Four years ago, Australian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana busked the streets of her native Melbourne, wowing curious onlookers with stunning vocals and serious guitar skills, which use looping effects to create a layered sound. Today, the 23-year-old Sultana is on the brink of releasing Flow State, her debut studio album — which is scheduled to drop at the end of the month, a culmination of two years of explosive success and non-stop touring.
Sultana became an international sensation in early 2016 after a one-take bedroom recording of her now-hit “Jungle” accumulated more than one million views on Facebook in five days.
Despite this seemingly overnight success, Sultana’s journey, much like her music, is layered and dynamic. It started when Sultana first wrapped her hands around her grandfather’s guitar at age 3, and she was playing gigs by age 12. Despite her remarkable talent, Sultana persevered through a dark spell involving mental health and substance abuse in her teens, with music guiding her way to recovery.
Late in 2016, Sultana’s debut EP Notion smashed the Australian charts, leading to a hefty tour schedule where ideas for Flow State began to grow.
“Most of the songs on the album are songs that I’ve had previously but not worked out how they went,” she tells SF Weekly. “ ’Cause I’ve been doing all these shows and playing live so much I had to figure out how to actually finish them when I was in the studio.
“I had a lot of shit sessions though where I was just like playing the parts to play the parts,” she adds.
Stylistically distinct, Sultana’s music effortlessly blends elements of R&B, reggae, and psychedelic rock.
“I love Erykah Badu,” Sultana says when asked of her musical influences. “Every time I listen to her music, I’m like laying out all the instruments in the song, like how I would loop it.”
Describing what Flow State means to her, Sultana tells, “I became aware of the term flow state by my naturopath, actually. She was saying, ‘Have you heard about flow state?’ and I was like, ‘No.’ She said it’s when you do something that you love so much that you become your process.”
Sultana goes on, explaining, “Someone that’s a marathon runner, they’re not just running — they become all of that, even spiritually and receive pleasure and a high out of it. … When I play music, when I create music, play guitar and sing, I access my flow state, and that whole album was the access point of my flow state.”
With 20 instruments mastered under her belt, including guitar, saxophone, and trumpet, Sultana has an arsenal to choose from when creating music for the “one-person band” technique she employs in her live performances and in the studio, with a complex pedalboard setup she uses for guitar effects and loop recording.
“I just bought myself an electronic drum kit,” Sultana says. “I always play barefoot. I can’t play with shoes on. I use my feet to control all of my pedals.”
A devoted surfer and kayaker, Sultana’s smooth, R&B-tinged style is a fitting soundtrack while surfing amid a vivid ocean sunset, akin to her songwriting method. It dovetailed with the recording process for Flow State.
“There are moments where I captured the fact that I just went right in there. Some of that shit is one take,” Sultana says. “ ‘Pink Moon’ was one take that we refined and got the most passionate and most painful part and we went, ‘That’s the one.’ ”
In the weeks leading up to Flow State’s release, Sultana focuses on her current Flow State World Tour, an international trek that includes a stop at Outside Lands, with support from Sultana-approved Aussie group Ocean State.
Outside Lands marks Sultana’s third time returning to San Francisco, saying of the city, “I love San Francisco for the music culture. There’s this vibe there that I can’t find anywhere else in the world. Easily one of the best places on the sea coast.”
Sultana’s tumultuous life journey has seen its share of despair and triumph, all of which adds to the feeling of hope and redemption that oozes from Sultana’s music, a feeling that is universally understood.
Tash Sultana, Sunday, Aug. 12, 6:15-7:05 p.m. on the Sutro Stage.
See more Outside Lands 2018 preview coverage:
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Basking in that Hot Hot Heat
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Eight Questions for Rachel Torro
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