“It’s this tinny little fuckin’ banged-up screechy motherfucker!” Tash Sultana is talking about the first distortion pedal they ever owned and, you have to admit, it sounds pretty rad.
“When I was a kid, I heard these grungy, distorted guitar tones, and that blew me away,” says Sultana, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. “I was just like, ‘That is fuckin’ nuts’. My mum took me to the music store when I was maybe nine and I didn’t know that you could plug your guitar into a pedal and an amp and change the way that it sounded. I’d tried out a few and they’re obviously really expensive for somebody that didn’t have two sticks to rub together. Then I found this little shitty distortion pedal that was 20 bucks. Cheapest one. To this day that’s the one I use when I rip a solo.”
That pedal has seen some things, because of late those solos are usually heard reverberating around arenas. In the past decade, Sultana has gone from playing open-mic nights as an underage kid and busking on Melbourne’s Bourke Street to breakout YouTube success, a buzzy breakthrough EP in Notion and a first album, Flow State, that kicked down further doors on its way to Australia’s No.2 spot.
These days, Sultana is a one-person Wrecking Crew. Pushing the limitations of loop-pedal performance, they have adopted an anything-goes approach to multi-tasking and frequently swap out six-strings for trumpet, sax, keys, percussion – whatever’s to hand, basically. But in recent months, Tash has turned their focus to one particular guitar: a brand-new signature model Stratocaster from Fender.
It’s a guitar that’s as individual as they are, pairing a striking Transparent Cherry finish and 1960s-vibed matching headstock with suitably ostentatious gold hardware complete with skull-motif neckplate and a versatile pickup arrangement created with their uniquely polyphonic loop-heavy style in mind. But despite their star’s rapid ascent, at the age of just 25, it’s perhaps not surprising that Tash hadn’t expected the biggest guitar brand on earth to come calling, asking to develop their dream guitar.
“It wasn’t something in my mind, to be honest,” they admit. “Fender just came at me and said, ‘We’re thinking maybe you’d like to get together and have your own signature Fender?’ and it was just like, ‘Um, fuck yeah!’ I’m enjoying having a vast guitar collection, because those are an extension of me. But to have something designed that’s going to be sold in stores around the world is nuts.”
When they first broke through back in 2016, Tash was more often than not seen using a Telecaster to craft their layers of looped guitar brilliance but, in recent years, they’ve explored the Fender catalogue, using a Jazzmaster before finding their true home with a Strat that boasts a Double Tap splitable bridge pickup to provide numerous sonic options when creating their varied textures.
“I kept listening to these artists and really loved their tone, and they were playing fuckin’ Stratocasters. And I was like, ‘Mate, the search is over. That’s the missing element’”
“I’ve veered more towards [Strats] as I’ve progressed,” says Sultana. “I’ve got a really nice collection but the Strat is for me. For a long time, I played Teles and Jazzmasters and Gretsches but I kept listening to these artists and really loved their tone, and how they played. When I did a bit of searching, they were playing fuckin’ Stratocasters. And I was like, ‘Mate, the search is over. That’s the missing element’. I moved across to the Strat and I haven’t gone back.
“This guitar is based off an American Pro Series Strat, and when they were first released, Fender gifted me one. I loved it immediately because it’s a new-age performance guitar, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re getting on stage and performing, and we’re recording. It’s so well designed, and the technology and the pickups have come so far that it captures all of the vintage Stratocaster sound, and adds on the advances of what we can now do in the modern day. You can really sculpt your tone, because there’s so much to work with on the guitar.”
Sultana’s Fender endorsement follows recent artist models from R&B polymath H.E.R. and alt-pop megastar Billie Eilish. When asked if the guitar industry is beginning to push away from its default mode as a haven for straight white men, Sultana says: “The guitar industry, many industries, are to a degree dude-oriented. But we’re in a different era now. We’re not in the 1950s. We’re not in the 1960s.”
Warming to the subject, Sultana takes aim at the regularity with which guitar fans gravitate towards trolling as a mode of expression when discussing gear and technical ability online. “People tend to be quite critical, rather than encouraging,” they say. “I follow a lot of really good guitarists on Instagram. You can’t really fault them but somebody has to go and do that [to them] anyway. I think that attitude is shit.
“We’re all different levels of players. You should be encouraging people to get better, not bringing them down because you’re better than them. That attitude has got to go. It’s not specifically even straight white dudes who do it. It’s just people. The straight-white-dude culture, I don’t even let that consume a minute of my day. I just don’t really think about the world in that way. I don’t experience the world like that.”
“If I died tomorrow, I’d love to know that people will hear this and really see that I’m not just a looper. I just like to jam”
Learning and experimenting within that process is an integral part of Sultana’s music. They trace that restless curiosity back to their school days and view it as one key element of their creativity. “When I was little, I was very easily bored, so to keep up with myself I’d need things to do,” they say. “I hated school but I found that a breeze, man. I just thought it was a waste of time because I could have been playing my guitar. We’re all human and we’re all capable of doing whatever the fuck we want to do. It’s just, are you being encouraged to do it?
“I think that makes a real point of difference in the direction of your life. You’ll probably stop doing something if you don’t have the support . I always had the encouragement from people around me to really give it a crack. I really believed that I was going to get somewhere with it. I didn’t think I’d get this far but I thought I’d at least be playing music for real to some degree. All these other people can play multiple instruments, why can’t I learn to play another instrument? There is nothing special about anything that I do. Anybody is capable of doing it way better than me if they really try and if they’re passionate. Some people have this passion – and that’s the thing you can’t teach. You can see when somebody really, really loves something. Somebody could be a better player but do they love it as much? I love seeing that in people.”
Sultana’s latest learning curve is Terra Firma. Their second full-length is expected early in 2021 and has been ushered in by a group of singles that veer from D’Angelo-style jams to brass-led lounge-pop and introspective acoustic musings. Once COVID-19 hit and wiped Sultana’s calendar clean, they pumped the brakes for the first time in a few years, leaning into the empty days they suddenly found unspooling before them. “Might as well write record three with all this time we’ve got,” they say, with a laugh. “It was like a roast, where I just cooked it really slowly. I’m really happy with it because I feel like I didn’t miss anything. I didn’t burn out over it. I didn’t feel rushed.
“I spent more than 200 days just tracking it, and two months in the mix process, a couple of weeks mastering. The artwork took fucking ages. But if this year wasn’t the way it turned out, I wouldn’t have finished it like that. It wouldn’t be the way it is. I’m really proud of it. If I died tomorrow, I’d love to know that people will hear this and really see that I’m not just a looper. I just like to jam. It’s just about the music.”
“There is nothing special about anything that I do. Anybody is capable of doing it way better than me if they really try and if they’re passionate. Some people have this passion – and that’s the thing that you can’t teach”
Sultana produces every note of music they release but another major shift in perspective was provided by inviting outside collaborators in for the first time. Singer-songwriter Matt Corby and producer Dann Hume helped bring the busking relic Pretty Lady into fresh focus, while rapper Jerome Farah offers a suitably smooth counterpoint on Willow Tree.
“I’ve been on other people’s work before but I’ve never had somebody on mine,” says Sultana. “I loved it. I had a couple of songs up my sleeve and I thought, ‘You know, this is the time to break out of the same thing and present them to other people’s minds and see what they bring to the table’. They’re not the same as they were when we did that writing session. I changed a lot of it. But I wouldn’t have ended up where I did if we didn’t have that to initiate the process. I cannot wait to work with more people, on their stuff, my stuff, whatever. It was sick.”
This all-hands-on-deck spirit will eventually extend to Sultana’s stage show. Having made their name as a one-person band, there is now scope for additional musicians to add fresh flourishes to their songs’ live palette. “It was just a necessary decision,” they say. “I said to myself when I wrote this album that I’m just going to let it fly. I’m not going to have any limitations and I’m just going to go for it. I did that. There’s just so many different sections to the songs that to approach it within looping, it won’t really happen.
“I wrote all these parts and had to realise, ‘Fuck, you’re just going to have to put some other motherfuckers on the stage to make this come to life as it should be’. My setup’s going to be exactly the same – I’m going to be a solo artist forever. But for a section of the new show, the band is going to come on and add to what we’ve already got. Get down with the funk, man.”
On Terra Firma, the funk is a digital experience. Perhaps speaking to their polymath-style approach to making music, Sultana is a subscriber to the gospel according to Kemper and Axe-Fx, running their Strats, Jazzmasters, Gretsches, Matons and a Harmony Jupiter through the powerful profilers. “There are no amps. All of the guitar tones and bass tones are emulated through Kemper or Axe-Fx,” they say. “I swayed that way a little while ago because you can have this super-small system in your guitar rack instead of lugging around six fucking amps. I can dial in anything I want. The Axe-Fx is so complex that you can literally change the power-supply unit digitally. You can change the mic position – where it would be placed on an amplifier if it was real. It’s crazy.”
At the end of a strange, disorienting year, Sultana’s music and the way they go about bringing it to life appears to be in greater focus. They’re already looking beyond this phase into what comes next but with a sense of balance on their side that’s previously been hard to come by in the midst of one of those meteoric rises we’re always hearing about. “There’s like two separate people within me,” they say. “There’s Taj, which is my normal self, and then there’s Tash Sultana. I’ve noticed that, as time’s gone by, those people are totally different. I have been Taj all year long and it’s been great because I was really fucking burnt out.
“And then, by applying that to Tash Sultana, I feel like I’ve cracked the code I’ve been trying to for years. I could never get there. I’ve just realised that so many things I would reject or overlook or say no to in the past, I’ve been saying yes to now, because our lives have been changed to an unfamiliar degree. You don’t realise the impermanence of everything: your career, your health, your existence. If somebody told me a year ago, ‘All of your shows next year will be completely scrapped’, I’d have thought it was a whole load of shit. There’s nothing I can do about it apart from embrace it. I’ve had some shit days. But all in all, I feel like I’m really prepared to take the next step. I feel like this is just the beginning.”
To find out more about the Fender Tash Sultana Stratocaster, visit fender.com.