Tash Sultana is not the next [insert famous guitarist here] – she’s the first Tash Sultana. Matt Doria sits down with the one-woman powerhouse to vibe on how guitar’s up-and-coming queen is building her own throne.
At age three, this scribe’s biggest achievement was lasting more than twelve hours without biting into a glycerine hand soap because it looked like an oddly-shaped gummy bear. Tash Sultana, on the other hand, was already strumming away on a little nylon-string classical passed down from her grandfather – “I’ve still got it lying around somewhere,” she chuckles. In a storied eighteen years, the mind-melting Melbournite has grown from a hobby shredder to a full-time prodigy, dead set on forging a legacy her peers will extol for generations to come. She eats, sleeps and breathes the beat, simply put, to the point where cherry-picking memories is as a futile mission. She sighs, “They’re pretty much my only memories, dude! Music has been such a consistent time in my life that it’s really all that [my life] is.”
Discontent with just killing it on the guitar, though, Sultana has picked up over ten other instruments in her travels: bass, piano, drums, flute, saxophone and trumpet to name just a few, on top of her wispy, soul-soothing vocals and snapback-shredding beatbox skills. Critics are quick to label her a powerhouse – which she unquestionably is – but while she’s already piled up a mountain’s worth of talent, the “Jungle” queen is far from done with climbing.
“I think it’s really ignorant and arrogant to say that you’ve mastered something,” she bites. “You can’t ever really master something – you can be really f***ing good at it, but you’ll always see somebody play something that you’ve never even thought of, and play it better than you ever could. That’s why they call it the human race: it’s this consistent field of learning where you can’t ever really stop.”
Alas, the Tash Sultana we see and vibe out with today is not the product of an easy journey. At 17, she was deep in the knots of a self-destructive drug addiction, using – in her own words – everything she could (except heroin) to bag a cheap high. Interestingly enough, her spiral downwards crashed in its landing at the hands of a psychedelic pizza: the story goes that she was kicking back at a mate’s place when the idea came to take her mushroom supreme to the next level. Though it wasn’t her first time tripping balls, the unfamiliar scenery coupled with her less-than-rosy mental headspace trapped Sultana in an almost-permanent psychotic state.
“I was in that state for seven months, not knowing what was real and what wasn’t,” she 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?”
Over time, the answer to her question showed itself in the form of music therapy. She “played and played and played the pain away, until I could think clearly again” – locking herself away for days at a time and getting lost in the magic that six strings and a loop pedal can spur. “I’ve always just connected with music,” she tells us, “but in that time I was just searching for anything that could give 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. That’s what’s really special about music: it’s a natural remedy. It’s a natural high to be driving my own passion and when I play, I’m completely at peace with myself.”
You can see the bliss Sultana swims in when she’s jamming on an eight-minute scorcher in concert, her hair thrashing when she swerves into every blistering solo and her eyes buckled shut as she transcends into another dimension of Telecaster riffiness. Before her name popped up on festivals aplomb, however, she found her audience smashing out live sessions from her bedroom, the likes of which have racked up close to a cumulative two million views. “My mum bought me a GoPro, and at the time I thought, ‘Well, I don’t have anything up [on YouTube], and people keep asking for my music, so I might as well film my jams,’” she says. “So I did... And they just took the world by storm. It was insane.”
Perhaps what most enraptures fans is the winding and progressive, yet unpredictable nature of Sultana’s artistry. Tracks like the ten-minute “Big Smoke” unfurl with bright, psych-infused reggae guitars, spacey vocals and the appropriate synth drums to match, the ever-evolving solos and multi-layered percussion only built upon in their ethereality by unexpected beatboxing, brass drop-ins and the occasional bongo hook. You never quite know what’s coming in Sultana sonata, and as our hero herself explains, that’s exactly how she likes it.
“I improvise a f***load,” she laughs. “I play the songs differently every single time, and every live show that I play is completely unique. I just go with the vibe of what I’m doing, where I am, who I’m playing in front of and what not, and all of that just comes together in different ways every time.” In all, singularity is at the core of Sultana’s ethos. She prides herself on the fact that there’s no other artist like her – so much so that when we try to squeeze some details out of her live rig, we’re cut off with a blunt “I can’t tell you” (cut under with a slight giggle, of course). But there’s a good reason for the secrecy: “Everyone tries to steal my setup, so I just don’t tell anyone what’s in it,” she admits. “I won’t leak it, because then people will go and buy the same shit. Man, you’ve gotta be yourself! It means more when you work it out yourself.”
She cites a Richie Kotzen Telecaster as her favourite piece of kit – “I love the way it plays, and, uh, have you seen it!?” – making note that no matter what it is she’s jamming on, the most important thing is to stay focused on the music itself. “There’s only one of me, so I’m not going to waste my time trying to replicate anyone else,” she muses. “I don’t have that in me, anyway. I didn’t set out to go, ‘I’m going to be the one to change all of this,’ either… I just do my own thing, man.”
For years, Sultana would take her arsenal of tech to the streets of Melbourne – from the iconic Bourke Street to the straight-up ghettos – busking day in, day out as her primary source of income. “Busking on the street kind of toughens you up a little bit,” she says with a weathered tone to her voice - Clint Eastwood, eat your heart out. “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 a bottles thrown at me… I’ve had a lot of different experiences with members of the public.”
Thankfully, today’s experiences mostly involve playing sold-out shows to thousand-strong crowds. Sultana released the Notion EP in September ’16 to universal acclaim, and though her name has become a staple on festival bills in Australia, her international swell is skyrocketing too. As for how the fame has affected her? “I don’t feel any different,” she says, deadpan. “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***ing 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.”
Looking to the future, Sultana’s 2017 is pillared on plans eclipsing the bounds of enormity – she shoots down our clamours for a sneak peak (let it be known, she’s a tough coconut to crack), but that only has us infinitely more excited. One thing we can be sure of is that Sultana will continue to push herself forward, and what we see of her now is only the beginning of her journey. “Music is kind of like an open field – you can do whatever the f*** you want,” she vibes. “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 one specific thing, so everyone just expects that. But you don’t need to be any one specific thing. “We’re just kind of pressing the iron while it’s hot and while everything is getting really good traction. We’re touring [the Notion EP] until around June – I think there’s about 75 shows all up, which is… Pretty f***ed up [laughs].”
* - with OCEAN ALLEY and REUBEN STONE
Friday March 3rd - Rosemount, Perth
Wednesday March 29th - 170 Russell, Melbourne*
Friday March 31st - 170 Russell, Melbourne*
Saturday April 1st - Metro Theatre, Sydney*
Sunday April 2nd - 170 Russell, Melbourne*
Monday April 17th - 170 Russell, Melbourne*
Tuesday April 18th - 170 Russell, Melbourne*
Sunday April 23rd - Metro Theatre, Sydney*
Monday April 24th - Metro Theatre, Sydney*
Wednesday May 10th - The Tivoli, Brisbane
Friday May 12th - Astor Theatre, Perth