Don’t Be a Bitch!: an Interview with Tones & I

vor 3 years

A bright voice in dark times: Why the story of the Australian self-taught musician, busker and rising pop star Tones and I gives hope for a better future. 

At the age of seven, Tones and I heard her calling at a performance by Snoop Dogg, her first live music experience ever, and just knew that she had to become a musician. Growing up in Mount Martha, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, she experimented with music quite early, learning to play the keyboard and drums. In 2009, she created a YouTube page and posted a capella covers. Her version of OutKast’s Hey Ya is probably the most outstanding cover to be found on the web. Yet when she took proper singing lessons, her coach told her that she did not have any vocal range. At the Australian X-Factor in 2013, she didn’t even make it to the televised auditions. 

But she pursued her passion, even if it meant living out of a van, playing music in a busker’s paradise. The former surf shop employee never gave up on her dreams and was rewarded with a worldwide breakthrough with her hit single Dance Monkey, a song that she wrote alone in a dark closet in just over half an hour. The lyrics of the song reflect things that people said to her while she was performing on the streets. During the second Covid lockdown in Melbourne, we video-called the award-wining artist to talk about finding her voice on the streets, that feeling of playing to a crowd of 40,000 people, the good things to come out of this crazy year, and meeting your role models, from Macklemore to Michael Jordan or Kanye West.

Fräulein: Everything started on the streets for you, being a busker. What do you particularly remember from your time performing on the streets? 

Tones and I: It wasn’t necessarily one moment. I just love performing on the streets. I feel comfortable there. It’s almost like my home and even though I haven’t been there for a while, it definitely feels like the place where I belonged and where I really made myself and found my confidence. Then there was this turning point. Before, I would just play my music and in between I’d say, “Hi, I’m Toni and I’m really sweaty!” [laughs] Now I speak more and am more confident in who I’ve become and really having a voice. And I think that’s one of the biggest things that I’ve learnt on the streets.  

What was your very first crucial music experience as a kid or teenager that really shaped or even transformed you?

TI: This is probably the most random thing ever – but the first person I saw playing live was Snoop Dogg. He sang, “So what we get drunk?” [sings] and I was crying because I always wanted to do music but had never experienced a live show. So once I got there, he was the first person I saw and I just knew in that very moment that this was something I wanted to do. The only thing I wanted to do is play music to people like that, to have that experience myself one day. But I got so overwhelmed by the thought I would never do it, that I just started crying. That continued every time I watched a live show, even on YouTube, I could never enjoy it. I was being inspired but I couldn’t dance around, so I would just stand there crying. That really happened all the time until last year. 

Because then…? 

TI: I got that experience of 40,000 people coming down to see me playing when I had only released two songs. At the whole festival, they said that usually about 200 people come to see the first performance of the day. But then 40,000 people came down to watch my set and after, they all went back to the campsites, the set after me had like 300 people. There are videos on YouTube. It was the first festival I ever played at and it was a moment that I’ve always been dreaming about. It is such a scary feeling that when you have that one thing in your life you wanna do, from such a young age, it’s so weird. All the time I was thinking about it, working so hard to get there – and it was everything that I thought it would be. It was just the most life changing experience.

You started your first world tour this year which, unfortunately, was cut short because of the pandemic. How did it feel to you, performing on stage, in front of a big audience?

TI: It just feels like being out, playing my music to people that are really there to hear it and want to sing along. Having that first moment of playing at festivals, there were people singing back to me. That is definitely the reason why I’m in this industry. I wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for music. It’s definitely the reason why I chose to become a street performer and not a YouTube artist. I wanted to play for people and that’s all I’ve ever wanted. It’s a really hard thing for me going through Covid because it’s really showing me the side of the music industry that I never wanted to be a part of, in which you are, for example, really encouraged to use social media more. It’s not that I am not strong in that, I could do it if I wanted, but that just doesn’t feel like a place where I want to be. Social media is another world that I try not to enter often. So, I would much rather have real people around me and play live music forever, as long as I can. 

Do you wish that somebody had warned you more about certain things ruling the music industry?

TI: Yes, definitely, but it’s really hard because at the start there were other successful Australian artists that were trying to give me advice. But then, very quickly, I surpassed anything that I have ever done, in terms of the philosophy, of the online bullying or the success. So, it got to the point where it was really hard for me to take advice from many others I’ve met because of what happened within eight months: from living in my car to being the number one song in the world and breaking the record, playing in shows and traveling around, meeting people I never thought I’d meet such as Jimmy Fallon, being at the Aria Awards. It all happened so fast and I kind of became the example instead of looking for the example. I realized that no one I knew had this type of fast rise before. 

When you walk at the peak, you need to understand that kind of attention that you receive. I had to really look inside myself and understand that I’m here for playing music and live shows, that there are people coming to see me, that is what I need to focus on. Now, if it happens to someone else, people would be like, “Maybe you can chat with Tones to see how she dealt with it.” I think this whole pandemic has made it difficult for me to deal with it, but it has also been a major experience to slow down and to write music and to remember why I am here. I hope that once the pandemic is over, I’ll be on a tour again that will hopefully last for three years so I can do all the shows that I missed and go back to doing what makes me really happy.

What kind of change for society will 2020 bring us, in your opinion?  

TI: We’ve been forced to unite as a world, against a common threat, and we’re all in the same situation, which is something we’ve never had before. You know, we had huge Australian bush fires – the worst we’ve ever seen before – at the end of last year and this year and we got a lot of empathy from other countries, but they weren’t really fully understanding; the same happened overseas as well. Now that we’re all doing the same thing, I think it’s time for us to really open up and realize that we might be born in different countries, but the majority of the good people in this world agree on essential things. We now have the opportunity to realize how small this world is if we really want it to be and if we’d work together. I think a lot of good things will come out of this year, even if that sounds crazy. Just seeing what has been happening all over the world with the protestors as well – it was so inspiring. I think everyone was inspired by how much people were coming together. I just really hope it continues.

Where do you see your own responsibility as an artist to support this?

TI: I have a lot of people in my community of artists that I look up to, that I aspire to be like; they inspire me every day, for a while now. Some of them have their own platforms, but some others are just up and coming and they don’t have the platform that I have. For me, it is really important to make sure that I let them take over my platform so that could help share their message. In Australia, for example, with the Aboriginals and indigenous Australians, we have our own history that we are struggling with as a country. Tthere are young generations coming up that aren’t really taught anything about the background of indigenous Australians so I think that in Australia, we have our own issues that have to be tackled. So for me, the best thing to do is to not only promote and encourage my friends, but also other artists of all different ethnicities and backgrounds to be who they are and to bring them to the front. It is something I definitely have been doing already.

Do you believe that music, especially also pop music, will change for those reasons? In other words, do you think that artists will reflect more on their responsibilities and start using their platforms in a more meaningful way?

TI: I hope so. One of my really good friends, Jerome Farah, is a producer for a lot of Australia’s biggest artists, but just recently he has been working on his own music. A month ago, he wrote a song called I Can’t Breathe and it’s been doing so well, it’s such an incredible song and there’s so much power behind it. I definitely think that music is something that people can listen to and they can think about it in their own way, it can take them away to another place. You can really make people feel different through music and that is a power. If you have that power to make people think through your music, then you should use that!

As a young artist, it must be super hard to protect one’s individual creative vision, finding oneself under the industry’s pressure. What was your experience with that?

TI: I think it’s actually the simplest option to stay true to yourself because all you have to do is avoid overthinking and trying to be like anyone else. If you answer every question or speak from a place that feels true to you and stands for what you believe in, then that’s it. I’ve never tried to change what I look like, or what I sound like, or what I speak like, or what I say; neither have I concealed the content of what I speak about. I think that’s the most important thing. It is really easy to just miss young artists these days. Not only are they young, but we’re also crowded amongst other young artists that do talk about bullshit and it is really hard to be taken seriously with both of those things working against you, but I think it’s all about working in time. It is never about people understanding right now, but I need to make sure that whatever I say is something I believe in and I care about. I don’t want to be silly and stupid just because being a character would get me more publicity. Truth be told, I’ve never asked to be famous, I’ve never asked for this. I want to play live music for as long as I can, to people that want to hear it. I’m not saying I hate what’s happening to me, I’m not saying that it’s the worst thing in the world. But to go viral, to be rich and famous is nothing that I wanted to happen, but when it happened, I knew that I had to take it in my own way and not copy other artists, not strive to be more famous. It’s just me! 

How did you experience your collaborations with record lables so far? 

TI: I never ever thought I put pressure on myself to sign with a label. I’ve met with labels thinking that I probably won’t sign. My biggest influence is Macklemore and it so happened that I met a bunch of genuinely right people that were very much for the artists. I’ve never once been told that I couldn’t do this or I couldn’t do that. I think that people start believing in new generations of artists that want to own all of their music and have something to hold on to and be proud of when they die. That want to express themselves in whatever way they want to. I don’t have any regrets with any person that I have ever taken on. I was lucky enough to be signed with a label that I really love. From my managers to my agents as well, we are all a big family. I definitely didn’t go with the first person that asked, I took my time to make sure that I was making the right decision and until today, I haven’t regretted it for a second, that is such a big thing to say. A lot of artists couldn’t say that about their contracts. I repeat this all the time, but I have some friends that aren’t as lucky as I am and it really hurts me so much because people can really take advantage of an artist, especially when they’re young and new. 

Your new single Ur So F**king Cool is so striking, it is exactly what we needed in these weird times. Is it true that the story is based on a real life experience from a party you attended in L.A.?

TI: Yes, it’s true. I just wrote this song to let other people know that the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Maybe you should go and have some beers with your mates because it’s way funnier.

So true! Do you think that narcissism is the new social disease?

TI: I don’t really know. I wouldn’t think about narcissism first. There are so many other things that I’d put before that that need to be controlled, fixed or changed on this globe. 

For example?

TI: I think right now is the time when we need to stand up to online bullying, we need to speak up against racism and be vocal in a way that it’s not just another trend. And in Australia right now, we are having a big problem with people disposing of their masks in the wrong way. At the end of last year, we were getting to a very good place in terms of protecting our planet from pollution and making the right decisions as a country. Now, we really got a problem with something that seemed very easy to fix. We have a lot of things we need to work towards. I definitely think that we’re on the right path, but there’s still a lot of negative things out there. It’s a whole world that we’re talking about and you’ll never get everyone on the same side, this is the hard reality of it!

You mentioned Macklemore is one of your biggest idols. You had the chance to meet him at your show in Seattle and to even collaborate. What was the most unexpected thing about him when you met?

TI: It is a scary thing when you’ve spent so much time thinking about how it would be to meet someone that has inspired you so much. You know, I’ve cried to his music, I’ve laughed, I have felt empowered and strong, and gotten through so many things. I had such huge expectations for him because listening to his music, it felt like we’ve been best friends for a whole life. He was honestly everything that I could’ve wanted. He ended up watching my set, calling my manager the next day saying, “I want to work with her, I want to be a part of a song with her.” He even asked me to come and work with him in the studio for the day. I got to open up and talk to him about what it is like coming up in social media. That was so good, he is such an inspiring person. When he walked off after we spent a day at the studio and we said goodbye, I looked at him from behind and he had this big puffer jacket on. He was walking away and I was thinking, “Holy shit, that was Macklemore!” It was so surreal.

Who else would you like to meet in person, no matter if alive or dead?

TI: There would be a few but I’d definitely say Freddy Mercury, I’m a huge fan. And I would absolutely die if I met Michael Jordan – I have played basketball my whole life, I’m such a huge fan of his. And then Kanye West, I think he is a genius, I genuinely respect him and have also seen him performing live, he’s awesome and I think he’s very smart and an amazing producer. And then Christina Aguilera, she was my first love in music. I think she has a phenomenal voice and she’s such a huge inspiration for me. Because she was my first love in terms of growing up having that first favorite artist, it is just something that never dies.

For me, you were either a hadcore Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera fan. What were your thoughts on Britney?

TI: I didn’t not like Britney Spears, but I definitely love her right now. I’m a lot on her social media, I think she’s really entertaining and funny. When I was growing up, I cannot say I wasn’t listening to her music, she was huge, she was an icon, she is a legend. I think no matter what she writes or produces, with her songs alone she was in a totally different area. She deserves respect just purely for what she’s been through in her life. But, well, I’d rather go to a Christina Aguilera concert than a Britney Spears concert.

I now have a few quick, short questions for you that you can just answer super spontaneously. Australia in three words?

TI: G’day, mate!

Your favourite basketball team?

TI: Lakers.

The funniest childhood diary entry you can remember?

TI: So, one time I pretended there was a school project that we had to make stilts for. I had told my parents so they would make them for me, but only so that I could run around in school with stilts and be the coolest kid on the playground.

I love that! If you could choose your dream band, who would you go for?

TI: It would be a Black Eyed Peas-esque thing because I want rappers and singers in it. It’d go with Macklemore, he’d be the rapper and also Chance the Rapper. Then it would be me, obviously, I would want to be part of it. Christina Aguilera, her voice is still the best in this whole world, tell me someone that could do her. And then Labrinth, he and Kanye would be the co-producers and they’d sing and rap as well.

Wow! The best lovesickness song of all time?

TI: Miracle Love by Matt Corby. It is the best. I saw him playing last year and poured my eyes out, I was sobbing, so embarrassing. Every time I hear it I feel the same way, it makes me very emotional.

The funniest film of all time?

TI: Bridesmaids is very funny.

Your weirdest obsession?

TI: Organic apple juice.

Your biggest fear?

TI: I’m genuinely really scared of flying. So every time I go overseas, I get really nervous. I can’t sleep at all on a plane, even if it’s like a 14 hour flight, so I’m always jetlagged. I’m almost glad that for the pandemic, I don’t have to fly for a while.

Did you have a bad experience?

TI:  No, I’m just one of those people that’s just really scared of flying. 

Your message to all women?

TI: Don’t strive to be equal because that is only the beginning. Strive to be as good as you can be as an individual and don’t take shit. And don’t be a bitch because it doesn’t make you strong. It makes you strong to be a good person!

This interview is by Sina Braetz, taken from the current Fräulein issue on ‘Life

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