“I’m just taking the piss really. Seeing how far I can take this.”
That’s one way to put Tash Sultana’s remarkable rise. The 23-year-old from Melbourne recently became the first artist ever to sell out three nights at the 5,000-capacity Brixton Academy before releasing a debut album. She’s just put an even bigger London show on sale for 10,400, at Alexandra Palace next summer. All of these people will be watching her and her alone. Like Ed Sheeran on a trolley dash through a music shop, she loops the sounds of upwards of 15 different instruments and can be found jumping from a shredding guitar solo to a drum pad to a pan pipe interlude in a single song.
In contrast to her acrobatic stage abilities, she’s a reluctant, near-horizontal interviewee in her dressing room just before a performance at Berlin’s Columbiahalle. She fiddles with a green beanie hat, taking it on and off her shaggy, partly dreadlocked hair, and stresses how lucky I am to get some time with her at all. She’s just cancelled a number of future press commitments. “I don’t see what’s so interesting. I don’t like to be so overly exposed,” she tells me, detailing some general feelings about interviews that seem calculated to make this particular conversation as brief and superficial as possible.
“Some interviews, people will push that personal line. Don’t do that, man, I’m not gonna give you the answer that you want. You’re just going to end up having to leave the room.” She also warns me never to call her “Natasha” (yes, Sultana is her real surname – she’s half-Maltese) and not to refer to her as a “one-woman band”. “I’m non-binary. I don’t identify with that. It’s just ‘person’, it’s ‘human’,” she says, although she doesn’t ask to be called “they”.
I can see why she doesn’t feel like regularly combing over her back story with strangers. She has talked before about “doing every drug apart from heroin” as a teenager, and ending up in therapy for months at 17 after developing drug-induced psychosis. She started busking on the streets of Melbourne because she couldn’t get a job.
“I was a 17, 18-year-old kid who smelled of weed. People didn’t give me a chance because I looked like bad news which was fair enough, because I was bad news,” she tells me.
She was a guitarist initially, who first picked up the instrument at just three years old when she was given one by her grandfather. She had formal lessons from the age of eight to 12, but every other instrument she plays, from piano to trumpet, she has taught herself. “You just give it a shot, even if you don’t know how,” she says.
Even when busking she only played her original songs – never covers. It was when she started filming herself building up her compositions using looped recordings, and putting them on YouTube, that she started getting more attention. A black-and-white clip of her performing her song Jungle at home in May 2016 has now been watched 25 million times on YouTube.
It’s the thrill of watching her constructing these circles of sound in front of you that is her chief selling point. In contrast to her startling ticket sales, her debut album, Flow State, entered the UK chart last week at an underwhelming number 67. “You can’t lie in a live show,” she says of her ability to carry a concert alone. “If you need heaps of production or dancers, you’re probably covering up for the fact that you’re not actually doing very much.”
Even in concert, though, she’s a chewier proposition than Sheeran’s pop precision. She tends towards slower reggae rhythms, her singing voice has a similar feline soul quality to Erykah Badu’s, and her echoing guitar lines sound psychedelic, ricocheting around the room. Songs meander at length, sometimes returning to a particular motif long after you might have thought she was on to the next one.
She says that although she’s sober herself these days, some members of her audience take LSD or ketamine at her shows. “Does anyone here like acid?” she asks the Berlin crowd from the stage. “You’re not in touble – that’s the point of all this shit.” She gestures to her background animations, which have included such mind-bending sights as a giant jellyfish floating over Egypt’s Pyramids and a skeleton doing yoga in space.
She gets another cheer when she makes a short speech on inclusiveness which she gives commonly at gigs. “I’ve said this before, but if you’ve come here tonight and you’re homophobic, you can get the fuck out of my venue,” she announces. “And if you’ve come here and you’re a racist, get the fuck out of my venue.”
It’s hard to imagine her summoning such emotion before the show, where she seems somewhat underwhelmed with her lot. She talks bluntly, swears frequently, and aside from the music itself, doesn’t seem to care much for the job. “I feel like I jumped from being 18 to being, like, 30, overnight,” she tells me. “That’s how old I’ve had to be professionally. I’ve skipped the youthful section and gone straight to being a professional adult. I’m gonna do one more album and then I’m probably gonna fuck off for a little bit. I want to experience life like a normal person aside from fame and wealth and all the other shit. It’s not the be all and end all.”
Wasn’t she dreaming of stardom as a music-obsessed teenager? “When I think of famous people I think of Justin Bieber or Drake. And I think, fuck that! That’s too much,” she says. “It’s the people that bother me. People want everything from you all the time. They want photos and I do not like that at all. I get it, they’re excited and appreciative of your art, but it’s a lack of respect for privacy. You don’t owe anyone anything ever.”
She was even less enamoured of the job in September last year, when she posted a long, honest passage on her Instagram feed. “Living on the road for the last two years has been so testing,” she wrote. “Wonderful however. But sometimes I just went into overload trying to play as many shows as possible for as many people as possible, to spread my message of positivity. I ran out of energy and my soul was tired and I was scared for my life how dark my mind got. I thought I was going to die from the shadow my mind cast. Then I got help.”
This September she’s in a better place. “Last year I couldn’t deal with it. It was too much. Now I’m about being healthy, good mindset, a lot of sleep, good thoughts, doing stuff that doesn’t create bad thoughts,” she says. It sounds like she’ll be brave enough to put everything on hold if she really needs to, no matter how many people want to see her extraordinary live shows. “I’m not gonna throw it all in, but maybe take some time out to be a normal 20-whatever-year-old, go and have those experiences that everyone’s having that I’m not having.”
However far she chooses to take this, it will be on her terms. The gigs are getting bigger, but today the small person alone on stage is very much in control.
Flow State is out now on Columbia.
Sep 20-22, O2 Academy Brixton, SW9. o2academybrixton.co.uk
June 28, Alexandra Palace, N22. alexandrapalace.com