Not so wet behind the ears

Soak is the singer/songwriter from Derry whose success belies her youth, says Ed Power

BRIDIE Monds-Watson, aka Soak, does not try to hide her frustration. “This whole thing about my sexuality — I don’t get it,” says the 16-year-old singer. “It’s such a small part of me. When I do interviews, it always seems to end up in the headline. It is irritating.” The Derry teenager came out as lesbian to her parents two years ago and is upfront about her orientation. However, she also feels that it is irrelevant to her songwriting and cannot understand why the subject is of such intense fascination to the media.

More than that, she worries it might lead audiences to ghettoise her as a ‘gay’ artist.

“One time I did this interview and it wasn’t even with a LGB [lesbian/gay/bisexual] magazine,” she continues. “And that [her orientation] is what the whole emphasis was on. If I do an interview I want it to be about the music. Not about things that don’t matter.”

Monds-Watson’s songs are sad and wise beyond her years. Released last year, her debut EP Trains prompted comparisons with Bjork and Bon Iver. But she has already started to transcend her influences. Singing in a wide-eyed coo, she has struck upon a distinctively bittersweet sensibility, her songs at once understated and moving.

She is deeply appreciative of the attention. At the same time, she worries people may get the wrong idea. They hear her sad songs and assume they are written by a sad person.

“Everyone thinks I’m depressed. But really I’m not,” laughs the singer. “The thing is that it’s a lot more difficult to write a sad song than a happy one. When someone positive happens to you, the tendency is not to write about it. Whereas with something bad, it’s rich material. You have lots you want to say. That’s where my music comes from.”

With two EPs and a handful of singles to her name, Monds-Watson is slightly gobsmacked at the manner in which her career has taken off. In just a few months, she has been feted by media in Ireland and Britain, hyped by bloggers and invited to appear at the Other Voices music festival.

It would be a lot to take in for most people, let alone a teenager who has only just completed her O levels.

On a brief trip to Dublin to publicise her nomination for the Meteor song of the year award, Monds-Watson confesses to being somewhat frazzled.

“It’s exciting and crazy,” she laughs. “Overall, the feeling is fantastic. It’s not normal to be playing with Heathers and Villagers, which is what I’ve done today. It is downright strange. However, it’s fun too.”

Still a secondary student, she is trying very hard to be a normal teenager. “School comes first,” she says. “If my parents were really strict, it would be awful. I don’t know how I could do it. Thank goodness, they are understanding and helpful.”

Knuckling down to her studies is challenging, she says. She could, if she wished, pack her education in tomorrow, safe in the knowledge that her music career would not suffer in the slightest. Since Trains, record companies have scrambled for her signature. She and her parents have had talks with music publishers, label bosses — the entire shooting gallery.

“We have had lots and lots of meetings,” she says. “Hopefully it will all be finalised pretty soon. It’s funny. That whole world of music management was something I knew absolutely nothing about. Now I consider myself a professional practically.”

Monds-Watson picked up a guitar for the first time in 2010. Initially, she would just strum around the house, playing for nobody but herself. Without quite intending to, she began to write songs. She decided to call herself ‘Soak’, an amalgam of ‘soul’ and ‘folk’, though she doesn’t feel she fit into either genre (she also likes that it spells ‘kaos’ backwards).

As her career gained momentum, Monds-Watson was surprised to discover Derry had a vibrant live music scene. Soon she was playing open-mic nights around the city. Twelve months later, she was Northern Ireland’s most buzzed about young musician, albeit one so young her parents are still required to drive her to gigs.

Initially the songs were her way of expressing emotions she could not otherwise give voice to, she says. They were musical diary entries, intended for nobody’s ears but her own.

“I wanted to discuss how I felt and I’m not very good at talking about what’s going on inside. Instead I write songs about it. The idea that other people would be interested was shocking. It doesn’t occur to you that there might be an audience out there.”

She has arrived at a fortuitous moment. Derry is 2013 UK Capital of Culture and, with the Other Voices festival having just taken place there, the local music scene is suddenly in the spotlight.

“I cannot get over what a fantastic songwriting community we have in Derry,” says Soak. “There are loads and loads of venues. Starting out, I had absolutely no idea the scene was as healthy as it is. And now the City of Culture is coming as well. Everybody is excited.”

Soak plays Sugar Club Dublin tomorrow with Ethan Johns and the Little Museum of Dublin on April 2


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