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 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 after 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 over 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 Lustra, 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 Lustra, we’ve brought out the darker side,” noted Madan on the Miller Freeman Entertainment website.
A four-year hiatus was brought to an end in 2001 when the band returned with the Digit EP and their fourth album, People are Expensive, which were released on their own Fry Up label. Two further singles, Tell Me Why and Kali Yuga (a remixed version of the album track) followed.
In 2004 Echobelly released a fifth album – again through their own Fry Up label.
Whilst being a far cry from their earlier pop-fuelled efforts, Gravity Pulls demonstrates a delicacy and maturity from the band and is, arguably, their most accomplished body of work… it was also to be their last…
CALM OF ZERO formed in 2010 from the ashes of previous incarnation Echobelly, whose frontwoman, Sonya Aurora Madan and guitarist, Glenn Johansson continued to write songs together.
After the maelstrom years of Britpop and their ensuing success as Echobelly , a series of experiences ensued that rock’n’roll would call its own, including death, drugs, theft and high court injunctions…
Glenn and Sonya came through the storm to a time of reflection, re-positioning and reality: Where to go from here when the desire to write songs is stronger than ever but the business has changed considerably? Back to what you once knew: Write those songs and perform them!
And that’s exactly what they did. A handful of acoustic shows took place in late summer 2010 and two acoustic mini albums were released in 2011 and 2012, with a full album planned to follow soon afterwards.
Before that could happen, however, Sonya and Glenn found themselves longing once again for the full-band experience and in 2015 Echobelly was resurrected. With a new-look line-up in place, a live show at London’s Scala scheduled for October 2015 and the promise of new recordings, the future looks very rosy indeed.
To be continued …