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'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 diplomat's son.

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. " 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 bullshit."

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 want to."

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.