In 2019 Tones and I released her second single “Dance Monkey” while working as a busker in Byron Bay and living out of a camper van. The track was a global phenomenon, becoming the third most streamed song of all time with over six billion plays. It changed the life of Toni Watson in uncountable ways
Watson grew up on Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne. Now based in her home state and holed up in a flurry of snap lockdowns, we chat over a crisp video call. She’s self-deprecating, warm and articulate as she recounts the roller-coaster that’s been the past three years of her life.
As an adolescent, there were two passions in Watson’s life, music and basketball. She remembers the pivotal moment that led to her discovering her voice, singing in the park with her cousins. “My eldest cousin Nat, she said, ‘Wait a second, Toni, do you just want to sing on your own?’ And I was like, ‘No, I don’t want to sing on my own,’ she smiles. “We had these walkie talkies, but they were headsets. She said, ‘OK, sing with the group, but put your walkie talkie on and I’ll listen in my ears.’ And I remember, she’s like, ‘I think you can really hold a note, for a little kid.’ I guess I was like, eight or nine years old and from then on I remember just trying to sing all the time to everything.”
When she was younger, her favourite artist was Christina Auguelira who had Watson enthralled with her vocal dynamism. As she moved into her teenage years, she found the music of Macklemore to be a particular inspiration. “They can just relay so much emotion in their voice,” she explains. “Christina Aguilera, she honestly is such an emotional singer. I think that’s what I really gravitated towards growing up. With Macklemore, it was really more about lyrics and feeling, and it always has been with me. There’s so much more to him than his most popular albums. In terms of a lyricist, a songwriter and artist, that’s who I would say pinnacle-wise for me, just the amount of lyrics and how smart they are.”
Watson taught herself piano, googling chords and learning their shapes across the keys. Alongside the hours she spent on music, basketball played a huge influence on her formative years. “My outlet growing up was basketball and honestly, growing up I needed an outlet more than I ever need one now. It helped me through everything,” she says. “I would do the beep test when I got home in the backyard, and then I’d run and I’d coach under-fourteen boys, and then I’d run from there and we’d go to basketball training for two hours until nine-o’clock, and then I’d go home. I went to a basketball school, where we trained three hours a day, in the middle of school. I played for five teams and coached two. So it was everything to me. And it honestly helped me through my childhood.”
How Watson transitioned from being a sales assistant in a Melbourne surf shop to an internationally renowned recording artist in three short years is the kind of story of which you can’t conceive – until it happens. Spurred on by her desire to busk, she quit her job aged sixteen, pooled her money, travelled to Byron Bay and bought a camper van. Pissing off the regular buskers (white men with acoustic guitars), Watson would roll up to a spot, unload keyboards and a speaker, and blast out her bouncing, breathtaking pop.
Through dedication and sheer determination she turned her dream into an imposing success, something she credits with the ethic and form that basketball taught her. “I think all that dedication and everything that I had in basketball to get my mind active under something that I wanted to achieve and I wanted to work hard at, had just crossed over into music. And I just didn’t want to fail,” she explains. “I knew that there was absolutely no way that a five-foot-five female, or a female in general, is ever going to have a career in basketball in my lifetime where they can live off it. But music? Maybe. It’s really put me in a position where I can say to people, you can do anything. What about me? You see this little chubby girl on the street with a keyboard, no shoes on, a broken piano. What about me is someone gonna go, you’re gonna make it? No, no one was thinking that.”
While drive is one thing, Watson also believes that it was her unwavering passion which acted as the fuel. “You can’t do this stuff unless you really fucking enjoy it, and need to do it, and think about it all the time,” she affirms. “For example, sometimes I fall asleep after playing Candy Crush and my mind is like putting things together. That’s not a good example. But that’s how I used to think about the keyboard or basketball. But we have all these other distractions. Now we just want our phone. We just want TikTok. We just want to be scrolling. That’s our new obsession. But if you take that obsession and put it into something that you really want to do, then you can do it. I could never have done either of those things if I didn’t have pure love and passion for what I wanted to do. You can’t fake passion.”
Whilst out busking, she was approached by Australian music lawyer Jackson Walkden-Brown who offered his studio and industry support to the new artist. As the months went by and Watson began to build a name for herself in Byron and beyond, she started to process her feelings through her music. Negative experiences from working on the street, of being yelled at, grabbed, or having her keyboards knocked over bled into a conversely upbeat bop she called “Dance Monkey”.
Playing regular shows at a Byron Bay youth hostel, she wanted to write a song that could capture the audience’s energy and attention. “I kept playing this cover of “Forever Young” and everyone would dance to it and go crazy and jump up, and I loved that. But I wanted it to be my song,” she explains. “So I sat down, I was like, right, this is it, I’m writing a song, it’s going to be my song and it’s going to be that song that people can jump up and dance to. The first time I ever played it, I was reading the lyrics off my screen and everyone jumped up inside dancing, and everyone at the hostel was just going wild. And then this song became this phenomenon, obviously. But pretty much, I took everything from basketball and how hard I worked on that, and I just took it to the streets and went well, this is my thing now.”
Watson’s debut single “Johnny Run Away” was an instant, hooky slice of heartbeat pop that picked up support and attention from the likes of influential radio station Triple J. But nothing about the song’s national success could have indicated the trajectory that “Dance Monkey” would take. The track became an instant hit around the world, an inescapable soundtrack blasting from radio stations, shops, bars and backyards. But alongside all the opportunities and accolades, Watson’s incomprehensible achievement also brought a lot of darkness. She suffered a great deal of online bullying, press intrusion and the pressure to perform, to prove herself more than a ‘one hit wonder’. The single’s success also instantly ended Watson’s career as a busker.
“In my mind, I was ready for ten years in my van, ten years busking. Let’s do it. This is my dream. I want to be a busker,” she explains. “As much as it’s nice to say you’ve got flown around the world and all this crazy stuff happened, I could not go back and busk and live in my van. I can’t do it now. I cannot do it. I wouldn’t be allowed to busk every day. I’ve tried to get a permit now. They said they do not have the security to capacitate that kind of crowd. I can’t even go busk if I want to.”
While she looks back on the single with pride and grace, it’s still a moment of complexity. In terms of accolades and stats, just pure numbers, “Dance Monkey” is a behemoth, a song that raises the bar to unfathomable heights. “In Australia here, I’m a career artist. I’ve had four songs in the top ten in Australia, I’ve just had my third or fourth song hit one-hundred-million streams. But unfortunately, forever, I had a song that stayed number one in the world for the longest amount of time, that no artist, not Drake, not Nicki Minaj, not Kanye has ever done,” Watson states. “The reason I say it like that is because people are now comparing that as where I should be every time. None of your favourite artists has ever done this, and they’re still successful. Why do I have to hit here every time? The one hit wonder thing sucks, because the bar is so high. And that’s so scary.”
For those looking to throw around that ‘one hit wonder’ tag, Watson has a swift response. “When I do get asked that question, I will almost want to say, how many streams do you personally think it takes to be successful?” she asks. “Because I never in my life thought I’d hit one-million. So the bar’s getting higher and higher. The bar is getting raised so high that it’s almost unachievable.”
Watson’s hurling ascent to fame has been a steep learning curve, dealing with her newfound celebrity, the press and online vitriol. However, she takes solace in making her own decisions, standing by them and owning her career. “I’m happy enough and lucky enough to say that no decision gets made by anyone but me. But if there are artists out there that have decisions made for them, their team can sit pretty, go to bed at night knowing that the artist is getting absolutely severely attacked online for a decision that someone else has made them do,” she explains. “So when I look at two artists, different artists, whether it’s Christina Aguilera, Macklemore or whether it’s Nicki Minaj and Kanye or even Olivia Rodrigo coming up as well, it’s a crazy, crazy ride. And I think I’m lucky enough and also in another sense, weirdly strong enough to say that I’ve been through a similar thing in a really short amount of time. And that’s probably where my biggest respect comes from with any artist. So whether I like their music or not, right, you’ve got to respect that.”
But with every cloud comes a silver lining, and her rising notoriety coupled with her childhood respect for Macklemore brought the American rapper into Watson’s life. “I was backstage at Seattle, and I just hear the crowd go mental, and then someone goes to my dressing room door, and it’s Macklemore and I just could not believe it,” she laughs. “Like, I don’t know how to explain. It was the coolest thing. And then he asked me to come and do a day in the studio with him.”
The two bonded over music, but also the experiences that come with a place in the spotlight. “It was really awesome to go and hang out with him and just really honestly write music and talk to him and be in the studio with someone who I genuinely think is incredible,” she explains. “But also just talk to him about some of the stuff that’s been happening since you go from busking on the street to this in, you know, honestly, eight months. Your life completely changes and now you’re sitting here in a studio with an artist you never thought you’d meet, your favourite artist of all time, eight months after being on the street, just talking about all the ups and the downs. A lot of stuff he could really relate to.”
“A lot of people that put on this big front when they become really successful…it does make you feel like, in some ways, it’s you against the world.”
While Watson has been impacted by criticism in the press and online, she still retains a balanced and optimistic stance, her self-deprecating sense of humour a valuable defence. “I see some comments and they are very funny. And I think to myself, if this was about anyone else, I would show my friends,” she laughs. “I do have a sense of humour, where I laugh a lot of the time, I don’t usually bring it out in interviews and stuff. I don’t want to become, because I’m chubby, I’ve got to be funny. I want to be serious and chubby, I can do them both. You’ve just got to really stay off social media, because it can really affect you.”
Even pushing aside her acerbic wit, Watson’s acute experience of fame is something that’s affected her profoundly. “It’s almost taken my confidence away. You’d think it would make you more confident,” she says. “I think a lot of people that put on this big front when they become really successful, is exactly a front. It does make you feel like, in some ways, it’s you against the world.”
While the ability to busk may be an evident loss in Watson’s life, even day-to-day tasks now come with baggage. “Going to the grocery store is really hard. If I go on my own, I’m so proud of myself,” she says. “I literally have to wait for a roommate to get home to go to the grocery store so I have someone to talk to. So I’m not on my own where heaps of people can approach me. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes it’s done in such a like, anxious way. I get really anxious now around too many people. People will just fling their kids at me, like their kid is six and doesn’t even know who I am. I don’t know, no one just goes ‘Oh hey, is that you, Tones? Can we just get a quick photo or something?’ No one just comes past and fist bumps you or something. You know, that’s a cool encounter. It’s just very dramatic, and it’s scary.”
On her debut album Welcome To The Madhouse, Watson compiles nearly half a decade of experience, emotion and empathy. “The reason the album is Welcome To The Madhouse is because I have songs from four years ago, and some songs from three months ago,” she explains. “Everything in between is an emotion that I have felt and needed to get out through my music, in one way or another, within the timeline of moving to Byron in my van up until my friend passing away this year. Breakups in between and feeling lonely and depressed, and then getting over the depression from the online bullshit and starting to be a bit more fierce and coming back into my own. So it’s erratic.”
The album charts her journey from working in retail to busking and living in her van to being flung around the globe, playing gigs in Europe and appearing on TV shows like Ellen. Then coming back home as the pandemic set in, living with nine of her best friends and suddenly losing one. “It’s just a roller-coaster of emotions,” she admits.
Across the record, Watson juxtaposes dark lyrics with thumping melody, turning hurt into hooks and grief into glossy bangers. “Lonely” is a stark opener, setting the tone for an album that’s cathartic, confessional, deeply biographical and warmly self-deprecating. You can really hear Watson’s personality run through the tunes, her delivery genuine and moving. But even in the moments of sadness there’s flair, with each track holding its own all-encompassing mood, a quick glimpse through one door of the Madhouse. There’s an energy across the fourteen tracks, full of playful intonation and arresting dynamism.
On “Westside Lobby”, Watson deadpans, “I’m so sick of people thinking that I’m lovely, a little wholesome happy girl that did it right. See you all seem to think it like I got to bed and cry. But honestly, I’m not that fucking nice,” across a breezy, escapist pulse of syncopated synth. Conversely, album highlight “Fly Away” is optimistic, empowering and beautifully uplifting, its energy so warm it feels familiar from the first play. Even in the darker moments, there’s the promise of hope. “Dark Waters” echoes and searches, its chorus offering the chance for redemption, while previous single “Cloudy Day”, written by Watson as she struggled over the death of her friend T, is bursting with hope. “But your momma always said, ‘Look up into the sky. Find the sun on a cloudy day,” she soars over marching drums that abhor retreat.
Watson co-produced the record, working with a series of different producers and engineers. However, on the writing she refused to compromise or collaborate, challenging herself to write the whole album alone. “I definitely take pride in writing all my music myself,” she confirms. “There’s no songs that are wholeheartedly written by one person ever anymore. Looking at “Dance Monkey” on that chart, and looking at the next fifty songs and being the only song that was written by one person, written by one female, I just thought, well fuck, I can do it, I can do anything.”
Her grit and dedication shines through across the record, the ability to dream big and believe in yourself even when your mind starts to lean towards negativity. “I judge myself so much harsher than other people judge me, and sometimes it’s a problem,” she admits. “I can be my own downfall, which I’m trying to work on. I’m judging myself for how I act when I’m not even around people. I do want to prove stuff to myself, just like I did at the start.”