The Untold Truth Of Tones And I

Tones and I is an Australian singer-songwriter who is on the rise. In January 2019, she was an unknown musician busking on the streets for spare change, but, by November, she had swept Australia's ARIA Awards, had shattered a chart record set by one of music's biggest stars, and had received a standing ovation on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

Born in Australia's Mornington Peninsula, Tones and I (whose real name is Toni Watson) was just 18 when she traveled to Byron Bay in 2018, with a plan to try her hand at busking in the bustling beachside town. On her first day, according to her artist bio on music site Triple J Unearthed, she drew such a big crowd that she instantly decided to quit her retail job, move to Byron Bay and busk full time. With her distinctive voice and keen songwriting skills, it didn't take long for Tones and I to attract a following, first locally and then globally.

The story of Tones and I's meteoric rise from impoverished street busker to international pop stardom seems too unbelievable to be true — but it is. Read on to learn the untold truth of Tones and I.

A chance encounter changed everything for Tones and I

If there's one person other than Tones and I herself who can claim some degree of credit for her success, it's Jackson Walkden-Brown. A seasoned music lawyer and assistant professor of law at Bond University, Walkden-Brown is the singer's co-manager through his firm Artists Only, and he discovered her on her first night busking in Byron Bay.

As he walked by, he couldn't help but notice the sizable crowd she had attracted — and that none of those watching her were leaving. "I heard the beautiful things about her voice, she did that top-end growl, which she refers to as a 'bark,'" he recalled for Australia's Industry Observer. "She had just the beautiful tone, I was immediately drawn to it."

However, what really sealed the deal was her incendiary cover of OutKast's "Hey Ya." "When I heard that," he said, "my jaw just dropped." Walkden-Brown was more than a little intrigued, and he gave her his business card. A week later, she called him up, and he delivered his best pitch for why he should be her manager. A deal was struck, and Tones became his first client. 

Tones and I once lived in her van

While busking gave Tones and I the opportunity to develop as a performer and hone her songwriting, it wasn't exactly making her a millionaire. In fact, when she first arrived in Byron Bay, she was so broke she was forced to live in the van she drove there in.

Looking back, Tones now sees those months as a magical, transformative time. "When I was busking, when I was paying for petrol with silver coins or when I was sneaking into hostels so I could park my van up and sleep in it, I had the best time of my life," she told Australia's Nova radio (via the South China Morning Post).

Despite her feelings of nostalgia for her busking days, Tones' living conditions improved dramatically in the months that soon passed. "Last night I was at the [French radio] NRJ awards in France, and they put me in the presidential suite," she marveled in a November 2019 interview with the Sunday Times. "Last year we were sleeping on mattresses on the floor, scraping up enough change to buy a packet of tobacco." 

Despite her fast rise, Tones and I was no overnight success

While Tones and I was well on her way after landing a manager pretty much immediately after arriving in Byron Bay, her success did not come without a plan and some serious strategy. Time was of the essence. She moved out of her van in order to live with manager Jackson Walkden-Brown and his family, and he immediately put her to work in his studio. "It was pretty hectic in the sense that we dove right into it," Walkden-Brown told Industry Observer. "But she really gelled with us."

He also encouraged Tones to keep busking so she could continue to further develop her skills as a performer. "We'd go down together on Friday and Saturday night, most of the time we'd be together, sometimes she'd take a friend with her. It was pumping at the time, which it always is in Byron in the summer. It literally went off, from the get-go. We didn't have a bad night."

Buzz began to surround the charismatic young busker, and the crowds grew larger. "We were getting shut down by the police in a few weeks," noted Walkden-Brown. "The crowds were spilling onto the street and becoming dangerous."

Tones and I's life changed when she uploaded Johnny Run Away to a music website

Working in her manager's studio, Tones and I recorded a song she titled "Johnny Run Away," and, in February 2019, she uploaded it to Triple J Unearthed (a website run by radio station Triple J, where musicians are encouraged to share their music in order to gain exposure). Then she went for a walk. "I got back and I checked my phone and I was like 'Oh my god, this is ridiculous!'... It went nutso," she told Australia's ABC.

While she was out walking, she told Billboard, "Everyone was messaging me, like, 'You've gotta go look at your track online.' Everyone from Triple J was commenting on the song within half an hour."

"Johnny Run Away" put her on the map — instantly. "[It] was crazy," she told Blank Gold Coast. "I was so caught off guard, I love the track so much but to see that others feel the same way is mind blowing out-of-this-world shizz. I'm honestly just thankful, thankful to myself, thankful to my team and thankful to everyone and Triple J and Unearthed for really giving this track every opportunity to thrive."

Even Tones and I was surprised by the success of Johnny Run Away

Within 12 hours of uploading "Johnny Run Away" to the Unearthed site, the song was being played on Triple J radio. Listener reaction to the track was through the roof, and Tones and I admitted the reception was beyond anything she could have imagined. "I've always gone onto Unearthed and seen other people's songs and reviews and never thought this would happen to me, it's ridiculous," she told ABC

"I did an interview that afternoon, and then my song premiered at 9 p.m. with all my friends around for a barbecue. I was crying — I called my manager, he started crying. They added it to full rotation the next week," she recalled to Billboard.

"Johnny Run Away" ultimately climbed to No. 12 on ARIA's Singles Chart, an impressive debut for an unknown artist whose sole musical experience was busking on the street. "It was very unexpected," she told Spotify of watching her self-produced single explode, instantly expanding her fanbase and taking her music career to a whole other level.

The true story behind Tones and I's Johnny Run Away

"Johnny Run Away" is a deeply personal song for Tones and I, drawn from a true incident from the life of her best friend.

Speaking with Blank Gold Coast, she revealed the inspiration behind the song. "'Johnny' is about my best friend who was telling me the story of how he came out at a young age to a disapproving father," she explained. "It's his story, I wanted to relay to people that we spend so much time judging strangers for their own decisions that we forget that they are going through judgement and rejection within their own family, let alone the public."

She elaborated for Apple Music. "I never knew the story about how he came out to his family," she revealed. "When he told me, he was so upset. I'd never seen him talk like that about a time when he felt shameful or wasn't good enough. He's super proud of himself now and has a great relationship with his family." She continued, "When I decided that that would be my first single, I asked him if it was OK. He's been by my side through this whole journey."

Tones and I signed on with a hotshot management firm

In March 2019, mere weeks after she uploaded "Johnny Run Away," Tones and I signed a deal with Lemon Tree Music, a Melbourne-based management firm that manages such Australian artists as Tash Sultana and Riley Pearce.

"I was sent a video of Tones busking in Byron. Her voice just blew me away and I requested a meeting immediately," Lemon Tree co-founder Regan Lethbridge told The Music. "Tones is very down to earth, driven, has a vault of amazing songs and has a voice that stops you in your tracks. The Lemon Tree team are incredibly excited to work with Tones and I globally and also alongside [her manager, Founder Artists Only's Jackson Walkden-Brown]." 

"It's unconventional to have three managers," Walkden-Brown admitted to The Industry Observer of co-managing her alongside Lethbridge and Lemon Tree co-founder David Morgan. "But it works like a dream. They know radio really well, deal with DSPs, all the practical things." He added, "We wanted to make sure we did the best for Tones."

Tones and I's second single Dance Monkey was even bigger than Johnny Run Away

Given the massive success of "Johnny Run Away," fans were hungry for more, and Tones and I did not disappoint. In May 2019, she released her second single, "Dance Monkey." 

If "Johnny Run Away" was a rocket to the moon, "Dance Monkey" was the starship Enterprise. The song quickly became a sensation as it rapidly climbed the charts, and not just in her native Australia. Along with topping the ARIA Singles Chart (where it hit a record-setting 17 consecutive weeks in November 2019), it also hit No. 1 in 22 countries, including Germany, Ireland, Norway, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and France. Thanks to the song's success, Tones and I also became the first female artist to top the ARIA Singles Chart since 2015

As the Singapore Times reported in November 2019, "Dance Monkey" had "racked up more than 500 million plays on Spotify and is the first Australian tune to peak at Number 1 on the streaming service's Global Top 50 chart." During the same time period, "Dance Monkey" hit No. 2 in Canada and No. 23 in the U.S. — "where it jumped 18 places from the previous week."

The inspiration behind Tones and I's global hit Dance Monkey

Like "Johnny Run Away," "Dance Monkey" has a very personal meaning for Tones and I, inspired by the challenges she faced while busking on the streets of Byron Bay for a fickle crowd of bystanders demanding she entertain them. "The song's about when I was busking and how people are impatient," Tones and I told The Sydney Morning Herald. "If we're not entertained in the first minute we just scroll on. I could see that was reflected in me busking in the street. People wanted you to perform, to keep going, more, more. So I wrote a song about the pressure of live performance now that we have entertainment just at the click of a button."

"Dance Monkey," she told Billboard, is about "one night where people just wouldn't let me be." She explained, "I'd been busking for seven or eight hours, and I had done six encores," noting that the besotted crowd was so into her music that they refused to let her stop and take a break. "If you replace the word 'dance' with 'sing,' it's pretty self-explanatory," she explained.

Tones and I beat a record set by Ed Sheeran

When "Dance Monkey" rocketed to the top spot in Australia's ARIA Singles Chart, it refused to budge. In early November 2019, when "Dance Monkey" entered its 15th week at No. 1, Tones and I tied a record set by Ed Sheeran, whose 2017 hit "Shape of You" spent 15 weeks at No. 1. When "Dance Monkey" stayed at No. 1 for a 16th week, she toppled the ginger-haired star's record.

Interestingly enough, Sheeran and Tones and I have more than that record in common. As The Music reported, in May 2019, she signed a deal with the Paradigm Talent Agency for North American representation. Paradigm is a heavy hitter, representing such artists as Coldplay, Janelle Monáe, and... Ed Sheeran. "About a year ago I used to shoot hoops to make decisions," Tones said in the announcement. "If I got a goal the answer was 'yes.' So I asked the basketball gods if I would one day work with Paradigm — one of the biggest booking agencies in the world — they said 'yes.' Since then, it has been a huge goal of mine and now, one year later, a reality."

Tones and I would like to continue busking

Despite her success in the music business, Tones and I has admitted that performing on the street is something she misses dearly, perhaps more than she realized she would. "That's something that I've really struggled with because I haven't busked since April," she told Billboard in November 2019. "Since then, I've got really upset because I used to be able to talk to people all the time. ... I put on all these free events recently at like 50-capacity venues — I'd do a busking set, and I got to meet everybody. I did a few of those, but it wasn't really enough."

However, she revealed a way she's hoping to recapture her busking days with a little help from social media. "I'm going to do surprise spots," she explained. "I'll go back to Byron Bay to do a surprise busk — I'll give clues on my Instagram as to where it is, but it'll be random places." Sounds like Tones and I will be like today's huge stars who live like normal people like A-listers Sarah Jessica Parker and America's Next Top Model's Tyra Banks. Who would have guessed?

Tones and I worried she'd become too big too fast

Having the kind of massive success that Tones and I has experienced in such a short time does have a downside, and she admitted her fear of being unable to top the phenomenal heights she's reached in a ridiculously short time. "I'm scared of being a one-hit wonder because my second single has set the bar too high. I've been at the top of the charts for over three months in Australia, and not even the biggest artists in the world have done that. I don't want my career to fall if my next release doesn't break my own record because I have a load of tracks I'm proud of," she confessed to the Sunday Times. "People keep saying to me, 'God, it must be great. Don't you feel so amazing?' Actually, it's hard to go from zero to a hundred."

Tones also pointed out that when pedestrians don't like what a busker is doing, they just keep on walking, but these days, she's now "being bullied online and it sucks." She added, "The world is telling me I have a weird voice, which nobody ever said before. You get pulled apart." Hopefully, Tones and I will join the ranks of brave celebs who've stood up to bullying.

Tones and I made her U.S. debut on The Tonight Show... and got a standing ovation

For any musical artist, the ultimate goal is often to crack the American market. With "Dance Monkey" slowly climbing up the U.S. Billboard charts — hitting No. 19 on the Hot 100 for the week ending with Nov. 30, 2019, alongside artists like Lizzo, Halsey, and Camila Cabello — Tones and I was gaining ground when, that same month, she made her American television debut on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon to perform "Dance Monkey." 

Her performance was described by The Music as "stellar," which was borne out by host Jimmy Fallon strolling onto the stage to offer a handshake and his congratulations on a job well done. "Yes! Come on!" Fallon told her. "U.S. debut, buddy. That's the way to do it! Thank you very much," he added.

While Fallon joined Tones and I onstage, the camera cut to the studio audience — who were all on their feet to give the Australian a standing ovation while the former street busker who once lived in her van beamed with pride and gratitude. A magical television moment if ever there was one.

Tones and I cleaned up at the 2019 ARIA Awards

The ARIA Awards are Australia's equivalent of America's Grammys, and, in 2019, Tones and I received her first-ever ARIA nomination... and then received seven more. When the awards took place in November 2019, Tones and I took home four awards — the most of any artist — winning for best pop release, best female artist, breakthrough artist, and best independent release.

"Sometimes I don't think that I'm the most relatable female artist. I'm not into make-up or dresses or typically girly things. But to me, those things don't really define what it is to be a female artist in this industry any more," she said in her heartfelt acceptance speech, as reported by "It's being brave and courageous and true to yourself. No one could have ever prepared me for the whole world judging me and comparing you to other artists. But what's most important is that you have to be a good person and care about others and carry yourself well." 

She continued, "Thank you to Australia letting me know that I'm OK just the way I am."

Tones and I's Dance Monkey broke a Guinness World Record

Not only did "Dance Monkey" put Tones and I on the musical map, it also broke a world record thanks to the name-that-tune app Shazam. According to an announcement from Guinness World Records, since its release in May 2019, the single has been identified on the app a staggering 36.6 million times. Tones' hit beat out the previous record holder, 2013 single "Wake Me Up" from late Swedish DJ Avicii.

As the singer told Rolling Stone, the success of "Dance Monkey" surpassed her wildest dreams. "You can really tell when you get video tags of people covering the song or dancing to it," she told the magazine. "It's just out of this world."

Writing the song, she revealed in an interview with The New York Times, was not a laborious process, with the lyrics basically mimicking the entreaties of people begging her to sing one more song during her busking days. "So I played some bass, and I kept that loop. I put the other loop down. I sang what I'd already written. It just felt so right," she explained. "I wrote 'Dance Monkey' in half an hour, and then it was done."