Annabella Lwin, the lead vocalist of the ’80s band Bow Wow Wow, was only 14 when she was discovered singing in a dry cleaners in London. The band had a three-year run of hit singles, albums, tours, and a good share of controversy before disbanding amid tension and exhaustion. In February 2006, Sony and VH1 will co-release a DVD of their work, featuring music and interviews with the band’s original members.
One of my best friends recently introduced me to Leigh Gorman, the band’s co-founder and bassist. During a conversation with him and guitarist Phil Gough, I found out that Lwin is of Burmese decent. Gorman invited me to their show the next night (the band has since started performing again, playing with Gough and drummer Adrian Young of No Doubt). It was the most fun I’ve had at a live show in a long time. Bow Wow Wow proved that they can still rock the house with energy.
What got you into music?
ANNABELLA LWIN: As a young girl I used to sing along to the radio ... I used to dance and sing a lot … Unbeknownst to me at the time, there was a band, who were the former members of Adam and the Ants, who were looking for a new lead singer.
Leigh told me that they had already auditioned over 100 people at that point. ... And that’s when they started “thinking outside the box.” That’s where the legendary story of Malcolm McClaren (the manager of Bow Wow Wow) discovering you at the age of 14 comes from.
It was actually a friend of Malcolm McClaren’s who discovered me. … A friend of Malcolm’s came in to the dry cleaners and heard me singing and asked me to audition. I went to the audition and the band liked me because of the way I sung the song “C-30.” (“C-30, C-60, C-90…GO!” was Bow Wow Wow’s first single and was later banned for encouraging recording bootleg tapes.)
What part did you play in developing the music and lyrics for the band?
The sound of Bow Wow Wow was created by the three guys [in the band]: Dave Barbarossa (drums), Leigh Gorman (bass) and Matthew Ashman (guitar). These guys did a lot of homework together on making this sound and from there the lyrical content came from Malcolm, so all the early stuff was down to that set of guys. I wrote the lyrics on the last album When the Going Gets Tough the Tough Get Going but I wasn’t credited. … The last album had that single “Do You Want To Hold Me?” That was a song I wrote.
What I like about that song is that you have this song with a great pop kind of arrangement but it has what I would consider some serious social commentary. You’re criticizing—what do the French philosophers call it?—simulacra, that is, a reality that isn’t real yet is accepted as real.
When we were coming up with ideas for that song, I was asked by the guitar player, “What really annoys you?” and I said what really annoys me is the fact that they have these cartoons with these characters that just keep beating each other up, and this is what they show young kids. … “Tom and Jerry’s no solution”—where this cat is chasing this mouse and it’s totally violent. It’s like some sort of subliminal message saying: Oh, it’s alright to go ‘round hitting people on the head and beating them up and stuff like that, which it isn’t, obviously.
So, what brought you from England to L.A.?
Destiny … and my fate. … I was born a Buddhist, being born in Burma, so I believe very strongly in all that stuff. … If you said to me when I was 14, “You know, you’re going to end up living in America,” I would have said to you, “No WAY!” [laughs] When I was born in Burma I had no knowledge that my parents were going to split up. I had no knowledge I was going to live in London. I had no knowledge I was going to get into singing professionally. … It’s interesting that with Bow Wow Wow we did a lot of touring over here. I’ve traveled around the world but I always felt very happy when I was in California and that’s part of what brought me back again.
At the last show I saw you play with Bow Wow Wow there was a new song, “A Thousand Tears.” At first I was taken aback by how different it was from the sound we’re used to, but then I started to get into the groove of it and I really loved it.
Well I’m glad it touched your heart because it always touches my heart whenever I sing it. Whenever I ask the audience, “Do you believe in the soul?” I do it in such a way that people could be drawn into it. It’s about the essence of life, about who we are, connecting all our experiences from time immemorial into today’s life. It’s about the journey of the soul. It’s a realization.
This is encouraging to hear how your work and spirituality are congruent.
They’re completely connected. I’m praying that I will achieve what I came here to achieve in my lifetime. I’ve evolved a lot since I was 14, obviously. Back in the early days of Bow Wow Wow I don’t think I was really a role model because I was a teenager. I was thrust into this world that I was totally unprepared for.
I try to keep everything I write and perform now very relevant. I wouldn’t sing the lyrics to “Chihuahua,” for example, because that’s such a denigrating song for me to sing. … Malcolm wrote those lyrics. … The only thing that’s good about that song is the chorus. But that’s because it’s pointing the finger back at the band, Bow Wow Wow, the chihuahua. The idea being that it’s me, “a small dog, in the band Bow Wow Wow. I’m just a rock ’n roll puppet in the band.” Excuse me? It’s lyrics like that where I don’t find positive messages for people to hear. “I can’t dance, I can’t sing, I can’t do anything”—I wouldn’t sing that today. At the end of the day, I’m not here to give messages out of negativity because there’s too much negativity in life, and it’s our mission to change that to positivity.
Russell Reza-Khaliq Gonzaga is a Pinoy MuBu (Muslim Buddhist) and slam poet.