Why Tash Sultana nearly pulled the pin on her music career

by James Belfield / 28 February, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Tash Sultana

Tash Sultana. Photo/Getty Images

Fortunately she didn't, now Australian musical sensation Tash Sultana is bringing her one-woman sound to Auckland City Limits.

Tash Sultana plays guitar on stage with such intensity that perhaps it’s no surprise she’s equally intense to interview.

The 22-year-old has gone from busking on Melbourne’s Bourke St to selling out gigs around the world months in advance. It’s that buzz that won her an early-evening main-stage slot at Auckland City Limits, despite having not yet released an album.

Her career has been propelled by her live performances and online videos of them, which show her one-woman-band approach in which songs are built on the fly from looped guitar lines, beats and vocals, with multiple other instruments added to the mix.

At its heart, it’s the sort of loop-pedal shtick that first got Ed Sheeran noticed. But Sultana’s deep, dubby soundscapes, her mesmerising and personal vocals, her Jeff Buckley-esque delivery and her crazy blues-rock guitar solos make for a one-of-a-kind experience.

Her spontaneous musical energy has sent her videos viral – a YouTube clip of Jungle, which she recorded in her bedroom at her parents’ Melbourne home, has been viewed more than 12 million times. And that sort of exposure means people have started to take notice of what she says and how she says it.

Sultana follows the millennial habit of soul-baring on social media, and her story so far has largely played out through her Instagram utterances, a TEDx Talk (431,500 YouTube views) and interviews.

From these, it’s easy to piece together her life and musical beginnings (her first guitar was a third-birthday present from her grandfather), via a wild childhood (she used to sneak off to open-mic nights at pubs, with her uniform crumpled into her school bag) and struggles with mental health. An overdose as a 17-year-old led to drug-induced psychosis.

Her candour has helped win her many fans worldwide. In September, for example, she posted on social media that touring was “wonderful” but “testing” and that she “ran out of energy and my soul was tired and I was scared for my life how dark my mind got”.

When I telephone Sultana in Melbourne, she is sounding stressed after a frustrating drive in heavy traffic. As we talk, her forthrightness swiftly becomes a vigorous lack of restraint as she reveals how close she’d come to pulling the pin on her career right at the point it was taking off.

“Last year, I got into a headspace that I didn’t think I was going to get out of – seriously,” she says. “That point of time was far worse than I was in when I was younger, and I was on tour while it was happening. I came home twice, actually, and had to zone the f--- out … and if it’s going to happen again, I know that I’m just going to bail and go home; I’m just going to be in my own environment and do my own thing, because it’s not worth it happening again.”

She says the dance-like-no-one’s-watching honesty that’s a signature of her live shows isn’t just a reflection of her character, but a way for her to keep control.

“I write music because it helps me to switch my brain off, otherwise I’d just f---ing explode,” she says.

Tash Sultana plays in the Netherlands. Photo/Ben Houdijk

Tash Sultana plays in the Netherlands. Photo/Ben Houdijk

“Some people run, some people swim – it’s called float state when your brain gets somewhere when you’re doing something you really love. I’m not trying to put on a show, I don’t rehearse shit, I don’t have dancers or crazy light projections, I just get up there and jam, man. I’m not up there to be a show pony – it’s just that when I’m up there playing music, I’m not playing a series of songs, I feel like I become that whole soundscape.”

As well as another world tour (the third in two years), 2018 is supposed to be the year Sultana distils her exceptional live sound on to her first full-length album. She released a six-track EP, Notions, in 2016 and a five-track EP, Instrumentals, last year. She was reported as saying the album was slated for release in April, but it seems she’s still scoping caves and churches, looking for makeshift recording studios.

“I’m still at the beginning stages,” she says. “I feel like I spend so much time in there that I lose track of what I’m doing and it’s shit, but then I walk back in and go, ‘Actually, it wasn’t shit’, so I’m back and forth the whole time.”

Although her intensity is yet to translate into an album, it is still on show during her live performances – and fortunately for her growing number of fans, those still keep rolling on.

Tash Sultana plays at Auckland City Limits at Western Springs on March 3.

This article was first published in the March 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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