This Sunday is a big one. It marks the release of Tash Sultana’s very first MTV Unplugged performance, which sees them officially enter a hall of fame alongside musical greats like Lauryn Hill, Kurt Cobain, Jay Z and Miley Cyrus.
It also marks the beginning of a new performance style for Tash – something they’ve been painstakingly working towards for years. We sat down with Tash Sultana ahead of their performance to chew the fat on what MTV Unplugged means to them; life amid COVID; the fractured return of live music; and the lessons learned almost five years out from their EP, Notion.
Editor’s note: The below conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MTV Australia: You've been touring so much the past few years. How has being forced to slow down during the pandemic shaped how you approach things?
Tash Sultana: I feel very together now. There was a period of five years where [I was touring] and it was just crazy. Best time of my life, but crazy, and just a very strange way to live, touring around that much. Travelling around the world, never being high, barely seeing friends, barely seeing family, and just fucking going for the adventure of a lifetime. When it came to the end of that, just before COVID happened, I was in a couple of different pieces, like a little fractured version of myself that kind of was just a bit done with life, and done with people, done with everything.
And then one of my shows got cancelled [due to the pandemic]. I think if it was something that had only happened to me, I would have been really emotionally shaken by that. But it was a collective experience; all of us were experiencing sacrifice and loss and just strange problems. Life was taken away, and away, and away, and away until we just had the bare minimum. You could only go to the shops once a day, and then that was pretty much it for a long time.
I found self-validation in the less is more approach. I just do a lot less than I did before. Apart from jam, which I do more.
Absolutely. What are some of the things you now see as kind of superfluous?
Unnecessary socialisation and I just don't do things that I don't want to fucking do, to be honest.
Yeah, I feel that.
Why should we? Why do we need to? We don't.
Yeah, it's kind of nice to not always have stuff on and just listen to your body and your mind around what you actually want to do.
We’re approaching the five-year anniversary of your Notion EP, and your life changed so much in that time...
For me it's [still] all about jams, and I don't have anybody telling me what to do, I just do me and deliver it, and then we just go with the wind, and that's how I've always been. I write my own shit, I play all the parts. I essentially pretty much do everything on my own. And I just work with a team of people that respect that that's my creative process.
I've always had my hands on the wheel and I've always known which way I want to go. And no one's in the way telling me, “This isn't going to go on radio or this isn't going to do that or this isn't going to do this”. Because I don't fucking care if it goes on the radio or not. If it didn't feel good from my soul, I don't want it on the radio in the first place.
Yeah, I mean, it's your art at the end of the day and it's your name on it, it's very personal.
This is art to me. It's music, but it's art, and I'm not a hit chaser. Maybe I'll never have a bigger song than “Pretty Lady”. But I’ve got all I need. One day when we go on tour again and I get to South America, and then Europe, and the UK or Australia, wherever we go, that's it for me. For me, it's [about performing live]. For the people physically there for the performance. That is key.
In terms of Unplugged, what sort of relationship are you hoping to build with the audience?
I'm probably not going to focus on the audience too much, to be honest, because I kind of like to go in [and focus], you know what I mean? And then they are witness to it, if that makes sense.
Talk me through that process a bit more if you can.
So what I mean is when you really focus on what you're doing and you're loving it, it's kind of almost like meditation or a flow state. That's what I try to achieve when I play music because if I'm really present, then I know that I'm doing, because I'm right there.
I'm not thinking about anything, I'm not thinking about anyone, I'm just doing it. It's like, you're not in thought, you're just really present. And on stage is when I unlock that. Then the audience are witness to that and we all join into it together. It’s sick.
I also wanted to ask you about Bluesfest. We spoke to the organisers before it got cancelled; obviously it would have been a really exciting moment had that gone ahead.
They made a pretty quick call on Bluesfest. And yeah, it’s all being resolved now so there’s a solution to everything.
And you've got to try, that's the thing. I think it's really admirable, everyone's efforts to regroup post-COVID.
People are just trying, but I think it just needs to be facilitated a little bit better. Sport content has a real nice upper hand where I feel like music doesn't quite have the same treatment.
So what have you actually got planned for your MTV Unplugged Melbourne set?
It's completely different than anything I've ever done before. I've been planning this for years.
I've been planning this next step for fucking absolutely a few years now. I've been putting it together behind the scenes and, yeah that's kind of all I can say. This has been years in the making, and at the moment I've been rehearsing every day for eight hours a day.
Amazing. Is this going to be a new performing style for you?
Yeah, so it will be the old way as well as an extension of something entirely new.
That’s exciting. You say you've been planning this for so long; are you a perfectionist?
I am a perfectionist, 100 percent. We have a family nickname because on my dad's side of the family it is pretty much the same. Fucking hyperactive work ethic, we'll drop dead on the work side, that's how hard they work.
Tash Sultana’s MTV Unplugged Melbourne set airs exclusively on MTV on May 23. More details here.
This article is sponsored by Visit Victoria, Australia’s home of live music. Visit Victoria is MTV Unplugged Melbourne’s exclusive partner. The piece was written by Alice Griffin, the editor of this very site.