The new year should have marked hopeful new beginnings for the artist Tones and I, following a period which saw her halt her first world tour amid the pandemic, endure strict lockdowns in Australia and retreat from social media to escape the “nasty” bullies who’ve plagued her since the explosive success of her 2019 smash, “Dance Monkey.”
But after losing a close friend, Ben Tournier (aka “T”), in January, the Melbourne native found herself in mourning and unable to complete her debut album. Crying en route to the studio each day, then shedding more tears once she arrived, the grief-stricken popnstar eventually fled to Sydney, where she was called into Sony Music Australia CEO Denis Handlin’s office.
“He went, ‘I want to let you know something my late mum used to say: “On a cloudy day, look up and find the sun.”‘ I went downstairs and wrote ‘Cloudy Day’ – the first time I’d written anything happy since T passed away,” Tones (real name, Toni Watson) tells Variety about the uplifting new single from her forthcoming album, “Welcome to the Madhouse,” out July 16. “I got on a roll and the album was done in two weeks.”
Australian footballer T and Tones were pals for 10-plus years and at his funeral, his family saluted their special bond. Tones says T never took her for granted or made her feel like “the one with the money – never just a good friend” as others did amid her rise.
In addition to the perfect pandemic anthem that’s “Cloudy Day,” Tones channeled her grief into “Sad Songs,” about the conflicting nature of gloomy tracks making her feel both better and worse following T’s passing, and “Fall Apart,” a poignant tribute dripping with emotion. “It’s one of two takes where I wasn’t crying.”
The 14-track album, on which Tones wrote and co-produced every song, closes with the fiery rap “Bars (RIP T)” — “something silly T would like.”
While there’s reminders of T throughout, “Welcome to the Madhouse” is no downer. The title track gets the party started, while “Won’t Sleep” turns it into an all-nighter.
The chirpy island vibes of tongue-in-cheek “Westside Lobby,” meanwhile, ignite daydreams of tropical, post-pandemic getaways, with lyrics written during a “darker” period grappling with success in early 2020. “I’m so over people saying I don’t look right,” she sings. “‘There’s no place for you in music,’ so I hear / But my song went #1 in over 30 fucken countries and I’m sorry if that offends you my dear.”
“Australians never talk about ourselves. It’s frowned upon,” explains Tones, who’s reluctant to disclose her age, other than “old enough to drive in every country.” “If you’re in hip-hop, do it, but if you’re a pop, white girl, it’s like, ‘Just be humble.’ But there’s so much bashing I’ve had to deal with. From busking to where I got to, I doubted myself that whole time because of bullies, so wanted to write a ‘fuck you’ song.’ It’s like, ‘Why am I not [acknowledging] how much I’ve achieved or saying, ‘You deserve this,’ just because so many people say I don’t?’”
Such backlash was heightened after “Dance Monkey,” from her 2019 EP “The Kids Are Coming.” Tones wrote the hit – the most streamed track by a female on Spotify – partly to give friends a song to dance to, and partly out of frustration at “aggressively rude” punters she encountered busking. “I wrote it from a place of anger, but since the song took off, I’ve never thought of that. It’s become something different.”
Any trouble she faced while busking paled in comparison to the feedback that followed “Dance Monkey.” Tones recalls being told “You’re disgusting,” “You’re fat,” “Go die” and “You’re a product of the industry.”
“If a label wanted to make an artist from scratch, don’t you think they’d pick someone more visually appealing?” she muses. “At the start, I went, ‘I’m gonna reach out and stop the bullies.’ But you can’t. We’ve been trying for years. You have to rise above it yourself.”
One way Tones has done that is retreating from social media. She runs her Instagram, but leaves Twitter to her team and says leaving “toxic” Facebook has benefitted her mental health.
The pandemic provided a further breather, although, like many, she struggled through 2020 before recognizing its silver linings.
“For three months, I lost my mind completely. I was so upset, thinking, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing anymore. I’ve got my first world tour, but am I going to be able to sell a world tour? What’s gonna happen?’ Looking back, I don’t think about those bad parts. I was meant to be away all year, so to spend that time with friends was awesome. When restrictions eased, we all went away together. Little did we know it was our last trip with [T], so I can only be thankful.”
It’s her friends who have supported Tones since she left Melbourne, where she grew up singing in the shower and playing basketball “religiously,” to busk in Byron Bay. The fear and self-doubt sparked by the move inspired the second song she ever wrote, “Not Going Home,” which is featured on the album. “I was at that point of, ‘This could be the best experience ever or a big mistake. It’s scary, but you’re not going home.’”
She didn’t have to; Artists Only CEO Jackson Walkden-Brown passed by and was wowed. He became her co-manager alongside New Zealanders Regan Lethbridge and David Morgan of Lemon Tree Music. The team has helped her achieve record-breaking success, its efforts saluted in Variety’s 2020 Hitmakers list.
However, for Tones, the hyped streams and charting doesn’t equate success. Growing up, she only cared about artists’ music and concerts. “It never mattered to me whether an artist was charting or on the radio. So, when I thought about being an artist, the dream was to play a show where people knew my music and sang it back.”
That wish was fulfilled at Australia’s 2019 Splendour in the Grass festival. Expecting few to show for her opening set, she was stunned when 40,000 fans swarmed the stage.
“They sang every word to ‘Never Seen the Rain,’ ‘Dance Monkey’ and ‘Johnny Run Away’ – which I’d only released! There’s never going to be a bigger experience because I expected nothing, yet felt like I was headlining.”
It’s that connection between fans and her music which continues to drive Tones through the inevitable pressure that comes with following up the success of “Dance Monkey.”
“It stayed at number one for the longest of any song on Spotify, so if my new songs achieve half of what ‘Dance Monkey’ did, that’s still very successful. Putting pressure on myself isn’t how I want to live and at the end of the day, I didn’t even think I would release music!”
“So, I was more focused on what I want to talk about,” she adds about “Welcome to the Madhouse,” which she expects to tour in the U.S. in early 2022. “I wanted to make sure the music’s important to me instead of trying to get people to stream a billion times.”