You’ve heard it.
It was written by a busker, in a closet, for a few friends at a youth hostel (in only thirty minutes, by the way) but you’ve heard it.
Maybe you heard it at a Denver drag show, at a lake in Leipzig, at a Karaoke bar in Kenya or scrolling through TikTok in Tokyo, but somewhere on Planet Earth in the last three years, you’ve heard it.
The song is “Dance Monkey” and it was released in 2019. Now, between the nearly 3 billion (yes, billion) streams on Spotify, nearly 2 billion (yes, billion) views of the official music video and the dozens of peripheral videos with hundreds of millions of streams of their own (not to mention all those other platforms out there) the number of times the song has been streamed online is literally incalculable.
Big win for that boardroom of corporate songwriters and record executives manufacturing radio hits, right? Wrong.
“I didn’t write that song to release at all,” Toni Watson aka Tones And I tells BandWagon in a phone interview. “I lived at a hostel. Like – I’d parked my van there, I used the showers and I had to play there every week on Thursday, and then they let me use it for free. I played that song for a year on the street before I decided to release it.”
Watson was a full-time street performer in Byron Bay, Australia writing her own songs and performing them with a mic, keys and beats to passersby every other night. The streets were a big influence on her writing, but the community at the youth hostel was where inspiration struck.
“I’d met everyone at the hostel,” Watson says. “I had, like, a family there. People lived there long-term; for years. So I played every Thursday and it was more about me trying to write new music every week for them. I used to do this cover of ‘Forever Young,’ in this way that I put a lot of beat loops under it and bass and they used to love it.”
“Every time I played this version of ‘Forever Young,’” she says, “they’d all get up and dance no matter what. I went away that week and I was like, ‘I want to write a song that makes them dance, but I want it to be my song.’ I wanted to have that same feeling, but I wanted it to be from something that I’d made. So that was my goal that week.”
Goal achieved! For Watson, writing a big hit was just, well, elementary. In a few years time, Tones And I was touring the world on the global relatability of a song written just for fun – her second ever release – which is now the most Shazamed song of all time. “Dance Monkey” made the leap from something she identified as hers, to something that belonged to the world.
“As long as it was in Australia I still felt like it was mine,” Watson says. “I guess the first time I remember thinking it was just gone off into cyberspace, off into the world, was when anyone from a different country recognised the song. As soon as it got big overseas, I was like: ‘off it goes.’”
And off she’s gone with it. Phoning in to BandWagon from Helsinki, Finland after a European tour, Tones is now on a headlining, full-band Welcome To The Madhouse tour of the US, culminating in her final show of the American stretch, EdgeFest: a free, outdoor show in Cheyenne, Wyoming on August 27.
As the title of her tour and album Welcome To The Madhouse suggests, it’s been an insane couple of years.
“The ‘madhouse’ is pretty much my way of condensing down and writing music from before I started busking, losing a friend, COVID, going from being on the street to being on Ellen, Jimmy Fallon, Good Morning America and everything in between,” Watson says. “I guess I called it The Madhouse because it was a very erratic time of my life.”
• • •
Until now, Tones And I was a one woman show, exclusively. She wrote and performed everything herself, to the accolades of the ARIA, Billboard and many more, becoming one of the most successful solo female singer-songwriters of our time. She says even the moniker “Tones And I” stands for “my music and me.”
But now, it seems, she’s finally ready to collaborate – with one of her “wish-list” musical heroes, of course.
In June of 2019, just after the release of Welcome To The Madhouse, Watson wrote a letter to her future self, intended to be read a year later. In it, she implores the Toni Watson of today to remember her loved ones, continue to trust her gut and never write music specifically for radio. She also ponders, “have I met Macklemore?”
As the world can hear on the dramatic new Macklemore, Tones And I single “Chant,” released July 22, the answer to that question is “hell yeah.” While the release and success of “Dance Monkey” wasn’t exactly foreseen, Watson’s collaboration with Macklemore has been a dream, years in the making.
“He’s one of my favorite artists of all time,” Watson says. “Honestly, a lot of his music even helped me get onto the streets [to perform]. And even before that, just giving me the motivation to quit my job.”
Working with Macklemore has, in a sense, always been an idea she’s held onto tightly.
“I remember driving to [a gig] in another state in my van – taking the leap and leaving everything – just playing [Macklemore] on repeat. I got in a car accident. I hit a pole. The car was still running and The Heist was playing. I remember taking the CD out and saving the CD, but leaving the car running (with the keys in) and going to the hospital. Luckily I was okay – it was just such a priority moment for me. Didn’t even turn the car off.”
Some time after the incident, Macklemore himself caught wind of his talented fan and surprised Watson (and her audience) by appearing at a Tones And I show in his native Seattle.
“I was backstage and I just heard the crowd erupting,” Watson says. “I was like, ‘What?’ I went into the support band room and I said ‘you guys going out there like, now?’” But the openers weren’t on for another 50 minutes.
“In this particular venue you can’t get backstage without walking in front of the stage barrier,” Watson remembers, “Macklemore was actually walking through the crowd in front of the stage to get backstage. He surprised me, watched my show and then messaged me after, like, ‘I want to go in the studio with you.’”
Two days later they hit the studio, and the rest was … well, not history just yet. The COVID pandemic stalled the collaboration, but Watson held on to the idea like a copy of The Heist in a clenched fist while running from a flaming car.
Finally, last year, the two were able to re-connect, rehash old ideas, try new ones, and work on what would eventually become “Chant.”
“It’s just the most perfect track for both of us,” Watson says, “and especially for me. It’s really about resurrection as an artist. And there’s so many great things in this song. It’s just the most perfect thing.”
The timing, too, seems to be perfect, and well worth the wait.
“I have said no to every single collaboration ever because I wanted it to be right,” Watson says. “I said, I’m not going to do any collabs until I release my first album. I want to write all my music, write all my songs. And I can’t believe I’m saying this, but my first collab will be with him and that’s just something that I’ve really planned out. I think I manifested it.”
Tones And I has manifested another pattern-breaking first on her upcoming EP too, a surprising one in the pop music world.
“I don’t mean to, but I’ve actually never written a love song,” Watson says. “I have one song about love on this EP,” she continues, “and I’ve never written about love otherwise. Not because I purposely don’t, I just don’t feel like I’d ever really known what it is.”
That is until now, and the reason for knowing what love is seems pretty clear.
“I’m engaged now,” Tones happily reveals. “I just didn’t want to push [writing about] it. I would never force myself to write about anything. It’s about love, but it’s also very honest in not knowing how to show [love] because you don’t really know it that well; you want to embrace it, but you’re not 100% sure how it works. It’s more honest than anything.”
“Of course the first song I write about love is going to be more about how hard it is,” Watson says, “how new and different it is. And about really wanting to just be loved.”
Write what you know, the saying goes. Honesty leads to connection, and connecting is what good music does. For Watson that’s been the method since day one.
“I’ve always just been really honest,” she says. “Whatever wants to come out comes out. I never try and stick to a theme or anything. I’ll write a bunch of songs and pick the ones I love the most, that feel the most true. It’s just, ‘what do I want to play live? What do I love the most? What matters to me?’ Because I’m the one that has to play them and hear them more than anyone.”
It’s hard to believe it, but indeed Toni Watson has actually heard “Dance Monkey” more than anyone.
“It’s so funny,” she says, “because the most honest song I ever wrote – there was no expectation, I wasn’t going to release it, I wrote it for my friends at a hostel – can be seen as the most, like, shallow, basic song I’ve ever written that’s just about dancing – that’s the most successful song, not only that I’ve ever written, but by a female artist of all time.”
“From the exterior, the other songs have a lot more lyrical content,” Watson says, but there’s something pure about her big hit.
“That song is one of the only songs I’ve ever written in a time where I never wanted to release music. I just wanted to get people to dance and have fun. When you’re really not thinking about anything other than your mates – wanting these literally 20 people to just have fun and dance – that’s all that came through.”
Catch Tones And I live on Saturday, August 27 at EdgeFest in Cheyenne, WY – a FREE EVENT at Civic Commons Park presented by Warehouse Twenty One – Show starts at 5pm featuring Claire Rosinkranz and Joe P. Details at EdgeFest.com. Tones And I releases her new single “Charlie” on August 22, more at tonesandi.com