Busking. It’s not just for rail-riding Woody Guthrie vagabonds anymore. In fact, it’s become something of a fine art in a place like Melbourne, Australia, where musicians aspiring to play its prime piece of tourist-traipsing real estate, Bourke Street, can’t simply show up, flip open a guitar case and start strumming. First, they have to submit the proper paperwork—including local photo ID, an application form, and a signed parental consent for youngsters—and appear before the town council for a song-reviewing Safety, Amenity and Performance Review. And there’s still no guarantee that you’ll be awarded that coveted permit.
“If you get the chance to be a Bourke Street busker, you actually have to do an audition in front of a council panel,” says 21-year-old Melbourne native Tash Sultana, who first set up shop there five years ago before rising to fame via her bedroom-recorded music videos she posted on YouTube (the spellbinding eight-minute clip for “Jungle,” currently sits at over 1,750,000 views.) Once green-lighted, she adds, “You get a roster every week that has your busking shifts on it—I’m serious, it’s an actual job. I didn’t go in until the afternoon, so I’d wake up, grab a cart, toss all my shit in it, walk down to my spot, set it up connected to a car battery, and just play. But I don’t busk any more because it’s gotten too dangerous.”
There’s no guarantee for licensed street musicians—your work day is dependent upon the weather, foot traffic, even the generosity folks may—or may not—be feeling on a particular news-gloomy day. Sultana’s guitar case beckoned to everyone, including thieves, who occasionally grabbed a handful of bills and ran. “Fuck them,” she growls in retrospect. “And there was one time where I had a knife pulled on me by some meth-head from Melbourne—she was totally high on methamphetamines, and she pulled a knife on me because I wouldn’t give her money. The cops came and she’s in jail now, so fuck her.” When asked about the financials of her best day, she chuckles and answers in a heartbeat: “I’m not gonna disclose that, I’ll have the tax people coming after me!”
This sketchy career started when the exotic, Maltese-descended DIY-er Sultana, graduated from high school. Neither of her parents were musical, there were no instruments lying around their house, but somehow she fixated on guitar at age three and taught herself to play, eventually gravitating to her weapons of sonic choice: Fender Telecasters and Stratocasters. (And now, she’s selling out so many concerts, that she can afford to hire Dad as her road manager and security guard.)
“So I was born to do this,” she reckons. Not wanting a proper job, she chose busking instead, and supplemented that income with open-mic pub gigs across Australia, which she performed as Tash Sultana but accessed with a fake ID bearing another girl’s name. “But the photo kind of looked like me, so I did that for many years,” she says. “And everyone who let me into the clubs thought my name was something different. Then I started recording myself and put it up online, and people went crazy.”
Indeed. Sultana recently released her debut EP Notion, on Mom + Pop Music, and “Jungle” and the title track have both voted into famed Aussie radio station Triple J’s Hot 100 for 2016, at #3 and #32, respectively. With Notion, Sultana has one of the most unique sounds of any new artist in 2017, full of aqueous cascades of layered guitar notes, coupled with Sultana’s acrobatic singing voice, which can go from diva-operatic to banshee-feral in the same verse or chorus. How she achieves this is just as unusual, and rooted in busking necessity. Like K.T. Tunstall at the beginning of her career, or Tom Waits during his more experimental phase, Sultana employs looping pedals—39 in all—to gradually build her musical monolith, riff by painstaking riff, focusing on programmed rhythms and vocals list; Clad in Adidas, baggy black T-shirt, knee-ripped jeans, and a backwards baseball cap, she finally begins crooning at 2:33 into the “Jungle” clip, almost as an afterthought, letting her Fender do most of the talking.
There’s a curious intimacy created by Sultana’s videos. Fans get to see her creating a track in her private bedroom from test tubes, essentially, like a mad scientist, while her dog occasionally pads across a wall with sports posters, that invites a friendly familiarity. “And that’s pretty much all I do—skate, surf, and jam,” the avid athlete elaborates. “And viewers know only half of my room. They know the clean side—on the other side, there’s shit all over,” she adds.
While she won’t reveal specifics about her looping-device arsenal, the setup people see in her videos is relatively minimal compared to the gear she uses onstage as a one-woman band. “When I play live I have a double synth rack, a double drum-pad rack, several guitars, trumpet—all sorts of shit,” she says.
In the serpentine “Jungle,” the Aussie—who won’t be releasing a full album until 2018—writes about an emotional breakdown she was experiencing at the time, she confesses, with trademark bare-knuckled honesty. And an inner conflict between head and heart. “And when you get down to the bottom of it, the division between the two is really hard, so I wrote a song about it instead,” she says. “It wasn’t anything to do with my career, just with an old relationship. And it wasn’t with a dude—it was a chick. I’m gay as fuck, man!”
There are moments when Sultana feels like an old soul, like she might have lived a previous existence. She gets spooky feelings of déjà vu here and there, like the time she was visiting an island off the coast of her father’s homeland of Malta, and she came across a native drum circle being performed on the beach. “And I just knew I’d been there before in some type of drum circle myself,” she says. “I’d been in that place before, even though I’d never been there in this lifetime. But I didn’t join in though—I just watched. It was the strangest thing….”