Friday 23 March 2018

Music: Teenage kicks from Derry's latest star

Confessional: Bridie Monds-Watson, aka SOAK, releases her debut album this week.
Confessional: Bridie Monds-Watson, aka SOAK, releases her debut album this week.
John Meagher

John Meagher

Even with all the technological advances of the past couple of decades, it's notoriously difficult to make live music work on television. The awful sounding fare on The Late Late Show (and we're not just talking about the house band) is a case in point, and more often than not, the music performance on The Graham Norton Show is enough to rouse most of us from the couch in search of a cuppa.

Jools Holland's evergreen Later... remains the benchmark by which all other music shows are judged, largely because every effort has been made to make the music sound as crisp and true as possible. It helps that it's not just an item cobbled on after a celebrity interview, but the entire raison d'être of the series. And, very often, it's those fledgling artists, making their debuts on the programme, who deliver performances to stop us in our tracks. Derry teen Soak managed that last week with an outstanding, stripped-back version of her emblematic song 'Sea Creatures'.

Bridie Monds-Watson, to give her her rather unglamorous actual name, may not yet be widely known in Britain, but her wonderfully passionate delivery will ensure that door after door will open in the months to come.

She has been something of a fringe attraction in Ireland for the past few years, but with the release of her debut album next week, there's every chance she will get the recognition her talent deserves. (Incidentally, she managed to cut through the Late Late's 'flat' acoustics in early 2013 which another remarkable performance of 'Sea Creatures'. One could sense just how struck the studio audience were that night and the glowing tweets came in a deluge.)

Soak - which, apparently, is a portmanteau of 'soul' and 'folk' - first came to attention when she was just 15, some two years after she had first started writing songs. More than 30 decades after a bunch of teenagers, The Undertones, had put Derry on the music map, here was another prodigy having her voice heard far beyond the River Foyle. Unlike Feargal Sharkey and John O'Neill, Soak was still at school and her songs reflected that. 'Sea Creatures', for instance, was her defence-mechanism after experiencing soul-sapping bullying.

Other songs ruminate on being something of an outsider amid the conformity of the schoolyard, especially in those years when she was coming to terms with being gay. Soak was a highly vocal advocate for a Yes vote in yesterday's referendum.

Her debut album, Before We Forgot How to Dream, captures the pleasures and pains of being a teenager, The title is apt, too, as Soak sings of the hopes and aspirations so many of us have in our adolescence and early teens before some of life's sobering lessons start to get in the way and we knock those dreams on the head. "The teenage heart," she sings at one point, "Is an unguarded dart. We're trying hard, to make something of what we are."

Even the misspelt song titles - 'Blud', 'B a noBody' and 'Shuvel' - bear the affectations of early teen years and from one song to the next, the authenticity of her voice rings through. And what a voice it is. There's no attempt to hide her Derry accent, if anything, the striking way she pronounces certain words serves to make the listener realise just how homogeneous so many vocals actually are. It's one of the reasons why people are so drawn to Damien Dempsey - he revels in delivering words in that rich Dublin burr of his. But there's a fear, too, that potential audiences might be put off by such uncompromising accents.

For much of this year, she has been focusing on breaking Britain, touring incessantly there and doing judicious promotional work. That she is signed to the seminal Rough Trade label has no doubt helped her cause and earlier this year she was tipped as one to watch from the likes of BBC, Spotify and iTunes.

In September, she will make her third consecutive appearance at Electric Picnic, and she will likely attract a far larger audience than before. I've seen her in concert a number of times and have been struck by how effectively this unassuming, gentle young woman can command a stage and silence all chatter much like the brilliant young English folk-singer Laura Marling can. (Marling was also 18 when she released her debut album and now, aged 25, she has five fine albums to her name.)

One show in particular will live long in the memory. It was at the tiny surrounds of the Little Museum of Dublin, on Stephen's Green, in April 2013, and she sung and played her acoustic guitar without amplification. She fluffed her lines here and there but it only added to the charm and anybody who attended that evening would have been in little doubt that they had witnessed a startlingly honest and raw new talent who was then just 16 years old.

While so many of her peers might be tempted to fast-track fledgling talent by going down the X Factor route, Soak has wisely opted to pursue the traditional, hard-graft approach of touring and recording and honing songs. Initially her parents managed her fledgling career, but now she's looked after by a professional team. Incidentally, it's a horrific thought to imagine this sensitive, music-obsessed figures presenting her wares to the likes of Simon Cowell.

"I hate all that," she said of X Factor earlier this year. "The whole idea is just so fake. It's not even related to music... I have a stream of consciousness [when writing songs] and I organise it. It's usually quite confessional and honest. I think that's why people can sympathise with my music, because of the honesty in it."

Before We Forgot How to Dream (Rough Trade) is released on Friday. Soak launches the album in Tower Records, Dublin, at 12.30pm on Saturday and plays shows in Dublin, Cork and Galway on June 11, 12 and 13.

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