Tash Sultana: ‘I Just Don't Give A F**k About Competing With Anyone’

16 March 2023 | 12:00 pm | Cyclone Wehner

"I've just stopped giving a f**k about everything – maybe a little bit too much – and I've let go. And everything that I want is kind of happening."

Pic by Giulia Giannini McGauran

Pic by Giulia Giannini McGauran

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These days Melbourne's countercultural prodigy Tash Sultana is feeling so sanguine as to joke about being "boring". "I'm pretty good, to be honest," Sultana announces. "I've got no complaints. Life's good."

Sultana – who is gender-fluid and uses they/them pronouns – makes prodigiousness seem both effortless and accessible. Their ascent is now legend. Indeed, Sultana began playing while underage at open-mic nights and then busked – manifesting success. As astonishing is Sultana's creative autonomy. A singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, producer, engineer and entrepreneur, they've been branded a "one-person powerhouse". However, Sultana has expressed discomfort with the frenzy of fame and strain of touring such a high-energy show. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic allowed them to chill out.

Today Sultana is chatting to The Music over Zoom, video off, about a single, James Dean, that signals a "new era". Coincidentally, the superstar is again performing in Australia, having latterly concentrated on the international circuit. Sultana will headline South Australia's inaugural two-day winery festival Vintage Vibes as well as return to Bluesfest over Easter. They will also perform at Lazy Mountain festival.

Sultana was three when they picked up a guitar – the first of over 10 instruments, all self-taught apart from the guitar which they studied throughout school. Years later, as a live entertainer, Sultana discovered the RC-30 Loop Station, enabling them to transgress the singer/songwriter paradigm. From there they have expanded their playing and even built their very own custom loop station with their team. There is only one of them in the world, it is considered to be the most complex loop station on the planet.

With a Maltese father, Sultana embodies the second-generation migrant's work ethic. In 2016 the bedroom musician went viral with their now-signature song Jungle on YouTube (it eventually crashed into the triple j Hottest 100 at #3) and drew huge crowds at Listen Out. Sultana issued a buzz EP, Notion, via their Lonely Lands Records – Sony Australia coming on board with distribution. 

Sultana was touring internationally prior to 2018's debut Flow State – taking in Coachella and a massive international sold out arena run where they broke records at venues all around the globe. They subsequently won an ARIA for Best Blues And Roots Album. In early 2021 Sultana followed with Terra Firma – scoring an ARIA #1 and charting around the world. This time, Sultana co-wrote songs, penning the lead single Pretty Lady with Matt Corby and former Evermore member Dann Hume.

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Still, ask Sultana what they deem their proudest achievement and it isn't material. "Honestly? Achieving the headspace that I'm in is my proudest achievement – 'cause I think you can paint your life a million different colours but, if your perspective is bleak from within, then you're never gonna be where you wanna be. 

"I just think I've embraced a little bit of a different style of thinking and being. In that, I've just stopped giving a fuck about everything – maybe a little bit too much – and I've let go. And everything that I want is kind of happening."

In 2017 Sultana told the Sydney Morning Herald that, after touring a second album, they "want[ed] to step back and just fuck off for a bit, do normal things." In lockdown, Sultana had no choice but to do that – and acquired a new life balance (their current leisure activities are boxing, yoga, Pilates and surfing).

"I'm at a really good spot – and all those roads led me here," Sultana reiterates. "You know, it doesn't mean it's gonna be like this forever. But, right now, I've landed in a place [where] I can really appreciate all parts of my life. I'm really happy with everything in my career. There's nothing to complain about; nothing to compete about… So, really, I wish I had a story for ya. But life's good. So I suppose it's gonna be a boring write-up!" They laugh.

Sultana's cautiousness applies to the music industry, too. "The industry is actually quite a small place, even though people think it's really big. To be honest, I don't like how it rolls [the] majority of the time – which is kind of why I pride myself on not being a part of it and doing what I want to do." Yet, ever-DIY, the star is surprisingly business-savvy. Four years ago Sultana launched Lonely Lands Agency with Lemon Tree Music's Regan Lethbridge and UNIFIED Music Group's Jaddan Comerford – their mission to operate "on artists' terms; from an artist's perspective." Says Sultana, "Times are different."

The prolific Sultana has circulated minimal music since Terra Firma. But, on social media, they've mentioned accumulating LPs of material. Last June Sultana dropped MTV Unplugged (Live In Melbourne). They also mixed the record in their very own Melbourne studio, Lonely Lands Studio. Now Sultana is promoting James Dean, its lyrics about protecting your privacy and cutting people out of your life if they no longer deserve to be there. The track heralds an EP that the musician is presently mixing and will again issue through their own imprint. Again, everything you hear on a Tash Sultana track is entirely written, performed, arranged, composed and produced by the artist themselves. That’s right, every single instrument you hear is them.

"I kinda wanted to just be independent for a bit," Sultana explains. "I mean, I've always been an independent artist, but I'm in an in-between stage right now where I don't know what direction I really wanna go in. I'm just kind of embracing things as they are right now. 

"As always, we'll have new music coming out. I haven't [released any new music] for over two years now. So that's the longest time that I've not had a new song out. 

"[But], being off-cycle, I've enjoyed every single second of it! I just don't care about competing. I just don't give a fuck about competing with anyone or anything. I'm just in a very freeing part of my career right now where I just literally only care about what I do. I don't care about what other people are doing. I have better relationships with myself and people because of it. And I feel like I'm writing way better music because of the headspace that I'm in. I'm not trying to write a hit or any shit like that. I'm just enjoying the process. 

"So it's kind of sad when you release new music, in a sense, because the project is not your little secret anymore – it becomes the world's thing. It's almost like a little bit of a farewell, letting it go into the wild."

Sultana is a hybrid artist – their versatility as an instrumentalist extending to genre. Initially, Sultana's idiom lent towards folk. But, similarly to Ed Sheeran, they introduced a hip hop sensibility. Sultana ventured into neo-soul bohemia on Terra Firma (Anderson .Paak's band the Free Nationals mellifluously remixed Pretty Lady). What sounds are they exploring now?

"It's whatever I want, really – which is the best part of it," Sultana ponders. "I am not a genre-based artist. I kind of just do a little bit of everything. I suppose, at the moment, I've been working very heavily in the American hip hop scene with a lot of artists – and that's been pretty fun… 

"So I think, at the moment, I'm just enjoying learning with other people, jamming with other people, writing with other people…"

Sultana dedicated much of 2022 to gigging overseas, covering North America and Europe. A concert at Colorado's iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre sold out in five minutes – the fastest-ever for the venue. In December Sultana finally flew home, playing Ocean Sounds on Churchill Island in Victoria. (Mind, in February they were back Stateside, joining the Cali Vibes Fest in Long Beach with Warren G.) 

Next, Sultana will hit Vintage Vibes alongside psych-rockers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. ("Giz and I have crossed paths quite a few times.") In many ways, Sultana views this run as a homecoming. "It's kind of an old show now, because Australia's been the last to get it. I've toured everywhere else. 

"I haven't played really in Australia for the last four-and-a-half years – and that was intentional, to be honest. It's just been a bit too shaky here to do gigs that may not happen, as we've seen [with COVID-19 restrictions]. 

"So I'm coming back now pretty much wrapping up the end of an era – which will be very new for everyone here, but it's very old for us."

And Sultana is content in Australia. "[I'm] living the dream – like I don't wanna live anywhere else in the world. Australia's an incredible country. [You] just do a couple of shows on the weekend, no worries…

"I think what I've realised is that this has been my lifestyle for such a long time, but now it's just so normal. I just do all these things that are so odd to other people. But, to me, they're very, very normal – like getting up on stage and performing is as normal as going to Woolworths… Like I know where the fucking carrots are, I know where the chips are..."

Nevertheless, for Sultana, music is still more than any vocation. "Yes, it's work, but it's fun," they say. "It's the best fun that I have. I play music every single day. There's never really a day where I'm not, like, jamming, playing something, singing or whatever. Like I said, it's like air. It's just what you do to stay alive."

Tash Sultana will perform at Vintage Vibes, Bluesfest and Lazy Mountain this April