Sonya Mandan of Echobelly
"Hungry for More" by Christina Soong
Much of the hype surrounding British indie-popsters Echobelly has been due
to its "Audrey Hepburn look-alike" singer/songwriter Sonya Aurora Mandan
to the extent that her talent for writing, marketability as a rebellious
young Asian lass and strongly-felt views on politics and gender often
seem to eclipse Echobelly's music in importance. Consequently, after the
feeding frenzy of the British press and Echobelly's rise to prominence in
late 1994, it would be easy to write off Echobelly as succeeding solely
due to Sonya and her endorsement from Morrisey. However, Echobelly's
music is strong enough to stand on its own and their debut album
Everyone's Got One should win them more than a few Aussie fans. Christina
Soong telephoned Sonya in England to set the record straight.
Echobelly's narcissistic single "I Can't Imagine the World Without Me" was
indie pop at its three minute best and they followed up with "Everyone's
Got One" (or EGO if you prefer) which made the Top Ten in 1994 the UK.
Sonya was surprised to hear that "Everyone's Got One" just came out in
Australia a few months ago as she thought it was released concurrent with
its British release last August. In fact, Echobelly have just finished
their second album, "On."
"It's a bit weird to be talking about the first album when we've just
finished the second one... (On's) wicked, but we'll talk about that next
year," she laughs. However, she discloses that On is "different (from
EGO) in the sense that it's not as quirky. The songs are stronger and
have more of a pop element but the recording is a lot more meaty, with
much heavier guitars. It's definitely going more towards...dare I say
Blondie rather than The Smiths...its just the way we're heading. People
are saying that the new album is a lot more Beatlesy, but I hate to
compare it or qualify it."
Echobelly have often been compared to the Smiths and other English
youngsters, Suede. While Sonya is a bit flattered, she is understandably
reluctant to be seen as merely a version of the original. "It's all very
well and good but I don't like to be compared to anybody because I think
what we have to offer is valid enough in its own right...on a trivial
level it is a very flattering thing to be compared to other people if you
enjoy their music, but I don't really care."
Sonya has been presented as an doc-wearing, kick boxing babe who rebelled
against her strict traditional upbringing to become "the spokeswoman for
Asian women everywhere." However, the reality is not quite as extreme and
Sonya says her "strict upbringing with no pop culture" has been
exaggerated in the press. I point out that I'm looking at a press release
from her record company. "Oh man," she says, wearily annoyed. "I think I
better get this one sorted out...it's not really true; I did grow up with
pop music but I wasn't allowed to go out much...I wasn't allowed to go
into London and see bands and come home too late. "
While at school, she developed a liking for 80s bands like Madness, The
Jam and Blondie. Around then, she met guitarist/songwriter Glenn
Johannason at a gig in London. He was in another band at the time, which
Sonya really liked and when they split up, the two started writing
together. "When I started writing songs I never thought, 'ooh this is
going to be a controversial topic!' I just write about what comes
naturally. It's bizarre, but people have made such a big deal out of
things that I thought were common sense." Later, three more members were
added, including ex-Curve guitarist Debbie Smith.
The quintet released their first EP Bellyache and it was evident that
Echobelly were not going to be a schlicky glossy pop band rhapsodizing
about love, not with politically charged songs like Give her a gun which
rallied against the repression of women in Arabic countries and others
like Sleeping Hitler which ear-tagged songwriters Mandan and Johannason
as bright young things who actually had something interesting to say.
Personal fave from EGO is gem Father Ruler King Computer, which takes its
title from the Female Eunuch (Germaine Greer), and was actually inspired
by Sonya's refusal to become involved in an arranged marriage with a
Having a living legend like Morrisey (ex The Smiths) gushing over them
has obviously not harmed Echobelly's success in the slightest, with
Morrisey's freely given praise of Sonya's song writing skills causing
more than one coiffed Smith fan to sit up and pay attention. "Morrisey
seems to be a bit of a fan of Echobelly," Sonya admits. Further pressed,
she admits that he came round to her a flat for a cuppa but she is
nonchalant about the whole thing.
This attitude continues through to her perception of the fickle English
press. "I think it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. It shouldn't
be taken too seriously because they don't really take it that seriously.
It's a very quick turnover here and it can be dangerous if you get too
involved in it." Although she believes that true talent will shine
through at the end of the day, she is well aware of the changing moods of
the British press. "...in Britain the British press tends to be a bit
more fickle than the American press or a lot of other places so I think
it's a little more difficult if you're not part of the scene here. They
like to compartmentalise everybody here."
Echobelly were part of the group of indie British bands that included
Oasis and Gene and which came into prominence in 1994 . However, Sonya
believes that the similarities end there. "We all came around at the same
time and I think our influences were vaguely similar but you know, after
the first album I think that everybody can see where a band is heading,
or where its coming from at least and you find that bands actually don't
have that much in common."
One thing the bands definitely do not have in common is a female front
person. This in itself has led to snide comments about Sonya's actual
talent and she is suitably angry about having to prove herself. "I just
think that at the end of the day if you call yourself an artist, then you
should be selling your art, not your tits... I think that people are
harder on women in general...I just think that we're brought up to be
more critical about what women do and for example, if a woman actually
had an opinion, she gets put into the screaming lunatic compartment
whereas if a man had an opinion he's a deep and thoughtful artist - it's
She humphs disgustedly when reminded of criticisms from fans who believed
that she should not have posed for a sexy cover shot on a glossy magazine
because she's "right-on and not Kylie," (Q magazine October 1994). She
declares that it's "perverse because people think that if you're a
feminist, then you have to be unattractive...which is a form of sexism in
itself. I think you should be able to express yourself however way you
Hopefully Echobelly will tour Australia in December/January 1996. In the
meantime, chow down on EGO.
The Echobelly interview was first printed in ON DIT -
Adelaide University students' paper in 1995.