There are few songs that have made viral impact recently like Tones And I’s “Dance Monkey,” an exuberant bass-heavy dance track that hit (No. 1) in 30 countries over the last two years. In Australia, the singer-songwriter’s home country, it’s become the longest running chart topper of all time. After racking up 1.5 billion YouTube views and 7.5 billion streams, you’d never guess that the global phenomenon all started in parking lots, strip malls, and street corners on the east coast of Oz, in the small coastal town of Byron Bay.
That’s where Tones — born Toni Watson — began busking in 2017, perfecting renditions of songs by artists like Macklemore before beginning to write and perform her own – including “Dance Monkey -- at those free outdoors shows. “I lived in my van. I would wake up, go for a drive, swim in the ocean, busk in the daytime, go down to the beach, play a set as the sun was going down, take the speakers to the shops that were closed, start playing for about five hours,” she says. “I felt this sense of freedom. I can go wherever I want, whenever I want. I can just play music.”
Tones grew up south of Melbourne, with an insatiable love of music. Before moving to Byron, she was paying the bills putting in hours at clothing stores but itching to live the creative life. “It was killing me working in retail. All these songs would come on the store speakers, and I would get so emotional. I would know that I'm not doing everything I could possibly do for myself. [I’d think to myself] ‘why am I wasting my time selling people jeans?’” From there, she packed up and moved to Byron, which has lax laws about street performing and has attracted enough of a busking culture that she was able to subsist on tips alone. “It's like some crazy festival that never ends. There's constantly people playing in the street. Fire twirlers — and that's not an exaggeration.”