Public transport advocate and enigmatic singer-songwriter Anthonie Tonnon is soon to release his first studio album in six years. Ever the musical chameleon, Tonnon embraces electronic music on this new record he has called ‘Leave Love Out Of This‘, with songs developed through his critically acclaimed solo performances. Sam Smith caught up to discuss his unusually long time away from recording, his growing taste for politics and making a career work as an independent musician. Made with the support of NZ On Air.
Anthonie Tonnon’s last album ‘Successor’ came out in 2015, but the singer-songwriter and public transport advocate has been keeping plenty busy in the six years since, growing his bow, so to speak. With this Tonnon has refined a method to make money out of music, in an era where it is becoming increasingly more challenging to do so.
“We live in an era where an album costs you tens of thousands of dollars to make, and it pays you nothing. What I have found is that the power for musicians is in shows. It is shows that really matter if you want to have a career. The shows have become like an album cycle thing for me. I’m making an immersive type of show every few months but taking a longer time to make an album.”
“After ‘Successor’, I dropped everything and spent six months developing this show called A Synthesized Universe, for the Otago Museum Planetarium. It went really well, and I guess this combination of my technology upgrading and then discovering this idea of the immersive show made me realise that I had a business model and a sustainable career model. And so the album did get pushed back a little bit while I focused on A Synthesized Universe and Rail Land.”
This might explain the wait between records, but rest assured, Tonnon still respects the album as a piece of work, and his forthcoming release is a testament to this and the time and effort that goes into making albums in 2021.
“The album still has that novel kind of feeling to it… it feels like a really important thing to do.”
‘Leave Love Out Of This’ includes some songs, like Two Free Hands and the title track, which he has been road testing for the last few years, but all up the new album sees Tonnon explore a more electronic synth-based sound. That change is thanks in part to the introduction into his live show of an NZ-designed Deluge synthesiser, which he say has opened up new avenues for his music.
“When I started recording this album, I didn’t have that yet. The Deluge came along just before we did the Two Free Hands tour, and so when I transferred everything over to the Deluge, it was a new instrument. It had five or six sounds that were amazing to me, and so all the songs started to take on the sounds of this new instrument.
“This changed the writing of the songs. Like one of the things you notice on songs like Peacetime Orders – if it was a normal song it would just end when the guitar ends. But because of this approach and the use of the Deluge, songs can be long, they have this additive approach where they can turn into something completely different by the end of the song. It’s a good example of how having that technology allowed me to change the song. That particular synth sound you hear all over the album is a Deluge sound.”
That being said, Tonnon still lent on some familiar faces to help him conceive the project, including some of his longtime collaborators from the ‘Successor’ era such as Stuart Harwood and Jonathan Pearce. These days best known as guitarist in The Beths, Pearce recorded and helped produce that 2015 album and had a similarly high level of involvement this time, credited as a co-writer on four of the album’s nine tracks.
‘Successor’ had a political bent to it, with Tonnon exploring issues such as climate change and public transport through song. The album’s widely-played single Water Underground was described by one commentator as ‘…a particularly fine political song, told as a tale of greed corruption and power.’ Still, he is hesitant to label himself as a political songwriter, despite ‘Leave Love Out Of This’ in a way continuing where that album left off.
“The songs on this album included the same kinds of things that I had written about previously, the intergenerational divide and things like that. My generation grew up with this neo-liberal mindset. When the fourth Labour government was in the idea was that our generation would be these genius economic calculators. We would be cold and rational, and we would make heaps of money and apply economic thinking to everything. The reality is quite different, and so I guess ‘Leave Love Out Of This’ is a classic statement about that idea of what we are supposed to be, leaving emotion at the door and operating with mathematics.”
Tonnon says he doesn’t purposefully sit down to pen socially charged songs, but does find it strange the idea that musicians tend to be barred from participating in political life, something he thinks needs to change.
“Musicians don’t go into politics, and if they do, they have to quit being a musician. And so that is really interesting to me. I have been getting involved in public transport advocacy, thinking that I don’t want to be a politician because I would never stop being a musician.
“But with the artistic approach, I am wondering if we can throw some more musicians into the pipes of government and see if we can unclog some things? Maybe the artistic approach is a way of dealing with some of our problems that aren’t getting solved. I don’t necessarily think the place for that to happen is songs. There are exceptions, Mataura Paper Mill is a political song. But I wouldn’t sit down and say right the time has come to write another political song. If one of those songs didn’t come to me for like 10 years, I wouldn’t mind.”
When not writing music or touring, Tonnon is well and truly involved in public transport advocacy in Whanganui where he now lives. At the moment he is helping operate the city’s historic Durie Hill Underground Elevator, while he also has a role with the Whanganui District Council.
“I am enjoying it. The goal was always to be a full-time musician. I finally got there a few years ago where I could finally live off making music, and that was great for about a year, but then once you make music your job, you find you need a hobby! That’s where public transport came in, and I just couldn’t help myself. I am now at a stage where I love songwriting and I have a process where I do it every day. I am comfortable in my skin as a working musician. But now the thing that keeps me awake at night is thinking about how we can get a better bus system in Whanganui. Public transport is this new problem to try to solve.”
Maybe not on a bus, but Tonnon will tour ‘Leave Love Out Of This’ in September and October with a full band and new stage show, a new challenge he is excited about after perfecting his immersive solo shows over a four year period.
“I used the Deluge, and I have these electronic beats, but I try to find ways where I am tangibly playing everything. It’s always been hard to try and think how that would work with a band. You can expect a show that takes what we have learned from A Synthesized Universe and Rail Land with the movement, with the sonics, but instead of me controlling a magic box that creates lots of sounds, it will be humans playing all of those sounds.”