Music

Tash Sultana’s ‘Flow State’ Is One Of The Boldest Albums Of The Year

Dara Munnis

Australian singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana can play 12 instruments. Listening to Sultana’s debut album, Flow State, it’s evident that the young artist is confident — already seasoned, already at the top of her game. The songs shimmer with innovative instrumentals, defying any music critic who might try and reduce Sultana’s sound with comparisons. The lyrics, if you can tear yourself away from the hypnotic rhythm and winding guitar, are personal, gutsy, and honest. Sultana writes, produces, and plays every instrument on every track.

Other media outlets offer contradictory information, though — Sultana is reported to play as many as 20 different instruments. Whether a purposeful exaggeration or an honest mistake, the erroneous number has made it into quite a few other pieces since its initial reporting. In my research prior to conducting this interview, I came across the exaggerated fact more than I did the real number. Sultana, who is on an airtight festival tour and promotional circuit for Flow State, is justifiably frustrated with media coverage.

“I don’t read articles about me because they’re incorrect every single time I read them,” Sultana told me in a phone interview before a set at Edmond Folk Festival in Toronto. “Which is why I’ve started doing interviews that actually lay down the f*cking law about what’s actually going on.”

Sultana is a veteran live performer. Earlier this spring, in my home city of Austin, Sultana sold out Stubb’s Waller Creek Amphitheater, a venue that hosts big, buzzy artists like Haim and Kacey Musgraves. Flow State arrives August 31, after years of touring the US, Australia, and Europe, and playing the new music to fresh audiences. Sultana is only 23 years old, though she has been playing music for decades, after being gifted a guitar at the age of three. Sultana’s entire music career has been as a solo musician, built over years of electrifying live performances and spread over word of mouth and social media.

Other publications have painted Sultana as a social media phenom, rock’s answer to pop phenomenons like Charlie Puth and Shawn Mendes, who used platforms like YouTube to gain fanbases and promote their earliest work. Sultana has been a musician for almost as long as she has been alive.

“I just put videos up because I didn’t have any online content,” she explained. “Why not use that virtual platform?”

Sultana’s success is not due to Youtube clicks or a happenstance viral discovery. “I’ve been playing shows as a solo artist since I was 13 years old,” she said. “For the last ten years I’ve been working my f*cking ass off to get things happening.”

Sultana’s previous drug addiction is another beat mentioned in most stories about the young artist. But Sultana told me that the hard-partying culture was more something that she came of age as an artist around, not something she ever saw as a problem, especially not one that would affect her music.

“It was just what happened when I was that age,” she said. “And every single person around me who was that age was also experiencing the exact same thing.

Sultana sounded weary speaking about the drug addiction talking point. During my research I came across a dozen profiles that mentioned it, often framed alongside the 12 (or 25, or 30) instruments that Sultana plays, or the first gifted guitar. Sultana called the addiction story “the thing that everyone knows about, the thing that everyone wants to brings up to me.”

Apart from exaggerated stories and bungled facts, Sultana is also frustrated with a more acute version of mislabeling. Sultana is non-binary, and nearly every piece of media coverage misgenders her. “When they write ‘one-woman band’ — well, you don’t actually give a f*ck about me if you don’t understand who I am, when I don’t identify as ‘lady,’ ‘woman,’ any of that stuff,” she explained.

The rhetoric of “girl power in the music industry” erases the voices of people who do not accept the label that is forced upon them, people who would rather define themselves. Sultana calls people’s insistence upon incorrect labels “annoying,” but it’s more than annoying. It’s a damn shame to waste space forcing an artist into the bounds of labels, ascribing them sisters when the real interesting story is about the community within the bars of the music, what the people in the crowd experience when they listen to a musician who is at the top of their game.

“This is why I didn’t do interviews, and this is also the reason why, now, I am doing interviews — because I need to set it straight,” she said.

But Flow State is Sultana’s greatest artist statement. The singles Sultana released from the album — “Salvation” and “Harvest Love” to note the most recent — are more radio-friendly, but Flow State is musically diverse, impossible to distill into a few easy, descriptive words. Sultana is excited for the album’s release, and excited to share the new material with those who haven’t been lucky enough to hear the songs performed live.

When I ask Sultana what she is looking forward to most with the release of Flow State and the fall tour dates, Sultana responds, “Just moving away from that EP,” by which she means, which Notion was released in 2016. Only two calendar years ago, but a period of time where Sultana learned and grew a lot.

“That stuff is not me. It’s not where I am now. All of those songs, all of that sh*t was written in a totally different moment of my life. I’ve learned so much really sitting back and taking time to create this thing,” Sultana said. “I have a statement to make, and that’s my album. I don’t just have one f*cking song, you know what I mean?”

Sultana doesn’t refer to the “one song” by name, but I conjecture that the young artist is referring to “Jungle,” which has upwards of 76 million streams on Spotify, and was a massive radio hit in Australia in 2016. “Jungle” is the first song of Sultana’s I heard, and I imagine it was an introductory point for many of her fans. Sultana is eager to move past the EP, but especially the “one song,” which she feels doesn’t represent the breadth of her sound and abilities, especially two years after the song was recorded.

“It’s not even a good song!” she demures. “It’s just got that radio thing to it. The other stuff that I wrote for my album, I really dug deep for that. I really went in it.”

Flow State describes the state of mind Sultana occupied when writing and recording the album. When I asked about the “process” of crafting the multilayered songs and writing lyrics and instrumentals for herself, Sultana remarked, “I don’t have one. It just happens.”

I’d heard of “flow state” as a concept before, from other creatives, to describe a wave of productivity and creative inspiration that has never seemed to hit me. You lose track of where and who you are as you become the medium you’re working in, lose yourself and find yourself transformed into your work. “Flow state is a state of mind. It’s a condition of your mentality where you become something completely — a painter becomes the painting, you know?” she explained.

Listening to the album, the concept is illustrated more clearly. Flow State is bold, innovative, and masterful, much like the artist who created it. You can hear Sultana’s blunt, cut-to-the-heart-of-it attitude in the lyrics, and her creative, relaxed spirit in the guitar. Sultana dances across the generic barriers of R&B, rock, and pop, throwing a middle finger to inaccurate labels and unfair character assessments as she dives behind a drum set and picks up a guitar.

“When I’m performing and playing music, I become the music. You lose all concept of time and space. You become that thing that you love.”

Flow State is out 8/31 via Lonely Lands Records/Mom + Pop Records. Pre-order it here.

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