Local Darlings

TANYA ALI chats to FROYO about making music in a very white industry, and growing up as music-loving Asians in Australia

by Amelia Mertha

Sydney band FROYO might just have one of the coolest – and quaintest – band origin stories ever. In 2012, vocalist and keyboardist Michael Chow was studying a Bachelor of Music at the Australian Institute of Music. For an assignment, he was tasked with establishing an online presence to showcase his music. He decided to make a “fake artist”, creating all the relevant profiles: triple j Unearthed, Soundcloud, the works.

Then it came time to name the fabricated artist. “I wanted to have ‘afro’ in there,” says Michael, who sports an impressive afro himself. “But I couldn’t think, I decided I’d just think about it later.” ‘FROYO’ became the stand-in name on his many profiles.

His work earned him not only a sweet HD, but also an offer to play at Oxford Art Factory in Darlinghurst. “I was like, ‘Wait, this isn’t a real band! Why didn’t I think of a better name… no-one’s going to be able to Google this!’” he says.

Thanks to this happy accident, FROYO have been playing gigs ever since. I am sitting at Golden Fang Chinese restaurant, right at the edge of City Road, with three of FROYO’s four members: Sonia Singh (guitar, vocals), Allyson Montenegro (vocals, pads, guitar), and Michael Chow (vocals, keyboard). The fourth, absent member of FROYO is Tom Brett.

“We call Tom our token white guy,” Michael laughs. “He’s been a really good friend for ages, so we asked him to play drums. He just, you know, turns up and he’s like super professional, does everything to a tee.”

Despite the palpable whiteness of the music industry – and even more so, the lack of diversity within the 80s synth-pop genre that FROYO inhabit – Sonia notes that they haven’t experienced any straight-up racism as a band. “Everyone we’ve dealt with have been really nice and supportive, it’s never really been much of an issue for us. But it definitely happens, and I think there needs to be more cultural diversity everywhere,” she says.

Playing festivals with a full band has been a massive highlight for FROYO. “I’ve enjoyed them a lot more [than club shows],” Sonia says. Michael adds that their music sounds better on a bigger stage, when they’re in full band mode. “When we get to play on bigger stages like that, it’s been really really fun, not just for us but also when you look up at the crowd and they’re just smiling back at you… It’s like ‘oh, this is nice! I’ll play my saxophone and my keyboard now!’ And faces light up – it’s really cool to see that.” he says.

With venue closures a topic du jour across the Sydney music scene, an up-and-coming band like FROYO are definitely feeling the pool of venues getting smaller and smaller. “I find that less people want to go out now,” Sonia says, and Allyson finishes her sentence: “because of the lockout.”

Sonia continues, “The funny thing is, I get asked ‘oh cool, so you play a lot of gigs, where do you play?’ and I can only list a small handful of places.”

“It’s so hard to find a venue that can cater to the smaller bands – unless we’re selling out the big room at the Oxford Art Factory, there’s not a lot of options for our particular sound,” Michael adds.

While FROYO’s members all met studying at AIM, they’ve had fairly different journeys – both musical and otherwise – to get there. Allyson’s family migrated from the Philippines when she was about three, mainly due to the Philippines’ lack of health insurance and accessible health care. “If the Philippines had health insurance, we’d probably be still there. We had the perfect life, back there,” she says. Her mum plays guitar, so she was exposed to music from an early age. “I picked up guitar, then drums, and all throughout high school I was super into music, so that’s why I decided to study it.”

Born and raised in Townsville, Queensland, Sonia grew up surrounded by white people. “You get white-washed. People make you feel ashamed of your own culture; I was embarrassed to be Indian. I just accepted what Australia was and I didn’t feel any relation to [her heritage]. My parents just adapted as well, they became kind of Western.”

Sonia says she didn’t have so much of a musical background when she was young. “But I religiously watched Video Hits and Rage and listened to the radio a lot – I had an intense love of pop music. Then when I was 14, in high school, I picked up guitar and started writing music.”

Michael grew up in Papua New Guinea, and came to Sydney to finish high school. “In New South Wales, there’s no real Papua New Guinean community the way there is in Queensland. I don’t have many people here that I can speak the same language to, you know what I mean? I do like the safety here though, versus home.”

Though he grew up listening to mostly reggae, it wasn’t until he listened to Coldplay that he became inspired to learn the piano. “Coming to Australia, I wasn’t sure what I was doing so I went to music uni – like anyone else who didn’t know what they’re doing,” Michael jokes. “Then at uni, I noticed everyone was taking it really seriously, so I thought I should, too.”

Moving to Sydney as a teenager, Michael found it difficult to adapt. “English is my first language – but because I had a different accent at the time, and because I had a different colour, it meant that people would assume that I couldn’t speak English that well.” A particular moment he recalls vividly is when somebody yelled at him to “speak English”. “I was speaking English. It just didn’t sound like bogan English, it didn’t sound like Australian English,” says Michael. He sums up the experience of growing up in Australia as a person of colour pretty succinctly: “Basically, if you’re different, people are going to point it out. And not always in a pleasant way.”

It’s a sentiment we can all agree with, one that we’ve unfortunately all experienced in some way. Perhaps that’s why it feels especially inspiring to witness this rising, talented band in a genre that so sorely needs colour. When I first saw a photo of FROYO, my immediate reaction was that this is what a Sydney band should look like. Right now, it seems revolutionary to see a band full of rad Asian-Australians, with an equal female-male ratio to boot – but representation is only going to grow. Watching an act like FROYO take the Sydney music scene by storm, you can’t help but feel a little more optimistic about pop music in Australia.

FROYO’s single ‘Darling’ is out now.

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