Tones And I Is Making Her Most Honest Music, And It's Nothing Like 'Dance Monkey'

The Aussie busker-turned-pop star tells us why having another global hit is 'not important'

Before Tones And I released the single "Bad Child" in March, she made a decision: She was going to tell everyone that it wasn't about her. "I've always wanted to write a song in someone else's shoes, writing from their perspective. It's seeing life growing up through someone else's eyes," she said in a press release the day the song hit streaming services. The problem? That wasn't the truth.

"I was like, 'I'm never going to tell people it's about me,' because I didn't want to be vulnerable," the Australian singer-songwriter told MTV News last week. "I even got a boy actor [for the music video] because I wanted to confuse people into thinking that it was about someone else."

The video does feature a younger version of Tones, whose real name is Toni Watson, complete with her signature baseball cap and hoodie. She appears as an imaginary friend of sorts to a boy who's traumatized by angry authority figures and who embodies the struggles Tones, 26, sings about: "My family always said I was the bad child / Throwin' me away into the bad pile / All my life, been puttin' on a fake smile / Sittin' on my own, feel like I'm exiled." One scroll through the video's YouTube comments and you'll see a common sentiment: "This song hits different when you're the black sheep in the family," one fan wrote. "I relate to this song. I'm the bad child. Or at least I feel like it," another one shared. It was those kinds of reactions that recently changed Tones's mind about divulging the song's real roots.

So while she's at it, Tones has another confession to make: Her 2019 song "Jimmy," in which the titular character wants to escape a dysfunctional family life, is also autobiographical. "I've never said this, but 'Jimmy' is about me too," she said, with a hint of nervousness in her voice. She insists it's relieving to finally admit that, but there are also boundaries to what she does and does not want to talk about. In a time when most of our pop stars are so extremely online that it sometimes feels like we know everything about them, Tones is more of a mystery, intent on protecting her privacy — hence the reason why she didn't want to air out her childhood trauma in the first place.

"I didn't want people looking and asking questions about my past. I gave the people what I thought was necessary to give, to get that off my chest," she explained. "I don't want to do, like, a one-hour episode of my upbringing, and that's what I was scared of and why I pulled back from it. Even when I first started music, before any of this, I was very hesitant. I didn't want to get too big. I didn't want to talk about my family or my life. I just wanted to talk about the positives and what I'm doing now for myself."

That's easier said than done for Tones, mostly because she released one of the biggest songs in the world last year. Yep, it took five paragraphs, but we've finally arrived at "Dance Monkey," the global viral hit of 2019 that topped the charts in over 20 countries, boasts just under 1 billion views on YouTube, and which holds the record for the longest time spent at No. 1 across Australian singles charts, with 24 weeks. (For comparison's sake, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" reigned atop the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S. for 19 weeks.) Tones wrote "Dance Monkey" after she left her native Melbourne and began busking on the streets of Byron Bay, an artsy beach town where she first lived out of her car and eventually shacked up at a hostel. She wanted "Dance Monkey" to be a party-starter, a feel-good banger for her friends to dance to at the hostel's Tuesday night talent shows. At the same time, the lyrics tackle the bad side of busking — replace the word "dance" with "sing" and you'll know how Tones sometimes felt as a street performer dealing with unruly crowds who just wanted her to "sing, monkey."

"I wasn't thinking too in-depth. I wasn't thinking about writing to my emotions," she said of the song's humble beginnings. "Yeah, it was also about me busking and about being frustrated, but I didn't put too much emphasis on the meaning of the song. I put a lot of emphasis on the bass-drop chorus and the melody of the chorus, so we could all jump up and dance and have a good time. I wrote it in half an hour. I never thought this would happen to me."

Tones describes "Dance Monkey" as a runaway train that became bigger than she ever dreamed after its release last May. And it's not decelerating yet — just last week, it dethroned Camila Cabello's "Havana" as the most-streamed song by a lead female artist on Spotify, with over 1.5 billion streams. But along with that success comes an inevitable army of haters. "People might like it or they might hate it, because it's really one or the other," she acknowledges about "Dance Monkey," but she wasn't anticipating the full scope of negativity that was hurled her way. After the ARIA Awards in November, where she won four awards, Tones opened up in a Facebook post about how she'd been in a "big black hole" despite her recent triumphs due to the death threats and "relentless bullying that follows every proud moment." She wrote, "I am going through the best and worst time of my life."

"In Australia, it's all love," she told MTV News. "Australians are like, 'You've got this. It's my turn this week, it's your turn next week.' I just wasn't prepared for the rest of the world, I reckon, where people bring each other down. 'Oh, you're succeeding? I'm going to bring you down.'"

Fortunately, Tones has found some people within the music industry who she's able to lean on, like the Aussie electronic duo Peking Duck, who she says are "like brothers" to her. Then there's Macklemore, her idol, whom she calls "a lyrical genius" and praises for not "saying stupid shit about other artists." They met in February at her show in Seattle, and the next day, he invited her to a studio where they wrote a couple as-yet-unreleased songs together. More vitally, they bonded over the bullying they'd each faced as so-called "divisive" artists.

"I've talked to him about probably the worst thing that's happened to me since all of this has come forth, and I hadn't opened up to anyone about it," she said. "I can shrug off bullying; you're going to get people that hate you, and I'm fine with that now. But at the start, it was hard. I opened up to him about it because when he was coming up, he had a similar thing happen to him."

Earlier this year, Tones announced a special "anti-bullying" tour, where she planned to perform for free at high schools to advocate against bullying. At the same time, she was plotting an extensive world trek of shows designed like theater performances about her life; it was going to begin with her busking, then continue with scenes from her life acted out onstage. All of those plans, of course, are up in the air amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, so instead, Tones is taking this time to zero in on her debut album. She's spent the past few weeks at home in Australia, where she lives with a friend, and sticks to a daily routine: Wake up, exercise, make music.

The album doesn't have a title yet, but she's been toying with the idea of calling it You're So Fucking Cool, named after an unreleased track she's been playing live for many months, and which was inspired by a fancy L.A. that she ditched after realizing it wasn't her scene. Tones says the album is slated for release in August, but it's still evolving by the day. She's been tacking on more songs to the tracklist, so it'll be longer than she originally anticipated. "It's definitely all over the place," she said of the project, adding that some of the songs are discarded ones from last year's The Kids Are Coming EP, while others are ones she's written just in the past few days.

"These songs are completely me and my own production. It's not swayed by other songwriters or by anyone that's trying to help me get a hit, because that's never been important to me," she said, adding that she self-produces all of her tracks the same way she performs them live, with a looper pedal, before sending them off to "a proper producer" to clean them up. "It's a proud moment when you can look at something that you've worked hard on and know that you're good enough, which is something that people shouldn't say too lightly. Actually realizing that you're OK the way you are and that you're good enough is a huge deal when you really, really feel that."

She's adamant that her new music taps into something that "Dance Monkey" didn't — she said, "People might prefer 'Dance Monkey,' but these other songs are the ones I really put my heart and soul into, and the ones that the real fans are going to really listen to and probably prefer in the end." Take "Can't Be Happy All the Time," which she released in March at the same time as "Bad Child," and which is as plaintive as its title suggests.

"I was in a really bad place when I wrote that song," she said. "I got to the point where my music had really taken off and I was playing sold-out shows around the world. I thought I had what I wanted my whole life, so I was like, 'Why aren't I happy then?' I got so upset by that thought. And then I had to tell myself, 'There's more. You've got to have relationships, love, be loved, be healthy, look after yourself, have good friendships around you, work, do exercise, play music.' I had to tell myself, 'You're not there yet, so don't expect to wake up every day and jump out of bed till you fall asleep.' I think that's why I wrote the song: to remind myself of that. It doesn't mean that you're depressed or your world's crumbling down. We just have those moments."

Like "Bad Child," it's another deeply personal song for Tones And I. And this time, she's not afraid to say who she wrote it about.

"'You Can't Be Happy All the Time' is so honest and real, and it's definitely about me," she said. "To put that song to the forefront is something that's new for me. But to be more open and to talk about me in a song is a good thing."