Anthonie Tonnin – My story, as told to Elisabeth Easther

Anthonie Tonnon is a songwriter and performer who has been nominated for the APRA Silver Scroll three times. His recent work focuses on immersive live shows, such as A Synthesized Universe – made for planetariums, and Rail Land, a celebration of public transport. Tonnon’s third album, Leave Love Out Of This, is being released on Nadia Reid’s Slow Time Records, with LP pre-orders available now.

When I was young, I had an outsized sense of what was possible. Aged 6, I genuinely believed that the tin cans I was building a rocket with in the backyard would get me to the moon. I was also very outgoing, at least till I was about 8, when I withdrew and became very quiet. It was as if I’d become aware of the consciousness of other people, that they also had thoughts, and maybe even opinions about me – and from then on, I became very reserved.

I rediscovered my voice doing a school play in form one. It was called Germs. I was Ulf, which is flu spelt backwards. I was the humorous character who said funny things and stumbled around at the wrong time. To my great surprise, and my parents’, I discovered I was quite good at it. That I could walk onstage and talk in a way I couldn’t in real life.

Once I’d found theatre, I decided to be an actor, but that was a bit of conflict, as my family were Christadelphians. Christadelphians are supposed to live discreetly, a little separately from the wider world around them, so of course, I longed to be a part of the wider world. But because my parents chose their religion (Dad’s parents were atheists), they allowed me to choose my path, and respected my choices – like when I stopped going to church at 18.

I took piano lessons through high school. Each year would start with good intentions, the teacher giving me different pieces, to see if something caught my enthusiasm, but then Trinity exams would come around, and I’d have to learn three quite complicated classical pieces. I’d spend months learning these difficult pieces, without any understanding of what I was playing, so at 16 I gave up.

My sister had an acoustic guitar she’d abandoned, so when my friends got guitars, I picked it up. Then a significant thing happened. I found a book of guitar chords in the Mosgiel Public Library. Unlike most guitar books, the chords were organised into keys. I used it to learn some David Bowie, mostly Ziggy Stardust-era songs. Through this I realised you could pick a key, choose chords from that key, throw them together, sing some words and you’d written a song. That book of chords from Mosgiel Public Library led me to completely change course and pursue music.

I made the mistake of looking for what I thought were interesting part-time jobs. I worked at a pharmaceutical wholesaler, loading pills for pharmacies, then I sat my passenger licence and became a tour guide on the Otago Peninsula. I’d load up the Hiace with cruise ship passengers, drive them round and show them penguins and Larnach Castle. I did the same thing in Auckland. But in tourism, the wages are pretty low, and sometimes I was on unpaid standby, in case I got called to drive a group of mature Americans around the Coromandel – which would mean being up at 4am to cycle to Henderson and pick up the van, with the responsibility of keeping those people safe. That’s a lot to put on the shoulders of a 23-year-old earning $16.50 an hour. Looking back, I wish I’d worked in bars or cafes as those skills are more transferable.

When I became disenchanted with tour guiding, I got a job as a bartender at Golden Dawn, where I met my wife. Karlya was just back from London where she’d been working in fashion. The first time I saw Karlya, I said to my friend Jenna, “she’s my dream woman”. But Karlya wasn’t interested. Then there was a table tennis tournament. Karlya loves table tennis, her family had a table, and they’re quite competitive. When I won the tournament, she sent me a message. That led to a date, which eventually led to me moving in with her.

At about that time, I’d started wearing suits. They were polyester. Terrible quality op-shop things, not fitting well. So Karlya set to work on me. Musicians pride themselves on looking like they’ve done things on the smell of an oily rag, whereas in fashion, they might do things on the smell of an oily rag, but they make it look like they did it with the money from an oil well.

Once engaged, we looked for a place to get married. It had to be somewhere we’d lived or had a strong connection to, but everywhere was expensive. One day we got a call from Karlya’s friends who owned an old fire station in Whanganui. They wanted to give us the venue as a wedding present. Suddenly I felt a deep connection to Whanganui, where the prices for things are printed on a sheet. In other towns, you go to a hireage place, and they ask, is this a wedding, a party or a corporate event? Then they quote you a price. At HireMaster in Whanganui the prices are printed and plates cost 20 cents – it doesn’t matter what you’re doing.

When we were introduced to the Whanganui Opera House, I was planning a music video. I asked the price of hiring it, thinking I’d have to call someone and negotiate, but it was the same thing. They handed me an A4 sheet, and the price was a tenth of what it’d cost in Auckland to hire a grand theatre with a Steinway piano. When we returned to Whanganui to shoot the video in 2017, we saw a little art deco house for sale. We decided to make an offer, as practise for really buying a house. It was the first house we’d ever looked at, and we were the only people to make an offer and we’ve lived there ever since.

I’ve never liked the idea that a musician has to struggle, playing bar after bar for little money, taking on other jobs to live, till they either succeed or fail. When you play a gig you also have access to free alcohol, which leads to a downward spiral. I hate how that gets romanticised – and that some people believe musicians need something torturing them.

Dad is a glazier, and when I was younger and thinking about being a musician I said to myself I just want to be the glazier. I want to do my job, earn as much as Dad did, and treat it like a job.

I really respect artforms with a sense of practice. Whanganui is full of artists who go into their studio at nine in the morning and potter with materials till four or five. I try to do the same thing. I turn up at my desk each morning and write music, just to spend a couple of hours each day seeing what comes from working with no defined purpose. The reason I can put on an hour of transcendent entertainment is because I allow myself to be quite boring the rest of the time. I have a practice based around routine, because I want it to be a long-term thing. I love songwriting, although sometimes I wish it was something physical, like a piece of clay, instead of working with air and words.

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