Early in the track ‘Sea Creatures’ – the breakout cut from the recent EP of the same title by feted acoustic songstress SOAK – the Derry-based up-and-comer sings the word ‘fish’ but with an unexpected salmon-like vocal leap into a high note.
The effect is perceptibly familiar, but weirdly alien, like your mother adding a new spice to her usual stew. Where did that note come from? It sounds a little like kooky indie darling Joanna Newsom – but not so wilfully eccentric. It’s got some Cat Power in there, but minus the angst. Gemma Hayes? Sure – but more earthy.
The one thing it definitely doesn’t sound like is a 16-year-old who first picked up a guitar two years ago, played her first gig nine months ago and has since played 70 more, releasing two EPs along the way, picking up a ton of radio play, the attention of big labels and even leading Gary Lightbody to remark that she has 'unbelievable talent, not only for someone so young but for anyone at all'.
'It’s been mindblowing,' admits SOAK, or Bridie Monds-Watson to her familiars. 'I’ve gone from doing these bedroom recordings a few months ago to playing big gigs, supporting the Undertones – when I think about it, all I can do is laugh. It’s unbelievable. I’m so lucky.'
She briefly offers a mischievous Ron Burgundy impression – 'It’s all escalated really fast' – but quickly follows up with: 'And I’m extremely grateful. So thankful. I just constantly think to myself "what is going on?" It’s just incredible.'
Two years ago Monds-Watson, under the tutelage of her father, started 'playing a few chords' and, despite never having sang before, tunes came naturally. She recorded them in her bedroom before stumping up £50 for a rough studio sketch, which became debut EP Trains. Not content, she submitted Trains to a competition for up-and-coming Northern Irish talent, won and was awarded the opportunity to record her second EP, Sea Creatures.
The momentum generated by the two recordings – released just a few months apart in 2012 – has been startling. SOAK is set to play McHugh's Bar on Wednesday, November 7 and the Oh Yeah Music Centre on Friday, November 9 as part of Belfast Music Week, and the Black Box on Saturday, November 10 for the Outburst Queer Arts Festival – and is even lining up a proposed performance at the prestigious Other Voices festival in Dingle in the New Year.
'Amy Winehouse once played it,' notes the diminutive Monds-Watson. 'I mean, imagine playing a stage she once played – it’s crazy.' You can almost hear a mild, disbelieving head shake down the phone line.
Despite emerging as bedroom-bound songstress first, SOAK appears enthralled by the possibilities of gigging. 'I love it. It helps me improve as a musician and as a performer, but it’s great to gain exposure to different audiences. Because sometimes an audience is great and sometimes they want to talk over you – but it helps having to deal with situations like that.'
And how does this folky, quiet presence bring an audience into line? 'Usually I just talk a lot about myself,' she explains. 'I tend to be quite open on stage, because when I listen to an artist, I really want to know what kind of person they are. So I like to talk to the audience like they are my friends.
'If people hear you talk, they tend to listen more – to be more supportive,' she continues. 'And they also understand where you’re coming from as a musician. People want to know about a performer. But I know what it’s like to idolise a musician, and then meet them and see they’re not who you expected them to be. So my aim is to be open – and my main fear is to not let anyone down in terms of being closed off.'
Openness is not the hallmark of the average teenager, but SOAK is still only 16-years-old – her Twitter profile advertises a love of dragons and playing Skyrim, while the Prehen-based artist also studies music at North West Regional College.
Nonetheless, SOAK speaks with untypical simplicity and assurance, traits reflected in her music ('I like to keep things simple,' she says on songwriting) and her personal life.
Two years ago, she came out to her parents at just 14. Speaking about her sexuality, she treats it with ‘what’s the big deal’ indifference, even though a teenager this comfortable in their own skin is about as rare as a 24-carat nugget of gold floating down the Foyle.
'People like to make a big deal out of my sexuality,' she states, matter-of-factly. 'But it’s just a small part of who I am. I want music to represent me, not my sexuality.'
She recalls a recent interview she conducted with a ‘gay’ magazine. 'When the article came out it was headlined with "16-year-old lesbian singer-songwriter". My sexuality was right at the top. But it’s not that big a thing and it’s important for me not to be labelled that way.'
Fortunately, most people seem content to let SOAK be herself in peace. 'Derry is a great place nowadays,' she offers. 'There’s not so much homophobia, and events like Foyle Pride show how far the city has come in terms of making it an accepting place.'
SOAK’s adopted home town (she’s originally from Belfast) is also a place of musical inspiration for her. 'The local music scene right now is really influential. I love the stuff in Derry right now. Best Boy Grip is incredible. The Calmeens are another great band. I take a lot of people like that, though all-time influences include Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and newer stuff like Bombay Bicycle Club and Benjamin Franklin Leftwich.'
She stops, adding: 'But I never set out thinking about anyone else when playing music. I always just want to be myself and try not be like anyone I’ve heard before.'
Thinking back to that vocal leap on ‘Sea Creatures’ – oddly familiar, but distinctive to her – it seems certain that SOAK is right on track.
Visit the SOAK Facebook page for information on forthcoming performances.