Tuesday 20 August 2019

Eyes on the Prize

Two Irish women are up for the coveted Mercury Music Prize in London tomorrow. Might we have a homegrown winner at last? Eamon Sweeney reports

Soak has also been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize
Soak has also been shortlisted for the Mercury Prize

Two Irish women are in the frame to win the 25th Mercury Music Prize tomorrow in London, considered the music industry’s most prestigious album award.

An Irish act has never won the Mercury Music Prize; although U2, Gemma Hayes, Fionn Regan, The Thrills and Villagers have all been nominated since the prize began in 1992. This year’s Irish nominations are two female artists — one at the beginning of her career, and the other in the middle.

The older nominee, Roísín Murphy, is more widely known as the former singer in pop duo Moloko who enjoyed huge global hits with ‘Sing it Back’ and ‘The Time is Now’ in the early 1990s. The 42-year-old mother-of-two hails from Arklow, Co Wicklow.

A former camogie player who once told me she had “put out a few teeth in my time”, Murphy emigrated to Manchester with her family at the age of 12. She developed a keen interest in fashion from her antique-dealing mother, and got hooked on music from listening to alternative rock bands such as Sonic Youth and Pixies. Murphy is nominated for her third solo album, Hairless Toys.

Bridie Monds-Watson, aka SOAK, is from Derry and only finished school in 2014. The 19-year old singer came to prominence when she performed at Other Voices in Dingle in 2012, supported Snow Patrol in Belfast’s Waterfront Hall and subsequently received numerous record contract offers. 

She was pleasantly surprised when she got the call to say she had been shortlisted for her debut album, ‘So We Forgot How to Dream’.

“I was in Vienna,” Bridie recalls as she takes time out from doing radio interviews in Dublin. “We’d been on tour for six weeks and my manager FaceTimed me a few days before the official announcement.

“I didn’t see it coming at all. I didn’t ever consider it, so it was a genuine surprise. I’ve met a lot of people who have since put money on me.”

One thing Murphy and Monds-Watson have in common is their forthright opinions on the marriage equality referendum. In addition to the fashion world, Murphy has been embraced by the LGBT community.

“Once I was embraced by gay culture, I finally started to feel I was fitting in,” she once told me. “I was understood by those people in a way I had never predicted or courted.

“I’ve seen massive changes in Ireland in my lifetime. A friend of mine came out in the last few years. He was holding it all in for a very long time. Everyone was far more accepting than he thought. It was all such a pleasant relief.”

Bridie has been a very committed champion of LGBT rights. When the marriage equality referendum was passed, she tweeted: “There are tears in my eyes. Congratulations Ireland. It’s your turn next Northern Ireland.”

“If I am some kind of motivation or inspiration for kids in Derry, then great,” she says. “I did a lot of talking on LGBT issues in the North and South during the referendum. Stormont has voted three of four times on the issue now. Recently, the DUP blocked it.

“It is a joke and it should go to a public vote. Ireland is the most Catholic and Christian country I can think of and you’d have expected it not to go through. Northern Ireland is the only place on these islands were there isn’t marriage equality.“

Many people have remarked that Bridie is an old head on young shoulders. She is very grounded, funny, intelligent and articulate. “I don’t read comments online any more,” she admits. “There might be 100 good comments, but the one bad one would make me feel down, so I don’t bother any more. There are so many other good ways of spending my time. I read all the messages I get sent to me on Facebook and Tumblr. I think because my music is confessional and emotional, a lot of people tell me it means a lot to them.

“A lot of people my age feel pressure and they seem to find some source of comfort in my music. I got a handwritten letter from a 7-year-old, which was so sweet. There is a young family who come to my shows in Dublin who come wearing raccoon hats. The girls are just starting to learn my song ‘Sea Creatures’ on the guitar.”

She has started working on the follow up to her debut.

“Already, I few like I’m writing more advanced songs, even if that sounds a little dickheady,” she laughs. “I’m going to start demo-ing in the next few weeks. It is quite dark, but I think anything I do has a dark element. I’m very excited about doing another album.”

So is her record label boss. Jeanette Lee and Geoff Travis run Rough Trade Records, one of the most respected independent record labels in the world. “I’m a deep appreciator of what your little island does, both North and South,” Travis says.

“We’ve worked with many Irish bands over the years: Stiff Little Fingers, Stars of Heaven, the Virgin Prunes, right up to Girl Band, who I think deserved a Mercury nomination. We also managed the Cranberries for their first album. When I hear Bridie’s voice and accent, it has such a richness that is like nothing else. I think Bridie is going to develop into something really magical. There is no limit to where her music can go, which is so exciting. This is all very helpful for her to get an audience.”

Bridie is already hoovering up awards on the back of her Mercury-nominated debut album. She won the European Breaking Borders Award last Friday. On Saturday, she was presented with the Northern Ireland Music Award in Belfast. Even if her name isn’t pulled out of the golden envelope tomorrow night, she is riding a wave of critical acclaim. Expect her to be sailing high in the end-of-year critics polls.

As for 2016 and beyond, she is not counting her chickens.

“I never expect anything anymore,” she says. “All I wanted to do was play at Glastonbury and release an album. That’s all happened and I’ve done Glastonbury twice. I’ve got to tour the world.

“I’d just like to continue that and put out another record. ”


The Mercury Music Prize will be broadcast live on BBC 6 Music from 7pm, and on TV on BBC 4 at 9.30pm tomorrow

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