Tash Sultana is restless. “I’m ready to get out there for a surf, man,” they confess, gazing out the window as they arrive at the end of a Zoom press junket in support of album number two, Terra Firma. In the midst of a snap lockdown in their native state of Victoria, the singer-songwriter is allowed outside for exercise purposes – and getting on their board, thankfully, is within regulations. Even outside of this immediate context, though, Tash Sultana is restless.
This is, after all, a person whose entire career has lived on the precipice of live performance – something that has largely been taken away from them and countless others throughout 2020. A bevvy of new tunes are dying to be performed live, but the unpredictable nature of restrictions and lockdowns means that Sultana can’t be certain as to when that will happen. Even outside of that immediate context, though, Tash Sultana is restless.
They were, after all, at work on making Terra Firma for months on end. With no other tasks at hand, crafting the album became an all-consuming affair – one that Sultana unflinchingly goes into details of throughout this conversation. Finally delivered to the label in the last quarter of 2020, it is seeing the light of day after surviving what at times felt like both an impossible process and an impossible year to achieve it within.
Tash Sultana is restless – but, with Terra Firma now out in the world, Sultana is ready to get out there and ride on the crest of this new wave.
Music Feeds: You’re someone who takes solo records quite literally – they’re songs you wrote yourself, sung yourself, playing practically everything on yourself, recorded yourself, produced yourself. It must take a lot to be able to put yourself in a position where you’re able to take that on?
Tash Sultana: Being on the road and making a record are two very distinct things that require so much work on both sides. When I’m touring, I actually don’t write on the road. My primary focus is playing the best that I possibly can, every single night that I step on that stage. When I go home it’s a different story, but yeah – I’ve never actually been able to have full separation in those things before.
When I did [previous album, 2018’s] Flow State, I was on tour the whole time. I would record in the little fragments of time when I came home. That was really difficult because you don’t do your best work if you don’t have enough time to really get it done. With Terra Firma, I didn’t want to repeat that. I didn’t want it to be rushed – and it wasn’t. I spent 200 days on it.
TS: I would have spent more if I had to. There is a point where you just slide past the point over 200 days where you sit in front of it, and you’re just like, “it’s done.” I started recording in October 2019, and I walked out finished with all the tracking on the 20th of August 2020. It took a couple of months to mix it and master it. By the time it was all wrapped up and finished, it was October 2020. Initially, the record was meant to come out in May 2020. Then June. Then July. August, September, October… we were just like, “that’s just not gonna happen.” I hadn’t even fucking finished it – I just started ripping off layers and getting really deep into it. I’ve been sitting on this little thing for so many months now and it comes out in a few days and I have been waiting ages for that moment.
MF: It almost sounds like it’s a Guns N’ Roses Chinese Democracy style thing, or like Brian Wilson trying to make Smile. What was your breaking point in terms of realising there was nothing more you could do with these songs?
TS: It was right the end. I always say this: It’s finished when you’re out of time. We could forever continue on with the songs that we’re writing, but you’ve got X amount of time to get your single done so it can be serviced to radio and released. It puts a deadline on when things have to be done. That was the same with the record. They had been waiting from May, and then it was delivered in October. I knew what I had to do, though. I straight up said to them, “I’m not gonna give you something that is not ready.”
MF: Let’s expand on that, then. What, to you, wasn’t ready about the songs? When you listen back to the finished product, what do you hear in those versions that you didn’t hear in the versions from months prior?
TS: It could be many things. It could be that I’m not liking the lyrics that I’m singing, or I don’t like certain syllables that don’t work with the following line and not rhyming or matching up. Maybe I’ve put too much bottom-end in, and I need to strip some shit out. Maybe I don’t like the key that I’m playing in, so I do it again in a different one. Maybe I don’t like the time signature. It could even be just little bits and pieces that are holding it back. ‘Beyond the Pine’ is a good example of that. Man, I did so many different versions of that song. I changed it so many times – to the point where I just was gonna fully bin it. It wasn’t working. One day I just went in, and I started playing this bassline. I was just like, “that’s it. That’s what it was.” When I added it in, everything else just worked around it and then it was done. It ended up being the third single, so go figure.
MF: It definitely sounds like a song can completely change from coming in one side of the process and coming out the other. Do you enter the studio with much of a rigid gameplan?
TS: So, I kind of go “right, I’m going to write a record that’s got 14 tracks on it.” I brainstorm a bit of a sonic palette before I do the record. I’ll write a collection of things down that I’m really loving. I’ll write down like “analog kick,” I’ll write down some time signatures that I’m really enjoying. I might write down some hi-hats patterns that I really love, or a snare sound I really love. I might write down a list of songs where I really love the drum mix. I’ll write things down like “Asian percussion,” or “Indian tabla,” “sitar,” “string ensemble,” “pizzicato.” I’ll just brainstorm this big sonic palette, and then when I make the record I make sure I include that stuff.
MF: Obviously, a lot changed in the outside world between you starting to record and you finishing this album. Purely from a production and creative standpoint, what were some of the key stumbling blocks in terms of trying to finish this record in the midst of kind of everything else going on in the world?
TS: There were times where I wasn’t actually even allowed to step foot in my studio. I completely just put the whole thing on hold, because I wasn’t able to actually use the space. There was periods of time where there was a bit of a hold up. I pretty much just moved in there. That was my residence.
MF: You moved into the studio space?
TS: Yeah, man. It’s like sleeping in your office. I wouldn’t recommend it. [laughs]
MF: There are two tracks on Terra Firma that feature other artists – Josh Cashman appears on ‘Dream My Life Away’ and Jerome Farah appears on ‘Willow Tree’. As someone who prides themselves on being such an individual, one-person operation, it must take a strong degree of trust to be placed in other people to allow them into your environment as you have on these songs.
TS: Well, the aim of everything that I’ve ever done is to see how much of it I can do on my own. I love to see how far I can take being a solo musician, which is so much fucking further than I ever thought. I don’t know, it’s just happened that way. In terms of the studio, I started collabing with other people on their stuff originally, not on mine. Matt Corby, for example. Matt had given me a track, which was ‘Talk It Out’ and he was like, “I would really love you to be on this.” I was just so honoured by that, and I really loved the process of being on someone else’s work. Shortly after that, I did a track with Milky Chance. They actually flew over from Germany to my studio. That was really, really cool.
After that, I thought “you know what? I’m ready for this kind of stuff. I’m really loving it.”
MF: How did Josh and Jerome get involved, then?
TS: Josh and I have been friends for a very long time. We’re two peas in a pod. I really want the world to see who he is because he’s a phenomenal artist that’s just been on the outskirts of people’s knowledge. I think it’s time that the light shines on him. Same with Jerome Farah. I think he’s an incredible musician. He’s an amazing producer. He’s got so many awards under his belt for producing other people’s songs, and people just didn’t even know him as an artist until now. We actually went to high school together, and I think that he is fucking amazing. Same with Matt. Same with Dann Hume. We did a 10-day writing session in November 2019. Just for fun, really. We didn’t think anything was going to come out of it. We just wanted to get together because we could.
I had a couple of songs up my sleeves that I didn’t really think were good enough. They were the audience that I presented them to, and they gave me the push to actually do them. It turns out that one of those songs was ‘Crop Circles’. The other one was ‘Pretty Lady’. Then there was ‘I Am Free,’ which I had the lyrics for and that part on the keys. Matt was just like, “yeah, I can hear the bass!” “I can hear the drums!” It just came together from there. ‘Beyond the Pine’ was in the mix, but it didn’t sound the way that it does now. It was just piano and bass guitar, and the front of the song didn’t have a verse where it flipped into this funk, soul kind of thing. That just didn’t exist yet. It was even in a different key, as well.
A lot came out of those 10 days, needless to say. [laughs] The beginning foundation of the floodgates opening, which lead to me just going on a creative rampage for the rest of the record.
MF: Often, multi-instrumentalists find themselves at varying skill levels of each of their instruments. When it came to writing and making Terra Firma, was there anything you wanted to focus on in particular? Maybe you were looking to play more piano, or perhaps play more percussion?
TS: I always want to be better at everything every single day, which is why I practice every single day. I don’t think that I will ever be satisfied as a musician as to where my skill level is at. As soon as you get comfortable, you see someone better – but that’s just life, isn’t it? That’s encouraging, though, because just there’s no end to bettering yourself or your skills. That finish line just keeps getting further and further away.
For this record, I really focused on the drums. I played them before this album, but I didn’t really fall in love with it like I have in the last little bit. I actually used to play drums when I was a little kid. I had some lessons when I was younger, but it was only for a very short amount of time. My parents couldn’t afford it, so it was like “pick one, bro – guitar or drums.” Obviously, I chose guitar, so the drums were on the backburner. Over the last couple of years, I’ve just gotten really stuck into them again – and I love it.
MF: With live music largely on hold throughout the year, your one major chance to perform was at the Hordern Pavilion in November 2020 as part of the Great Southern Nights initiative. What was that experience like after so long in absentia?
TS: We’d been living on the verge of the unknown for so fucking long. I was rehearsing for ages for this show that probably wasn’t going to happen. Then it actually ended up happening! I rehearsed for that show for like six weeks straight every single day, for like three to eight hours a day. I do that whenever I’ve got shows coming up. We’ll begin the process about a month and a half before the actual shows or promo kickoff, just to get that performance fitness back up and get the vocals working with me, not against me. I rehearsed every single fucking day for that show… only to get on stage to get laryngitis and lose my voice.
MF: During the show?
MF: Jesus – how long after until your voice was shot?
TS: So I walked off the stage, and it was a complete whisper. I didn’t have a voice for two weeks.
MF: That’s so rough. You made it through the show, though?
TS: I made it through the show! Actually, I was eating pineapple the whole show because it helps your throat. But yeah, 2020 right?
MF: God, yeah. What’s that John Mulaney quote? “Brush your teeth – now boom, orange juice. That’s life!”
TS: [laughs] Exactly.
MF: That all said, you must be excited to put together a Terra Firma live show now that there’s potential to do so.
TS: Definitely. I’m not gonna do like a proper big tour until we can actually do it at full capacity. The cool thing about the slate being pretty clear, though, is it just gives me all this time to create that stage show and make sure that it is ready to be put in front of the world.
The difference between this time and last time is I had already written the songs and that was the show, but I just needed to record them. Now? It’s the opposite way around. It’s kind of a reverse-engineered kind of thing.
I am very, very organised. I always have a plan and multiple things going on at the exact same time. I like to scope the possibilities. At the moment, I don’t know what the fucking show is. So I gotta figure that out first, before I let the world know.
Tash Sultana has announced they’ll celebrate the album’s release with an intimate conversation and acoustic performance streamed live from their studio, centred around the new record. The livestream is set to take place from 8pm AEDT on Friday, 5th March. Tickets are on sale now and available here via Moment House.