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Let’s get soaked

The return of Bridie Monds-Watson, a songwriter for misfits and outsiders 

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SOAK, otherwise known as Bridie Monds-Watson, is an ambassador for Independent Venue Week. Photo credit: Sam Hiscox

SOAK, otherwise known as Bridie Monds-Watson, is an ambassador for Independent Venue Week. Photo credit: Sam Hiscox

SOAK’s new album is out in May

SOAK’s new album is out in May

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SOAK, otherwise known as Bridie Monds-Watson, is an ambassador for Independent Venue Week. Photo credit: Sam Hiscox

There are SOAK tattoos in the crowd and beautiful, home-made badges. The rainbow colours are draped with pride and a Burger King crown is worn as an anti-fashion statement. Live music is back, and SOAK is ready for the best homecoming.

This gig takes place at the Oh Yeah Centre in Belfast. It is part of Independent Venue Week, an annual celebration of the small gigs that keep music alive. Last year, the programme was stalled during lockdown but now the grassroots may flourish again.

SOAK, otherwise known as Bridie Monds-Watson, is an ambassador for Independent Venue Week. And so the night after Belfast, SOAK will play Bennigan’s in Derry, another spot that nurtures and values the local scene.

Bridie was born in Belfast and raised in Derry. There were early gigs at Café del Mundo beside the Guildhall plus trips over the Glenshane Pass to play at Oh Yeah from the age of 15.

Even then, it was evident that SOAK was an immense talent.

Happily, the first SOAK album, Before We Forget How to Dream, won the NI Music Prize, the Choice Music Prize and was shortlisted for the Mercury Prize. The songs were sometimes upbeat, but often fragile and insecure.

It was an authentic, teenage voice.

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Bridie is 27 now but the music still matters to the outsiders. An old song like Sea Creatures, written about bullies in the school playground, will never lose that ache.

Likewise with Be a noBody, an anthem for the kids who shun the over-achieving, alpha personality.

This explains why the Belfast audience is so passionate and attentive.

The lyrics are important and a chorus of “shooshers” is urging the crowd to be quiet. Bridie thinks this is great. The reward is a series of outstanding new songs.

Some listeners have travelled on bus from Cork and Dublin. A great percentage of SOAK fans is young and non-binary.

This is also part of the story. Bridie has spoken often about gender identity and the challenges of growing up in an intolerant society.

Last year, Bridie posted on Twitter that “they/them” were the pronouns of choice. In the video for the current single, Last July, Bridie dances, laughs and falls out with their real-time partner, Ella van Uchelen.

There’s also a new song in the Belfast setlist called Bleach. It documents the particular stresses of a non-binary partnership. But it’s also a blazingly great love song that we might all appreciate.

By way of a preamble, Bridie says that the story in the lyric takes place above a fried chicken outlet in Fallowfield, south Manchester. A lover is leaving for Japan and the singer is left behind, anxious and emotional, finding the partner’s hairs in random parts of the flat.

But the spoiler is even more interesting. Bridie reveals that yes, they did live over that very fast-food store and the lover actually did take a flight east. But this departing partner was Ella, and now everyone is reconciled. The audience cheers even more at this bonus information.

“This record is the most accurate picture of me,” SOAK has explained. “I felt no pressure at all, it was almost like I was ranting as I was writing. When I was looking to the past, it was as though I had a big lottery ball of all my recent memories, and I would just randomly select which one I wanted to unpack. It helped me to process my past.”

The upcoming album is called If I Never Know You Like This Again. The guitars are loud and artful. The songs are skillfully put together, with hilarious asides and a loose quality that reacts against the more considered aspect of the second album, Grim Town.

Near the end of the evening in Belfast, SOAK sings a familiar tune. Everybody Loves You is a perfect ballad to unite the people. There’s a flow of empathy, a sense of collective self-worth. Tears are shed and T-shirts are indeed soaked.

The venue people are delighted. They are back in business and tonight has so many layers of meaning. Bridie and Tommy McLaughlin, the guitarist-producer, are rightfully pleased that an important collection of lockdown songs has been aired and admired.

“I’m really excited about this record because I think it’s the most honest I’ve been in my music,” Bridie told me previously. “Especially because gender identity issues and stuff like that — it’s something I haven’t covered in any music before now. And to actually come out and say that, I was proud of myself for articulating it and being like, ok, I’m fine with it being in the world.

“And I’m excited for people being able to hear that and maybe be like, I feel like that too. ’Cause it was something for me. I was so like; I don’t know anybody else that’s in this brain area either. Do you know what I mean? So I guess you put things out, but you also get a lot back — whenever people hear that and they’re like, I know that. You help each other sometimes.”

The SOAK album, If I Never Know You Like This Again, is released by Rough Trade Records on May 20. The single, Last July, is out now


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