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February 2021

Tones And I: Top of the Pops

Tones And I is a name that has taken over radio airwaves since unexpected smash ‘Dance Monkey’ flew to the Number 1 spot around the world. For Aussie popster Toni Watson, the journey from the busking unknown was really somethin’ else.
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Published: 10:34 am, April 01, 2020Words: Steven Loftin.
Tones And I: Top of the Pops

Hidden away high above the rain-soaked streets a world away from her native Australia, Tones And I is sat in her dressing room. Below a rapidly growing queue of people is steadily buzzing louder and louder in anticipation for tonight's sold-out show at London's O2 Kentish Town Forum.

Scenes like this are following Tones all around the globe after her supersize hit 'Dance Monkey' began racing its way to the top of every chart it could get its paws on.

As you can imagine, this wasn't a part of the plan.

With two of her closest friends in tow, including in Dork's chat, Tones And I, real name Toni Watson is taking the world by storm, which given less than a year ago she was still busking is pretty damn remarkable.

"I lived off coins a year ago," she says. "It's been overwhelming at times. I've had ups and downs, and now I'm more on a steady incline. Obviously going from being a street performer to being someone where the whole world not only knows your name but sometimes it can be a free for all for opinions."

Being slung into the spotlight overnight, the way Tones has, proves itself every time to be a double-edged sword. While it's tricky to deal with a sudden spotlight, there is also the opportunity to experience new things and generally do good - which is what Tones really wants to do.

The first part of ensuring the swell of eyes focused don't drown her is to keep a reign on the things in life she enjoys. "The thing that I do for fun at the moment? I love basketball, but when you're travelling around, you can't always go and play basketball," she chuckles. "So the thing I do most is hanging out with my friends. These are my two best friends that are with me." She nods to her pals, Abbie and Kurt on the sofa next to her.

"When I'm at home, it's the exact same thing. I'll be with my friends all the time, that's probably the thing that I've always done that's never changed." Certainly, the stages are getting bigger at a rapid pace to boot, but Tones is entrenched in keeping herself grounded.

When Kurt first saw Tones begin to perform, she was solely singing, but he's watched her self-teach and grow into the performer today. Abbie met her - and first heard her sing - after their vans were parked next to each other in a hostel, and was to be privy to one of Tones' earliest busking performances.

"That was the first night that she actually busked in Byron," Abbie recalls. "We were like, come on, let's all just go together. We'll go down, we'll help you set your equipment up, and at least if nobody else stops then you've got five of your friends here that are gonna dance around the streets. And then about fifty people stopped on that first night."

"This time last year, I hadn't released a song"
Tones And I

Even when things are hectic, the three of them will take some time, watch a movie in bed together, laugh and remember that the world is what you make of it. When you start with nothing and find everything at your feet, the people around you are ultimately the ones who make it.

Along with cementing her bond with her friends, Tones has also had the opportunity to meet some her favourite artists, including Macklemore, who she's looked up to for years.

"He came and surprised me at my Seattle show last week," she recalls excitedly. "Then he saw the show, and he liked it so much that he asked me to come back and go into the studio with him the next day. We've been working on some stuff, and now I do I dare say where we're even friends," she laughs.

"I've got to meet other incredible people that inspire me. The best people that you meet are always people that work hard for themselves also as there's no underlying hatred because they haven't gotten to do something with their lives, so they don't low-key want to bring you down."

Similarly to Macklemore, Tones' ascent from unknown to the public eye was astronomically quick. However, her attention from radio stations didn't go over so well with her fellow buskers, which has added to her caution.

"A lot of the other buskers were like, 'Oh, you're taking the spots from us now you're successful'. I'm like, 'No just because you get played on the radio does not mean you just get money and you can live'. I still need to make money. I still want to connect with fans and have that face to face experience."

Tones pours herself into songs, but 'Dance Monkey' in particular is a runaway train that she recognises, "but it's not my song anymore. It's everyone else's song. So I've just had to let it go and focus on new music."

On its beginnings she says; "I wrote a song for my friends when I was living in a hostel in my van. They loved that song, I love that song and what it did for us as backpackers. It went big all over the world. And now it's something different to what it was."

"I don't want someone to just hear my song on the radio and go, 'I like the song'. This time last year, I hadn't released a song," she continues, "so I was trying to build a fan base based on genuine interactions with people that saw me playing music on the street. I'd just got to nine and a half thousand followers, and I said when I get to ten I'll release a song. I ended up releasing a song on 1st March last year."

The song in question, 'Johnny Run Away' - an anthem of childhood defiance - holds the supportive side to Tones up high, but the fact that her second-ever release is the one that's planted her flag in the rocky terrain of pop culture meant that her forward steps to her debut EP were decidedly curated.

'The Kids Are Coming' is a carefully handpicked batch of songs whose sole purpose is to show the world that Tones is a multifaceted artist, and not one resigned to the sounds of 'Dance Monkey'. It's also another stepping stone to ensuring the longevity of Tones And I, and more importantly, not losing the heart of Toni Watson.

"I picked them purposely for different styles. Usually, people try and create a mood with a whole album, but I did the opposite. I wanted different things to show you - this is my first body of work. I wanted to show them that I'm not just this artist."

"I was bullied so much and I still get bullied"
Tones And I

When it does come to putting pen to paper, there's only a couple of rules, which she explains; "I think that the only way the only way I can release a song is if I fully understand it, because releasing a song is pretty much like giving that advice to thousands." And the other relates to never writing about love, or her success. "I don't believe in writing about that."

There's a sense that Tones is about making herself a figurehead - or at least a key player - given the good she's trying to do, and even honing in on the new generations want to be better and evoke a positive change; on the EP's opener she sings "We got to clean up this mess you made."

And it would seem the sincere and humble nature running through both Tones' music, and demeanour hasn't stopped since becoming a bonafide pop-star. She's putting on a charity basketball matches in aide of the bush fires all out of her own pocket. She's even going around schools in Australia in April, along with her support acts, for an anti-bullying tour. (Her support so passionate she shows Dork a tattoo on her right hand - 'Stop Bullying' - "so if I ever do a TV event, it's like right there when I hold a microphone.")

With 'Dance Monkey', Tones ended up breaking records left, right and centre. With such powerful momentum happening at the beginning of her career, the next steps made themselves abundantly clear.

"To be honest, I just thought to myself I don't want to spend my life trying to live up to 'Dance Monkey' which isn't even my favourite song in terms of heart, passion and soul! If at the end of this year I can look back and go I made a difference with my platform, then I'll be just as proud as I was at the end of last year."

The experiences Tones has - and continues to - go through are why she's receptive to her new position. "I want to be able to say that I've done things to make a difference because I was bullied so much and I still get bullied," she explains.

"I say 'was' because I've learned now, and I stay off social media. It just goes away as soon as you stay off it, so I don't even think about it now, and it makes me feel like it's all over. If I can learn anything from that, it's to think twice before I talk about other people - even as a joke when you would normally not even think about it, because you're just being silly and like to try and teach people when they're young, as well. So that's what I want to do this year."

The crowd that is gathering below, waiting for the doors to open, are the ones Tones wants to reach out to - and they're the ones reaching back. Providing her with the knowledge that not only can she write a banger, but people are listening. Undoubtedly, the kids are coming, and Tones is leading the charge.

Taken from the April issue of Dork - order your copy below.

April 2020
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