From Busking to Busting Records: Inside Tones And I's Meteoric Rise and Her Breakout Hit 'Dance Monkey'

Tones And I
Courtesy of Elektra Records

Tones And I

After Tones And I released her debut single, "Johnny Run Away," in March, she put her phone away and went for a casual stroll around the streets of Byron Bay, Australia. By the time the musician born Toni Watson returned home, her career had already taken off -- the song blew up online and received radio airplay later that day.

Things have only picked up since then, with Tones And I dropping her follow-up, "Dance Monkey," in May. Whether it be her striking, straining-in-all-the-right-ways voice, the earwormy chorus, or the electronic piano-based production, the song has struck a chord on a global level and continues to grow.  

In just four weeks on the Hot 100, "Dance Monkey" has traveled from No. 96 all the way up to No. 41, where it sets a new peak this week on charts dated Nov. 9. Additionally, in her native Australia, she's held the top slot on the ARIA singles chart for a record-setting 14 consecutive weeks, edging out previous record holder, Ed Sheeran ("Shape of You"). Her debut EP, The Kids Are Coming, also topped the ARIA albums chart following its release in August.

Below, Tones And I talks to Billboard about the backstory behind "Dance Monkey," adjusting during her rapid ascent in the industry, and her plans to continue to busking in the future.

Your first single “Johnny Run Away” got airplay four hours after its release. Walk me through that experience.

I uploaded the song to triple j Unearthed, and then I just went for a walk in Byron Bay. When I got back, 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. 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.

How did that kind of success with your first-ever single influence your expectations for “Dance Monkey?”

One of my managers said, “Oh, Tones -- what happened with 'Johnny' was a freak thing. Don’t expect it [to happen again].” He even said, “I think ‘Dance Monkey’ is a really good song live, but I don’t think it’s going to be a radio song.” [Laughs] It’s something we joke about to this day.

When did you write the song? Was there a lot of tweaking to the track before its release in May?

I wrote “Dance Monkey” in October [2018]. I would write the music [at my manager’s house], and then I’d go to Byron for the week. If you look on my Instagram, I put a snippet up of me the day I wrote it. I wasn’t working on it that whole time, though. I was busking with this song, playing it on the street every day. That’s what I was focusing on. It’s been produced a tad to make it sound shinier, but in terms of the parts, the bass drop, the clicks, the start, the end, it’s very much the same. 

I just focused on playing it -- I didn’t really think the world of releasing music was for me. I thought the world of live performance and busking was where I was going to thrive. I had no idea that digital streaming platforms and radio and that world would be for me, you know?

What was the reaction when you were playing it while busking in the months leading up to its official release?

Really huge. When I released “Johnny,” everyone wanted “Dance Monkey.” I could’ve released the music before I started busking, but I would’ve been like everybody else. I put in my time and effort, and I built a fan base before I released [music] on purpose. It seems like it’s happened really quickly, but I did the opposite of what other people do -- instead of releasing and then working hard to push that track, I was busking every single day to heaps of different people in one of the busiest towns in Australia in terms of people that actually give a shit. 

What’s the song about exactly?

It’s a song about a moment where I felt frustrated about how people had no patience anymore. They had their phones and caught a busker that was really hot, and people wanted me to go, go, go. If you replace the word “dance” with “sing,” it’s pretty self-explanatory. I’ve literally turned quotes that people say to me into lyrics -- they’re all very real. Like, “you stop me in my tracks while I was passing by,” “just sing one more song,” “you make me wanna cry” -- it’s exactly what people say to me.

It was one night where people just wouldn’t let me be. I’d been busking for seven or eight hours, and I had done six encores. So many people get inspired in the moment and just make up bullshit to try to give you hope. Every person swears black and blue on their kids’ lives that they’re someone and they can help me and they never do. I just got frustrated with it and I wrote a song about it.

You’ve talked a lot about your desire to continue busking, but as your star continues to grow, it becomes more difficult to have such intimate fan experiences. How do you plan to continue fan engagement as your platform grows wider?

That’s something that I’ve really struggled with because I haven’t busked since April. Since then, I’ve got really upset because I used to be able to talk to people all the time. Obviously “Dance Monkey” is only about a certain night, but usually, my favorite thing is talking to people. 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. This summer, I’m going to do surprise spots. 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. 

How have you dealt with such a rapid ascent in the industry?

I don’t know if people think that you’re meant to just change as a human being, but I don’t. I take it day by day. And if I put my phone down, then everything is the exact same as it always was.

Have there been any negatives?

The parts I don’t like are people picking you apart. People being able to have so many opinions of you without meeting you, which I know is a part of it, but you don’t realize what that’s going to be like. You just have to block it out. You just have to be strong and set a good example. And that’s probably the hardest thing, I’d say. Everything else is manageable because there’s so much love as well. I want to be an artist -- it’s something that I truly love doing and that I get excited to do. I feel happy every day. I just have to get my head around all the rest of it. 

What’s it like watching your song expand massively on a global level?

It’s all really crazy. Sometimes, I’m just like, surely there’s no one left in the world to listen to this track. That’s how I keep thinking. People message me and say, “I just heard ‘Dance Monkey’ yesterday.” I’m like, “What? That’s crazy! Surely there’s no one left.”

How has it been translating a busking live performance to something of a bigger stage?

Well, the first Australian tour I literally just took busking to the stage. I couldn’t really move too much around my equipment. And then for the second tour, I was like, “Holy shit. I’m playing a show -- I can organize production, I can do fun things with the crowd. I can organize anything I want to organize because it’s my show.”

Are you beginning to think at all how you’ll follow up “Dance Monkey?”

It’s hard to know because it’s not my favorite song of mine. And it seems to be everyone else’s [favorite song]. So, if I were to write a song that I genuinely think is better … I’ve already done that for myself. I’m just going to keep trying to write music for me because that’s what got me here.

I don’t want to focus too much on trying to write a song for radio. I’ve been quoted on saying that I’d never write a hit just for radio. I don’t think that’s what got me here. So, what I need to do is to keep writing music I want to write that makes me happy. Or makes me sad. And people that do want to stick around will stick around. And people that want to just listen to “Dance Monkey” will listen to “Dance Monkey.” But I’ll be happy.

A version of this article originally appeared in the Nov. 2 issue of Billboard.