Because she grew up in Londonderry, when Bridie Monds-Watson started out making music as SOAK in her teens, every interviewer would ask for her thoughts on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Born two years before the Good Friday Agreement was signed, educated at an integrated school and raised by parents without a religion, she would say: “Honestly, I’ve grown up in a very secure environment. I’ve had nothing but safety my whole life.”
Lately, the 23-year-old is more likely to be asked about the Channel 4 comedy series Derry Girls. When I inevitably bring that up, she gives what sounds like an oft-repeated response: “I love it. It’s a brilliant show, funny, good characters. Orla is my favourite. If I’m at home, we’ll all come together to watch it like a premiere. It’s a Game of Thrones kind of thing for us.”
But now, after the murder of journalist Lyra McKee during rioting in the city last month, it’s back to the bad stuff again. “I stayed up all night watching footage. A lot of my friends live very near that area. Then I was back in Derry a week after. It’s a weird atmosphere in the city,” she tells me. “There are a lot of deaths and murders that happen still, but they’re in their own kind of gang situation so you don’t hear about it so much. It shouldn’t take that to happen to an innocent person for people to take notice and think, ‘Shit, we’ve got to do something here.’”
She had been proud that Derry Girls was making people talk about her home in a new way. “I love that it’s done so well when so much representation of Derry in general has been negative. Derry Girls comes along and shatters that view,” she says. “I don’t want the news to be what puts Derry on the map, for people to think, ‘Derry’s the place where people get shot in the street.’ It already felt like Northern Ireland was an afterthought with all the Brexit stuff. It’s more than that.”
For the past two years, Monds-Watson has been out of it altogether, living in Manchester with friends from home who went to university there, returning rarely. We meet outside a cafe in Brighton, where she’s doing a record store gig and signing and also some tentative househunting with her girlfriend.
Long before now, she was often away, playing her own gigs from the age of 14. She released her first EP in 2012, calling herself SOAK as a portmanteau of “soul” and “folk”. It isn’t an acronym – she just likes the capitals. By the time her debut album, Before We Forgot How to Dream, was released in 2015, she was a relative veteran of the music scene, despite still looking like a baggy skate punk who could be in her early teens.
“I never had the intention to become anything with music. It was just fun, so everything came as a nice surprise,” she says. “I was putting my stuff online, and sending it to BBC Introducing, but I wasn’t really expecting much. For me it was just about touring – getting to travel with music and meet other bands. I loved that. I thought I was the coolest person in the world because I could do it at the age I was.”
That first album got a lot of attention. It was nominated for the 2015 Mercury Music Prize alongside Florence + the Machine, Wolf Alice and eventual winner Benamin Clementine. Disappointingly, that was a year when the organisers were messing with the formula, and she was one of the acts who wasn’t allowed to perform. “I was glad I didn’t have to play, to be honest. I would have been shitting myself,” she says. However, her LP went on to win both the Northern Ireland Music Prize and the Irish equivalent of the Mercury – the Choice Music Prize.
Ironically, all these trophies flying around sowed the first seeds of self-doubt. “I know when I’ve done something that I think is worthy. But I also know when I’ve done something that has received niceness but hasn’t deserved it,” she admits. “My first record – it’s nice, it’s cool, I’m not gonna say, ‘Take these awards back!’ But when it was released I did think, ‘I could write better than this.’”
Her experience is one that plagues the music scene: we fuss around the fresh and precocious because they’re new, then move on fast before they can prove they can do more. The newly released second SOAK album, Grim Town, is streets ahead of her debut both musically and lyrically. She has moved from acoustic beginnings to a rich, full band sound that stretches from the jangly indie pop of Knock Me Off My Feet to the piano-led emotion of Life Trainee and an unhinged saxophone part on Get Set Go Kid.
Finished with touring for the time being, newly arrived in Manchester with nothing to do but write a new album while her friends lived the student lifestyle around her, it didn’t come easy. “I never wanted to quit music but I definitely had moments where I didn’t think I was actually capable of making good music any more,” she tells me. “With the first album’s success, I hadn’t really anticipated it, and I hadn’t processed it when it happened. When I sat down to write another record, the pressure of those accolades was paralyzing. And it wasn’t even pressure from other people. It was just me being a really harsh critic, trying to make something and hating it before it even begins.”
The title Grim Town does not refer to Londonderry, as people have often assumed. It’s an expression she and her friends had been using when something bad happens – “Ugh, that’s grim town.” “Shockin’ McLaughlin” is another one. In the music, it signfies her state of mind.
Her grandfather reads a bleak train announcement at the beginning: “Please surrender any faith, aspiration or optimism to platform staff if you haven’t already. There will be no refunds or compensation for any inconvenience. Refreshments will not be available onboard. Enjoy your journey.”
The songs touch on her parents’ divorce when she was a teenager, her own breakups and depressing student parties. On YBFTBYT, which stands for “You’ve been forgetting to brush your teeth”, she and her friends are coming apart at the seams, expected to know how to be adults but really needing someone to look after them still. “It’s almost like you turn 18 and you’re meant to know everything, to have everything sorted and ready to go,” she says. “I definitely felt like I didn’t know how to be what was expected of me.”
The album ends optimistically, however, on Nothing Looks the Same, with grandad popping up again to announce our departure from Grim Town and Monds-Watson singing: “I was drowning/My brain was a pool/I’m pushing off the bottom/I’m coming for the moon/I’m coming for my life/It’s all right, I’m all right.”
“By the end it’s like you’re climbing out of a well, looking up,” she explains. “My life was like this, but now we’re here. There’s a brighter future.”
Grim Town is out now on Rough Trade. Soak plays May 17, Islington Assembly Hall, N1 (islingtonassemblyhall.co.uk)