprise to fans. (Tash wearing shoes, however, was a curveball.) At the centre of it all was Sultana’s voice, a deep and pliable instrument that can make all kinds of feelings rush to your throat.
That night in November was Sultana’s last solo looping show, with future gigs set to feature a band. However, their thoughts leaving the stage weren’t on some grandiose idea of a chapter closing. “I felt sick as a fucking dog after I got off stage because I had bloody laryngitis,” Sultana deadpans. “I didn’t have a voice for two weeks.”
But even angry vocal cords and a seated crowd couldn’t dull the joy of performing again. Or, in the blunter tones of Tash: “I’ve been playing to my two dogs for the last year and a bit, and I don’t give a flying fuck that people were sitting down.”
Finding Terra Firma
I’ve connected with Sultana via Zoom just days before the release of their second album, Terra Firma. The album is a clear step forward for an artist who started out busking around Melbourne before lighting up YouTube with lo-fi ‘bedroom recordings’ shot on a GoPro.
‘Jungle’, uploaded in 2016 and currently sitting at 95-million views, was the watershed moment. Sultana then chose several bedroom-tested jams, including ‘Big Smoke’, ‘Mystik’, and ‘Blackbird’, for their 2018 debut album, Flow State. Its follow-up is another major achievement — spanning rock, jazz, soul, and funk with a strong dose of psychedelics — but this time pretty much everything else is different.
“I’ve been playing to my two dogs for the last year and a bit, and I don’t give a flying fuck that people were sitting down.”
Terra Firma is a product of the pandemic. After Sultana’s 2020 tour plans dissolved, they saw an opportunity to get back to, well, solid ground. They had “exhausted all avenues” after Flow State and planned to make a second album around tour stops. COVID took care of that idea.
“The best thing that happened was the slate being wiped totally clean,” Sultana marvels. “I’d never had time to sleep a whole night or just be home or see the people I love. I’d be on this flight, then that flight, a tour bus here and another country there.”
That schedule felt like normal life, and then it was gone. “It gave me an abundance of time,” Sultana says. “With all that time, I just became the mission, and that was Terra Firma.”
Sultana committed to Terra Firma between October 2019 and October 2020. “It was fucking wonderful,” they say of the mostly locked-down recording process. “Whenever I do another record, that’s exactly how I’m going to do it.”
Even over an audio-only Zoom call (their spotty internet connection ruled out video), Sultana is a great hang. They express deep feelings with ease, then crack a sweary joke to lighten the mood. I notice them describing past phases as lasting “many years” — an odd turn of phrase for most 25-year-olds, but fitting for one who has packed this much life in. Most of all, they are completely clear and confident about what they were put here to do, as someone who taught themselves 10+ instruments should be.
Before our call, I’m politely asked to avoid personal questions. While protective of their personal relationships, Sultana doesn’t shy from the messy stuff of life. The interview is, to quote pop psychology, fully present.
Pre-pandemic, Sultana and their fiancé moved from Melbourne to a sprawling property on the coast. The new setting allowed for gardening, surfing, and dog walking in between album sessions back in Melbourne. This was Sultana’s world for most of 2020, save for the trip to Sydney for the Hordern show.
“I was a scattered stoner for many years. When everything started to get serious, I realised I had to be across what the fuck is going on.”
It’s only in the last few weeks that the coastal idyll has been broken. When we speak, Sultana admits to being “stressed as fuck”. Between media interviews for Terra Firma, they are “rehearsing six to eight hours a day” for two intimate (and very sold-out) shows at Melbourne’s 170 Russell. The steady ramp-up of commitments is not leaving a lot of time for living. “I’ll go have a surf after the interviews, get some ocean in me, then lock myself away and get into the fucking jams,” they say. Sultana isn’t complaining, though. This phase, like everything else in their career so far, was all part of a grand plan.
The thing you need to understand about Tash Sultana is that they leave nothing to chance. “I’m very ordered and structured,” they tell me. “It’s funny, because people perceive me as this smelly hippie, but I’m really fucking strict.” (This quote — steely clarity cut with self-aware humour — is classic Tash.) Their rituals include drinking enough water, going to bed at the same time each night, keeping a tidy house (“I cannot handle clutter and mess”), and avoiding caffeine on tour.
Without this order, other parts of life get wonky too. I ask if they have always had a hyper-organised streak. “No,” Sultana says plainly. “I was a scattered stoner for many years. When everything started to get serious, I realised I had to be across what the fuck is going on. You can’t be in this industry and not be organised. It’d be an absolute shit-show.”
Scattered Stoner To Sold-Out Shows
At three years old, Tash was given a guitar by their grandfather, who must’ve had a hunch about the toddler’s future. The Sultana family wasn’t particularly musical.
“My mum loves to sing, but bless her heart and soul, she is tone-deaf,” Sultana laughs. “My dad has melody, but he’s not a musician. People used to say if I didn’t look so much like my father, what did the postman look like?”
Sultana’s three living grandparents remain devoted fans. “My grandfather has told the whole retirement village that I’m the grandchild,” they say. “It’s just funny — he just goes around the village doing the name drop, and they’re all old as shit.”
Life as a “scattered stoner” began at high school. “I had a very fickle, weird relationship with the music teacher at school,” Sultana says. “I think he saw potential, but I was such a shithead that we just didn’t like each other. I couldn’t be fucked with school, so I just didn’t do it.”
They reluctantly signed up for an in-school university course on music engineering, but it didn’t stick either. “I learned fuck all from that, and I’ll tell you why: I was too busy smoking joints at lunchtime and going home because I was too tired,” they say.
Sultana is frank about their rocky teenage years. In an interview with The Feed on SBS in 2017, the artist recalled an episode of drug-induced psychosis brought on by magic mushrooms. It took months of therapy to reset their reality. “I was a complete drug addict,” Sultana told The Feed. “Doing every drug apart from heroin.”
When Sultana couldn’t find a job after school, they decided to busk, using an array of pedals and effects to build the sound of a full band. The videos of those DIY gigs are fascinating to look back on now. In a performance of ‘Brainflower’ on Bourke Street Mall in 2015, pedestrians stroll past obliviously on their way to H&M. Some stop to watch, while others slip out a phone to start filming. No matter who’s watching, the performance doesn’t falter. The video reveals something about Tash Sultana that’s still true in front of thousands-strong crowds. All the energy comes from within — everything else is a bonus.
In between busking, Sultana played whatever pub gigs were going. I ask singer-songwriter Josh Cashman, who appears on Terra Firma, to recall where he first met Tash. “Tash and I played on the same bill one night at The Espy in St Kilda in 2014,” Cashman replies over email. “There were about five people there, including the bartenders. If we were lucky we would get paid $20 for the set and get a half-priced steak.”
The pair clicked immediately and became fast friends. “We would jam together, go skating and surfing, eat pho, and party,” Cashman adds. “We still speak on the phone every few days, even if it’s just to tell each other a stupid joke.”
After ‘Jungle’ blew up on YouTube, Sultana got all kinds of busy. They signed with Lemon Tree Music, released the Notion EP and gave a widely viewed TEDx talk. They spent 2017 and 2018 ticking off dream gigs in the amphitheatre at Splendour, the Mojave tent at Coachella, and around South America with Lollapalooza. They released Flow State, followed by a blur of headline shows — on stage, Sultana made a point of telling anyone harboring racist, homophobic, or transphobic views to GTFO. In 2019, just a few years on from rocking Bourke Street Mall, they sold out Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl. The highs kept coming, but they took a mental toll only lockdown could undo.
Cashman has played around the world as Sultana’s support act, observing first-hand how they operate. “We did a three-week run of shows in America just before SXSW in 2017,” Cashman recalls. “It’s 4am bus, four-to-five-hour drive, soundcheck, play, pick-up, hotel and then repeat for two weeks. Tash always remained calm, eating healthy, and sleeping at any opportunity.”
“I learned from Tash that this is a job,” he adds. “You can’t afford to fall sick four days into a two-week tour.”
Onto The Next
Terra Firma opens with ‘Musk’, an instrumental track that introduces what Sultana calls “the texture of the record”. As ever, almost every note you hear on the songs is Tash. I ask if any one instrument was the secret weapon on this album.
“Always the guitar,” they say without hesitation, before name-checking a list of runners-up: saxophone, flute, trumpet, drums, piano, and bass. “[The album] is also very synthy,” they add. “I always use a synthesiser, because they’re fucking sick.” I imagine Sultana doing a Shaka as they say this.
The songwriting on Terra Firma can be startling in its emotional clarity. I tell Sultana that ‘Crop Circles’ strikes me as a song about an anxious mind. “It’s actually about my fear of death,” they say without a beat. “That’s been my one thing I’ve pondered to the ends of the earth trying to understand. And it’s just better to not. I scared myself with that concept for many years. It made me fragile to even live, because I was like, what’s the point of it all if we’re just going to die?”
“The song is about coming to the acceptance that your existence is temporary,” Sultana continues. “And where do we go? I turn it into a horn section of orchestral bliss, because that’s what I’m hoping it feels like when you die.”
Just how hard is it, I ask, to write a song that primal? The reply comes like a shrug: “I wrote it in my dressing room, and it took five minutes. It was actually my warm-up song before I got onstage.”
‘Maybe You’ve Changed’, the centerpiece of Terra Firma, layers Sultana’s vocals to create a choir-like swell of emotion. Sultana describes the song as coming from a place of “gut-wrenching pain, but in a beautiful and angelic type of way”. It was one of the first songs written for Terra Firma.
“I have a piano at home, and I would just play,” they recall. “I was in despair and so fucking angry at…shit. But you know what? That little baby popped out at the end of all that crap and I’m really happy with it. You can timestamp songs as sections of your life.”
“It made me fragile to even live, because I was like, what’s the point of it all if we’re just going to die?”
In 2019, Sultana collaborated with Matt Corby on ‘Talk It Out’ and German duo Milky Chance on ‘Daydreaming’. Both experiences opened Sultana up to the prospect of doing more. “I was like, this is sick, I want to keep doing this,” they tell me. Terra Firma features songwriter turned solo artist Jerome Farah on ‘Willow Tree’ (Tash and Jerome went to the same high school) and Josh Cashman on ‘Dream My Life Away’.
The latter finds the longtime friends riding the relaxed groove they found at the Espy all those years back. “Tracking the vocals together and harmonising in the same room felt almost meditative,” Cashman says. “We didn’t want to overcook it.” For Sultana, the song has a clear (and selfless) purpose: “I want the world to see who Josh Cashman is.”
As our time on Zoom winds down, I ask about a plaque Sultana received last year for their music hitting one billion streams. How do they make sense of a number that big? “I don’t make sense of it,” they say. “It’s on my wall and I’m happy about it, but I can’t even understand the number.” As I go to follow up, Sultana jumps in with faux-disbelief. “Who the fuck wants to listen to ‘Jungle’ for that long? Thank you, but guys, what the fuck?”
We both laugh, and move on to the future. Right now there are shows to prep and an album to promote, but Sultana can see the bigger picture. ‘I Am Free’, the final song on Terra Firma, reflects their arrival at a new place of peace. “I don’t give a fuck anymore,” Sultana tells me. “I feel like I’m totally and utterly just living, for real, at my fullest self.”
The plan’s working.
Jack Tregoning is a freelance writer based in Sydney — he was formerly the Editorial Director at Beatport and an editor of inthemix. Find him on Twitter.
Photo Credit: Supplied