27 Jul 2018

Interview: Tash Sultana on 'Jungle', feminism and touring

From RNZ Music, 1:00 pm on 27 July 2018

Australia’s Tash Sultana is an astonishingly talented musician who can play more than 10 instruments. The 23-year-old started her musical career busking on the streets of Melbourne after recovering from drug addiction and failing to get a regular job. Her big break came when she went viral on Youtube.

Tash is currently in NZ half way through a four-date NZ tour. RNZ Music’s Kirsten Johnstone caught up with her ahead of her Wellington show to discuss feminism, mental health and the crazy-big setup she tours with.

Tash Sultana

Tash Sultana Photo: Supplied

“She’s a bloody magician” a woman whispers behind me as Tash Sultana pulls a trumpet out of her bag of tricks. I’ve lost count of how many instruments she’s already played, but she’s a one-person looping virtuoso, on guitars, keys, and drum pads.

Tash is keeping the guitar tech busy - later she brings out a mandolin, a 12 string acoustic, and absolutely shreds on electric. All the while banging out beats and samples, and singing on the fly.

She’s cultivating the mysticism – there’s incense burning on stage, and Himalayan salt crystal lights. At one point she starts an Andean flavoured melody on the panpipes and I brace myself for a full-on Australian hippy bush doof – but Tash starts to beatbox while still playing the panpipes.

I’ve never seen anyone do that. The relentless, infectious energy Tash puts out is impressive, and the capacity crowd are lapping it up.

Earlier that day I sat down with Tash for a yarn.

RNZ Music's Kirsten Johnstone chats to Tash Sultana

RNZ Music's Kirsten Johnstone chats to Tash Sultana Photo: Dara Munnis

A friend of mine saw you at Auckland City Limits earlier this year and apparently you yelled out to the audience that they could eff off if they were homophobic, transphobic, and racist.

And racist. Yeah.

Was there something that provoked that?

Just general common sense. I would say that up until recently that's the minority class of being like a different race, transgender, or homosexual. Up until recent times that was something that was just like ... Oh, you're black. At home the indigenous gap is insane, and same with people that are homosexual, people that have transitioned to be who they want to be. What is it to you if you don't agree? So I don't like to perform for people that have that in their mind.

But have you ever been provoked by audiences like that?

No, not in my shows. No, I've never seen anyone leave so that's good.

I don't really reckon I draw that kind of crowd because I'm pretty ... I'm me and people know about the person that I am and whatnot. But I think that's important, and I've said that shit in the south in the US where a lot of people don't really get that. And I said it in Singapore actually, and it's illegal to be gay and it's illegal to swear on stage. So, I'm not in jail, but I said it. I think it's just important because these aren't crimes and we all think differently.

There does seem to be a bit of a groundswell in Australia at the moment for minority musicians who are coming out with fantastic music and the industry is actually embracing them. People like Mojo Juju, like Cash Savage...

Yeah, there's a big thing like that at home, all the feminists gathering together. I'm not a feminist. Don't ask me stuff about that.

You're not a feminist?

No.

You wouldn't call yourself a feminist?

 I'm just all for equal rights and stuff like that but I'm not like one of those "yay empowerment" type of people. I'm just not that forefront about all of that. I'm not really super political type of person, and that might change as I get older. But I'm not so much engaged in that at my point in my life. I'm kind of focused on me making smart choices and being healthy and being happy.

You're in such a public eye making decisions about your identity and who you want to be. Is that hard?

Yeah, it is really difficult, because I feel like I would have made a lot of different decisions if I wasn't in the public eye and if I wasn't fam- I don't think that but people would say that, famous or whatever.

You're famous. You're packing out arenas.

Yeah, I just I don't know. When I think of people who are famous I think of Justin Bieber and all of that thing. I just feel like me. So I don't know. People kind of just wanna get in your pocket and in your business about all your stuff so when things are shit and when things are hard, it makes it twice as hard.

If I'm having a really bad day and someone comes up to me and they want things from me like they want my time and they want photos and I'm like, “I'm sorry dude but I don't really feel like doing that right now." And they don't get it. And you're like "Oh fuck, I've really let that person down, but I actually feel like shit today."

Tash Sultana live at the Wellington Opera House

Tash Sultana live at the Wellington Opera House Photo: Dara Munnis

And another thing that really shits me is people who just, in this day and age, have got a phone which has a camera, which has the ability to record and take photos and be anywhere. Why is it okay for you to ... If I walk somewhere in private time and I sit down and I'm having a meal with my mum or my girlfriend, why do people think that is an appropriate time to get their phone out and start filming me and start snap chatting me, taking photos.

And then I've heard ... I've spoken about it before and people go, "Yeah, but it's because you're famous." It's like, "No, it's because it's your decision that you want to get the phone out and start recording me."

Everything is kind of more public for you than it was for my generation. Ten months ago, you posted on Instagram about your mental health struggle after touring nonstop for two years. You said, "I ran out of energy and my soul was tired, and I was scared for my life. How dark my mind got. Then I got help." What are the measures that you've taken to keep your mental health?

I live sober. So there's a few nights here and there where we all have a bit of drink, but I reckon I can count on my hand, on one hand how many times in the last twelve months that I've gotten silly. Because I cut that shit out. Bad food, is one. So being focused on my diet. I'm on a supplement regime, so seeing a naturopath, not a doctor. 

I saw a lot of doctors and for that type of thing, for me personally, they didn't help me. They didn't cure me. I went and got massages, and I went and got cranial sacral therapy. Then I went and got acupuncture, and I saw a therapist and then I did yoga. And then I was surfing every day, and skating every day, and writing and reading.

And doing all of that stuff. I recommend that if you are really at a loss, go see a naturopath. Go get all your tests done, and see where your body makeup lies chemically.

Your story is well-documented, and I don't want you to have to repeat it, but that you started playing guitar when you were three. Started gigging in your mid-teens, but also-

Also started busking, and then the video.

But also within that started taking drugs and ended up with a nine-month drug psychosis. What is it like to come out of that dark and confusing space?

I go back into it all the time. It's permanently affected me. What I did when I was younger permanently affected me. I created a phobia, which is what I found out after doing heaps of sessions with a really, really good therapist, is that I created ... When I had my psychotic breakdown, I created a phobia.

What of?

Of the outside world. So I'm fine in this room, as soon as I go outside, as soon as I see the grass hitting the concrete and then a tree, my mind can't work out my vision and reality. It's so strange, and everyone looks at me like this.

Tash Sultana live at the Wellington Opera House

Tash Sultana live at the Wellington Opera House Photo: Dara Munnis

Is it all the time?

No, it's when I'm really bad. But I was like that last year when I was on tour. So I had to stop. I was literally having these experiences where I was just crazy. I was literally airy-fairy, somewhere else. Yeah, I just did some pretty hectic damage to myself when I was young, and I might experience it forever. Or maybe it might just be a little bit of a rebound now because I don't mask it with anything like I used to. Just throw back some drinks and whatnot, and now I don't. But I've been pretty good.

I've got to consciously work at that. I suppose maybe someone that's schizophrenic would understand seeing the world the way that it isn't.

If you hadn't gone through that, do you think you'd be where you are right now?

I think I would have made a lot of better decisions. Yeah, but it's a catch 22, because the world doesn't go in reverse. And that's what I've had to realise is, it doesn't go backwards.

And it's part of your story. It's part of who you are.

Part of the story, so much that I've said.

Your album isn't out yet. Are there are surprises on that? Tell me about those.

I think, with ‘Jungle’ and the whole looping scenario, everyone just kind of labeled me as a looper. Like, "Oh yeah, she's a looper." But I'm actually not. I write in all different ways, so the album was me going, "Hey, this is actually... I know you might have heard this on the radio, but this is actually what I do. This is what I'm doing." So it's got a lot of different shit in there, like heaps of orchestral kind of stuff, instrumental, some real acoustic stuff, and then the kind of radio stuff.

What did you learn from making this album? And it's your debut album, which blows my mind. You're packing out arenas and it's your debut album.

Yeah, it's pretty strange. I bought a studio because I want to be better. That's what the album made me realise is that I just have so much to learn. Whereas if you'd asked me this maybe a year ago, or 18 months ago, I actually kind of thought I had it in the bag, but now I've realised I don't know shit. I might look like I know what I'm doing, but I look at other musicians all the time and producers and engineers and I'm just like, "I want to know what that is."

How's your rig looking these days?

It's all right. I'm kind of outgrowing it a little bit so I'm getting a little bit frustrated because I've been playing at this level for so long, and I know that I can just be so much better.

Eighteen months ago, compared to now, how much are you travelling with?

I don't travel with anything. It just gets freighted, and I just rock up at the venue and it's all there.

Has your gear list expanded or contracted though?

It's expanded and with kind of generic equipment, it won't do what I need to do so we've decided to custom design everything, and it's not ready yet. The prototype probably would be ready at the end of the year, but really in my mind, and kind of we're all agreeance with the crew, is I've gone as far as I possibly can with the rig that I've currently got and-

Can you just itemize what kinds of things we're talking about when we talk about rig?

My rig? Just like the pedals that I use and the loop station that I've been using, I've been using since I was busking and now I'm not busking anymore. I'm doing arenas and stadiums and theatres and all that type of stuff. And just listening to the recordings back and just realizing that some of the equipment isn't doing me justice, and I've gotten to be a better performer as well. Yeah, so we just decided we'll take it into our own hands and build the next part of the system because you can't buy the shit that we wanna do.

Tash Sultana live at the Wellington Opera House

Tash Sultana live at the Wellington Opera House Photo: Dara Munnis

So who's building it? How did you find someone to-

Me, and my guitar tech, and my production manager, started designing.

How many people do you tour with now?

I think there's about ten. Ten on this run, more abroad.

That's quite an operation. What do they all do? You've got obviously lighting people, sound people...

One massages my feet, the other one makes cups of tea, the other one brushes my hair. No, they don't. We've got lights, we've got camera, tour manager, production manager, guitar tech, assistant. Just a lovely bunch of people that have all assigned jobs, and we get it done.

What are the qualities that you look for in someone to be on your crew?

If you're arrogant you can fuck off pretty much. Just like a real chill casual crew, independent people, I don't want anyone being babied. We have one young guy on the crew, but he's the exception, I don't want anyone under like 25 because you need-

Except you.

Except me, yeah. It's just because you need to have that experience of doing some really shitty gigs, some really shitty tours.

Effectively you're employing these ten to twelve people. You're responsible for their livelihoods. How does that sit on your shoulders?

You kind of can't really think about it like that. We wanna keep it as the family bond. Everyone is really close and everyone gives a shit about each other. I've had to let people go in the past that were with me from when I started doing live shows and stuff like that. But I don't know, I think you get to a certain level, and some people aren't ready for it yet. It's a personality thing really at the end of the day because people can learn how to do roles and how to do jobs and all of that. And I've had, people in that crew been with me for years.

Tash Sultana live at the Wellington Opera House

Tash Sultana live at the Wellington Opera House Photo: Dara Munnis

Can you tell me about the state of mind that you get into on stage when you're performing?

Flow state. That's what it's called.

The name of your album, your forthcoming album?

Yeah, that's it.

Are you aware of the audience being there?

Not really. I think makes you become less aware because of the lights. I honestly can't see past maybe the third row.

You wear no shoes on stage. You're in bare feet. Why is that?

I've got a lot of peddles and a lot of knobs that need to be switching around during my performance, so I've taught my toes how to do that.

Tash Sultana plays Christchurch's Horncastle Arena tonight, Friday, July 27, and Dunedin's Town Hall tomorrow, Saturday, July 28.

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