When the video stream begins, the footage is sideways. Oh no. The camera is flipped the right way a moment later and prayer hands emoji to that! It means hundreds or, more likely, hundreds of thousands of people around the world can stop tilting their heads sideways to drink in the sight of Tash Sultana in a beanie, a baggy tee and jeans ripped at the knees, noodling away on a 12-string guitar.
Sultana sits on a couch between two other acoustic guitars, capos clipped on and ready to play. The strumming hasn’t yet coalesced into a song but, even so, a thirst is quenched for Sultana’s warm and soulful guitar sound. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic laid waste to our previous lives, Sultana’s music inspired not only admiration in fans but a sense of spiritual nourishment. That’s being tapped more deeply now everyone’s feeling trapped and anxious. Fans know it and musicians know it. They’re yoked to our emotional wellbeing in a new way – beasts of burden.
“We couldn’t get any internet at our own house,” Sultana, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, says to the camera. It’s April 8 and they’re premiering the first single, ‘Pretty Lady’, from their unfinished second record, ‘Terra Firma’. “We had to quickly go and find somewhere we could record this livestream.”
A week later, when Sultana and I talk over Zoom, I discover the reverberant acoustics of the room where the livestream was filmed was due to the house being empty (bar the couch). It’s been packed up and prepped for sale by Sultana and their partner. The recently engaged pair live on a 10-acre property nearby, where their dog can run around and where Sultana has been waking early to tend a veggie patch: pumpkin, zucchini and sweet corn.
“How are you?” I say.
“Good,” they reply, and then: “I hate doing virtual stuff.”
I’ve seen the interviews, I’m ready for their directness.
“All my stuff is virtual at the moment, livestreams and all this crap. I mean, it’s something, it’s just not enough. It’s just not the fuckin’ same as doing an actual gig.”
100 per cent. It’s not the fuckin’ same.
I’m ready to steer clear of personal questions, too. In 2018, Sultana told NME: “People try to create lots of issues between me and my girlfriend because we’re not so virtually open about our relationship. But everything’s all fucking good. There’s this need for information, information, information – not knowledge, just information. It’s like being in high school sometimes.”
“I’m really private,” they tell me. “I’m similar to my mum but we look nothing alike. I look exactly like my dad but he loves people asking all about himself.” When our video is abruptly cut off after 45 minutes – we’ve been connected using a free Zoom account that only allows limited minutes – I half expect Sultana to call it quits. But they don’t and we’re reconnected for round two. It ends up being the longest interview they’ve ever done. I’m flattered.
“Hang with my partner, my dog and go to the studio. I needed to learn how to slow the fuck down”
For a moment, anyway. “If I weren’t in isolation right now, I wouldn’t be doing interviews,” they say. “I’m pretty slack with that shit. But anyway, we are in isolation – and I’ve changed.”
Privacy-wise, things aren’t as “hectic” as before, says Sultana. “At the beginning, with ‘Jungle’, when everything was everywhere, there were times where I felt like ‘I can’t go anywhere without somebody trying to take like a sneaky fucking photo’ or whatever. That gave me actual proper social anxiety.”
That hectic story’s been told a lot. In the words of Sultana’s manager, Lemon Tree Music’s Regan Lethbridge: “It’s been a crazy journey but it all started [in 2016] with Tash looping in [their] bedroom, filming those videos and uploading them to YouTube.” One of those songs was ‘Jungle’, which now has nearly 70 million views. Sultana lived in Melbourne then, busking downtown, but a few years ago the couple moved to a small, coastal Victorian town. “There’s heaps of old people here. They don’t give a shit who I am.”
In early March, Sultana and their partner were in the Maldives having “an awesome time” celebrating their engagement. “We started to see all this shit happening in Australia. We came home about four days before the ban that anyone arriving has to quarantine for two weeks and we were like ‘Holy fuck. This is serious’.”
Sultana had a year of touring booked. Not just any year, either. From May, in Japan, they were going to be playing solo, wrapping up shows for 2018’s record, ‘Flow State’. In the second half of 2020, as more of ‘Terra Firma’ came out, Sultana was going to roll out with a hand-picked new band.
To another musician: new band, new era, no big deal. But for Sultana and their fans – a real big deal. Few artists have packed-out big-room shows for so long with just a solo rig. Heritage acts, maybe, but Sultana is 24 years old. The might of what they mustered was umbilically tied to the defiant aloneness of their bedroom and busking days. And yet. “I can’t do the same thing forever,” they say. Cut the cord.
“If I want to have a long career where I perform and sing and feel my best – that is doing it absolutely straight-edge and healthy”
“I need to do this for myself. I know I can play alone, that’s really easy for me. But I don’t know I can do this so I need to prove it. I haven’t shared the space with people for a long time… But with this album, I didn’t want to have any limitations, sonically. I realised, ‘Hang on, I can just sing this song. I don’t have to do the whole shebang’. So I went on a quest to find a band.”
Sultana had other reasons, too. It’s the part of our conversation that feels muddled in contrast to the straight-up-ness of the rest. Nothing sinister, though. Just the standard cognitive dissonance of a workaholic: two simultaneous and closely held convictions that work is keeping you alive while also kinda killing you.
They describe 16 shows over three months as “a walk in the park”. Usually, they’d do 25 shows in 30 days as part of a month-on, month-off touring routine. Stamina emanated from them onstage, bouncing between pedals and looping machines, multiple instruments, drum pads, and singing like everything depended on it. Eventually, though, the body talks. And when it did, it wasn’t talking about walks in the park.
“When I came home, I was really out of whack,” they say. “I’d just burnt the fuck out and the health people I’m working with were like, ‘This is not good. You can’t function like this.’ All these hundreds of shows, they were really wearing on me, I would get up and carry the weight of everything all the time. So if I’m having a shitty show, I’d carry the whole thing. I was like ‘I’m going to need to change this up a bit’.”
The band was found. Sultana won’t say who the three members are yet, but lights up talking about how they “shred” on guitar and “smash” the drums. All play multiple instruments. And all, it would seem, know their place.
“I’m pretty black and white,” Sultana says. “It’s not like, ‘Tash Sultana getting a band and it’s evenly split four ways.’ It’s a session job. You’ve got to be cool with that, you got to wear that and love it. I’ve written the songs and you can obviously add your own flavour, I really appreciate that because everyone has a certain style but you’ve all gotta get along.
“You’ve got to be able to play the parts which is not fucking hard. You’ve gotta be nice and not be getting fucked up on alcohol and drugs. Because if you don’t show up to soundcheck on time, or if you’re fucking rusty, you’re on the next flight out. And that’s just that. A positive experience with cool people, jamming the fuck out in front of lovely audiences. It’s gonna be a blast. Play the songs well, don’t cause issues and have a fucking sick time.”
What a boss. It’s said with a smile – that megawatt smile; those deep-carved dimples – but is no less firm because of it. Quitting partying probably helped. “If I wasn’t an emotional wreck after a night out I would still be partying but I’m just too sensitive of a person. I’ve had heaps of fun and whatnot but I figured out that if I want to have a long career where I perform and sing and feel my best – that is doing it absolutely straight-edge and healthy.”
Right now, though, no-one’s doing anything. Like every touring artist, Sultana watched their 2020 tour schedule do the COVID-19 crumble. Fortunately, the collaboration with Australian singer and songwriter Matt Corby, and producer Dann Hume, was already in the bag.
Sultana and Corby hit it off creatively when they collaborated last year on a (Corby) song called ‘Talk It Out’. Sultana invited Corby and Hume to their studio and a 10-day writing session ensued, yielding ‘Pretty Lady’, reborn from Sultana’s busking days, as well as three more songs that will be on ‘Terra Firma’. A good haul, given it was Sultana’s first time working collaboratively on their own material, and they’d been stuck on the same parts of ‘Pretty Lady’ for six years. Corby was the crack where the light got in.
Sultana is seeing the upsides of lockdown. Without it, they would have been juggling an overseas tour with wrapping up and releasing ‘Terra Firma’. Now, with dates cancelled, and “an extension for the album, which is fucking great”, Sultana can focus on one thing at a time. “I’ll be spending until July finishing this thing off. Hang with my partner, my dog and go to the studio. I needed to learn how to slow the fuck down.”
“There’s heaps of old people here. They don’t give a shit who I am”
‘Flow State’, they say, was a collection of songs written years before recording. “I was really young,” they say. “Things change, so have I and so has the music. I understand the engineering perspective deeper now. Also having my own studio to record, as opposed to renting one… I can really take my time. I’ve put a lot more time, effort and hours into this record.”
The album title ‘Terra Firma’ itself hints at Sultana’s newfound groundedness. “Terra firma is the ground, the earth, you put your feet on it to remember where you are, what you’re from,” they explain. “It’s a reminder that we are only human at the end of the day. Part of one big system and no one really knows the answers to how and why.”
And yet, Sultana turns to the water to recharge: their daily routine used to include surfing. “It’s my reset button, getting in the ocean. It’s silent and it has nothing to do with music. I would surf every day but now it’s suggested we minimise it. So, I have minimised it.”
It’s nice to hear someone address it so matter of factly. Globally, this pandemic has been characterised by sacrifices big and small but in Australia, beaches are being clung to as a way of life, even as social distancing ruled them out. Restricting people’s right to swim or surf seemed a bridge too far for many, with closed beaches in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, especially, under constant pressure to re-open.
In Sultana’s town, though, people are taking it seriously. “Mate, people here are like, ‘Fuck that guy, he sneezed’. Someone in the petrol station the other day was, like, refusing to let someone use their pen.” They get up early, have a coffee and get into the garden. “I turn the soil and I pollinate the little flowers. I cut all the fucking grass yesterday with a line clipper; my property is huge, it took fucking ages.”
So this is 2020. Family time, gardening and perfecting a record called ‘Terra Firma’ in a wobbly world. Brain whirring with contingency plans. “I have always had a plan, like A, B, C, D, all the way fucking through,” says Sultana. “I like to just look at something and see multiple ways it could go.” Ideally, they say, “get the band as tight as possible and as soon as we get the green light we are fucking ready. We get all of our shit ready, so when whatever happens happens, we are good. We haven’t fucked around and let the time creep.”
“I don’t know I can do this so I need to prove it”
It’s hard getting a band tight with a two-person maximum on ‘congregations’. What stonkingly bad timing to switch it up from a solo act to a four-piece. “It was sounding and feeling really fucking sick when we were rehearsing and then everyone had to go home because they closed down the borders and shit,” they say. “You can only be with one other person, so that’s three people I’m not fuckin’ related to, or whatever the rules are.”
When restrictions do ease, domestic touring will likely be first to fire back up. “But actually leaving the country or being allowed into another one?” says Sultana. “It’s going to take a while. I don’t reckon that anyone’s going to be playing gigs in 2020. It’s all good for people to give the green light on bringing the gathering thing back but it’s the fear among people. It will take a bit of time for people to not be scared anymore of big crowds.”
Until then, they say, it’s listening to 15-second snippets of ‘Pretty Lady’ on repeat. When the virus stymied the song’s original video concept, Sultana had another idea ready to go. The video is a patchwork of people dancing goofily in their lounge rooms, bedrooms and sun decks, including blues band The Teskey Brothers and Indigenous rapper Baker Boy.
After the clip was done, Sultana’s team kept the choreographed moves rolling with the #prettyladychallenge, getting fans to film themselves dancing. “I wanted a different way to connect with people,” says Sultana. “As soon as you say the word competition, everyone’s keen, it’s been going off! Old people, young people, dogs, cats, horses, goats – the lot.”
Sultana wanted to help to keep their fans active and positive. They’ve got other #iso tips, too. “I’ve done some pretty intensive work on myself for the last little while,” they say. “When you’re anxious, that’s a very high arousal state so you want to combat that with something that’s very low arousal every day, maybe once, maybe twice, could be 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Practicing piano is a low arousal for me, or scales on the guitar.
“For people feeling anxious and shit, this is the perfect time to learn an instrument or start drawing or painting. Mental stimulation is important. Social stimulation is important! So we can’t see each other much but you can get on the phone. Imagine dealing with this 100 years ago? That would have been really fucking hard.”
When things normalise, unsurprisingly, Sultana has a plan. “I don’t go out and I don’t have beers but, my god, I’m gonna go out and have a fucking beer when this is finished. Like, I actually will actually go out. I will have a beer.”
‘Pretty Lady’ is out now via Lonely Lands Records / Sony Music Entertainment Australia.
This article will appear in the inaugural print edition of NME Australia. Here’s how you can preorder a copy.