On her forthcoming debut album, Before We Forgot How to Dream, the wise and immensely talented 18-year-old Northern Irish songwriter SOAK, whose real name is Bridie Monds-Watson, invites us into her world. Here, the future is uncertain, people don’t understand what you’re trying to tell them, and you’re living in a place where you don’t quite belong. But you’re not alone, and you know you won’t be here for long.
What is certain: We’re stoked to premiere SOAK’s cover of St. Vincent’s 2014 single “Digital Witness”! We chatted with her about living like Peter Pan, growing up online, and forgetting about music snobbery. For more SOAK, check out her album, out June 2 on Rough Trade, follow her on Twitter, and poke through her website!
BRODIE: You’ve gone from singing about escaping a small town to traveling the world playing music. What’s it like to go home now?
SOAK: At the moment, I don’t get home very often at all. It’s a small town where, if I’m there for too long, it’s really shit and I get really bored. If I’m home for more than a week, I wanna go again. But I’ve got my mates who are home, and I’ve grown up with them. They’re always in my house when I’m up there, so that’s a good part of going home.
I really love how you bring your friends into your work—the same faces pop up in your videos and your merch. How do they feel about what’s happening to you right now?
They’re my best mates. I think they enjoy [what’s happening], like, they come to festivals with me and they’re really involved when they can be. They’ve grown up with me as I’ve done this, so when people come to town and want to do a documentary or whatever, I call my friends and they’re like, “Cool”. It’s like that now, whereas two years ago they’d be like, “What!?”
Is it important to involve them?
Whenever we shoot the videos, it’s just fun. So far, they’ve all been mess-around videos—with the exception of “Sea Creatures”—and I can’t imagine trying to shoot those with extras and being like, “We’re having so much fun, I don’t know your name!”
On “Sea Creatures,” you sing about your hometown being a place you don’t understand or relate to. What was growing up there like?
It was all right. It was really sheltered. Classically, Northern Ireland has a reputation for the Troubles, and that did happen, but it’s done-ish now. I went to an integrated school and it was relaxed: boys, girls, different religions and ethnicities.
We get a really intimate look at your personal life in the “BLUD” video. Like, we see your bedroom and your zines…
I didn’t make that! I played in New York about a month ago, and a girl who snuck into the gig, who was underage, gave me it, and it’s got a playlist in it. It’s really rad. I didn’t know they were called zines: We call them leaflets. I Instagram’ed it, and [after the video came out], she tweeted about it. It’s cool.
Cool! She must be stoked. That intimacy comes through when you perform. Do you still feel that closeness to your audience as the crowd are getting bigger and bigger?
I feel like, no matter how big this gets, it’ll still be…instead of doing one big show at an impersonal concrete venue, I’d rather sell out a few nights at somewhere intimate and quiet, like a church or something. At the moment, it’s not very hard to retain everything and keep the emotion in the songs. I thought it would’ve at this stage, because I’ve been playing some of these songs for four years now. So it’s good that it’s still pretty easy to keep it really real.
Is it true that you were kicked out of music school?
Yeah, that’s true.
When I was finishing compulsory education, I was trying to get as many qualifications as I needed to go to music school. I didn’t really care about anything else. Then I got to music school, but that’s when things started kicking off for me. I was going on tour and playing gigs with Snow Patrol. It was really weird to come back to school and try to pretend you’re enjoying it half as much as you are when you’re doing all this crazy shit. It was annoying to turn down, like, crazy good opportunities to be in school and learn about the Dixie Chicks. So I’d barely gone much at all and there were all these warnings. My parents were kind of like, “Come on, go to school.” They just wanted me to have a backup plan because any creative business is really uncertain. So that was understandable. I think they acted disappointed when I got kicked out but after a while they didn’t really care.
You can’t be too disappointed when your kid can’t study music because they’re doing it for real instead.
Yeah, and I learn by actually going and doing things. I think experience is what really teaches you anything. I’m glad I got kicked out.
When you listen to the songs on your album that you wrote when you were a lot younger, do you still connect to who you were when you wrote them, or do you feel further away?
When I listen and actually concentrate on a song, I still sympathize with how I felt when I wrote it. I do that live as well. I feel like when it’s live, though, I have to put up a bit of a wall just because if I played every night and got really emotional, it’d be exhausting. So I feel like you play with as much honesty as you can, but you hold back a little. It’s weird listening to the album, because half the tracks are from like, age 13 to 16, and the rest are pretty recent. So, for me, I can see how my songwriting has changed, and lyrically, I, like, know more words [laughs]. Whereas I’m not sure if people hear that.
That idea of putting up a wall reminds me of something Kathleen Hanna said when I heard her speak last year. She said when people tell her, “You changed my life!” or “You did so much for me!”, she can’t accept all the praise or she’d be so spent from just accepting all of that energy and ingesting everyone else’s emotions that she wouldn’t have room for her own.
It’s true. That was one of my mum’s biggest fears when I started doing this. She was like, “If you always getting praised, or people being like, ‘You’re so great, blah blah blah,’ and if you took everything on and believed everything, it would make you really backwards. It would fuck with your head.” That kind of praise is not good for anyone. For me, I feel accomplished and achieved when I do something that I’m proud of. I don’t care what other people think, unless it’s someone I admire. Otherwise, I’m happy people like my stuff, but I can’t take in sycophantic shit.
We’re premiering your cover of St. Vincent’s “Digital Witness.” What is it about that song that you like?
I just really like her. She’s cool. I listened to her at Electric Picnic, which is a festival in Ireland, but I didn’t really get into her until later on. She’s really good and kind of weird. I like music that’s entertaining and you can’t tell what the next line is gonna be. She just makes things that are really interesting, and you can hear something new each time you listen. It’s really well-textured.
So much of that song, and what Annie Clark has said about it, is about her disdain for internet culture and people broadcasting their lives. What’s your relationship to the internet like as someone who’s never known a world without it?
I’m definitely the first generation that’s grown up with the internet in school, from like, primary, year one. I had a Facebook account when I was, like, 13. I wasn’t that interested until I was, like, 15. Now I use it tons—I kind of have to, because it’s an incredible form of promotion. But I think it’s fun, as well. I’m lucky because I’m with an independent label, so I’m in charge of my social media. If my label people post on it, it’s with my approval. I decide how much of myself I want to give away, and what I want to say as well.
I read an interview where you said people describe your sound as “folk” just because there aren’t a lot of other common markers for a female singer-songwriter. You remind me of a combination of, like, Lorde and Dallas Green—
That’s a good way to put it. That’s cool, I like both those artists a lot.
Oh, phew! Do you think these genre labels need to change or is it about the people assigning them?
I just think it’s the people who need to not be so fucking lazy. That is complete laziness. It’s not that hard to research a bit and be a bit inventive. It’s like they type in “singer-songwriter” into the internet and the first things that come up are Joni Mitchell and Cat Power, so that’s it. It’s stupid.
Recently, Mitski released a cover of One Direction’s “Fireproof” and spoke out against the idea that when serious artists with indie sounds cover pop songs, it somehow makes the song more legitimate. That made me think of your Live Lounge cover of “Shake It Off.”
How do you feel about that idea that pop and quality need to be mutually exclusive?
When I was 13, I proper became a music person and cared about that stuff. I spent a huge amount of my time, up late at night, trying to find the most obscure bands that I possibly could so I could be like, “Oh have you heard of _? Oh, you probably haven’t! They’re really good, you probably wouldn’t like it.” I was that dickhead. I feel like that’s what you’ve just explained—some form of that. Music in itself is a form of representation, and anyone being like, “The music that you like is shit, you should listen to Rammstein,” or any sort of put-down, musically, I’m not cool with. I hate that snobbery.
I really love the title of your album, Before We Forgot How to Dream. It reminds me of a line from The Breakfast Club, where Alison is talking about the fear of becoming like her parents and says, “When you grow up, your heart dies.” Do you feel like you’re in a time in your life when you have more hopes and aspirations than you’ll feel again?
Oh, that’s my little brother’s favorite movie. I don’t feel like that, personally, but I think the whole album title describes, like, before people have to have a job, when you don’t really have responsibility and you still believe in something. That’s kind of what that defines. I thought it was a fitting title, especially since the album’s been written in the time since I was 13 to now. I feel like I had to mature quite quickly, being in the music industry so young. I feel like I’m a lot older now and becoming an adult and shit.
This is your job and responsibility now.
Yeah, and I feel like it describes a dreamlike land, a Peter Pan-type thing. I’ve never thought about it like that—the idea that you have, like, 20 years to do nothing, and nobody’s going to get that angry with you. And then it’s like, real life. My friends are still in school. But I think they live in a more real world than I do. I’m pretty lucky to be doing what I do. ♦