Tash Sultana talks to us about their new album, Terra Firma, and—wuhoo!—returning to the stage in 2021.
Australian guitarist Tash Sultana's demeanor suggests that they have always known who they are. There's no shyness about how they speak their mind—cursing freely in interviews, declaring what they're passionate about, and frankly—though not abrasively—stating when they're not willing to speak on a topic. That freedom of expression is matched only by their devotion to their craft—which involves picking “over everything."
The new album Terra Firma is a product of that devotion. It also makes a bit of a departure from the loop-based jams Sultana is known for, exploring new combinations of styles across several genres. It's dreamy, undulating, and amorphous, weaving R&B, funk, folk, rock, and hip-hop textures across 14 tracks with moods the depth of oceanic trenches. Pun intended, as, mid-interview, Sultana expressed appreciation for a Frank Ocean comparison. Much like Ocean, the guitarist achieves something that speaks to their artistic vision alone.
Sultana is a self-described loner. That makes total sense, since they're a multi-instrumentalist who plays 20 instruments including trumpet, flute, and saxophone, and typically writes, performs, records, and produces all of their own music. Which is why it's notable that on Terra Firma, they invited collaboration for the first time, namely with fellow Australian Recording Industry Award-winning musician Matt Corby and New Zealand-based producer Dann Hume (Courtney Barnett, Amy Shark, Angus & Julia Stone). Together, they spent 10 days writing—an endeavor that resulted in four songs on the album—“Crop Circles," “Greed," “Beyond the Pine," and “Pretty Lady." They come in that order following the first track, helping to set the hybrid-genre, soulful, ethereal tone that continues throughout the rest of the album.
We spoke with Sultana over Zoom—and Australian fauna could be heard chirping in the background—10 days before Terra Firma was released. They were preparing for the live shows—yes, actual live shows—allowed in Australia and planned for the album's release week, and were “really fucking stressed about it."
“It's a little bit daunting," Sultana said, “because you have to relearn all the ropes that you know, but have got cobwebs on." But, when asked if they would be nervous, they replied, “No. I'll be a little fucking firecracker. I'll probably literally fucking explode or some shit." Read on see why that description fits right in with Sultana's unflinching, audacious energy.
So, tell me about the process of making the album.
It was the best fucking thing that I've ever done in my life, actually. I've never, ever tried so hard to achieve something, ever. Like, for real. I mean, the whole international lockdown was, for me, an experience that I really needed. Because initially what last year was meant to look like was…. I was meant to have a record out in May. And I was also meant to do six months of overseas touring in between trying to record this record. And that would have been absolutely fucked. The record would have sounded like absolute shit. The record probably would have had two songs on it, with the time I [had] to get it done. So the slate was wiped clean, and I spent more than 200 days on Terra Firma. From October until the following October, I was in the studio four to six days a week. Sometimes, I'd get there like 10 in the morning and leave at 2 in the morning, or I'd come in midday and leave at 3 in the morning, and I'd do that constantly. That was just what I ate every single fucking day.
Is that usually the way you like to work?
I'm a bit of a studio rat, to be honest. I'm a bit of a loner. If I'm going to spend time, I like to spend it kind of alone. I'll go for a surf, then commit to a full day of jamming or recording or rehearsing—that type of thing. I suppose sometimes it gets a little bit stressful because I've got this full-on OCD attitude when I do stuff. I don't do anything half-assed.
Would you say that idea of being a loner is reflected in how independent you are with your music?
Yeah. Well, I think anyone can do it. It's just about where you put all your passion, time, focus, spirit, energy … all of that. Which direction are you going in? For me it was just music and it was just about getting better. It's this thing that I'll never ever fully achieve, because the finish line just keeps getting further and further away. It's about being better than you were a week ago. Or acquiring more knowledge than you had a week ago, or a month ago, or a year ago. That's what it's about, and realizing you're not the best and you're not better than anyone else. It's just a personal journey, and that's it.
I know that this album was the first time you opened yourself up to collaboration, and you wrote with Matt Corby and Dann Hume. How did that happen?
Matt and I have known each other for quite a few years, and initially it just started out as a jam session back in 2016. And then he sent me a track a couple years later, of his, and he said “I would love for you to be the person that finishes this." I was really honored by that. I did that collab and shortly after that I did a similar thing with Milky Chance. That was the beginning point where I was like—that's actually really fun, to get all your minds together and get a fusion of styles and create something because it's the essence of everybody in the room.
TIDBIT: Sultana's new album was kickstarted by a 10-day writing spree with collaborators Matt Corby and Dann Hume. Sultana calls the result “a fusion of brains in the room."
Then, when it came to the beginning process of writing and recording, I had a couple of songs that I didn't really think were good enough. And we planned to do a 10-day writing session. It wasn't even for the purpose of writing anything for the record. It was just literally to get together and have some fun. And whatever happens in the room, I'll just decide later what I would like to do with those songs. And there ended up being four. Some of them I'd already written but there were some things that I couldn't figure out, and that all just fleshed out when we were together. It was a really awesome experience. The fact that we got that much done in 10 days is fucked. But yeah, Matt's just a really nice spirit; he's a really lovely guy and an incredibly underrated musician, really and truly.
We got the bones of something in the 10 days, and then I was left with everything for months following, so I changed a lot on some of those songs. Like time signature, key, tempo, flipped verses, changed choruses, changed the drums—I did a whole bunch of shit. But I wouldn't have even got to that point without the fusion of brains in the room in the first place.
What song on the album are you the most proud of?
“Blame It on Society."
Because of the message?
That I'll never give away. That's going to be fun for everyone who starts interviewing me after this record comes out, because I'm not giving away the rest of the record.
[Laughs] Ok, fine with me. Did this album have a broader concept behind it?
I wrote the entire record as a piece of music, so they all flow from one to the next. I started it off with an instrumental with a sonic palette that I've used in every single song. I introduce the horns, strings, drums, beats, guitar, and synths. That set the pace and the sonic palette for the following songs.
What program did you use to record?
I use Pro Tools for this, but I also use Ableton Live and a lot of MIDI as well. Predominantly the entire record was done in Pro Tools.
I find Ableton to have a very unintimidating interface.
It's not intimidating until you start getting into [Program Change and Control Change] fucking messages, as in MIDI mapping and all that type of shit. Because all of the stuff that I use for my live rig, that's all custom and MIDI, and that shit is confusing when you're trying to program your fucking macro effects on a bloody keyboard and then you start hearing the kick drum coming out of somewhere that it shouldn't be. You're just like “Oh my god, what the fuck have I just done."
What's your live setup like?
[Laughs] I don't even know where to begin with that. I've been in the studio for the last few days with my production manager, just programming some new shit. It's turning these studio tracks into the live versions of themselves. But I suppose, in a very general sense, it's a custom design to have full separation across everything that's played—all effects, all instruments. Everything. And all of the sounds are entirely digital. I do not use any [analog] amps ever.
Sultana's main guitars are three Fender Custom Shop-built Stratocasters. Wanna know what makes these instruments special? That's Sultana's secret.
Another thing to be wary of is what is in your signal chain. What is first, what is second, third, fourth, and all that type of thing. That's really important in determining how things sound. But for me, I've got a hybrid analog and digital pedalboard. It's analog pedals at the beginning of the chain, and then it turns into digital at the end of the chain. The analog pedals are the obvious analog stuff, and the rest is all digital effects processing, so I have amp emulations. And I use a MIDI pedalboard, so every song is its own preset. If I'm playing “Big Smoke," it's going to load the sounds that I've made on the record, and then if I go into “Mystic," it's going to load those sounds. So every song is a different preset to match the tones and effects that I use on the records.
What is your main guitar and what do you like about it?
I've got three main guitars and they're all custom-built Fender Strats. They have a certain fretting and neck radius, and they're also made of a certain wood and they have a specific internal design as in pickups and what not ... but they're all secret [laughs].
What would you say is the guitar's role in your music?
It's the home base. It's the beginning, usually. There's a few songs that are beginning on the synth and whatnot. But that's minimal. In a looping world, it's generally around the guitar. That's the foundation of everything. I also grew up playing so much guitar from such a young age and I just thought that in modern music the guitars were the lacking essence of songs. Like, people were making songs that didn't even have guitar in it, and I just found that really strange.
What's your creative process like?
It really depends on the day [laughs]. I'm literally so many fucking people in one. So that can be conflicting sometimes. It changes the process. If I'm feeling really chill, everything's in the moment. Whereas if I'm feeling stressed, it's kind of like an over-analyzation of shit and that's usually when I do the worst work. But it depends. It all comes as a little thought bubble, and sometimes they all marry up in the end. So I could be humming something and that hum could be the bass line. It'll stem from the guitar or the keys or from the bass or sometimes the beats. They come from different angles and they all meet in the middle.
What are your influences on guitar?
Jimi Hendrix, 100 percent. More so for effect than technicality. I just like that tube scream and the wah type of tinny screeching guitar. But as in like a technical aspect, I would say that John Mayer is a big inspiration—just that jazzy blues approach to playing. Then if you look at the acoustic guitar—when I was younger, well, I still am, but when I was younger I was very inspired by how John Butler played the acoustic guitar. He's fantastic and he's also a really lovely person.
With Sultana's rock 'n' roll energy, wide stylistic embrace, and exciting playing, they have redefined the concept of what a one-person show can achieve. This shot's from Shaky Knees 2019. Photo by Chris Kies
What are your influences in general?
To be honest, actually, Frank Ocean. I think that is some really strange, new age, ethereal kind of funk soul. I don't know what that is. I love that shit. I love Erykah Badu. And Bon Iver. Then, if we go back in time, I really love the arrangements and composition and sounds of '70s funk. I like Aretha Franklin and I like the Isley Brothers, and Marvin Gaye, and all that type of stuff. That's the type of drums that I like to hear.
I know you busked as a teenager. How did that inform your musicianship?
It was more like, “take no shit," to be honest. Because ... you're on the street, right? You're literally performing a show that no one fucking asked for. It's about winning the crowd over. And you come across all walks of life. So you'd have your business people, drunk people, people that were high on whatever the fuck they were high on, school students, elderly. And it used to be the best part of the day, bringing all those groups of people together to stop for a moment during their commute or whatever the fuck they were doing or wherever they were going. That was the best—that forced oneness. We all went in it, we all enjoyed it and it was some of the best parts of my life.
And that oneness you then recreate with the audience that chooses to be there when you do your live shows.
Which is also really sick, to be honest. There's nothing higher than the feeling that I get when being onstage. That's the highest point. There's nothing higher than that.