Pop songwriter Anthonie Tonnon tells Lydia Jenkin about finding his inspiration in journalism

The most popular song on Anthonie Tonnon's previous album Up Here For Dancing was Marion Bates Realty. The frustrations of being a tenant trying to hold on to a decent flat and being kicked about by a real estate agent struck a chord with many young Aucklanders (and those further afield), particularly when told in the droll, resonant tones of Tonnon.

Three years on, the smooth and dapper pop songwriter has not only moved flats several more times, and been named by Billboard as one of New Zealand's 10 most note-worthy acts, but he's just released a new album full of new stories and observations.

We couldn't think of a better way to discuss its intricacies and genesis than while walking around the ex-Dunedinite's adopted Auckland suburb, so off we set to wander Grey Lynn.

"The irony is I wrote that line 'The tide is rising on Grey Lynn, it's coming from Herne Bay', when I was living in Grey Lynn, but now I live in Herne Bay," he grins.


Yes, times have changed. He's gone from calling his outfit Tono and the Finance Company to using his own name (though he still has a band), he's spent many months touring Australia and America, and he's gone from finding inspiration in his own 20-something struggles, to being inspired by investigative journalism pieces.

He might've sat on his futon at 15 Northland St, mulling over a real estate agent's frustrating decisions to produce Marion Bates Realty, but it was when he moved round the corner to 145 Crummer Rd that he read Donna Chisholm's Metro article Blow Time, and came up with the story for A Friend From Argentina, the first song released from Successor.

"For this record I was trying to create the experience of a long form journalism article into a song. That's the idea I became obsessed with. Because around this period I feel in love with Joan Didion's writing, with Steve Braunias' writing, and one thing that really sparked me up was reading the Donna Chisholm's article.

"Reading that article opened up a new songwriting world to me to, because you expect a good crime story should be set in New York or London with a lot more darkness going on, but she set it in Auckland, where you've got this kind of bourgeois attitude to cocaine, and I think with cocaine there's always this idea that it's not hurting anybody, but then at the centre of the story is this tragedy, that really happened, with the woman [a Colombian drug mule] who had a heart attack. So I realised pretty quickly that that was what I wanted a song to do. I wanted to have a full story, a narrative that could really deliver a punch."

Walking towards Grey Lynn park, conversation winds through how disappointing the local Countdown is, good running routes, and the joy of a parkside water fountain, but Tonnon also explains his revelation about writing in the second person.

"I'd been trying to do the Randy Newman thing, to enter an ugly character, and that's what Upstairs for Thinking Downstairs for Dancing did with the property-obsessed guy I overheard on a train. But often people don't get that" he laughs.

"It can be hard to get across that you're embodying someone else, that you're playing this ugly person - Randy Newman is a hugely misunderstood artist."

"So when I discovered this second person voice, it intrigued me, because I felt like it gave me some distance from the story, but it's kind of like a pick-a-path novel, you're forcing the reader or listener inside the character, and having them walk in their shoes."

If that all sounds a bit academic or linguistic, rest assured Tonnon was using these literary ideas in a pop music kind of way.

"I was trying to make pop music definitely, to make pop songs that had an element in the lyrics that I hadn't heard in other pop songs. Pop songs plus if you like.

And some of that was about story, some of that was about the Randy Newman focus on character, and a lot of it was about what things I was seeing or experiencing, that I think thought might be unique to include in a pop song, and maybe hadn't been used much in pop songs before."

So, pithy and perceptive commentary on the cocaine party scene in Auckland, or a dark mind of a surgeon, or the frustrations of local body politics, or trying to save the world with emails, or the filmic quality of life.

His songs are filled with these characters so detailed and stories so subtle, that it's hard to figure out how they fit into four or five minute songs. It seems the secret is less metaphors.

"I was listening to Leonard Cohen songs, Nick Cave, seeking out these things that weren't drenched in metaphor, in fact getting away from metaphor, which helps to drive them, they stick to more of a narrative. And later on when I heard Sun Kil Moon's Benji, that cemented it for me, it was like, yeah, exactly! He barely uses any metaphors at all, he just tells a story, but the story is powerful. That was my goal with Successor."

- Time Out