Mental health, non-binary identity, and “medium fame”: An interview with TONIE

TONIE, identity, and mental health

Vibrant synth-pop tones. Inviting gossamer vocals. Hard-hitting themes unfurling themselves in poetic lyrics. All of which make up the essence of TONIE’s rich sound. 

Surrounded by guitars as far as the eye can see, rising singer-songwriter and producer TONIE sits down with Cold Tea Collective to discuss their creative process, aspiring to medium fame and the intersectionality of their Vietnamese American and non-binary identities. 

TONIE, a non-binary Vietnamese American artist, poses while sitting with a guitar
Photo credit: Tonie Nguyen.

Duelling careers

Music has always been a bedrock of TONIE’s life, so much so that when it came time for them to pick their university major, they double-majored in computer science and music. 

“I picked computer science because it felt cool at the time, made a shit tonne of money and it was something I could explain to my parents”, Tonie said, with a laugh. Citing people’s reactions to their seemingly opposing majors, TONIE explains how software engineering and music share similarities. Problem-solving and algorithmic thinking, all while sitting in front of a computer, are skills TONIE uses when they’re producing music and writing code . 

Looking back, TONIE has no regrets about going to a private university with a small Asian community as opposed to a more diverse and specialized music conservatory. They also note how expensive it is to invest in a career as an artist. The year they worked in a corporate, computer science-related job helped establish the music career they have today.

“Though it was harsh, being in a sea of white folks — I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to reflect on my Asian American identity,” they said. “[I wouldn’t have been] pushed intellectually to find myself before then finding music.”. 

When TONIE went on to pursue music full time, they expressed the satisfaction in every work day being a little bit different. Being out in the world, collaborating and meeting new people aligned with what they wanted to do with their life in a way that writing code couldn’t achieve. “That’s why I’m a musician”, they said. “I want my whole life to revolve around the mystery and magic of music”. 

Music and mental health 

TONIE’s early discography focused on classic themes such as love and heartbreak. TONIE’s latest singles ‘if I took a pill” and “daydreaming” shifted from this, centring around depression and mental health. 

While themes of anxiety and depression have been a growing trend in the recent Top 40 chart-toppers with artists such as Billie Eilish and Demi Lovato, TONIE wanted to bring that to their own Vietnamese American community. 

Citing an American Physiological Association study that Asian Americans are the least likely to seek out mental healthcare, TONIE expresses how worrisome this reality is to digest — considering the intergenerational trauma present in our communities. 

“Writing songs about mental health and depression is my way of starting that conversation”, TONIE said. “[I hope] that it reaches our generation, our parents and our grandparents”. 

See also: Cultivating a space for Asian mental health conversations

MUSIC REC:  Carly Rae Jepsen’s album Emotion. TONIE’s go-to pick-me-up album.  

TONIE’s intersectional identity

Some might know of TONIE from their previous show name — Wind Meets West. When asked about the journey to their current artist name, they explained how personally important it was to decouple from their old one. It carried with it a gendered identity that TONIE no longer aligned with. 

Their new name was a better representation of their identity upon publicly coming out as non-binary. “My old name came at a different time in my life, and 22-year-old TONIE is so different from the person I am now”, they said. “Plus, everyone introduced me as Tonie already anyways, it just made sense.”

TONIE speaks to the tenuous relationship between being Vietnamese and non-binary. Growing up in a more traditional and gendered Vietnamese community, TONIE feels that they’re constantly fighting an internal battle. 

The Vietnamese language, TONIE goes on to explain, doesn’t have a gender-neutral pronoun, so therein exists a major barrier in communicating who they are — be it to their parents, family or even to themself. 

“Sometimes I question if this [being non-binary] even exists,” TONIE said. “I know it does — it’s just hard when even your mother tongue is fighting against you”. 

TONIE wants the tension of their identity to play out behind the scenes, in the biography of their life alone. They express the need for artists to be able to write and make music about anything, while not feeling boxed in. 

“A lot of queer and BIPOC artists feel this way — that because we identify this way, we can only write about those things. But I have songs outside of trauma and tragedy, that are just about joy and being sexy,” TONIE said. 

See also: Fire Island: Finding the intersections between queer and Asian American culture

MUSIC REC: I Like That by Janelle Monae. If TONIE’s non-binary identity could be expressed through song.

Being “medium famous”

When asked about their aspirations for the future, TONIE aspires to be “medium famous”. It’s not their goal to sell out massive stadiums and venues, but to maintain an intimate relationship with their audience. 

More tangibly, TONIE’s main goals are to be able to sustain a living as an artist and play shows regularly. Other goals include producing for artists bigger than them, in the vein of hit producer Jack Antonoff, while keeping their own artistry going. 

TONIE states that their dream is always shifting, and gives themself the capacity to grow and change. “As long as I can make music and play shows comfortably, that’s all I need”.

See also: You never walk alone: embracing identity through BTS and fandom

MUSIC REC: Cellular Phone by Ting Lin, a song produced by TONIE. 

To 12-Year-Old TONIE

“You don’t need to dress so masculine, chill”, TONIE said, with a laugh, when asked what they would communicate to their younger self. “But seriously, I would tell 12-year-old TONIE to love themself for who they are. I hated myself growing up, I wanted to be white, straight and masculine. I really wished they were in a place to be themself but they couldn’t – it wasn’t safe to do so. But in a perfect world, I’d tell them to be themself and love themself”.

TONIE’s upcoming tour dates include:
6/25: The Well in Nashville, TN
7/22: Supermarket Bar and Grill in Toronto, ON
8/5: Littlefield in Brooklyn, NY

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