Tash Sultana releases ‘MTV Unplugged’ live album: “​​My set was absolutely plugged the fuck in”

Sultana talks to NME about their very different experience on ‘MTV Unplugged’, attaining ‘flow state’ onstage and the importance of “timeless” music: “I’m not really vibing the churn-and-burn hits…”

Today (June 3), Tash Sultana has released ‘MTV Unplugged: Live In Melbourne’, their first-ever live album.

The release holds 13 tracks that Sultana performed for 150 fans at Melbourne’s Chapel Off Chapel theatre last May, and captures the artist’s one-of-a-kind live show in its richest form.

‘MTV Unplugged’ was Sultana’s “lockdown project”, which they pieced together on their own over the course of last winter’s lengthy COVID-19 lockdowns. “I was just bored,” they tell NME, “and I had all these recordings lying around, so I thought, ‘You know what? I’m just gonna start mixing this and release it as an album. Why not?’ It took me about three months, because I was really, really, really fussy with it – there’s about 120 reference mixes for the whole show. I just wanted to see if I could mix a record, so I did.”

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NME caught Sultana in a rare moment of downtime right before they jet off for a 32-date jaunt across the US and Canada, then a further 16 shows around Europe. They opened up about what makes their ‘MTV Unplugged’ record stand out from others in the series, why their live show is more like meditation than performance, and what’s next on the horizon.

What was so unique about your ‘MTV Unplugged’ set?

“I feel like Australians, as a whole, tend to get skipped over by the rest of the world – it’s only really now that you see Australian [music] becoming bigger as an export. But the MTV set I did got picked up globally, and that was really, really sick. And they did an hour broadcast! It’s usually 40 minutes, but my songs pretty much go for that long to begin with, so we were like, ‘OK, we need to work something out here…’ I also wanted us to do ‘MTV Unplugged’ very differently to how everybody else does it: my set was absolutely plugged the fuck in.”

Did they try to challenge you on that?

“Nah, they were like, ‘Cool, you just do what you want to do.’ I do enjoy playing acoustically, but I don’t feel like I’m capturing the essence of myself [as an artist] when I do just that. I’ve curated everything I do over time, and not doing all of that doesn’t feel as fulfilling. But I did do something I normally wouldn’t for the MTV set, which is have other people on the stage with me. I think that was the point of difference, and they were like, ‘Yep, sweet, we’re on board with that.’”

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The moment your band kicks in on ‘Coma’… Fucking superb. Tell me about them!

“Every record I make, apart from the respective collaborations, I always play everything. I produce it, arrange it, compose it – everything. But when I wrote [2021 album] ‘Terra Firma’, I didn’t want to have any boundaries. And through the process, I realised that I just don’t have enough arms and legs to do everything I want [on a record] anymore. That’s where these other session musicians come into the equation, to add that sonic support.”

Having always been a “one-person band”, what was it like for you to open up your artistry and trust other people to elevate your performance?

“Easy. It’s just an extension of the artistry – it takes nothing away from how I am as a solo artist. And I am a solo artist. That’s an important distinction to make, that I am a solo artist, and they just add that support where I can’t physically play every part at the same time. But I love it. It’s an expansion of the groove, and it feels great.”

When you’re up onstage, what’s going through your head?

“Generally nothing. That’s the goal there, to not be in thought. And here’s the thing: no one can stay completely present for two hours without getting pulled into thought. We’re humans, that’s what we do. So it’s about reminding myself to not follow those thoughts. It’s kind of like a meditation practice: the more present I am, the more I’m able to be the music rather than perform it.

“That’s the feeling I always try to lock into, which is what I call ‘flow state’. As soon as I start to trail off into thought, I have to, without judgment, tell myself, ‘Come back! Come back to the practice!’ A really good way to become present again is to fuck up. Whenever you play a dud note, that pulls you straight back into the moment.”

You performed your cover of Bon Iver’s ‘Flume’ for this album. What made that one a crucial part of the setlist?

“Bon Iver is my favourite artist of all time. I reckon I was probably 14 when I stumbled across Bon Iver, and I was just like, ‘What is this!?’ I’d just be sitting in my bedroom, having a couple of joints out the window, getting emo, listening to this record… And it’s just always stuck with me. That’s the thing I appreciate the most about music – the timeless records.

“I’m not really vibing the churn-and-burn hits that happen today, where they’re structured by record labels to take over the radio and TikTok and Instagram and all that, and they’re just soulless because they’re written and marketed to be hits. That’s not my vibe for music creation. I love that you can put on a Pink Floyd record after 50 years and love it the same every time. That’s how I feel about Bon Iver – and Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse, Fleetwood Mac, Santana… They’re just timeless.”

Is that your own goal, to make timeless records?

“There’s always trial and error with the music you create. Sometimes in the moment, you’re like, ‘Yeah sweet, this is going to be a hit!’ But then you release it and it flops, and you’re just like, ‘Oh, that didn’t work.’ The songs that you don’t put on that pedestal are the ones that tend to do heaps better. What I’ve learned over the years is that aiming to write a hit never results in a hit, but aiming to be happy with the music you put out, because it’s truthful and it comes from a place of realness – that’s when you have a hit on your hands.”

So now that your ‘MTV Unplugged’ record is done, what’s the latest on album three?

“I’ve got a fucking lot of songs that are just sitting there. I’m trying to work out what I’m going to do with them.”

Do you reckon we’ll hear some of those songs before the end of 2022?

“Yeah, I don’t know – we’ll see! I’m independent, so I’m just enjoying that I can take this next part of my career wherever the fuck I want. I’m just trying to work out where that is, right now.”

Tash Sultana’s ‘MTV Unplugged (Live In Melbourne)’ is out now via Lonely Lands / Sony

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