Tones and I: "I don’t think I was prepared for that at all. I was bare feet on the street, being compared visually to and up against all these huge established pop stars. Once I was lined up against Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Billie Eilish for the most-streamed females right now – which went on for over a year and I couldn’t believe it."
Bronte Evans | 19/07/2022
Toni Watson, best known as Australian singer, songwriter and producer, artist Tones And I burst onto the music scene with chart-topper ‘Dance Monkey’. Originally From Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, Tones And I journeyed to Byron Bay in early 2018 to take a chance at busking. On the first day, she had crowds spilling onto the street, so she quit her retail job and decided to make Byron her new home where she lived out of her van for the year. Soon after its release in 2019, ‘Dance Monkey’ topped charts globally and became the longest-running #1 from a Female Artist in the UK Official Charts history. Since then, Tones And I has propelled forward from her multi-platinum selling debut, announcing the release of her new single ‘Eyes Don’t Lie’ and is playing international festivals around the world this summer including a headline date at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in London on the 12th July. There are also numerous shows and European appearances in Germany, France, The Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, as well as the US and Australia.
The latest single ‘Eyes Don’t Lie’ comes with a change of direction and newfound confidence as it navigates a toxic relationship, leaving bitterness behind you and learning that being alone doesn’t have to mean you’re lonely. It’s a single walking the lines of an epiphany, reflecting and telling her story. Head Above The Clouds Alice Gee sat down with Watson virtually, firstly acknowledging the considerable time difference and very busy forthcoming schedule.
“It’s two weeks until we go overseas, we are playing a festival in Mexico, then we go to Vegas before I’m back for a little bit before flying off to the UK and Europe…so now is a good time to talk before I’m back on the road!”
The ideal place to start is Tones And I’s musical voyage and the birth of her busking career. Did it feel like fate or did Watson know the busking would always pay off? “I never knew it would take off. I didn’t even think like that. I watched a lot of buskers from the shopfront when I worked in retail and the crowds were huge - bigger than any crowded place in any of the pubs or anything. I decided to start busking and at first, I just played around five or six songs, but I was always teaching myself other things in my spare time. I lived in my van and the hostel was letting me use the showers for free and I just wanted to have a sustainable life from busking. And that was my goal. I didn’t want to get a job, I loved it…. I always said I would be 50 years old busking!”
Watson’s attitude towards busking was comfortable and liberating. A job that can lack stability but have entire creative and personal freedom. “I didn’t really have many things I had to pay for per week, I just needed food and fuel. 40 pounds a week would have covered it. I enjoyed living out of my bed and I just loved the lifestyle of it all. There was no pressure. When I worked in retail at school, I found the culture toxic. Maybe it’s when there are just so many young people together and none of us were very mature! But when I started busking everything changed for me, everyone could just watch me from the balcony in the pub we used to go to which was great. It’s a very small, beautiful coastal town which is busy that’s known for its culture of busking and street art.”
Post global success we wanted to know about the ‘new routine’ and if she is still living life on the road. “I still have the van I used to live in but it’s so rusted, you can stick your hand through the gears, so it’s definitely never going to be roadworthy! I do have a house now, which is always full of all my friends and that’s how I like to live my life. In January, I went back to do a busking tour around Australia in the new band with all my friends. We only told people on the day where we were going to be playing and it was just crazy. That was so much fun and just made me feel so free. I didn’t have to worry about production like when I’m playing venues. I still just have my keyboards and my work pedal and do it all the way I used to.”
Watson had global success with numerous tracks including ‘Fly Away’, ‘Cloudy Day’, ‘Ur So F**kInG cOOL’, ‘Bad Child’ and of course ‘Dance Monkey’, but did she feel equipped for being ready to be known all around the globe?
“No, I don’t think I was prepared for that at all. I was bare feet on the street, being compared visually to and up against all these huge established pop stars. Once I was lined up against Ariana Grande, Nicki Minaj, and Billie Eilish for the most-streamed females right now – which went on for over a year and I couldn’t believe it. I had never even done a photo shoot. There was a photo of me online with a yellow hat and I look back and realise that was the epitome of someone not being ready for this or what was to follow. The path to success is different for everyone, some people build slowly and keep working to get bigger and bigger, but this for me was overnight. The thing I wasn’t ready for was the direct comparisons to other global female artists – both physically and sonically. For me, in my mind I had already achieved my dream of being a busker as people were reacting to me on the streets and enjoying my music, I never had any intention to even release music and had no idea what was to follow in such a short space of time afterwards.”
The pressures in the industry are enormous, especially with the rapid increase in access to artists and the endless desire from fans for content 24/7. While Watson saw a huge spike in fame seemingly overnight, her debut album, Welcome to the Madhouse focused on letting go of that toxicity and propelling forward from those circumstances. “Since exporting into the music industry, I was a totally different person. Suddenly, I’m looking at the way I look, thinking that’s not good enough anymore. I’m not pretty enough, not skinny enough. And that really hit me hard for a long time. Only at the end of last year did I really come out of that headspace. If any individual tries to do an outrageous thing to fit in, it only hinders your health and wellbeing. Plus If I had done that, I would have just become another skinny female artist setting an unrealistic and unreachable goal and I’m not being true to myself or my audience. Where do you stop changing yourself? People have criticised my voice. My voice is too high apparently. Everyone tells me it’s annoying, but it’s my voice and that’s what makes me different. I did try changing it once and singing deeper and I didn’t enjoy it. I didn’t enjoy the writing process or going away from the things I love and the way I like to write. That experience showed me that you just gotta keep doing what you love the way do it. People keep saying things are getting better with social media etc, but one thing that’s not is cyberbullying, it’s only getting worse.”
We wanted to know more about the writing process for the new album.
“When I wrote my EP - there was no pressure. I wrote it before I had even signed to management. I was just writing music to play on the street. So when it came to writing the album, there was a little bit of pressure. But it felt like the album was kind of a transitional point for me. ‘Fly Away’, is still one of my favourite songs I’ve ever written. I just can’t believe I wrote that song. When I sing it on stage, it brings out so much emotion – especially the line “I had a dream that someday I would just fly away”. When I first sang it into my notes I let it sit there. Five months later, I went back and heard it and I was like, wow, this is so beautiful. - then within two hours the rest of the song was written. With some songs like ‘Won’t Sleep’ I just wanted to have fun, and for others I wanted to be more open and emotional like ‘Lonely’ and ‘Fly Away.’ ‘Cloudy Day’ was a really fun one, I think that I had a really good time when I look back. There were a lot of tears. Writing songs is all about channelling those different emotions but as long as it feels right when you’re writing it that’s all that matters.
The album is completely intimate, it’s her heart and soul. From busking in towns to headline festivals, whatever the crowd the music always comes across as personal. “I can’t wait to play festivals again, it allows me to show so many more people what I can do live and has allowed me to not just be that Dance Monkey person anymore. It’s easy for audiences to move on to the next artist quickly but my fans have stayed with me. Playing live is the most important thing to me as I built this whole thing from playing live and getting the chance to play for different people in other countries is amazing. After two and a half years off, coming back you realise you have to take those opportunities, they don’t wait around for you, or they are given to the next person. It’s playing live that gets you through the mentally tough days which goes back to my busking day -which is the whole reason why you’re doing it in the first place”.
Tones And I is a role model of independence and uniqueness, with qualities that are admirable and desirable. You must wrap your ears around the sensational album Welcome to the Madhouse as well as the new single ‘Eyes Don’t Lie’ and go and see her play live this summer.
Words: Bronte Evans