Tash Sultana's meteoric rise from mall busker to worldwide phenomenon

by James Belfield / 29 June, 2018
Tash Sultana

Tash Sultana. Photo/Renae Saxby

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Why Australian musician Tash Sultana is one to watch.

Less than two years out from busking in Melbourne’s Bourke St Mall and recording a YouTube video of her track “Jungle” in her bedroom, Tash Sultana has become a worldwide phenomenon.

Although plenty of street musicians play around with a looped guitar and maybe a few other instruments, the combination of her swirling Jeff Buckley-esque voice, shredding guitar solos, a bank of effects peals and fearless layering of more than 20 instruments as varied as pan pipes, a trumpet and beat box has seen her videos go viral (“Jungle” alone has had 11 million hits), a major label record deal and “sold-out” signs going up for global gigs still months away.

It’s only just dawned on her, but the 22-year-old Australian, who started performing live by sneaking into open-mic pub nights while she still had her school uniform scrunched up in her bag, has hit the big time.

“I honestly think the only time I’ve really realised how big it has got and how I’m now in front of a mass of people is about now,” she says. “When you’re up and coming and you sell out a 100-max venue, you feel the fucking business, and then a 200-max venue you think is the best thing ever … and then it just keeps going. At the end of the last tour, I walked on to the stage and there’s 7500 or 10,000 people at my show and it’s fucking insane.”

And 2018 is only set to get bigger, as Sultana backs up a US TV debut on The Late Show in October and record-breaking ticket sales for a concert at Melbourne’s Margaret Court Arena in December with performances in front of 100,000-plus crowds at giant US festivals such as Lollapalooza and Coachella and a spot alongside the serious star-power of Beck, Grace Jones and The Libertines at Auckland City Limits.

“It’s just the strangest feeling in the world — especially because I’ve been performing the same way and I’m a street performer, and taking the essence of being a street performer on to a big stage is so fucking weird. It’s all so seriously strange.”

With little support from commercial radio and her first album still in the pipeline, much of Sultana’s appeal has come from her blunt honesty (she’s gay, and open about her struggles with mental illness and previous drug use) and the bliss she radiates when she’s dancing barefoot across her pedals, singing plaintively about inner demons (she says music helps “play the pain away”) or gets lost in yet another guitar virtuoso moment.

“I don’t focus on the audience at all, I just zone out,” she says. “I just be me and then everyone else watches and I feel like everyone kind of comes into that mindspace as well. Because I’m not trying to impress people, I feel like I’m just jamming and people just come along with that ride.”

That said, she’s certainly not lost in the moment if she feels she needs to voice her “no dickheads” policy for crowds — even using that record-breaking show at Margaret Court Arena to call out the Aussie tennis legend after whom the venue is named for homophobic comments.

“Why the fuck not? I’ve got a microphone and I’m putting my voice out to a few thousand people, so I think some people might get the message,” she says.

“I’m just a normal person, so I just get up and have a chat. I’m here to put on a show but I’ll still say a bunch of shit, it just depends on what headspace I’m in. I’ve had a bit of a rough experience so I might tell you about that, or, although I’m not the most political person in the world, I’ll say things like there being no fucking tolerance for discrimination at my shows. I think that’s important because I feel like people need to know that if they think that way, then it’s not fucking cool.” 

Tash Sultana tours New Zealand 24-28 July, 2018 in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.

This article was first published in the Mar-Apr 2018 issue of Metro.

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