The New York Times
The New York Times 13 Feb 2020

What Is 'Dance Monkey' and How Did It Take Over the World?

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The hit song by Tones and I started as a sensation on the streets of Australia before reaching No. 1 in 20 countries and topping 1 billion plays on Spotify. See how it was made.


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… show captions ↓
“Hello.”
“Hello.”
“Do I call you Tones or Toni?”
“Tones.
I can’t even believe that this is my life sometimes.
It’s going number one in so many countries.
“‘Dance Monkey.’”
“‘Dance Monkey.’”
“‘Dance Monkey.’”
“For anyone that thinks that I’m, like, an overnight success
just doesn’t know about, like, the hard yards
I’ve already put in.
I used to work at a surf shop on Bourke Street,
which is really the busiest part of Melbourne.
And there was like, you could busk on Bourke Street.
I really, really wanted to busk.
I couldn’t even play an instrument at this point.
One of my friends was like, you should come to Byron
because you can literally just park up and busk out
of the side of your van.
And I was like, OK, I’ll give it a go.
So I bought a van, moved to Byron Bay
and started living in my van.”
“What was your impression of Byron Bay when you first
got there?”
“I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to fit in here.’
There’s a lot of buskers in Byron, but very acoustic guitar.
It’s very, like, bohemian.
So probably the first time anyone’s
pulled out a keyboard on the street,
let alone, like, the drum pad,
the synthesizers, and the loop pedal and the harmonizers.”
[singing]
“I stumbled across her when she was busking
in Byron, in September 2017.
It was the very first time she’d tried busking.
I heard that,
and I said to my wife like, ‘Whoa. That was pretty cool.’”
“He gave me his card — said ‘entertainment lawyer’ on it.
And I said to him, ‘I don’t have any legal issues.’”
“Tones was my first management client.
She came in, and lived with me and my family
for a while after there, and worked out of my studio
a lot in that first year while she was busking.”
“I’d go up every Monday, Tuesday
and stay there, write music, go busk for the week.
I was busking day, day, day, day —
in the winter, when no one else would busk.
In the rain, when no one else would be busking,
I would be busking.
It wasn’t about the money.
It was about, no matter what,
being able to get more fans.
So there might be 20 people that night
that would otherwise never know who I was.”
“When did it hit you that your busking was becoming a thing,
that you were an attraction?”
“I know that there was a point where
I realized if I posted on my social media, and said
I was busking somewhere people would come.
Other buskers started getting angry at me.
Some started a Facebook group.
And were, like, we’re going to run Tones out
of town — like, for no reason.
They just hated how big the crowds were getting.”
“People don’t walk past Tones.
No one does.
By the second song there were always like 10, 20 people.
By the fifth,
the crowd was hectic every single time.”
“I love busking.
There’s so many good, amazing people on the street.
It’s the reason that I’m here.
But there was one night that was very frustrating.
And I wrote a song about that.
People grab my hands
and be like, ‘You know you stopped me dead in my tracks
when I was walking by.’
[singing]
‘Just sing one more song, just one more song.’
‘I’m just going to get my husband.’
I’m literally just repeating what people tell me.
That’s why if you replace ‘dance’ with the word ‘sing,’
it’s just about me busking.
[singing]
I always wanted to do a song with a bass drop chorus.
I really like that song that’s like,
‘You just want attention. You don’t want my heart.’
I loved how it was like —
So I played some bass,
and I kept that loop.
I put the other loop down.
I sang what I’d already written.
It just felt so right.
I wrote ‘Dance Monkey’ in half an hour,
and then it was done.”
[singing]
“Just watching her busk with it, early on,
people just loved it.
And we’re like, this is going to be a cracker.
Like a proper cracker.”
“You guys basically specialize in buskers at this point?”
“Essentially —”
“We just like working with buskers, that’s
the thing, we like working with people that
want to create art, and tour and make their life music,
and buskers do that.”
“Did Tones have original music when you guys first
made contact with her?”
Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
‘Johnny Run Away’ was the most developed demo,
and that was the first release we put out.
[singing]
That caught a fire real quick
in Australia, crossed over to commercial radio,
which was huge.”
“In Australian terms, ‘Johnny’ —
it doesn’t get any better than that for a debut.”
“Even though, like, my song was getting high rotation
on like, all the mainstream radios, that does nothing.
You have to keep busking,
and I didn’t want to work at Woolworth’s.”
“So when did you first hear the demo for ‘Dance Monkey?’”
“I never heard a demo.
She came into the studio, and played me the song
how she played it.
And then it was sort of our job in the studio to make it,
I guess like, radio friendly.
Just about that bass drop, making sure
that it was not too straight,
that it really swung.”
“We set up ‘Dance Monkey,’
and were going to release it.
I was like, ‘Look, maybe it’s just a live track.
Maybe it’s just a banging live.
Maybe it doesn’t do as well as ‘Johnny,’
and I was trying to just, I don’t know,
just keep expectations in check.”
“Dave said to me that, ‘Don’t be upset
if this song doesn’t live up to ‘Johnny Run Away’
because that song is probably more of a radio hit, which
is apparently everything that matters these days.”
“Now she forever tells a story that, ‘This is the song
that my manager Dave said was probably not a radio song,’
and it’s like the biggest song in the world right now.”
[singing]
“In Australia, it’s broken the the record of any
female artist ever.
Any Australian artist ever,
and any song at number one, the most consecutive weeks.”
“A lot of songs become big in Australia.
Some of them cross over to the U.K.,
and other European countries, but not all of them
can make the leap to America, like,
what does it mean for your song to break in the U.S.?
Is that meaningful to you?”
“That is like another whole universe in itself.
It’s like, breaking the U.S. is like re-releasing
‘Dance Monkey’ again to the world.”
“Do you ever feel guilty that the song that
helped you make it is sort of complaining
about the very thing that helped you make it?”
“No, I’m writing it about the girl that
knocked over my keyboard, and the guy that
tried to steal my money and the two guys that were
literally yelling out ‘Again! Again! Again! Again! Again!’
right in my face, and the guy that walked past me
and said, you’re [expletive] — all in, like, 30 minutes.”
“Have you been back to busk since ‘Dance Monkey’
hit number one?”
“It’s very hard to do.
I want to dress up as Old Tones
from the ‘Dance Monkey’ film clip and go busk.
People ask me how I feel.
I get a little bit frustrated because I don’t
know how I feel, but like sometimes
I have those small moments when you’re driving
in your car on your own, and you just think to yourself,
‘Holy [expletive],
I have the most streamed song in the world right now.’”
[singing]

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