Tash Sultana seems relieved to be approaching something akin to quarter-life enlightenment.
Eight years after the Australian singer strummed and sung their way out of a seven-month-long drug-induced psychosis; seven years since becoming a solo busking sensation on Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall; five years after a bedroom performance of their psychedelic-reggae song Jungle clocked a million YouTube views in five days (it’s now had more than 94m); 2.5 years since becoming the first artist without a debut album release to sell out three dates at London’s Brixton Academy; and a year after slipping an engagement ring on their girlfriend’s finger during a Maldives holiday, Sultana is revelling in a groundedness that saturates every note of their dreamy sophomore album, Terra Firma.
Speaking from their 10-acre property in coastal Victoria – a place so disconnected that a technician is crawling on their roof as we chat, installing a 4G satellite dish – Sultana describes the last year of pandemic-enforced hibernation as “a dream come true”.
“It was a beautiful clearing of the slate where I didn’t have any pressure on my shoulders to step up, perform, commit,” says Sultana, who is gender fluid and uses the pronoun they.
“I’m the least rock’n’roll motherfucker that you ever see. I’m all for nine hours’ sleep and vitamin infusions and meditation and all of that type of stuff. Even a coffee can send me over the edge.”
Involuntarily freed from their hectic one-month-on, one-month-off touring schedule, Sultana was given the space to surf, garden, write poetry, play “heaps of Nintendo 64”, add the saxophone to the dozen-plus instruments they have mastered, and spend over 200 days “slow-cooking” (crafting, performing, recording, engineering, arranging and producing) the 14 soulful tracks on Terra Firma, an album they describe as “Erykah Badu meets Bon Iver, meets John Mayer, meets whatever”.
Halfway through the year, Sultana turned 25 and hit an epiphany. “I just seriously woke up and stopped giving a fuck,” Sultana says. “I realised that I’ve just fallen into who I am. I’m not searching for that person [any more].
“I’m just being and experiencing and loving and trying to be better at everything I do – trying to be kinder, trying to speak nicer, think nicer, play better, sing better, organise better … and that just applied across to the music side of things and that became Terra Firma.
“Terra Firma is a projection of my earth, my universe – so it’s the story of how I’ve gotten to being 25.”
As the story goes, Sultana’s grandfather gave them a guitar at the age of three. By 13, they were using a fake ID to play open mic nights around Melbourne, turning up at school “smelling of cigarettes and beer”. Teachers warned: “Your grades are slipping, you’re not going to amount to anything”, but despite a psychotic breakdown, Sultana finished year 12 and took to busking with their one-person band set-up (electric guitar, RC-30 loop station, milk crates and trolley) and a work ethic that before long saw them land a manager, release their first EP, Notion, stun Australian festival crowds, and score two songs in Triple J’s 2016 Hottest 100 (including Jungle at No 3).
Word was spreading about the diminutive, barefoot multi-instrumentalist with a six-octave range (trying to sing along to Sultana’s songs is an exercise in humility) who could send crowds ballistic with layered looping, Hendrix-esque guitar solos, panpipe beatboxing and acrobatic leaps. Sultana played Coachella in 2018, four months before releasing their debut album, Flow State (named for the trance they slip into while performing), which won an Aria for best blues and roots album.
The road to stardom was peppered with burnout, a loss of privacy and mental health struggles. In late 2017, Sultana hit the reset button, writing on Instagram: “I thought I was going to die from the shadow my mind cast.”
With the help of a therapist, naturopath, yoga and surfing, Sultana turned to sobriety and a supplements regime.
These days, Sultana says: “I’m just a bit of a loner – I socialise when I want to or when I need to. When I go out and see people and their eyes start rolling to the back of their heads, I just smokebomb and leave and go to bed. I’m convinced that nothing good happens after midnight.”
The rural lifestyle they now share with their partner has also proved a balm. “There’s no one in sight – I love it,” Sultana says. “I pretty much have a forest as a backyard.”
The backyard made its way on to Terra Firma too, with layered field recordings of rain and native birds. So did collaborations with friends and fellow singers Matt Corby, Josh Cashman and Jerome Farah. The initial plan was to enlist a full band to play and tour with, but Covid laid waste to that idea.
The restrictions on travel during Victoria’s months-long coronavirus lockdown posed a “massive problem” for the album schedule, eventually forcing Sultana to move into their Melbourne recording studio during Terra Firma’s home stretch.
Terra Firma is as expansive and chilled as we’ve come to expect from Sultana and includes the ethereal I Am Free, “about the personal freeing of the chains … I’m not going to be a people-pleaser”; the piano-led Maybe You’ve Changed, with its devastating refrain “Why don’t you believe in me no more?” (“I actually started crying during the take because I was really upset when I was writing this track,” Sultana reveals); and the deceptively jaunty Sweet & Dandy, where they skewer the pressures of social media and gender conformity – “I don’t have to define by the sexes, oh / And I don’t have to get down with none of that bullshit XYs and Xs,” they sing.
On 28 November 2020, 276 days after performing at a bushfire benefit concert, Sultana broke their live music drought with a show at Sydney’s Hordern Pavilion in front of a real, albeit seated, audience.
Covid willing, Sultana is playing Womadelaide in March and Bluesfest in April, and has European dates booked later in the year, although the musician concedes those have a “slim to none” chance of going ahead. “The kicks in the gut don’t hurt so much any more. You almost expect nothing, so that when things do happen, you’re just, ‘Wow!’ It really happened!’
“And everyone is getting kicked in the guts [at the moment] – and some harder than others. You know, I’m doing fine. Live music is only one dimension of who I am and what I do,” Sultana says, listing their booking agency, production work and plans to start a record label among their other projects.
Whatever 2021 delivers, Sultana is ready. The technical skill required to pull off their live shows demands nothing less – they play all the instruments; just one mistimed loop and a whole song can fall out of synch.
“If an athlete is training for a marathon, that is what they live, breathe, eat, sleep, drink. That’s what I do when I’m about to play a show or go on tour … Before I play I always do a two-to-four-hour sound check, then I’ll go into my dressing room and I’ll lock down for about three or four hours and do water therapy, essential oils and steaming. I’ll do meditation and light therapy, stretching and then I’ll practise to a metronome on the drum pad, the guitar, tune up my horns, do some vocal exercises, pick an outfit and a hat, and then I’m out.”
It’s a long way from the low-maintenance set of a teenage busker. Sultana reflects: “I loved every second of that section of my life.”
Might we ever see them back on Bourke Street?
“I reckon you should keep your eyes peeled for that,” they say.
Something incognito, perhaps?
“No. I would go out there as my full authentic self and be like: ‘I am back, motherfuckers!’”