Giulia Giannini McGauran (G.G.McG)

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When Rolling Stone Australia speaks to Toni Watson before the release of her debut album Welcome to the Madhouse, she’s elated. But it’s not for the reason you may think.

In 2019, as Tones And I’s second ever single climbed global charts, broke records, went 15x Platinum, and hit number one in 30 countries, her detractors attacked with unrelenting weight. As she went high, they went low, using school yard bully tactics and shockingly, recruiting some music industry professionals. As more global eyes looked to Australia as a producer of talent and as her economic contribution to this music industry grew, her trolls chased social currency.

What’s surprising is that the trolls who are largely leading these misunderstood pile-ons, in comment threads and under by-lines for esteemed publications, seem to be males. Males who are yet to resign themselves to the fact that they just don’t get Tones And I. That unlike her 21.9 million monthly listeners on Spotify, her music isn’t made for them.

It’s prescient here to remember that even the hallowed Rolling Stone has been on the wrong side of history when it comes to music criticism in the past. The iconic publication once lambasted Weezer’s 1996 LP Pinkerton, branding it one of the worst albums of the year. In 2004, that record was included in the Rolling Stone Hall of Fame and given five stars.

The US publication even wrote an article in 2016 about the classic albums it originally panned. The introduction reasoned: “Imagine hearing a group like AC/DC or the Ramones for the first time without any context: The music might seem ridiculous and childish, and even if you grow to revere the group in question, your first impression is the only thing anyone will remember.”

When Rolling Stone Australia speaks to Toni Watson, better known as Tones And I, over the phone from her Melbourne home, she’s elated. Surprisingly, it’s not for the reason you may think. Yes, her debut album was set for release just days later—the one the world has been waiting for ever since “Dance Monkey” broke the record for the most weeks at number one in Australia’s chart history—but that wasn’t the reason for her good mood. No, Watson is more excited to go on a busking tour of Australia. “I’m probably the happiest I’ve been ever,” she says.

“There’s something about singing in a community, on the ground, with people, that feels so perfect for me. […] Being able to be like that with people singing along, talking to people, you know, hugging people and stuff. It’s a different thing,” she says. “It’s not me and then there’s them, and I’m on stage. It’s just us.”

tones and i busking

Tones And I busking on the streets of Melbourne as part of Melbourne”Music in the City” on the 21st of December 2020, in Melbourne Australia. (Image/Martin Philbey)

The tour, which will see her tour via van when COVID-19 allows it, will mark a full circle moment for Tones And I. As is now well-known, she was busking in Byron Bay when co-manager Jackson Walkden-Brown stopped in the street on his way to dinner. He and his wife scoffed down their meals and swiftly made their way back to hear that voice fill the streets.

In the same way hits like “Dance Monkey”, “Never Seen The Rain” (6x Platinum) and “Johnny Run Away” (2x Platinum) were written solely by Watson, each of the 14 tracks on Welcome to the Madhouse has just one songwriter, Toni Watson.

“When it comes to [writing songs for] me, I’m not to fussed about whether it’s a flop or not,” she says. “I just want to offload my emotions and that seems to be always the right decision for me. I do want to do collaborations when it’s right, but I need to find an artist that wants to write this whole song from scratch with me.

“I don’t want to be given a whole song and be told, ‘just write a bit’. That’s not who I am.”

Welcome to the Madhouse is one of those rare albums that catches you off guard. The penultimate “Fall Apart”—about her need to concentrate on the good times with best friend ‘T’ as she grieves his loss—is a sophisticated piece of chamber-pop. Meanwhile the bass line alone in “You Don’t Know My Name” feels as warm as the Funk Brothers’ contribution to “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. Elsewhere, “Dark Waters”, written in between global tours, feels cinematic in its echoed sequences (“I am never happy with enough/until I’m drowning from it all”, she sings).

Watson enlisted a few co-producers for Welcome to the Madhouse, bringing in “Dance Monkey” co-producer Konstantin Kersting, along with Dann Hume (Amy Shark, F-POS) and Randy Belculfine. The latter, an LA engineer who also worked on Watson’s non-album single “Ur So F**king Cool”, was initially brought in to engineer, but Watson saw too many other hidden talents.

“I said to [Randy], you’re a producer, so I’m going to give you producer credits. […] He is just really, really, really, really talented. He’s too valuable. If someone just uses him as an engineer, they’re taking advantage of him and I didn’t want to be someone like that.”

It could be said that the album has been in the works long before the making and release of Watson’s 2019-released The Kids Are Coming EP. “Not Going Home” was penned a year before she wrote “Dance Monkey”, making it the oldest song on the record. As a collection, Welcome to the Madhouse isn’t a concept album, but it does leave you with a sweeping feeling when you listen to it back-to-back. From that angle, right after the playful “Bars (RIP T)” where Watson raps on record for the first time, you feel… pride. Pride in an artist who has the ability to create rooms of escapism, some that move you to rise up and dance, others that move you in another way, where goosebumps pop up all over your arms.

Cruel, often defamatory, trolling has been par for the course for Tones And I. But what the critics and Twitter trolls don’t get, millions of young pop music lovers easily understand. Music doesn’t need to be overly complex to strike a chord, and female pop stars don’t need to pander to or look like a certain archetype to earn praise.

Recently, Watson had an epiphany about how she will view the success of this album. She was writing personal messages on the back of all the pre-ordered vinyl editions of Welcome to the Madhouse when “Fall Apart” came on triple j.

“I listened to the whole song,” she recalls, “and I realised this album is so much more than just, ‘Oh you got to number one for a week. Yay. You can say you’re a success’. I realised in that moment, as I was writing a thank you note, these people that bought my album, they don’t care if it goes to number one. They will listen to music because they want to feel something,” she continues. “And they like my songwriting, my music, and me enough to support me and buy this album. And they’re not going to give two shits whether this song goes to number one.

“So I had a big epiphany yesterday when I was writing these notes and it made me think about how much I loved writing these songs,” she says. “And how much I felt that I forgot that in the last two weeks. And now it’s really brought me back down to earth, so I just want to be proud of it forever.”

Tones and I made history this week as her Rolling Stone Australia magazine cover became the first to be released as an NFT. The NFTs are available for a limited via The Brag Media’s newly-launched NFT store.

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