Naomi Dryden-Smith spent some time with elfin and age-defying Sonya Aurora Maden to talk about what really happened to Echobelly and Britpop, their comeback with great new album Anarchy and Alchemy, and their plans for the future and exclusive 2018 releases!
Louder Than War: Looking back in time, you had three albums in the 90s during the hectic Britpop scene, and you had Madonna, Morrissey and REM all interested in you – what was that like?
Sonya Aurora Madan: When I think about it now, it’s probably more exciting than it was at the time, because then I kind of just went with the flow, it all seemed to happen naturally. I didn’t grow up being a music aficionado or obsessed with it, so for me it was almost like a slightly out of body experience, kind of aware of it all happening. I was in my early 20s when it all kicked off. We were signed after the third or fourth show so it’s not as though we did the transit van, doing your apprenticeship thing, it just happened very quickly. For our first show literally no-one turned up, it was hilarious, we just booked some shows ourselves, I think it was in Braintree in Essex and not one person turned up. We just did it anyway and called it a rehearsal and then literally three or four shows later we played the Borderline, and I think every single A’n’R man (or woman, but they were mainly men then) was there, and you just couldn’t get in for love or money, it was explosive and it happened very quickly. Like being caught up and carried along on a wave. Even Madonna? Yes – that was later on. Madonna was trying to sign us, but we’d just signed a deal with Sony so it was impossible – she wanted us for the American Maverick label. It didn’t happen, but she referred to me in a tabloid as a real “star”, which was something rather moving coming from someone like her because whatever you think of her, she is a star. And as for REM, they said that we basically inspired them to get back into writing when they heard the Bellyache EP and they wrote Monster after that, which was their biggest selling album, so that again was an amazing thing to hear. And then with Morrissey – he turned up at my flat in Gloucester Terrace and expressed his love for the band and asked us to come on tour in the U.S with him. Suede were all the rage at the time and I remember reading an article where a journalist asked him what he thought of them and he said, yes they write nice songs but Echobelly write great songs. In his autobiography, he says that he loves the band. I’m really moved because I appreciate him as a writer and I know that some of our contemporaries would give a kidney to hear him say these things about them haha!! Obviously you can hear a little bit of Morrissey in those songs of that time so it would have meant more? Yes, but that’s more Glenn’s influence, it’s not mine – as I didn’t grow up with the Smiths – I heard through the grapevine that he loved the title of one of our songs “I Can’t Imagine The World Without Me”. And Steve Lillywhite, the producer, told us that he would play our music constantly, when they were recording.
So looking at the female-fronted bands – there was Sleeper, Elastica – to me you were always the softer, gentler one, the more approachable one. What was the atmosphere then?
I’d like to think that I was the most talented one!! I don’t really care whether I’m approachable, I just want to leave my mark as a writer. The atmosphere was pretty horrible, quite bitchy., but then we were certainly all encouraged to be like that by the press. You could say the most poignant and remarkable things in an interview and the journalist would blow up inflammatory comments that they had goaded you into talking about in the first place. They were under pressure to do so themselves and ironically some of them were amazing writers in their own right. We had no “training” in how to handle the press and it’s a kind of naivety that allows you to be pressurised at the time, because, thinking about it, we’ve actually come quite a long way in terms of sexism. Even in the 90s compared with 20 years before, we felt we’d moved on because there were a lot of female-fronted bands, but still when it came to the vibe of the times, there was a lot of sexism going on as well, so perhaps it’s about putting it all in perspective. I’m sure we are all different people now.
Justine was obviously involved with Damon Albarn and Brett Anderson – this put her at an advantage I guess? Was there pressure to do similar, what was the scene like for you?
I believe that Damon was involved in some of their output. Who you were dating was of great interest to the rather incestuous scene at the time. It seemed that everyone (musicians, journalists and industry) were drinking in the same places and hanging out together and of course anything that made a good story was of more interest than the quality of your songwriting.
Following on from that, what do you think about women in the industry now, there are girl-fronted bands I guess but it’s not the same…
It’s not the same. Nor should it be, stagnation is death in terms of creativity. At the moment, there seem to be more solo career women than female fronted bands. It doesn’t matter that much whether you are male or female, it’s fundamentally about moving the person who’s listening. One thing that does dishearten me is how nearly every video I see, has a soft porn element to it in terms of what the women are wearing and how they are being represented though they seem quite happy to be doing it so maybe I’m out of touch. But ultimately for me it’s about whether you can relate to what they’re saying. True equality is not about making men feel less important.
Tell me about the demise of Echobelly and the Britpop era, what happened?
It was a classic rock n roll story in the sense that we were signed to Sony, doing pretty well. We had played all over the world and built up a following. There were rumbles that we were poised to break America and we had interest from established managers there, but our management wouldn’t let us go, even though the deal was that they would allow an American manager to take care of us, the principal manager wouldn’t let that happen, so we had to sack him and then he came back at us. He used the legal aid system that existed then and got taken on by a big law firm, who threatened to take away my home, in order to get back what they said we owed him– it was quite nasty and at one stage I found myself sitting on the floor of a corridor at the Royal Courts of Justice, with our drummer, waiting to speak to a Master for advice because it was getting to that stage, and in the end the wonderful Musicians Union helped us out and managed to get a barrister in. After two years of madness, the barrister sorted it out within days by showing that the law firm would not make a penny from this case. When his lawyers realised that they weren’t going to get anywhere they dropped him like a hot potato. But we had two years of basically defending ourselves because we couldn’t afford a lawyer, so I used to sit there by the computer answering 40 of their questions weekly that they kept inundating us with. We just couldn’t make any music as it was all imploding simultaneously, we were just locked into this legal battle. There was no money – and here’s the fun part, we had just had all our money stolen by our accountant and had just been dropped by Sony. So we went from being a successful act with world tours under our belt, poised to do great things, to literally going into the accountants and being told we had £200 in our account. One of our best friends who had been very much involved in our career, and who I wrote “Dark Therapy” about, sadly just couldn’t let go of the heroin, ended up hanging himself – everything just happened at the same time, it was a crazy, hellish time and yet I still remember it almost fondly somehow. Even though we had nobody on our side apart from when the Musician’s Union stepped in – our lawyers wouldn’t touch us because we couldn’t pay them, literally, nobody would take our calls. Britpop was over, it was a dirty word. It really went from one extreme to another – you knew who your friends were and could count them literally on one hand.
So what’s happened in the intervening years, I know that you’ve done some acoustic stuff later?
Glenn, myself and the drummer naively thought we’d carry on, and we managed to make People are Expensive and Gravity Pulls ourselves, working with the producers, Ben Hillier and Ian Grimble. We managed to deliver these two glorious albums but there wasn’t any industry backing and if people don’t know about the record or don’t hear you, what are you going to do? It was wonderful to be free to write and record however you wished but you do need to get the music out there somehow. We couldn’t do that much touring on the back of it because again Britpop had crashed, and when you go along with the scene you die with the scene, and there are glass ceilings everywhere you go, so in the end everybody just went their separate ways – the drummer got married had children, got a “proper” job. Glenn and I were left there realising we were both too odd to settle down haha!! Making music is not something we want to do, it’s something we have to do. There is a difference when you’re a musician or an artist, even when it’s not going well if you still have that burning desire to make music then you find something out about yourself, and we never wanted to stop writing. So we wrote and recorded the two acoustic albums as Calm Of Zero. I was half-heartedly tuned into a programme on the radio about someone talking about the weather and then they started talking about snow and the magical moment when the temperatures hits zero and it’s almost like the world goes into a meditative place, and there’s calmness, this stillness you get with the first snow. I just loved the metaphor of it as a mental horizon that I always yearn to access, so I thought let’s call our new baby, Calm Of Zero, as in forget all the past and let’s just hone in on what we’re doing. It was glorious to have free rein and write how and what we wanted to, but we were limited because it was just Glenn and myself so it was just two acoustic mini albums. It was cheaply recorded as you can tell, but the songs are there. And then in 2015, we met up with an agent that we used to know who had worked with our original agent, who’d now gone to the States, and he said forget all this, let’s do an Echobelly show and see what happens – if there’s interest, get a band together and get your arse out there. So we booked the Scala and it sold out! So that’s where it kind of kicked off again from in 2015.
So what’s it like now, how does it feel, what’s it like?
For us, the whole environment is completely different from how it was before, so you have to work it out as you go along. The stepping-stones that existed before are no longer there and you basically have to see what’s viable and just be open-minded about it. So we ended up doing a pre-order campaign via Pledge Music and got a really good response from Echobelly fans. They seemed to appreciate the interaction, and every week we’d take film footage in the studio and I’d write pieces about what we were up to and take photos, and I enjoyed the experience as well so it ended up being a new way of making an album. Even though Glenn and I were both uneasy with the idea of it initially. As to the music business now – if you see the business in terms of a pyramid shape, it has changed – there are some people at the top doing very well, and there are a lot of musicians, many of them from these music colleges that are springing up everywhere, just surviving. Are they in Vegas, the people at the top? Haha, perhaps! I think once you get past a certain stage if you can build up a live audience you can carry on. It’s a different minefield.
You’re about to go on tour again, is this a UK-only tour? How’s touring now compared to before?
Yes it’s basically the second half of what we did in the summer. Honestly, as a woman, as you get older it’s not so enjoyable. At the moment we’re going to stay in hotels, but in the past it used to be so much more luxurious – we had catering, a big crew, we even had a few private planes for a while so it was a very different experience. But there’s still that moment when you’re on stage and you connect with an audience, regardless of what level you’re at, that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day. I kind of enjoy the irony in a twisted way haha!
And beyond that, what are your plans?
Well, this is an exclusive for Louder Than War actually – Glenn and I are speaking to Pledge about doing an Echobelly album where we get all the rarities, the b-sides, the special songs – I’m calling it Black Heart Lullabies – and it’s going to be a darker more esoteric collection, not the singles, but some of the best songs I think we’ve written nevertheless. I think it’s going to be wonderful – we’ll do it on double vinyl, something covetable and hopefully special.. It will be available sometime in 2018.
After that, are you planning more touring?
Perhaps we’ll really go for the festival circuit. We’re talking to a few people in America who we worked within the 90’s who are still very much on the case and are looking at various options for us out there at the moment. The logistics of touring the States are not always that practical – you need to pay £2k per visa for starters – but we keep getting fans saying come to LA, come to Texas, New York etc We’d love to go – from Russia to Indonesia to South America we’re getting a lot of fan interest that I didn’t know existed, but because of the internet now we can connect with them. They’re definitely out there.
I think the last album was very strong, which helps! What’s the reception been from your perspective, how well has it done?
There are people who would have liked another Britpop album and then there are the more astute listeners who have actually taken it on board – we’re not in ‘95 anymore and Glenn and I wrote songs that inspired us. Perhaps there’s a kind of gothic, early music element to this album. You’re influenced by what you’re into at the time. Glenn has been researching Solfeggio frequencies. We recorded Faces In The Mirror by calibrating the tuner from normal 440hz to 444hz that changes the pitch to a solfeggio frequency. There’s a lot of information out there about it. It’s about how the modern scale is slightly discordant to the human body – they’ve done experiments with snowflakes and with cells and water, and when they’re exposed to certain frequencies, they blossom and heal, but the modern frequencies we’re using are slightly discordant. So Faces In The Mirror has been recorded in this different hertz frequency – which is a bugger to play live because you all have to change all the tuning haha!! And for Hey Hey Hey, we were listening to early Americana and how people would sing in such wonderful close harmonies. In the original version Glenn and I were singing a really close-knit harmony which has now evolved into something completely different. So we’ve been free to look and listen to things that we wouldn’t have had access to before.
How does the songwriting work between you?
I don’t know! I still don’t know. Glenn plays music constantly. We share this flat together in West London. He has his space and I have mine, and we have a communal area with guitars and keyboards all over the place. He’ll come up with ideas and tunes and put them down and eventually play some to me, and the ones that work for me or move me or inspire me we’ll then hone in on. I listen to the music and and enter a mental space, almost like a past life memory experience. I suppose it’s visual first, for me in that I often run a film in my mind of what the tune is saying to me – for example for Hey Hey Hey I had this vision of looking out through a fighter’s eyes, it wasn’t specific to a particular war though I felt they could have been native American, but it was really just this energy of looking through the eyes of someone who knew they were about to die and saying “this is my last stand and I’m going to go out in a blaze of glory”, and it was a rebellious energy that I tuned into. It does sound bizarre when I verbalise it! But it is a natural process. For the title track, Anarchy and Alchemy, I was elated and buzzing when I came up with it because I instantly knew that it was the most relevant title in putting across the theme of the album and that would resonate with what is happening on our planet right now. We are living in such a time of chaos and fear, everything seems to be speeding up and mutable and yet that amazing human quality of being able to transmute negativity into a positive experience never fails to astound me. We are capable of such extremes of evil and goodness. I had to write the words for that song in a totally unique way, to try to do justice to the title so I came up with a quick fire word association technique used in psychology where the only parameter was that they had to be one syllable in length. I was surprised myself by what came out, for example, the word “lie” after the word “safe”.
Do you have any particular political views in the current climate?
Personally, I would say I’m almost apolitical, in that I’m more interested in fundamental human nature – I’m intrigued by the passion of opinion and I make room for and (almost) accept everyone’s point of view. That’s what Faces & Mirrors is about, it’s about finding your own truth – Is there one truth, other than everyone is searching for their own happiness?
What about stories around women and kids in Hollywood at the moment?
What gets me is these things are known in the industry for a long time before they come out, so all of a sudden when everyone’s getting officially upset about it it’s like hold on a minute, you knew about it. I think it’s a long time coming, and that women really need to find a place where they can be who they want to be without having to compromise to such a horrendous level, because if you have some burning ambition to be somebody and you find that’s the only stepping stone to where you want to be then the fact that you might have semi-allowed it, even though you hate yourself afterwards, you should never be put into that position. So it’s a wake up call I think.
Did you ever see that in the music business?
No, I think the music business is more evolved in certain respects. Perhaps it wasn’t always so, but years before Echobelly’s existence there seems to have been a seismic change and women were seen more as strong individuals, especially the Punk queens, even though they might not have been in reality, they were perceived and presented that way. But I think male or female, people have had a hard time in many of the arts, it’s nothing to do with whether you’re a man or woman. Musicians are still not, especially in the UK, taken that seriously, even though music is one of the most prolific and profound art forms to have ever come out of this country, we’re still not taken that seriously by society, and it’s almost as if people enjoy watching the downfall of an artist here.
As photographer/writer, I wondered what you thought about Brian May’s instagram issue yesterday – Brian May shared a photo taken of him at a concert on Instagram forgetting to credit the photographer, a genuine mistake I think. She reported him to Instagram and they took his account down. What’s your view on photographers from a musician’s point of view what do you feel about that, and your image and the rights?
I feel that it ‘s no longer black and white. In the past, as a photographer you would take photographs and then the agent agreed copyright and you were paid handsomely for it – and now everything is going through change and it’s not clear cut. Everyone needs to be a lot more understanding. I’m personally on Brian May’s side here, if she’d taken a photo of her cat no-one would have given a shit but she’s taken a photo of someone famous, at his concert. I think it’s outrageous that she reported him and I wouldn’t’ allow her near me again. And now her whole career will be affected and no other Artist will want her near them – she’s been incredibly naïve.
Finally… tell me about the new single
It’s quite different from everything else – on first listen it almost comes across as a vintage sound. But for me, it was all about the lyrics and I really wanted to write something that would almost wash over you in the sense that it’s so easy to listen to, but at the same time contained universal truth and that was accessible to everybody. I didn’t want to be political, I didn’t want to say this is the way it is, it was like coming from a universal point of view. So the lines in the chorus are very much about nothing lasts forever – and then asking the question, not saying what the answer is, but asking “then why are we all here?”. It was written because my father said that he was disappointed in me, before he died, because I wasn’t married, secure or living a stable life – I’m still not married, still not settled down, and he was just scared for me as in what are you doing with your life. And I tried to explain to him that being an artist is not a stable choice, but it’s a profound choice and it’s in my veins, it’s what I do. I was trying to say that it was alright, I love what I do, as much as I hate it (but that’s another story!), it’s all I know. But it was quite a painful experience because he was disappointed in me. I needed to say that we are all looking in the mirror trying to find our own truth and we’re all having our own experience of life, all actors on our own stage- to misquote Shakespeare haha!- but it’s alright!
New single directed by Adam Simcox
Forthcoming tour dates:
Thurs 23 – O2 Academy 2, Newcastle
Fri 24 – King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, Glasgow
Sun 26 – Arts Club, Liverpool
Mon 27 – Scala, London
Wed 29 – Komedia, Brighton
Thurs 30 – Fleece, Bristol
Featured image © TBA
Top photo: Paul Belford. All words/other photos by Naomi Dryden-Smith. You can find more of Naomi’s work for Louder Than War here, and she (occasionally) tweets as @nomeshome. Also on Facebook and Instagram. Naomi’s Photography portfolio can be found here.
Please note: Use of these images in any form without permission is illegal. If you wish to use/purchase or licence any images please contact Naomi Dryden-Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org