The Life-Altering Contagion That Is Tash Sultana

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by Lis Steinberg

After escaping a nine-month drug psychosis, Australian artist Tash Sultana strives to share their message of positivity through song as they travel across the world playing their music for millions of people. Sultana has been touring internationally for 4 years now, starting in the United States in September 2017. In December 2017, due to the mass amount of stress, Sultana took a short hiatus from touring to practice self-care and be around loved ones. To give you an idea of how much time Sultana has spent on the road, 8.34% of their life so far has been spent on this tour. They have always been extremely conspicuous about their own struggle with mental health and wellness, taking to Instagram to explain the abrupt tour break. Sultana is now back on the road and has been for the past 8 months, traveling to various cities within the United States to finish up the U.S. segment of the tour which will end on December 1st, 2018. Sultana will continue to travel the globe until November 2019 playing their music. Although there are millions across the world who want to hear them perform, it hasn’t always been this way. Originally busking the streets for money, Sultana’s life took an unexpected turn at the young age of 17.

Sultana, 23 years old, grew up in Melbourne and has been playing the guitar from the age of three. Sultana began busking on the streets of Melbourne when they were a teenager. From 2008 to 2012, they were the lead vocalist of the band Mindpilot with Patrick O’Brien, Emily Daye, and David Herbert. It was a very successful group which won various Battle of the Bands competitions in Melbourne, however, due to personal differences, it split up in 2012. It was during this time in which one of the most pivotal points in their life occurred.

During an interview with triple j in 2016, Sultana shares the most traumatic experience of their life, one that led them to the fame she posses today. When Sultana was 17 years old and Mindpilot had split up, Sultana transparently states that they were hooked on almost every drug, except for heroin. However, one experience with “shrooms” put a stop to all their drug use. After eating pizza with “magic mushrooms” on it, they immediately fell into a state of dissociation and depersonalization, describing the moment as “one bad trip.” This eventually developed into a nine-month drug psychosis in which Sultana was so depressed that they could not leave their house, missing school, and isolating themselves from society. It was only until they picked up a guitar one day that they realized they were in a state of complete peace when playing music. Sultana learned 20 instruments during this time including the trumpet, flute, and saxophone, playing her way out of the drug psychosis. This is why when you watch Sultana play any live show, you can quite literally see the mental tranquility they receive from their instruments. They were discovered by the world after live bedroom recordings of songs they created were posted to YouTube in 2014.

In a 2018 interview with triple j Sultana explains how they struggle in the studio and describe themselves as a live artist, using their studio recordings as a way to market themselves rather than identify with. Sultana describes their debut album Flow State (2018) as an attempt “to condense this live show into a pair of headphones, pretty much.” They go on to say that “the product that you receive at the end of the day, most people will play in their car or in their headphones. I'm trying to capture what's on the stage, where you've got a huge sound system and 40 subs and the vibe. Trying to put that into your ears is difficult.”  

On November 16th, Sultana performed at the House of Blues in Boston, MA. They walk onto the stage barefoot with a beanie that would later soar from their head during an exuberant performance of “Jungle.” The stage was filled with guitar pedals, microphones, mixers and decorative lights, one a rainbow and another a cactus. They greet the crowd and immediately the genuineness of their words are felt as they express how thankful they are to be playing their songs for everyone. The two-hour set begins with Sultana improvising chords on the guitar and vocals, as well as on a 22 tube pan flute which instantly puts the crowd into a trance as they watch in admiration. After looping all of these sounds, Sultana begins beatboxing over them, leading to the introduction of “Salvation,” the first track played from Flow State that night. Live, Sultana expands each studio recorded version of their tracks, taking the length of the original from 6-8 minutes to around 13-15 minutes.

The expression on their face as they add each layer of music, cultivating a euphoric atmosphere filled with violin chords and perfectly harmonized vocals is contagious. They appear to be getting a metaphorical high from their music, and the crowd feels it as well. Constantly moving to the beat, Sultana is accompanied by psychedelic visuals in the background enhancing the mood of each song. Next, they introduce “Pink Moon,” a song that explores the ebb and flow of life, specifically when recovering from an addiction. Sultana shares with the audience that they’ve “had ups and downs, and some of those downs have been really fucking bad, but the only time it gets better is when you keep living life.” During the middle of the song, Sultana howls pure emotion into the microphone that feels cathartic as they belt their heart out over synths and drums looped previously.

They transition into a more upbeat track with “Synergy,” off their 2016 EP Notion. The song exhibits some of Sultana’s neo-soul influences, like Erykah Badu, an artist Sultana says to have created the best song of all time, “Didn’t Cha Know,” in a 3 FM interview. Some categorize Sultana as “psychedelic-reggae-rock” due to tracks like “Synergy,” which features a pan flute, mandolin, tribal drum beats, as well as Sultana’s vocals and an electric guitar. Constantly transitioning from one instrument to the next, Sultana prances around the stage, still barefoot, with a huge smile on their face. Possibly the most heartwarming part of the set is when Sultana serenades a random child on the stage with the song “Free Mind.” They make the essence of perfecting an instrument seem effortless, as they strum each guitar string, appearing as if it holds the same simplicity of brushing teeth.

The second to last track on the setlist is one that the crowd has been waiting for, “Jungle,” which jumpstarted Sultana’s career as a musician and took them from busking on the streets to playing sold out stadiums. Sultana took some time to remind the audience if they couldn’t tell already, that everything is live looped, there is no backtracking, therefore if there are mistakes, it just means the set is more authentic. Authenticity is crucial to Sultana, which is why there are even mistakes on the studio recorded album. Slowly blue lit smoke starts to fill the stage as the opening chords of “Jungle” are played and everyone begins to cheer. Sultana’s calm meditative state is visible through the smile stretching across their face as the song progresses. The atmosphere becomes light and every single person can be seen swaying, jumping or dancing. Towards the end of the song, Sultana dances around, eventually ending up on the edge of the stage on their hands and knees playing the electric guitar rock and roll style.

Last year Sultana made a post on Instagram with a caption explaining why they would be taking some time off from their shows after traveling around the world for so long. They said that at the end of the day, it was getting to be “too much” for them and that they needed to recharge with people they loved. Sultana then announces that they would be playing their last song of the night, “Harvest Love.” This song is an ode to that time in Sultana’s life, as they describe the song before beginning to play, “There are days that you can’t do shit. And that’s okay, that’s alright. Sometimes you just need to cry, jump in the ocean, fuckin’ scream, have a run, you know. But it’s important that you voice that shit because the demons only live inside you if you feed them and let them grow. So get that shit out of your fuckin’ soul. Speak the truth, you know, cause you’re not really living until you’re actually living in a truthful manner. And that took me a long time to realize. This song is about exactly that.” As one of the most stripped-down tracks Sultana has, they sing “Harvest Love” accompanied by one acoustic guitar for the entire song with very little looping. Toward the end, Sultana’s voice resembles an electric guitar as they pour their heart into the last few lyrics. The echo of their voice is loud enough to transcend the venue as it reaches to everyone in Boston, feeding the world with inspiration.

Sultana says goodbye to everyone, although we all know they will be back to play their encore song, “Blackbird.” Sure enough, after some applause from the crowd, they return. Sultana released a live bedroom recorded version of their song, “Blackbird” on YouTube in 2014 and it raked in over 1 million views. The track features insanely intricate acoustic guitar fingerpicking as well as Sultana’s mesmerizing voice. For around two minutes Sultana stretches out the guitar introduction, progressively increasing the speed of their fingerpicking and simultaneously hyping up the audience. The song takes a folk-like feel as Sultana begins to drum her hand on her guitar while the melodic minor blues chords take us captive, not allowing us to look away. Sultana’s ability to convey the message of the lyrics while still focusing on the musicality of the song is hypnotizing. The song ends after around 10 minutes and Sultana snaps a selfie with the audience just before taking a humble bow and leaving their trusty instruments behind.

Sultana’s long dreadlocks bounce up and down as they thank everyone for coming while running off the stage. Looking back on the videos I’ve taken of the concert, it’s hard to recognize and match most of the songs to their studio recorded version, yet this is done intentionally. In an interview with Billboard, Sultana clarifies that they don’t want their album to sound the same live as it would in your headphones. Sultana describes their vision of what a live show should encompass: “I want [the album] to have life. It has to have life. It needs to be born somewhere and that’s on the stage.” It’s hard to imagine that Sultana went through such a dark time in their life and led to the joy radiating from them playing their songs. However, it is quite evident music is the biggest component in their happiness and that without it, this all might have never come to be. After 245 shows in the past 18 months, 972 days spent traveling, 300,000 miles traveled, I’m glad that I was able to witness such beautiful musical mastery here in Boston. I left the concert feeling enlightened, promising myself that I would attempt to carry the same blissful energy that Sultana spreads along with their message of light, love, and positivity.

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