Going into 2020, Tash Sultana was riding high. The singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist had sold out three nights at Brixton Academy before their debut album even landed. Then Flow State came out, with its reggae-inflected hit single Jungle.
Tash sold 100,000 concert tickets in their native Australia, racked up a billion streams across multiple platforms, and headlined the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater just a year after first appearing there as a support act. And then... you know what happened.
Tash, though, did not spend 2020 sitting on their hands. “I just went full-blown crazy with being creative. People were literally checking on me, like, ‘Are you okay? Because you’ve been in the studio for a really long time. Have you eaten? Have you slept?’ I just vanished. There’s nothing that I love more than being alone making tunes.”
The result is Terra Firma, 14 tracks of jazz and soul influenced pop. COVID scuppered Tash’s plans to work with a band, so this album again sees them playing all the instruments and producing. You might think guitar takes a back seat, then, but you’d be wrong.
“I always think there is never enough guitar on records to be honest. For a period of time I was just hearing stuff on the radio that doesn’t have guitar in it. I found that really strange. I’m all for the guitar layering and layering and layering...”
This is the paradox of Terra Firma. On one hand, it is all lush production and epic layers (“My sessions get up to 250 multi-tracks”). On the other, it’s packed with improvisation: “I just flow with whatever I’m feeling. Sometimes it was just a full and utter one-taker and it’s like ‘What the fuck did I just do?’ I love to harmonise the guitar. That can be hard if it’s improv. I’ve got to dissect what the hell I’ve just played and think of it in harmony positions.”
Tash is a self-confessed perfectionist, at one point recording 74 consecutive takes of the same drum track. “My arms were sore and my ears were ringing.”
Somehow, though, the record retains a spontaneous vibe. Such a massive production could be a nightmare to mix, but Tash has a straightforward recording philosophy.
“You want it good before you even have to mix it. I hear a lot of people say things like 'we’ll fix it in post'. That’s a band-aid solution. You want everything sounding good before it hits the console.”
It’s the same attitude with guitar tones: start with guitars (mainly relic Strats and Teles with roasted maple necks) that are loud and already sound good before processing. Tash uses DiMarzio Cruiser and Chopper pickups, raised close to the strings for more volume, and small frets “so that I can seamlessly travel up and down the fretboard”.
The guitar tones on Terra Firma are beautiful: ultra-clean, but warm and lush. “I’m always going for a really wide neck pickup tone. I like the rhythm guitar with a lot of three-dimensional stereo width. The rhythm guitars are as clean as possible. I could achieve it better when I moved into digital amps because the noise floor is silent as fuck.
“I run a couple of different stereo channels out of the guitar. On the record I did my effects as plugins in Pro Tools. I love the Chorus Brigade plug-in. We’ve got a guitar going through the effects chain into an Axe-Fx and then I’ve got it also coming out of two separate Kempers. There’s a really clean DI sound from the Axe-Fx, not processed really, then we’ve got one amp emulation coming from each Kemper.
“I’ll track like that and then pick one or two. Everything is always stereo. For Kemper Profiles I use a lot of Twin Reverb and Princeton, Vibrolux, or Vox kind of tones. Nothing too fancy, just a present, clean amp. Bit of grit though in it because if I’m playing live I’ll solo. When I kick on that distortion pedal and wah, that’s from the Kemper.”
Although the songs have funk and hip-hop vibes, the guitar approach is still rooted in the blues. First single Pretty Lady opens with a John Mayer-esque riff. Tash’s guitar influences are the classics: “I really love Lindsey Buckingham, Jimi Hendrix and John Mayer, and I like the fusion of that. I love the Eagles as well, and it’s a little bit of everything. I don’t really know what my style of playing is or even the style of music.”
Although the influences are retro, Tash is a distinctively 21st century artist: none of what they do on stage would have been possible before that, from the all-digital guitar rig to a custom looper, developed specially over several years, that makes it possible to pull off these songs live.
“It’s actually two tons worth of weight that I tour with.” Tash has separate loopers on each side of the stage, so they can move anywhere and create loops as inspiration strikes. Their secret to great guitar tone, though, is playing well.
“Even if you’re not the most technical person it doesn’t matter. It’s just trying to play clean, always to the click, trying not to fluff up your strings and stuff like that. As a guitarist sometimes that shit takes ages. You’re rolling into the studio sometimes and you’re a bit cloudy in the head, and that’s in your guitar playing as well.
“I get really frustrated with the guitar when I’m playing it like shit. I’m just like “I’ve been playing this since I was three years old! Why the fuck am I finding this C chord hard to do today?!” Even having made such an accomplished album, Tash is humble.
“I make mistakes all the time. The thing I’m really loving at the moment is learning. I’m enjoying just putting my hand up and saying, 'I don’t understand what that is, can you explain that to me?'” This commitment to improvement is all over Terra Firma, and a clear demonstration of an artist who is continually growing.
- Terra Firma is out now via Columbia.