Punters who were at Laneway Festival 2020 caught Tones And I at a pivotal moment. Not that life has been quiet lately for Melbourne songwriter Toni Watson, who went from busking and living out of her car in Byron Bay mere years ago, to having an international chart-topper in ‘Dance Monkey’. But after her triumphant homecoming at Laneway Melbourne, it was hard to shake the feeling that she’ll soon graduate from daytime slots to headlining ones, booked for bigger stages farther from home.
Tones – who was named Best New Australian Act at the NME Awards 2020 – is not (yet) a pop star, and she seems to prefer it that way. Tones showcases what she learned on the Byron Bay streets onstage by playing alone at her keyboards, cueing loops and layering sounds to belt over. When she does break free from her instrument, she whirls uninhibited around the stage, smiling at and waving to punters.
Tones is a songwriter who draws on lived experience, and she often explains the stories behind her songs before she performs them: She tells Footscray Park that ‘Johnny Run Away’ was inspired by a friend who was rejected by his family after he came out as gay, and the chorus of ‘Dance Monkey’ adapts the demands drunk passersby made of her when she was busking. When Tones introduces her songs, it feels less like a performer attempting to fill dead air with practised banter and more like an artist who wants her fans to know where she’s coming from, even as impending stardom threatens to widen the gulf between them.
Besides songs from her debut EP ‘The Kids Are Coming’, Tones fleshes out her set with covers of Chet Faker and Alphaville (her festival rendition of ‘Forever Young’ isn’t as elaborate as the one preserved for posterity on triple j’s Like A Version, but it’s undeniably soulful and brings out a mighty crowd singalong). She also plays ‘You’re So Fucking Cool’, a track that falls squarely in the lineage of pop songs about hating the party: think ‘Here’ by Alessia Cara, ‘Royals’ by Lorde or even ‘I Don’t Care’ by Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran. An as-yet-unreleased song, it sounds slightly truncated; the bridge and concluding chorus you expect never come. But its accompanying backstory, which begins with a Teen Wolf cast member approaching a befuddled Tones at a Los Angeles house party and ends with a retreat home and UberEats, is more than enough to endear Tones and the song to the crowd.
‘Dance Monkey’ was recently named the fastest Australian song to hit the billion-stream mark, and just yesterday became the first Billboard top five hit written solely by a woman in over eight years. The song’s success has been astronomical, but familiarity breeds contempt, and Tones has since seen the cruel side of fame. In a Facebook post last November, Tones celebrated her multiple wins at the ARIA Awards, but also opened up about being shaken by the online hate she was receiving (which included death threats). At Laneway, she seemed to acknowledge this by opening her set with the emotional, also-unreleased ballad ‘Can’t Be Happy All The Time’, in which she sings of isolation and loneliness.
More recently, though, Tones has said she currently feels empowered, and is channelling her energy into anti-bullying advocacy. And when she launched into ‘Dance Monkey’ before the thousands assembled at Laneway, the audience’s uproarious response swept away any remaining shards of cynicism and negativity. The crowd seemed to know that we were witnessing a hit at its peak – though Tones And I’s showing at Laneway made it clear that she has more in her future.