I remember the first time I heard Tash Sultana. It was years ago when she was still performing as a busker on the streets of Melbourne, Australia; her guitars, loop pedals, mic stand and speakers surrounding her, electric cords tangled like a black woven mat beneath her feet, and a mixer sitting atop a stack of used plastic crates. On one of the crates was a sheet of cardboard with “TASH SULTANA” written messily in black marker. It didn’t look like much and, honestly, people probably didn’t expect much either. But as she played, the crowd surrounding Sultana would grow — five people became 10, then 20, then 40 and 50 until it felt like her music was the only sound echoing through the city streets.
“When you’re busking, people don’t have to stop and listen to you,” says Sultana. “You have to work hard for it.”
As well as playing in the streets, Sultana took on every open mic night in the city that she could find. It wasn’t until she recorded herself playing at home, barefoot with her equipment scattered across her now-signature bohemian tapestry, that the world got to know her name.
A video of Sultana performing her hit track “Jungle” in her bedroom has nearly 4 million views to date, and it’s not hard to see why. Trance-inducing vibes radiate with every guitar riff, and then there’s her voice, which is comparable to a good whisky — smooth, but just rough enough to send tingles down your spine.
“I just jam ‘til it feels right and sounds right, or until the neighbors come knocking on the door telling me to shut the f*ck up,” she says. “Music chose me, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.”
A bad trip was actually the catalyst for the greatest journey of Sultana’s life; at 17 years old, Sultana — who says she was a “total drug addict” who “did everything except heroin” at that point — took magic mushrooms one night and experienced drug-induced psychosis. What followed was nine very disoriented months, with Sultana dropping out of school, going to therapy, and slowly clawing her way back to reality.
“Sometimes you need to stop everything and bring it back to the very basic things in front of you; go seek help, get therapy,” says Sultana of battling addiction, adding that she highly recommends trying to learn an instrument. “It takes maximum focus to craft a new skill and it’ll change your brain function if you try to shift your focus. It’s in your mind and it’s temporary, but it’s in your hands.”
Like a phoenix rising from the ashes of depression and addiction, the Australian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist star is soaring to incredible heights. At 21, she’s released her first EP, Notion, and is playing sold out shows around the world. She’s currently in the middle of a sold out European tour that will lead into a North American tour and finally, a homecoming tour where she’ll play shows around Australia.
“I don’t just get up and play a song. There’s a current that runs through my body when I play. I even shake sometimes,” Sultana explains. “I look at Bob Marley when he plays and see how he moves and I’m like, ‘I really get how you feel man.’”
Despite her growing popularity, Sultana remains a stranger to her own fame. Her shows today — whether it’s in an arena or at a festival, or at a bar back home in Melbourne — aren’t too different from the setup she had when she was busking. There are no smoke and mirrors, no backup dancers, no fancy stage design… there isn’t even a band. It’s just a her; her voice, her loop pedals, and her instruments — she started playing the guitar at three years old, and has since taught herself to play a total of 10 instruments and counting.
“There is definitely something cathartic about it,” she says. “Your songs and your lyrics are your message to the world. You might have written those lyrics when you were drunk or high or whatever, then you produce this thing and people sing it back to you and you know they get it.”