Canadian musician Tonetta is the savior of lo-fi music. Free from the irony associated with chillwave and shitgaze, he crafts poetically coarse tunes using whatever equipment is available, with lyrics like the raunchiest passages of a William S. Burroughs novel. He has been recording these songs for nearly three decades, and only recently released his first album, 777, on Black Tent Press. I had the honor of speaking to him over the phone about his music, his videos, and his life.
When did you take up the Tonetta monikor?
I started writing and putting music together in 1983. The Tonetta thing didn’t start until 2008, when I put myself on YouTube. I needed a character. You can’t just go up there and do a bunch of your stuff and wear a suit and tie. So I thought up the Tonetta thing. In 2008, I started as Tonetone444, and eventually I got three violations and they closed me down. Then I opened up again as Tonetta777, which is more of a girl’s name, instead of Tony. That’s when I had a mask and I started doing the girl thing. I got three violations again, and they closed me down again. I guess my fans didn’t like that, so they started downloading my stuff and uploading it on their accounts. At that same time, I had another account open, tj1749, so I started uploading on that. That’s how I got going on YouTube, but I’ve been writing for almost 30 years.
And the songs on 777 are from those 30 years of making music?
A lot of those songs were done in 1983. Dirk [Knibbe, Black Tent Press] put some older songs and some newer ones together. This one that’s called “Drugs Drugs Drugs,” that’s one of the first songs I ever wrote, and that was in 1983, and I never redid it.
The version we hear on the album is that version from 1983?
Yeah, it’s that old. I did that when I lived at my mother’s place.
Have you been recording with the same equipment since then?
Back then I had a reel-to-reel eight track. There was no such thing as digital. But it sounded great, because it was brand new. And then it got old and I went down to a four track, to keep my music going, because I was just writing like crazy. And time went on and I ended up with an eight track, digital, and I’m using that. But that thing is almost 16 years old. My equipment is very old. My guitars are just cheap. They’re from the ’60s. They weren’t over 20, 30 bucks.
Are you familiar with any of the recently successful lo-fi indie bands?
Not at all, I don’t listen to music. I don’t listen to the radio, I don’t watch TV. I don’t do any of those things. I kind of keep to myself, I’m more of a recluse, and I think my music is different for that reason. I really believe it is different.
I agree, and your music sounds more authentic than those bands, because it’s lo-fi out of necessity. You aren’t like the bands who make purposefully lo-fi music.
I do it because I don’t have anything else. I just do it in my apartment, you can hear the traffic and the noise, but that’s just the way it is. You do what you gotta do, that’s all. I don’t try to deliberately make a sound; that’s my sound because it’s all I have. But lately Dirk has been sending me a few little things. He sent me a fuzz machine and a drum machine. Everyone was complaining that the beat was the same. Well I only had that one beat programmed into my eight track, so I kept using that beat. Now I can switch the beat. I can’t tune the guitar because the guitar is too cheap, it just doesn’t tune. People complain, they say “Why don’t you tune your guitar?” Well, I can’t. I just wanted to share my music. I figured, YouTube is pretty good, it’s a good way of sharing. And then I started horsing around, entertaining the people because they get a kick out of it. Some people can’t stand me but some people authentically like the stuff. Dirk’s selling albums, so somebody’s buying them, and they must like it, as raw as it is.
I feel like that raw sound is what attracts people to your music.
I can’t believe it. He’s making an album with stuff I did in ’83, as rough as it is, some things are out of tune, and people are buying that. I don’t know why they’re buying it. You’d think Dirk would say “Hey let’s get into a studio, and then make an album.” That’s what I thought he was going to do, but I guess it costs money to do that. He says it’s fine the way it is. So, I keep doing it. I’m writing like crazy. I’ve got sheets and sheets of music. It’s all in my head, I don’t know what’s happening, it just comes out of me. I’m working on one now. I could do a song a day.
Will there be a new Tonetta album coming soon?
Dirk might remake the first one, because he said it’s doing pretty good, and he wants to do another one. Still it’s going to be a mix of the old ones with some of my new ones. I’ve got a lot of old ones, and I’ve been sending him everything I’ve got. I keep sending him stuff, and he’s going through it all.
How did your relationship with Dirk and Black Tent Press begin?
It began right on YouTube. He got a hold of me about a year ago. He said, “If you want, I can promote for you.” He said, “I can’t promise you money but I can guarantee exposure.” That’s how it started. And now there’s this Moscow thing…
What Moscow thing?
Someone emailed him saying they wanted me and a band to go to Russia to do a concert and they would pay for everything. But, if we say yes, there’s a lot of work involved. There’s rehearsing and all that. You have to find musicians and they have to be taught. You can’t just go there and fake it. I’m in Toronto, Dirk’s in Los Angeles, and somebody wants us to go to Russia. But anyway that’s an idea, and I’ve had a few deals like that with some people. Even in Toronto, last Pride Week some guy wanted me to do Tonetta for a couple nights, he said he would give me 500 bucks each night. I turned it down. I’ve never gone in public dressed like that, wearing a dress and horsing around. It’s easy to do in your apartment because nobodies looking. I’ve never really performed live.
A band recently performed live as Tonetta.
Yeah, Dirk said he’s got a band going. They’ve got the masks and they’re doing a bunch of my tunes. I think it’s members of the Growlers, this band Dirk is friends with. Apparently they did a performance in a record store.
Yeah, I saw photos from the show. The outfits seemed pretty close to your videos.
What were the outfits like?
Dresses, and the mask from the album cover.
They were actually wearing dresses? I can’t believe it.
I guess wearing the mask helps.
Hahaha, so the guys will wear dresses, and think nothing of it. That’s funny.
A lot of your songs are explicitly about sex. Was this a conscious decision from the start?
Well what else can you write songs about? Aren’t all of these songs really about sex or love? Even if you hear an old tune, it’s about love, and love is sex. I’m just bringing it one step further. I’m getting rid of the love and making it more sexy.
That’s what I find really interesting about your music. No other artist is as upfront about it as you.
That’s because they realize they aren’t gonna get airplay, they’re not gonna get anywhere. I don’t care if I get anywhere or not. That’s the difference. Most of my songs will never get airplay. They’ll never put those things on the radio. Not even “Drugs Drugs Drugs,” because it’s really promoting drugs, and I’m really promoting sex. There’s only one way it will get airplay, and that’s if there’s such a demand on my music that the public ignores all other music. Then radio stations will be forced to play it. If people brush off all other music, they’ll have to put it on the radio and TV. Apparently they already put something of mine on TV, “Back 2 School.” It was on Web Soup or something. I don’t see any of that. When I want to see how my stuff is doing, I check it at an internet cafe every few weeks.
Do you upload your videos from there?
No, Dirk does it. I’ve been sending my stuff to California. I had a friend in Toronto doing it before I knew Dirk. He lived downtown, but then he went home to Lebanon, and he couldn’t do it anymore.
When were the videos recorded?
They’re recent because they’re recent tunes. People email me asking for birthday songs and anniversary songs. I’ve been doing that, for the public. A lot of it is recent but then there are some older ones where I just took an old tune and put a video to it. It’s kinda mixed up. There’s one called “Hey Does Anybody Know I’m Here” and that’s so old it’s not funny. I just put a video of myself on it recently. But it’s so old. I’ve been writing before you were born, I guess. I started writing in 1983, but I’ve been playing guitar since I was 12, but I could never write. I always wanted to write a song, but I couldn’t do it.
When did you realize you could write?
After my marriage broke up. I had a lot of stuff in my head and I think my brother wanted me to write it on paper, and put it into music. So that’s what I started doing. It’s all real life stuff. None of it’s made up. Some people say you have to suffer great pain in order to write. Maybe that’s what I did. Then I kinda kept to myself. They say writing is self-therapy. You talk to a psychiatrist or you do something like that. Even Paul McCartney said the same thing, Dolly Parton said the same thing. Writing is good for you. Gets it out of your system.
Are your friends and family aware of Tonetta?
They’re all aware of it, and I didn’t even tell them. The first time I went on YouTube, my nephew subscribed to me right away. He said “Hey congratulations, blah blah blah.” And after that he told my son, who is about 35 now. And then a couple of school buddies found out. My whole family and any friends I have, they all know.
Do they like it?
Well, they’re still listening. Except for my son, he doesn’t listen anymore. He doesn’t like what I’m doing. He likes the music, but he doesn’t like my method, seeing his father wearing a dress. He said, “You’re embarrassing me.” He can’t tell his friends “Hey, check out my dad on YouTube.” They’ll ask what I’m doing in a dress. I’ve been called so many things on YouTube, queer, fag. But I’m not, and that’s the crazy thing about it. They actually think I’m gay. I’ve got two boys and I was married. If I meet the right girl, I’ll get married again. I like pussy. If I have the choice, I’ll take tits. I like the female body. I’ve never been with guys.
So what was the inspiration for your songs about guys?
Well, for example, there’s this one called “Glory Hole” or something. This guy emailed me and asked if I could write a song about his experience. I never knew about that stuff until he told me. So I wrote the song about that, and he loved it. Some other guy said “Write me a song and make it as filthy as you want.” So I wrote “Gold and Brown Showers,” and that’s about piss and shit, and that’s never happened to me, but it makes a good song. Got a lot of people watching it. You can’t believe everything people write. Some of them are just nonsense songs. As for being with a guy, I’ve never been with a guy. I’ve got a whole bunch of guys who would want to be with me, but they’re not girls. So forget it.
To find out more about this artist, check their YouTube page.