Bursting onto the pop scene in 1994 with its acclaimed Everybody’s Got One album, Echobelly has been a prominent force in the British musical invasion of the 1990s. Although often compared to Blondie and obviously influenced by Morrissey, who himself is a big fan of the group, Echobelly has carved out its own unique place with extremely tuneful melodies that cascade between exuberant optimism and vehement attacks against oppression, bigotry, and alienation in the modern world. As was noted by Jori Wiederhorn in a 1995 issue of Rolling Stone, “Echobelly’s music is a striking paradox, an unlikely melange of sweet, spiky melodies and bleak, shadowy image.” Wiederhorn added that the group members “play with a passion and power well beyond their two years as a band.”
One of the hallmarks of Echobelly is their apparent joy in their music, even when dealing with less than joyous subjects. “Ms. Madan’s clear, cheerful voice sounds optimistic even when she’s telling people to go away,” wrote Jon Pareles in the New York Times about a 1995 performance at Irving Plaza in New York City. Devon Jackson of Harper’s Bazaar added that the group is “Powerful and spirited, but not at all strident or preachy when railing against injustice, racism, or oppression.” The group also has a distinctive multicultural presence with its mix of personnel that includes an Indian-born vocalist, a Swedish guitarist, and a black guitarist. Despite the melting pot nature of the band, singer Madan downplayed it. “The music we make has very little to do with our backgrounds,” she told Jackson. “It has to do with our musical tastes. We merge musically.”
The most prominent part of Echobelly’s success formula is vocalist Sonya Aurora Madan, who is also the group’s primary lyricist. Born in Delhi, India, before moving to England at the age of two, Madan had an unusual background for a pop star. Her rigid upbringing made rock n’ roll taboo for her as a youngster, and she didn’t attend her first rock concert until she was in college. In 1990 she met Glenn Johansson, a guitarist from Sweden who was pursuing a career in music. Johansson had previously edited a Swedish pornographic magazine called Eros, which may contribute to the bands’ focus on sexual issues in many of their songs. He and Madan dated for a while, then remained friends after breaking up.
In 1993 Madan and Johansson teamed up with bass guitarist Alex Keyser and drummer Andy Henderson, who had previously played with P.J. Harvey’s band. Guitarist Debbie Smith, formerly of Curve, came on board in 1994. According to the Epic Records’ website, the group came up with the name Echobelly from the
Original members included Andy Henderson, drums; Glenn Johansson, guitar; Alex Keyser, bass guitar; Sonya Aurora Madan, vocals; Debbie Smith, guitar. Later members included James Harris, bass guitar.
Group formed, 1993; released Bellyache EP on independent Pandemonium label, 1993; signed with Rhythm King label, 1994; performed in Glastonbury and Reading Festivals, U.K., 1994; released first full-length album, Everybody’s Got One, 1994; toured U.K., U.S., and Japan, 1994; opened for R.E.M. on tour, 1995; performed at spring fashion show for designer Betsey Johnson, 1995; released On, 1995; performed at Brighton Music Festival, U.K., 1996; switched to Epic label, 1996; released Lustre on Epic, 1997.
Addresses: Record company —Epic, P.O. Box 4450, New York, NY 10101-4450.
notion of “being hungry for something.” With Madan and Johansson serving as songwriters, Echobelly recorded their debut EP Bellyache on the independent Pandemonium label in late 1993. With songs such as “Give Her a Gun” and “Sleeping Hitler,” Bellyache demonstrated the group’s willingness to boldly face provocative issues, both musically and lyrically. The title track was called “a Johansson masterpiece, all throbbing tremelo guitars and pent-up angst,” by the Epic website. Dealing with rejection has been a major theme for Echobelly—on the romantic, sexual, cultural, and political fronts.
The favorable response to Bellyache helped Echobelly secure a contract with Rhythm King, which was then part of Epic. Once on board the label, the group made bigger waves on both sides of the Atlantic with their “I Can’t Imagine the World without Me” single. Rolling Stone said that the song “was filled with memorably aggressive but somewhat one-dimensional pop hooks,” while the label’s website called it “a slice of pop heaven and undoubtedly the most confident pop record of the year.” Now featuring the services of bass guitarist James Harris (Keyser defected due to personal and artistic differences) the group recorded the memorable Everybody’s Got One album. This release, which included the single “Insomniac,” scored big with English fans and reached number eight on the U.K. pop charts. In his review of the album in the Village Voice, Barry Waiters asserted that Echobelly created “a ’90s strain of power pop that’s got the bounce of Blondie with the crunch and ache of Nirvana.” Waiters compared Madan’s singing to Morrissey’s, remarking, “She’s got a similarly dramatic, nearly vaudevillian way of sliding up and down a melody, emphasizing certain key words, twisting heartfelt syllables into rueful ironies.”
As their music received more airplay, Echobelly won admiration from other artists as well. Madonna expressed interest in putting them on her Maverick label, and R.E.M. requested the group as the opening act for their upcoming tour. The band returned to the studio in 1995 to create their next album, On, which proved even more popular than its predecessor. Produced by Shaun Slade and Paul Kolderie, who had also produced Hole and Radiohead, On was called “eminently listenable” by Tamara Palmer in Audio. “Singer and lyricist Sonya Aurora Madan sounds as if she has become more aware of the beauty and strength in her voice, which emerges with a more poised and practiced edge,” continued Palmer.
This album focused on more universal themes, instead of the more politically and ethically charged subjects of Everyone’s Got One. Madan’s lyrics often ventured into the seamy side of life, such as the milieu of prostitution and homelessness addressed in “King of the Kerb.” “I wanted to challenge myself as a lyricist on a different level on this album,” Madan said in Rolling Stone. “I want people to tell me what they thought the lyrics are about. I’m not a politician. I’m not interested in changing everybody around me. I’m interested in myself.”
While many of the songs lamented the state of things, others on the On album celebrated the endless possibilities of the human spirit. In “Great Things,” Madan sang “I want to do great things/I don’t want to compromise/Want to know what love is/I want to know everything.” The album’s mostly optimistic feel provides an intriguing contrast with its serious subject matter. As Pareles wrote, “Both music and lyrics examine the tension between order and liberty.” Pop hooks were established early in these songs, many of them displaying a sense of impatience that matched the urgency of the lyrics. Listeners in England responded favorably to the album, driving three singles from the release into the U.K.’s Top 20. Sales of the album rose to overl 150,000 in England, nearly double that of Everyone’s Got One.
Health and legal problems interrupted the success of Echobelly in 1995 and 1996. Madan had a serious thyroid problem during her world tour that was potentially life-threatening, but was later cured. The group also had disagreements with Rhythm King after the label moved to Arista. The band chose to stay with Epic, which is part of Sony Music Entertainment. In 1996 Madan also ventured away from the group when she sang on a recording of the club band Lithium, that later released a single called “Ride a Rocket.” Smith left the band before the release of Lustre, which was scheduled to appear in record stores in the fall of 1997. A single from the album, “The World Is Flat,” was released in July of that year. “On Lustre, we’ve brought out the darker side,” noted Madan on the Miller Freeman Entertainment website.
Bellyache (EP) Pandemonium, 1993.
Everybody’s Got One, Rhythm King, 1994.
On, Rhythm King, 1996. Lustre, Epic, 1997.
Audio, June 1996, p. 80.
Elle, March 1995, p. 104.
Harper’s Bazaar, February 1996, p. 186.
New York Times, November 30, 1995, p. C16.
Rolling Stone, November 2, 1995, p. 22.
Village Voice, February 28, 1995, p. 50