Tones And I
Photo: Giulia McGauran
Tones And I Talks Her New Album 'Welcome To The Madhouse,' Opens Up About The Menace Of Online Bullying
Tones And I used to perform in a completely vulnerable state—alone, afterhours on the streets of Byron Bay, surrounded by soused barcrawlers. "On the street, I put myself in positions where, in the middle of the night, drunk and disorderly people are everywhere," the singer/songwriter born Toni Watson tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. "And still, no one has yelled or said profanities like they do online."
How could this be possible? It's called deindividuation—when people join up with mobs, they do things they wouldn't do alone. This goes triple for social media, where you can pick any name you want and replace your face with a pickup truck avatar. Under cover of anonymity, these types have tormented Tones And I to the point of sending death threats, prompting fear for her family.
"I just feel like it's getting to the point where a whole bunch of artists are going to start talking about it," she says. "It's a good thing to bring up. We have a voice."
Tones And I uses her voice in two ways—her literal one calls attention to Instagram vultures and her musical one sings about her deepest fears, joys and anxieties. Those feelings permeate her new album, Welcome To The Madhouse, which was released July 16. Its songs, like "Fly Away," "Fall Apart" and "Dark Waters"—which she wrote at various points in her life—paint a complicated portrait.
With all her challenges in the music business, does the good still outweigh the bad for Tones And I? Find her answer below—along with ruminations on her busking past, losing a loved one and overcoming hatred to find peace.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nice to meet you. Where are you located?
I'm back in Byron Bay, where I used to busk.
What was in your repertoire?
Usually, when you busk, you go for something a 65-year-old in flip-flops might know. I respect the more obscure choices.
Yeah, also, I busked with synthesizers and loop pedals, so it wasn't your typical [setup].
One time, the whole power in the town went out and none of the buskers were connected to the powerpoints in the stores. I was the only busker that kept going. Everyone flooded into the streets and had to get out of the buildings because the power was out in town. The whole road was full with a thousand people and no one could see anything. The girls were holding their phone lights over my keyboard to keep playing. Everyone was singing "Hey Ya!" in the street. It was sick.
What was it like to watch your breakout hit grow from a busking environment?
Yeah, it was insane. Crazy.
I used to do this cover of "Forever Young" [by Alphaville] and every time I played it, people would get up and start dancing. I wanted a song that was my own that you could dance to, so originally, I just wrote that song for my friends. I didn't even want to release music, to be honest. I didn't think there was anything good from releasing music because I didn't know any better. I just wanted to busk.
Tell me about the palette of colors you used for Welcome To The Madhouse—the inspirations behind its making.
That's really hard. I've always said that every song I write is inspired by some mood or even another song, but this album was definitely not a mood for me.
The fact that it's turned into a nicely wrapped box with a bonnet because I called it Welcome To The Madhouse and the music is depressed, happy then sad—I made it like that so it would all fit into that album nicely, but the reason is it was also written over the last two years.
I've got songs from when I first got to Byron Bay, before I started busking, when I started busking, when I went on my first world tour and when [my friend] passed away. It was from such different times that there's no way this album was going to be one mood, or one time in my life.
When I wrote "Fly Away," the lyrics were so genuinely honest to how I was feeling. It could be quite sad, but I wanted to have a moment in that song where it felt really happy and very up-and-about and made you feel good. But, if you want to listen to it properly, you can listen to the slower version where I took that production out. It can show you that there's a really sad side to the song. It became my good friend's funeral song when he passed away.
My condolences. Can I ask what happened?
So, we'd all just gone away together because we had this tiny little moment in Australia where there was no COVID. We got back and we were at the beach all day for one of our good friend's birthdays. That morning, I got a call at 6 a.m. He drove into a pole and flung through the windshield and hit the road and died.
I'm OK with talking about it because people like to pretend online that he did it to himself. They don't know what's going on, so I guess maybe if I just say it once, people will understand that it was nothing like that. He was an amazing, happy person and he got into a car accident.
That's absolutely awful. Tell me about him in life, though. What kind of a person was he? What did he mean to you?
Well, he was probably the one in the group that brought everyone together—the girls and the boys. He was the loudest one, but in the nicest way. He wasn't rude or obnoxious. He was fair to everyone. He never got involved in anything if anyone was having any arguments. He wasn't just the closest one to the younger ones, like us, but also the parents. There are a lot of different places around his world that are really significantly hurt by this. He's got such a good heart.
Anyway, I met him probably 10 to 12 years ago, growing up. He's dealt with a lot in that time. His dad passed away. His brother's got cerebral palsy, so at the moment, I'm housing his brother. I've got his brother in a place where he can live on his own because he told me before he died that was one thing he wanted to do—to get his brother out of his grandparents' house because they were getting too old to deal with it.
It's a weird balance between expressing yourself and making a commercial product. How did your response to this translate into the tunes?
Well, there was a period where I originally tried to write songs about the person that he was, but that was too hard for me. So, when I wrote "Fall Apart," I wrote about the fact that we can't really deal with it yet in the way I wanted to. I tried the way I wanted to talk about him and who he was with the world in the music, which is the way a lot of musicians would talk.
I tried to talk about him, but I couldn't. So, I wrote "Fall Apart," which is really about how much we miss him and we're thinking about him.
People online were saying his death was his own fault? What's wrong with them?
There's a lot of stuff online, especially when I release anything. Online sucks. It brings people to a place where they don't know what happened, so they just create a story. Everyone does. If you don't give people enough information, they're going to create a story.
The story was that he was sad. [Beneath] the photos we would put up remembering him, they would say things like "Look how sad he looks!" and all that. I [even had to] convince his mom that he was a happy person. I'm trying to tell his mom, who wants more clarity, that he was a really happy person. I had to lock down that he would never do that.
Do you deal with other types of online bullying outside of your friend?
The fact that you ask makes me feel really good, because I thought I was famously known for it. It's really bad. I'm off social media, which sucks. Being a new artist, you're excited. It's so hard. You want to be authentic. Sometimes, it does affect you a little bit when there's whole, huge videos on their YouTube accounts about you. They also make them about other artists, too.
I need to realize, at the end of the day, it feels like it's always me because I am me. But there are other people, too. There are so many people who are going through it. It's just that I am me. I'm upset about things that happen to me. But when I see someone say something about another artist, I'm automatically really frustrated toward that person because it's absolutely freaking horrible. It's not about me for a second.
Tones And I. Photo: Giulia McGauran
Speaking stranger-to-stranger, I don't think you "need" to do anything in response. This is a cruel environment. The onus is on online bullies to cease their behavior, not on you.
Thanks for saying that. It makes me feel better. I just don't want my family—my nana and pa—to see that. They're so proud of me when I see them and I would never share that stuff with them. And now, they see it and it's so sad. I don't want my papa to see that stuff online and my nana. It gets pretty outrageous. I keep my head down. I talk about what I care about, but I don't go on comments and stuff. If I looked for it, I'd probably not come out of the house.
The reason I decided to become a busker and not a YouTube artist is that I wanted to play live. I wanted to play on the street. On the street, I put myself in positions where, in the middle of the night, drunk and disorderly people are everywhere, and still, no one has yelled or said profanities like they do online.
If you decide to stop on the street, that's your call. You can walk on, just like you can swipe away. But no one yells out s*** before they leave in front of everyone because they're held accountable, right in the moment, for what they do. Online stuff is really tricky. Everyone is like a warrior.
I hope the good outweighs the bad for you in this business.
Yeah, it does. It does. I just feel like it's getting to the point where a whole bunch of artists are going to start talking about it. It's a good thing to bring up. We have a voice. Whether I'm the biggest artist in the world or the smallest, I think it's really important to mention it. I always tell my friends that kindness stops bullies.
Give me a line on Welcome To The Madhouse that carries special weight for you.
I would say the bridge of "Dark Waters": "I don't see the world I got / But I keep rolling on / 'Cause I am never happy with enough / Until I'm drowning from it all." That song I wrote at the point where "Dance Monkey” had just gone No. 1, so I was at the peak of my "Holy s***!"-ness. My first billboard in Times Square. I had just gone to the States and played sold-out shows. I had just started a Europe tour as well.
And then, I got to a point where—I don't know why, but I was so sad. Maybe because my dreams as a busker, I had been pulled from that really quickly. Like, "Cool, we had fun. Let's do this." I didn't know why I was so sad. I kept trying to do more and more things, like "This will make me happy," but then it wasn't. I think I needed to be home and be grounded and see my friends. I got picked up and flung around the world. But that's where that line comes from.
Do you have a message for your trolls and haters?
I love you! Hopefully, we can meet in person one day. I just announced a U.S. tour, so if you want to come meet me in person, that's fine. Tickets are open for everyone. We don't discriminate at Tones And I shows. Also, I hope you listen to the album if you haven't. It isn't all the same, so I guess there's a song for—I'm not going to say everyone—the majority of you if you listen and pay attention. I had fun making it and I hope you guys enjoy it.
That's very magnanimous of you. No implied threat in there.
[Knowing laugh.] No, no. No, no.