Oyster Interview: Tonetta
"A moustache don't make you a guy, a dress don't make you a woman."
I used to live in a share house with three other people. Our house was located at the crossroads of (it seemed) every bar in Sydney, meaning that each night people would 'drop by' and hang out until all hours. I was once woken at 4 am by the fire alarm, which went off because some of our guests decided to ceremonially burn — in our living room — a flyer advertising a party earlier that night that had been prematurely shut down by some overzealous security guards.
When not burning large pieces of paper in small rubbish bins, we would often gather round the scorch-marked, wine-stained coffee table and watch hours upon hours of YouTube. One very distinct memory is from the day Heath Ledger died, when we watched endless fan-made Joker slideshows with a soundtrack of Boys II Men. Another is of the night we got lost in a K-hole of Tonetta.
Unbelievably prolific — in the month since I began working on this article he has uploaded 26 videos to YouTube, plus explicit (read: full-frontal) versions of each to Vimeo — Tonetta can turn anything into a song, be it his desires ('Drugs, drugs, drugs'), his slightly less scrupulous desires ('Twin Sister'), or even the Michael Jackson custody trial ('Grandma Knows Best'). Often uploaded several times a day, each performance features the sexagenarian in varying states of undress, and very often in a dress — or a mask, or a wig, or a suit, or all four at the same time. As the man himself says, "A moustache don't make you a guy, a dress don't make you a woman."
Contacting him turned out to be quite a difficult task. Despite his apparent direct line to the servers of YouTube, Tonetta doesn't actually own a computer. I eventually got hold of a man called Thunder Bunny, who was involved in the release of a tribute album called The Tonetta Theory. Thunder Bunny was more than happy to help, although I did worry when he wrote back, "Let's hope he has a phone." Luckily "the stars were aligned" for me (his words), and he emailed to let me know that Tonetta did indeed have a phone and had agreed to an interview.
I'd read tales of interviewers calling Tonetta's house, only to reach an answering machine. Leaving a message on an answering machine is my second-greatest irrational fear (the first is phoning a restaurant), so you can imagine my feeling when I hear, "Hello, you've reached Tony. I'm not available to take your call, please leave a message." After listening to the outro (a happy-sounding Tonetta song), I begin to leave my message: "Hi, uh, Tony. My name is Ariane. I'm calling from a magazine called Oyster, in Australia—"
Tonetta: Hello? Hello? Who's this?
Me: This is Ariane, from Oyster magazine.
I was hoping to do an interview with you.
Are you the one from Australia?
I am calling from Australia, yes.
After discussing the weather for ten minutes (Toronto: mostly cold), I ask him about his ex-wife — Tonetta only began making music after she threw him out of home in 1983. (Keep in mind that he stopped watching TV and listening to other people's music in 1980, triggered by the death of John Lennon.) Why did she throw him out? "She didn't want the kids taking after me," he says. "That was the reason. So, to stop that, she got rid of me." Tony's brother encouraged him to write his feelings down and put them to music. "Somebody says you have to go through, I don't know, a great pain or something to bring everything out of you. I don't feel like I'm writing music, I just feel like I'm putting down my thoughts." But surely the music was a good thing to come out of the divorce? "I guess," he says, sounding uncertain. "If you like the music."
This is a recurring theme throughout our conversation: despite having been featured on respected sites like Vice and The Quietus — Artist Advocacy even described him as "the saviour of lo-fi music" — Tonetta seems genuinely unaware of his popularity. His music might be as lo-fi as lo-fi gets, but unlike many artists with a similar aesthetic, it's clear he's a brilliant songwriter — and his songs are unlike anything you've ever heard.
I ask him if he's still talking to the brother who was the catalyst for his music career. "No no," he says angrily. "That guy, he ripped me off, big money. We had a family get-together and what I did was I gave all my brothers a lottery ticket and all my sisters and sisters-in-law a box of chocolates, you know, as a gesture. And then my brother said, 'We're going to win some money,' and the lottery ticket won $100,000. You think he would give me a penny? He didn't give me nothing." I ask if he wrote a song about it. "Yeah, it's called 'Death Sentence'." 'Death Sentence' is a cheerful song in which Tonetta muses on how his brother will die: "In your sleep, of a stroke, or a shot through the head?"
Wanting to change the subject, I ask Tony if he has the internet at home. "No, I have nothing," he says. "I just go to the cafes, or I go to the library to check my emails." So, when did he start using the internet? "When somebody who knows I write music said, 'Put your stuff on YouTube.' I'd never heard of YouTube, and that must've been around 2008 or 2009. I didn't know how to open an account, so I had somebody do it for me, and it cost me money. I was paying people to upload for me, $10 every song." Someone must've been getting rich, I observe. "You're right!" he exclaims. "I had been doing this for three or four years, I ran out of money, and all of a sudden somebody showed me how to upload." However, just after he learnt how to post the videos himself, he ran into some trouble with his hosts. "I had so many songs, and I paid all that money out… All of a sudden YouTube, they closed me down. So I lost all that money." So far, YouTube has shut Tonetta down four times.
Regardless of what YouTube thinks of his subject matter, Tonetta has no shortage of fans. And they're dedicated: every time he uploads a new video, at least one of his loyal followers will upload the video to their own account, just in case Tonetta gets shut down once again. How does this make him feel? "I was very surprised," he says. "Tonetta here, Tonetta this, Tonetta, Tonetta, Tonetta. It's flattering, really. I don't even know these people." For the first time he seems aware of the impact he has had, but it doesn't last long. "I don't know how to use the internet; I just learned how to upload. I don't know how to type — I don't do these things. I'm an old man!"
This is an article from Oyster #101, on sale now!