RAISIN THE STAKES
WITH THEIR DEBUT ALBUM FINALLY UPON US, AUSTRALIAN GUITAR TAKES A DEEP DIVE INTO THE WEIRD AND WONDERFUL WORLD OF TASH SULTANA.
BUSKING ON THE STREET TOUGHENS YOU UP A LITTLE BIT
Seldom does a day go by that Melbourne’s cluttered city streets aren’t awash in the quirky beats of a beatnik busker. No word of a lie, some of the world’s most soul-melting shoegaze and heart-thumping hip-hop are borne of the no-names that call the pavement home with a setup of secondhand kit – most often of the bootleg ilk.
But – and unjustly so – those local little legends rarely find their feet outside of the public arena. That top-hatted teen you saw tearing through the most beautiful “Hey There Delilah” cover you’d ever seen this side of an FG100? His future awaits in accounting, most likely. The harmonica-donning soul goddess that spends Sundays ripping through their melancholy won’t find herself on the mainstage at Bluesfest, and that mulleted maniac who busts the sickest Beastie Boys impression on Earth will probably remain a tradie ‘til their back gives out for good.
It’s a sad state of affairs that most buskers never break into the recorded music scene, a combined lack of opportunity and ability the most common barricades in their path. But when those dreamheaded hopefuls do catch a break, their trajectory is almost always eruptive. Take for example Tash Sultana, who spent two years soaring from the streets to sold-out arenas without so much as a fulllength album. It was their six-track Notion EP that lit the fuse on their firework, all songs self-recorded and produced with just a laptop, a looping setup and the drive to make waves.
Of course, Sultana was no mere aspirant when they first took to the stage. As they bluntly let us know back in 2016 (see: AustralianGuitar #119), “Busking on the street toughens you up a little bit. I think it’s basic human psychology. I once had a guy try to physically abuse me, but he was very drunk so I just knocked him down. I called the cops, and then the cops came and chased him down. I’ve had bottles thrown at me… I’ve had a lot of different experiences with members of the public. The ghetto streets, mate… They’re not like Bourke Street.”
Vital was the fact that Sultana carved out a notably unique sound for theirself. They weren’t aiming to be the next [insert renowned musical icon here], but rather the first TashSultana. There are microscopic similarities to other looping prodigies stitched throughout their markup, but their definition to Sultana’s style are just that – microscopic. Characteristically nonchalant, they proclaimed, “I just do my own thing, man. There’s only one of me, so I’m not going to waste my time trying to replicate someone else. I don’t have that in me, anyway.
“I didn’t set out to go, ‘I’m going to be the only one to change all of this,’ either. I have little influences from everywhere, and it’s important for me to be learning from and inspired by heaps of other artists. But I think that’s one of the nicest compliments, when people say, ‘I haven’t seen anything like what you’re doing before, and you’re the only one doing it.’ That’s not my intention, but it’s certainly nice to hear.”
Sultana’s mainstream breakthrough is an especially wholesome story when you consider its origins. They began busking as a means to live moreso than out of passion, with efforts to find a ‘normal’ job proving fruitless for Sultana – who, crawling from the harsh depths of drug addiction and mental illness, had recently hit rock bottom.
“I was a complete drug addict,” they opened up to Marc Fennell in a now-iconic segment produced for SBS program TheFeed. “I was doing pretty much every drug apart from heroin.” Their downward spiral into drugs made a sudden crash landing when, at the ripe old age of 17, Sultana found theirself buckled in a state of psychedelic-induced psychosis. The story goes that they were simply hanging out with a mate when they decided to eat a pizza laced with magic mushrooms. The hallucinations were mundane at first, but quickly grew into dark and inescapable musings of pure morbidity – a cycle that Sultana was unable to detach from.
“I was in that state for seven months, not knowing what was real and what wasn’t,” they explained in a mid-2016 TEDx talk. “I would go to bed and I would think that there was someone in the room - I would look around and think that someone was asking me a question, but there was no-one there. I couldn’t go to school in this time because I couldn’t make sense of anything in front of me… How do you live when you’re too scared to live and too scared to die, and there’s no in-between?”
Anxiety weighed down on Sultana like a tech company’s reign on Chinese sweatshop workers, but their resilience (or what little of it they could muster) paid off when they realised that, clichés be damned, music really is the best medicine. “I’ve always connected with music,” they told us in our
AG #119 chat, “And I’ve never found anything that I can connect with more than that. But I think in that time, I was just kind of searching for anything that could have given me salvation, and I couldn’t find it. It was just about going back to basics, really – I heard the signal, and it hit me that I had the tools in front of me.
“It’s hard to explain what’s going on when you’re actually going through psychosis – and I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have gone through it as well – you think you’re the only person who really exists at the time, until you realise that you’re not. And music helped me come to terms with that. That’s what’s really special about music: it’s a completely natural remedy. It’s a natural high to be driving my own passion, and when I play, I’m completely at peace
with myself. That’s why heaps of other people play music, too: for that feeling that you have the whole world in the palm of your hands.”
Thus kicked Sultana off on their long and winding road to stardom. Sultana would lock theirself in a room for days on end, noodling on their Telecasters or laying waste to their lungs with a trumpet until something –
anything – of substance would materialise. In time, their jam sessions would make their way to YouTube via quick, lowkey GoPro recordings that would amass millions upon millions of views. Their busking efforts led to crowds of strangers huddling around them on any given weekday afternoon, each holding on breathlessly for Sultana’s next rewarding twang.
It wasn’t long before they wound up on theatre stages everywhere from Sydney to Sweden. They were a self-made superstar, living proof that hard work pays off and ostensibly the most prominent nonbinary artist making waves. But despite the onslaught of attention, Sultana was conspicuously unfazed. “I don’t feel any different,” they mused on the cusp of their biggest shows to date. “Y’know, this is the projection that I’ve had of my life since I was a little kid, and now that it’s happening, it’s f**king awesome! But I don’t think of it as a ‘rise to fame’. I’m doing what I want to do - I just get to do that for bigger audiences and do it professionally now. It’s cool. This is what I’ve worked for my whole life to achieve.”
The Notion tour as a whole saw their winding road evolve into an all-out rollercoaster. In just shy of two years, Sultana has visited 20 countries, sold over 100,000 concert tickets, performed on stages for such top-class names as NPR and Seth Meyers, and racked up over 200 million streams of the EP on Spotify alone. TheIndustryObserver estimates that Sultana could circle the Earth almost nine times with the amount of kilometres they’ve travelled (over 410,000), or take a lavish trip to the moon – not bad for a 23-year-old from the suburbs.
But of course, it hasn’t all been mosh pits and milkshakes for the self-proclaimed one-person band. 2017 saw a string of tour dates cancelled when Sultana copped a feisty little f*** of an illness, and they’re quick to note that even though they’ve seen a hell of a lot over the past few months, they’re still learning how to handle all the chaos.
“I do get burnt out sometimes,” they admit, “But you just have to learn. You have to take as much time for yourself as you possibly can, because otherwise, you don’t get any. Like, when we started touring a few years ago, we obviously had quite a fair bit of time – we’d go out after the shows and have a few beers and whatnot, and things would get out of hand from time to time. Everything was so new, so it was just like, ‘Ah, let’s go out!’ I didn’t really sleep much, and I got sick because I was so tired all the time. So I just stopped doing that. I don’t drink at all when I’m touring now, and I just take as much time to myself as I can.” Although a short break at the end of the
Notion era was meant to bring Sultana a chance to finally sit back and unwind, their buzzing mind had other plans. Namely, the illusive debut album every fan had been drooling for since their first spin of “Jungle”. Five years in the making, Sultana is keen to take even bigger leaps with FlowState.
“It was a term that I heard used once – I can’t even remember where – but it really stuck with me,” they explain of the record’s title. “When you’re 100 percent devoted to your passion, you access something in your mind that makes you completely unaware of everything around you. Most people would achieve that when they play the guitar or when they sing, and I’m in that state of mind whenever I play music, so it just made sense to call the album FlowState.”
Much like on Notion before it, Sultana alone laid down every layer of every track on FlowState. Amidst self-producing the whole beast, they played an approximate 15 instruments – guitars, bass, piano, flute, drums, MIDI controllers, saxophones and trumpets all standing out in the mix alongside their razor-sharp beatboxing and sweet, soul-bending vocal talents – all hashed out in realtime to boot.
“I wrote it all live,” Sultana boasts in jest. “I’d come up with an idea and play it as a loop first, and then I’d bring that into the
I FEEL LIKE I’VE REACHED THE ABSOLUTE LIMIT...
studio, break everything down and multi-track every single instrument and every single part of the song. That kind of gave me the vision for where I’d want to take a certain track, and then I’d just make the rest of it up. When you listen to the album, a lot of the songs will flip into a different song halfway through – they flip into a breakdown or, like, a big commotion; those would just come out of nowhere in the studio.”
Blending two years of song nuggets accumulated through soundcheck jams, bedroom demos from their teenage years and a slew of brand new compositions, Sultana wound up with an impressive stack of songs to pick from. So much so that when it came time to hash out the tracklist for the LP, they found it impossible to stick to their initial limitation.
“It was originally going to have ten tracks,” they say, “But I’ve done 13, and a few of those extra ones are songs that just kind of happened in the studio. I can’t even believe I did that; it was a little bit of a daunting task, actually, just knowing that I had this deadline, and I had to get all of these ideas out of me and put them together into an album. It’s a little different than being given a workload that you have to do by the book and just submit – moving through a creative workload is a totally different process, and you work on a totally different spectrum of time than you would with normal tasks.”
At a minute over an hour long, FlowState is bursting at the seams with chimey synths, crackling drums and sweet, sweet guitar licks. There’s no shortage of experimental jams to sink your teeth into, but for longtime fans, the spread of shred won’t be completely unfamiliar. “Murder To The Mind” and “Mystik” both started off as standalone singles that Sultana dropped in 2017 (although they’ve been treated to some compositional updates and a fresh new mix), while “Big Smoke”, “Blackbird” and “Harvest Love” were all purged from their catalogue of home video sessions.
“I’ve been playing these songs live for years and years and years, but I hadn’t put them down on anything other than these shitty little MP3 recordings on my laptop,” Sultana says. “I just felt like it was time to get some of that old stuff down so that I can finally f***ing put it behind me! I want to make a bit of room to do some new things after all of this. To be honest with you, I’ve already started thinking about the next album!”
Before we inadvertently hype everyone up for LP2, however, it should be noted that another proper record is a definite ways away for Sultana. New music in another capacity, on the other hand, is all but guaranteed. “I’ll probably try to release a few B-side tracks towards the end of the year,” Sultana teases. “Maybe a couple of collabs with some people – I think it’s time for something like that!”
Sultana’s primary goal in tackling FlowState was to reach a peak in the sonic timeline they’d embarked on with Notion. It certainly sounds like Tash Sultana, but the spate of sounds that unfold on the album is unfathomably diverse. It’s the work of an artist desperate to smash boundaries like the Hulk smashes bad guys, take risks that others would cower at and set fire to any semblance of what might be considered a ‘comfort zone’. “I think I was in my comfort zone when I did the
Notion EP, because I kind of thought I f***ing knew everything,” Sultana chuckles. “Y’know, I had that typical ignorant 19-year-old mindset. When you hit
IT’S JUST GOING TO BE THIS NEXT-LEVEL MONSTER
the road for a long time and you’re around a lot of people that are quite a bit older than I was when I first hit the road, you learn some shit and you see some shit, and… I don’t know, I think I’m just more knowledgeable now – especially in, like, a sound aspect, and being in the studio and all of that.”
It only takes one playthrough of the album to see that Sultana reached their peak with Flow
State. The virtuosity they employ is stunning in such a way that even we – the magazine whose job revolves around knowing every guitarists’ quirk like the back of our hands – were taken aback at just how masterful Sultana is with axe in hand. But to simply ride on this peak would be to have the Melbournite renege on everything they stand for. Not content with their talents as is, they’re determined to push things even further from here.
“I feel like I’ve reached the absolute limit with everything that I’m doing right now,” Sultana admits. “I’ve gotta take it into my own hands. So me, my guitar tech and my production manager – we’ve decided that we’re going to actually
build the next step of my journey. We’re going to custom-build all of the equipment, because all of the generic stuff that I’m using certainly got me to this level, but I’m just not satisfied with it anymore. We’ve decided that we’re just going to build our own looping station from scratch, and it’s going to be f***ing hectic. It’s going to mean that I can just do so much more onstage – like, I can emulate the sound of my setup in the studio, in that exact quality, live.”
Though chunks of it have already found a place in the mix, Sultana’s new stage rig will make its proper debut in 2019. And perhaps the most exciting thing about it is that, despite being notoriously deadpan with the press and outright refusing to wax on the finer details of their rigs, Sultana beams when they talk about their ambitions for the kit. We’re talking over the phone, but their voice flutters in such a way that we know they’re smiling when given a chance to vibe on their biggest project yet.
“A lot of it will be driven by software,” Sultana tells us. “There’s obviously a lot of physical things, but we’ll be running a separate mix through Ableton from the side-of-stage area, just so everything is in a really good quality stereo format. The main component is a 40-channel looper, and it records and multi-tracks everything. Instead of your typical looper – say, an RC-505 – you’ve got a stereo input and a stereo output, so that’s two channels in and two channels out, and that just gives you so much more freedom. No matter how many instruments you cram into that signal chain, it compresses it all perfectly.”
Sultana’s newfound taste for customisation doesn’t end with their looping station, either. We don’t even finish the question – “Do you have any plans to build a signature model guitar?” – when they butt in with a blunt, “100 percent.” Details on a luthier are vague as of the present, but Sultana is keen to get their ultimate guitar over the line.
“It’s in the making right now,” they rhapsodise. “And because I’ll be using it for the looping and all of that, I had the idea to do a bass and a guitar in one, in the body of something like a Telecaster. Because y’know, I can emulate a bass guitar with pedals and effects and all of that, but I can’t do slap bass or any of the more intricate stuff that you actually need a proper bass guitar to do. So I just thought, ‘Well, f***, wouldn’t it be sick if I could have the best of both worlds?’ It’s just going to be this next level monster, man!”
I RECKON I’M ONLY JUST STARTING TO BECOME A GOOD MUSICIAN
As for the riffs that made it onto FlowState, Sultana played on “somewhere around ten” different guitars, with different models favoured for their individual characteristics. “I usually go for that typical blend of a heavy, a medium and then a light-sounding guitar,” they say. “My Richie Kotzen Telecaster is the sickest sounding guitar I’ve got, and that’s a single coil, so all of the really fat sounding chords and the little bass emulations were done through that guitar with an octave pedal on. And then all of the soloing was done on the Strats, and all the rhythm parts were done on this other American Pro Series Telecaster that I got recently – it’s got those new noiseless humbucker pickups on it, and that just sounds insane.”
When they’re not ripping out on that Kotzen classic or noodling on pristine new Fender models, Sultana’s go-to piece is a customised Mini Maton. It found a place in their arsenal when they discovered a need for something more homely and easy to wield, and that worked as an element separate from their performing kit.
“It’s just a really nice travel guitar,” they buzz. “Because I figured that when I play shows, I don’t actually jam as much as I’d like to. I get to the soundcheck and I soundcheck, I set the stage up and I play a show, and then all my shit gets packed up and freighted to the next place. I didn’t really have anything I could use to keep up with it all in terms of the jamming and writing, so I invested in this little mini Maton. I love it. It’s just a really good thing to keep with me on the road.”
They’re still hesitant to unveil the secrets of their pedalboard, but Sultana notes that they’re particularly keen on the Strymon BigSky. “I rig my 12-string through that, and it sounds pretty f***ing sick,” they say. “And I’ve got this Octa Dose bass octave pedal, which is so f***ing cool. Those little Boss delays are always a good little treat, and I’ve got this shitty little Legacy distortion pedal, which is, like, my signature distortion tone – it’s this $20 pedal that I bought when I was about 11, and it’s just still on the f***ing pedalboard! And my mini wah. My mini wah is essential.”
At the end of the day, Sultana’s overall vibe is one of unforgiving enthusiasm. They’re becoming one of the biggest new names in rock music not just in Australia, but around the world; their album debuted to critical acclaim and their most ambitious headline shows are right around the corner. But dwelling on the hype isn’t an option for our hero. They’re enthusiastic about the present, but the future is brighter and decked out with more top notch toys for them to mess around with. After all, it’s only now that Sultana is happy with their own efforts.
“In all honesty,” they close, “I’ve gotten this far with the level that I’m at right now, and I reckon I’m only just starting to become, like… A good musician. It’s funny, because I watch so many other people, and I think to myself, “I want to be there.” And people might look at me and say the same thing, but I just think there’s so much more I can be doing right now. I’m a tough critic of myself!”
We’re reminded of another quote Sultana gifted us in our #119 yarn: “Music is an open field - you can do whatever the f**k you want. The only time that you think you can’t is when you’ve trapped yourself into one zone or genre. That’s why a lot of people have trouble trying to progress in music after a while - because they’ve been known to be this specific thing, so everyone just expects that. But you don’t need to be any one specific thing.”