'Derry Girls captured the heart of the city completely. I tell people it's a peaceful and safe place. And then Lyra's name is brought up... it's devastating what happened to her'
Londonderry singer Soak talks with John Meagher about the murder of the young NI journalist and reveals how writing about her darkest issues was definitely a cathartic process
It is Monday evening, and Bridie Monds-Watson - aka SOAK - is tired. She has just arrived back to her Brighton home after a long flight from Singapore. Tired, but happy, she insists.
The 23-year-old Londonderry native had been flown over specially to perform one show as part of a female-oriented music festival in the Far East city. She says it's one of those pinch-me moments when she realises she's getting to live her dream of being a professional musician.
And her talent - which was fostered in her early years of secondary school - has seen her play shows all over the world. Last weekend's trip to Singapore was the second time she had performed in the city.
It has been a good year for her too. Her second album, Grim Town, was released to considerable acclaim earlier this year. "I felt a lot of pressure with this album," she says. "I had been so young when the first one came out and because it did well, it put pressure on me with the second one. And there were a lot of ups and downs when making it."
After the euphoric notices for her 2015 debut album, Before We Forgot How to Dream, she says she struggled to work out what its follow-up should sound like. "Initially, when I was trying to write songs for it, I was basically writing for other people - trying to think about what they might like, rather than what I liked.
"I had a year of trying to work out what I wanted to sound like and what I wanted to say and I went back to my original way of making music - in my bedroom, for myself."
It's that intimate, home-spun quality that makes SOAK's music so captivating. And there's a rawness in Grim Town that comes from the heart. She wasn't afraid to delve into her darkest fears and demons.
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"Initially it was a little bit scary to show all those darker sides of my brain to family and friends because I kind of hide a lot of things," she says. "But as the album centres on mental health, to help reduce the stigma, it's important to be honest about your darkest issues. I find a lot of peace in sharing that. It's cathartic. The aim of the album was to help me to feel understood."
As a young gay artist from a conservative background, Monds-Watson has had to fight for acceptance. And she's also had to come to terms with challenges such as her parents' divorce. A remarkable song, Fall Asleep/Backseat, offers a sobering look at the impact on marital separation on children.
"That song," she says, "is about the aftermath of divorce and trying to come to terms with things and - sarcastically - getting to enjoy the benefits, which can mean two Christmases."
Since the release of the album, she says she has felt better about her lot, especially as the songs seem to have connected so powerfully with listeners.
"There's definitely catharsis there," she says. "There's that old saying of a problem shared being a problem halved. In making music and being able to completely express yourself, I get to do that. And even if there's no one listening to it, just being able to hear your own brain in motion is enough."
There has always been a searing honesty to Monds-Watson's songs. She first came to prominence while still in school with one of the best Northern Irish songs of the decade, Sea Creatures. It was her way of dealing with bullies - she had been picked on because she was different.
When she performed that song on RTE's The Late Late Show, she was an instant sensation. Monds-Watson has lucid memories of the occasion.
"I was overwhelmed by the whole experience," she says, "and my main feeling afterwards was this huge relief that I hadn't messed it up.
"There was so much talk about it on social media. I was really shocked by the response." Signing to the seminal Rough Trade label was one of the best things she's ever done, she says. "I was always a huge fan and they've made things super-easy for me. They're so much about the artist and not about money. They've been more like friends - and I've always felt really grateful to be on that label considering the sort of artists they've released over the years."
She says there was no label pressure to quickly follow up her debut album, but she is keen to ensure that she gets a third one out promptly. "Between the first and second record, I toured for three years. I needed to pull my life back together after that. It took a long time to reset my brain, but I loved everything about touring."
She has already started writing the next album and hopes it will be released next year. "I want to make more of a guitar-led album next time," she says.
Her most recent release is a cover of The National's nervy, angst-ridden Bloodbuzz Ohio. "Honestly, I could have done any National song because I think they're one of the most consistently great bands that there's ever been. I particularly like the lyrics of that one." Monds-Watson succeeds in paying respect to the original while also applying her own idiosyncratic touch.
She moved to Manchester three years ago and relocated to Brighton at the beginning of the year. She is enjoying life in the bohemian seaside town and loves that London is just an hour away. She gets back to Derry every few months as that's where all her family and most of her friends are.
She has been heartened by the success of the Channel 4 comedy series, Derry Girls. "It captured the heart of Derry completely," she enthuses. "The humour is unbelievably accurate. It's really nice to be asked about it, even in America."
She says it's a feel-good story for a fine city that sometimes gets unfairly maligned. "I'm constantly asked if it's still so awful there and I say, 'No, it's actually a peaceful and safe place'. And then Lyra's name is brought up and it's just awful." Lyra McKee was the young journalist killed during paramilitary-fuelled disturbances earlier this year.
"You'd have to hope it's a one-off and nothing kicks off there again. It's devastating what happened to her."
For Bridie Monds-Watson, 2020 is pregnant with possibility. In February, she will play Dublin's National Concert Hall alongside leading female musicians and writers.
"I'm so happy to get to play the National Concert Hall because that's somewhere I've wanted to play for a long time. And there's such a great line-up - people like (musicians) Lisa O'Neill and Sorcha Richardson and (writer) Sinead Gleeson."
She says it is fitting that the spotlight is being shone on Ireland's great cultural exports. "There's so much great music and art coming out of Ireland at the moment; Irish music has gone above and beyond this year. Pillow Queens are amazing. I love Dogrel from Fontaines DC - and The Murder Capital, too. So much great music."
Modesty prevents her from mentioning her own album, but Grim Town is also part of the story of what's arguably been the finest year in Irish music this century.
SOAK, with Sinead O'Connor, plays Botanic Gardens, Belfast, on June 7. She is also part of an all-female line-up appearing at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on February 9 for a special concert, Imagining Ireland: Speaking Up, Singing Louder