She has toured the country’s churches under her stage name, SOAK, so now Bridie Monds-Watson is making the obvious next step: touring skate shops.
The Northern Irish singer-songwriter, who tops her soft acoustic sounds with a voice that could melt an iceberg, is a BBC Sound of 2015 nominee at just 18 (although she looks considerably younger). She understandably wants to play where the kids will be, though she’s not sure that her gorgeous music, remarkably assured and sophisticated as it is, will actually appeal to the skateboard crowd.
“Normally, people who skate would be into, I don’t know, Pantera,” she tells me. “My sound is preferable in a church but I like skating. It’s an odd… would juxtaposition be the correct term? It’ll be interesting to see how it works out.”
With her baggy black clothes, angular hair, a plastic hole in one ear that you could fit a pencil through (she did both ears but the other is closing up) and tattoos, she certainly looks like she could be kick-flipping her way around London next week. But she says she doesn’t skate any more. She started out as a child, sitting on a skateboard to zoom down the hill outside her house in Londonderry, then played the Tony Hawk video games before moving on to real life half-pipes. “I was a massive tomboy. All my friends were boys until I was about 13. People would say, ‘You’re really good at skating — for a girl’.”
I don’t quite follow how an accident while building a treehouse — a hammer fell onto her hand — put a stop to the skating but not the guitar-playing. She shows me her left little finger, and it’s a very strange shape, but her early acoustic recordings are bliss — sweet melodies sung in a distinctive, sad angel voice that you’d never guess belonged to a teenager. One of her first songs, Sea Creatures, has now been reissued with a new, full band makeover, complete with organ and washes of water noises, and deserves to get her into the charts for the first time.
A debut album, Before We Forgot How to Dream, has just been completed and will follow in June. Surprisingly, she doesn’t feel like it’s all happening too quickly. She was playing open mics as part of “a shitty covers band” at 13, and playing gigs of her own from 14 onwards. The name SOAK comes from mixing the words “soul” and “folk” together, and isn’t an acronym — she just likes the way it looks in capitals.
Her debut EP was released in 2012, and that Christmas she was supporting Snow Patrol over two nights in Belfast’s huge Waterfront Hall. In 2013 she donned a bow tie and played Sea Creatures with an orchestra, at a televised concert to mark the beginning of Londonderry’s year as City of Culture.
“It’s felt so gradual getting to this stage, I don’t spend a lot of time being like, ‘Wow!’ I went on tour when I was 16’. I’m pretty relaxed in general.” I would concur. Normally I find interviewing teenagers a stilted, thankfully brief experience but she chats confidently for almost an hour. “I know I look younger than I am. I feel my age. People are always like, ‘So mature, wise beyond her years, classic singer-songwriter’,” she says, stopping just short of making a blah-blah-blah hand gesture. “I am this age and I’m writing about being my age. It’s pretty normal to me.”
Relaxed parents must have helped. At six years of age, the middle of three children, she insisted that her mother, a lecturer in social work at the University of Ulster, and her father, who works in mental health, start calling her “Max”. She was inspired by the naughty boy in Maurice Sendak’s children’s classic, Where the Wild Things Are. A drawing of Max in his wolf costume, standing proudly on her left forearm, was her first tattoo at 16.
They gave her the self-confidence to come out to them at 14. She doesn’t think it was that big a deal and is understandably keen for her sexuality to be just a minor part of her story when there is such wonderful music on display. “It was easy for me. It just depends on your surroundings and how you’ve been brought up. The hardest part for a lot of people seems to be the parents. That’s why a lot of people come out at university — because there’s no risk of you getting kicked out of your home. Mine were always really liberal — massive hippies.”
Her own biggest trouble was getting an education. At four or five she was diagnosed with severe dyslexia, and only avoided being sent to a special school because her parents insisted on keeping her in mainstream schooling. She did extra classes after school and on Sundays. “I was determined not to be behind other people. I was able to, not grow out of it, but work out of it enough.”
But once the gig offers started rolling in and the record companies started calling, school took a back seat. One morning showcase gig left her with just 20 minutes to get to a GCSE biology exam. “I got in the car directly after the show, put on my uniform and went to do the exam, which I failed. I was no good at biology anyway.”
Post-GCSEs she was kicked off a music course at Londonderry’s North West Regional College because she was away gigging so often. She eventually signed to the indie label, Rough Trade, without being fully aware of its work with everyone from The Smiths to The Strokes. Now she’s on the road all the time, from church to skate shop, and even the occasional conventional gig venue. A new tour for June has been announced this week. She has performed alone up to now but is in the process of getting a band together.
“It’s been all right so far. It gets a bit lonely. I’ve only been home for about a week since the start of January, so it can be a bit shit. But you get home eventually and there’s always social media to talk to people.” Spoken like a true teenager. Now watch her grow.