Tuesday 21 May 2019

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Lifestyle & Leisure

Derry’s SOAK is still learning how to adult

Wednesday, 1st May, 2019 4:52pm

Back in late 2012, then-16 year old Derry songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson captured the hearts of critics and lovelorn adolescents alike with her sweet pop ballad ‘Sea Creatures’.

Monds-Watson, aka SOAK, carefully took her time working on future releases. Her debut album ‘Before We Forgot How to Dream’ arrived three years later in 2015, a clear-eyed collection articulating the trials and tribulations of a teen with astounding emotional relatability. It received a Mercury Prize nomination in the UK and scooped the 2015 RTÉ Choice Music Prize, promptly establishing her as one of the rising stars of Irish music.

So much attention at such a young age is often a danger, though. Perhaps wise to the perils which often befall young stars, SOAK took time following the album’s promotion to power down, away from the fickle music media.

Her sophomore album ‘Grim Town’, released last week on Rough Trade Records, is a mature artistic move for the now 23 year old, mostly casting aside its predecessor’s acoustic sweetness in favour of a fuller, sonically progressive indie-pop sound.

Speaking to the Cork Independent ahead of her show at Live at St Luke's this month, SOAK said she was initially “crippled” with the pressure of writing a second record, after spending so much of her teens touring.

“I think I just needed some time away to grow up outside of music. I was having a bit of an identity crisis about who I was. I spent so much of my younger years touring and being labelled different things by the press, so I needed some time to work out what I wanted to label myself.”

Having coming out as gay early on in the fanfare, years of media attention followed, and it took its toll. SOAK admits she shied away from talking publicly about her sexuality in the years after, but it’s something she feels more positive this time around.

“I don’t think anyone of any age really knows how to put themselves out there with the media. It’s hard when no matter what you say, it can sometimes be taken out of context. I’ve always been very comfortable with my sexuality, but there was definitely a point where I shied away from doing LGBT interviews, because I didn’t want my defining thing to be ‘Irish gay singer-songwriter SOAK’. I didn’t want that to be all I was.

“But it’s something that feels very important to me now, especially coming from a place that still doesn’t have gay marriage rights. I’ve never had a negative impact from being gay, and I guess I never really considered the world and how many people have such a difficult time.”

SOAK admits there was a point in the intervening years where she thought she might never make music again.

“I became so hyper-critical of absolutely everything I was doing, and when you’re in a negative mind-set it’s very easy to over-dramatize. It was a really hard when music became something difficult, because it had always been something of a relief to me.

“There were definitely moments where it was like ‘I’m done, this is the end’. They were short-lived though, and it was making this record that equally brought me out of those moments.”

Songs on 'Grim Town' like the shimmering anthem ‘Déjà Vu’ are worlds away from the stripped-back adorability of SOAK’s previous work (“I always wanted to write ABBA-esque music”, she laughs), but the album's poppy sheen often belies a darker narrative. There are songs about her parents’ divorce and the anxiety attacks she had, a friend who was in a car crash, and the heart-wrenching agony of a breakup.

“Writing the lyrics came really easily, just because my main way of working things out within myself has always been to write it out. Musically I think I made some bold choices, especially pop-wise. I don’t think I ran as freely with my first record, because I just thought pop was shite,” she adds humorously.

“Then the older I got and the more music I listened to, I came to accept that I liked pop music and that there’s no shame in that!”

Hobbled by recent unrest and the tragic killing of journalist Lyra McKee, Derry has been in the headlines recently. With SOAK currently based in Manchester, what does she make of the goings-on back home?

“I think whether you were in Derry or not, everyone was shaken by everything that happened that night. But I think the people of Derry put that into their energy to come together as a community and say they don’t want to go back to the past. It’s the only positive that can be taken from it, and obviously it should not have taken that to happen.

“Despite what people who’ve never been might think, there’s good things happening in Derry; investment, businesses opening. People don’t want to go back to the way things were.”

As well as its lyrical and sonic maturity, ‘Grim Town’ also shows SOAK’s clever eye for narrative; the album starts with a dreamlike train announcement (voiced by her grandfather, no less) advising that travel is restricted to “the lonely, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the lost” and that those “who are unmedicated and have salaries or pension plans should vacate the carriage immediately”.

Another song, ‘Life Trainee’, serves as a reminder to all that, at the end of the day, she’s still working life out as she goes - “the process of ‘learning how to adult’”, she laughs.

In the grand scheme of things, an album release is of little importance. But in a few weeks where the public has been so painfully reminded of the fragility of youth, and how cruelly it can be taken away, ‘Grim Town’ is a poignant reminder of all that youth and young womanhood can be, and a welcome service stop on the continuing journey to adulthood.

SOAK plays Live at St Luke’s on Tuesday 28 May. Tickets are €20 plus booking fee and are available from uticket.ie.

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