Tash Sultana: A Live Music Revolution

Tash Sultana sells out stadiums, but you may not have heard of her.

Music Features

When you think of a high energy rock show, complete with pulsing lights, electrifying guitar riffs, and a frantic, intoxicated crowd, you probably picture a full band that includes — at least — a guitarist, drummer, bassist, and lead singer.

How else could an act generate enough energy to hold the attention of a sold-out, 3,000-capacity venue? Just ask Tash Sultana.

The Australian musician's appeal doesn't become completely evident until you see her live. Barely five-feet-tall, she fills the room with a massive presence — and she does it alone. Her onstage setup consists of a selection of guitars, a keyboard, drum pads, and a vast pedal board from which her bare feet illicit a richness and diversity of sound few modern acts can manage. Her voice is haunting and pure, complemented by the technical intricacy of the guitar-centered music she plays. Her musical prowess and ability to loop the various instruments live, are the stars of the show, with lyrics few and far between, and wild, reverb-heavy string solos abundant. She often throws her mane of hair back in time to the music, earning screams from a captivated audience who can hardly contain themselves when she emerges from her audio gear enclosure and falls to her knees, thrashing her hard-working Fender.

Dara Munnis

Given Sultana's dependence on modern audio technology — loop pedals being an inextricable part of her act — one might think the set would feel more like watching a DJ than a band. But Sultana manages to use the technology in such a way as to make it clear which of her actions are resulting in which layer of the music. By ensuring the audience can see every new adjustment she makes to her set up, she elicits cheers when she loops in the drums that are just as loud as if she'd performed a solo on a real kit. Indeed, the audience fully buys into Sultana's unorthodox style, responding to her every move and press of the pedals.

While at most concerts you'll find a smattering of casual fans, or even those who tagged along with a friend and are unfamiliar with the act they're there to see, a Tash Sultana concert seems to exclusively be full of devout followers. Everyone's rabid, many of them proudly listing the number of times they've seen her perform, and a few even rolling up a sleeve to show off a Tash-inspired tattoo. Given the strength of her fan base, one would think Tash Sultana would be an artist most people had at least heard of. Surprisingly, fans often find that when her name is brought up in groups, the few who know her are fanatical, while the rest have never heard her name — this polarity only fuels her listeners' passions.

All of this speaks to a phenomenon — perhaps unwittingly — perpetuated by the singer: Tash Sultana fans think they're a part of something underground and alternative, despite the artist's ever-growing success. They get a sense of superiority from liking Tash, a feeling that they are a part of a revival of musicianship in an age of DJs and computer-made music. They harp continuously on her "authenticity", on her start as a busker on the streets of Sydney, a pursuit which led her to record a video of an original song called, "Jungle" on her Go-Pro, a video that soon went viral and launched her career. Her fans love that story, love that she's "self-made" and "alternative".


But their adoration isn't necessarily reflected by album sales or streams. "Jungle" now has nearly 60 million hits on Spotify, but it and "Notion" are far and away the most listened to of any of her music, and for good reason: those two songs are perhaps the only of Sultana's that are distinguishable from the rest of her music, all of which is pleasant to listen to and shows great musicianship, but is decidedly ambient and repetitive. While this doesn't serve the artist's ability to produce a stand-out song that could be a number one hit, it makes for a concert that feels completely seamless, the audience never quite sure when one song ends and another begins, and therefore never losing energy. Sultana leans into this, using her established songs as vague guides for her set, but often going off script and playing improvisationally. For example, "Notion," a song that's recorded version is already over five minutes long, went on for nearly eighteen minutes during the live show, morphing into something completely different.

What sets Tash Sultana apart from other modern artists is that she is a performer first, and a recording artist second, meaning her streaming numbers do not correlate with her massive ticket sales — she sold 15,000 tickets in London at Brixton Academy, becoming the first artist in the world to sell out three dates at Brixton without an album released. Sultana is selling fans a new emphasis on live performance, with her recorded music serving as a post-show consolation prize to remind fans of the glory of the concert. Fans love Tash Sultana because she's taken the possibilities that technology opens for music and allowed them to make her live show more interesting, not less. As a result, she's cultivated a devoted following who feel like they're a part of a live music revolution. After seeing her concert, you may just have to agree with them.

Brooke Ivey Johnson is a Brooklyn based writer, playwright, and human woman. To read more of her work visit her blog or follow her twitter @BrookeIJohnson.

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