The singer-songwriter on comparisons with Soak, performing at the final Glasgowbury and hiding behind a stage name
Derry~Londonderry isn't exactly pining for more singer-songwriters at the moment, with the likes of Our Krypton Son, Soak and Best Boy Grip just three acclaimed solo performers helping to put the UK City of Culture on the map. Yet there are no signs that the river of talent issuing from 'music city' is set to dry up any time soon.
Touted as 2013's answer to Soak, 20-year-old Susan Donaghy, otherwise known as Susie-Blue, has emerged as one of Derry~Londonderry's brightest new talents in recent months. The Soak comparison is, of course, unavoidable. Their physical likeness is uncanny, for starters – both are diminutive, their hair cut short. And, as performers, they write and perform with their heart on their sleeve.
With two EP releases under her belt – Stripped Bare (January 2013) and Bits and Buttons (March 2013) – Susie-Blue bagged a slot at the 2013 Glasgowbury music festival – which turned out to be the festival's final fairwell. This trajectory is strangely reminiscent of Soak's rise to prominence a year ago, but purely coincidental rather than the result of any shady PR plot to replicate success.
Donaghy is adamant that the similarities between her and Bridie Monds-Watson are purely superficial. 'Me and Bridie are good friends and I'm flattered to be compared to her sometimes,' she adds. 'But we both agree that the only things we have in common are being small and playing acoustic guitar. Our writing and playing styles are so different.'
An early learner musically, Donaghy's father bought her first guitar when she was seven, but it wasn't until the family relocated to Derry~Londonderry a couple of years later that her musical education began in earnest. 'My dad taught me the first few chords for 'Sloop John B' by The Beach Boys,' Donaghy recalls fondly, 'and after that I just ran with it and started singing, too.'
Six years later, Donaghy found herself delving into original songwriting. She found the process enlightening and restorative, and used it as an outlet to vent her troubles, express her doubts and fears, anger and pain. It became a habit. 'I just kept writing,' she says. 'It was an amazing way to get out the things that were annoying me. It sounds so cheesy, but it's true.'
The toils of teenhood sparked her interest in writing, but Donaghy was less keen on performing in public. In a bid to overcome stage fright, she decided to create a new persona for herself, taking influence from Swedish author Stieg Larsson's hard boiled heroine, Lisbeth Salander, from his Millennium Trilogy – a favourite character of Donaghy's.
'I needed an alter-ego to be able to go up in front of people,' Donaghy explains. 'It made it much easier. And when I was thinking of starting my solo career, I turned to the person I get a lot of advice from, Jilly St John of [Derry~Londonderry pop rockers] Wyldling, and told her my childhood nickname was Susie Blue. She said she loved it and I trust her, so it stuck.'
Donaghy, it transpires, is no stranger to the music scene in Derry~Londonderry and the artists who populate it. Early renown among her peers in the North West led to the production of her two striking debut EPs in the opening months of this year, the four-track Stripped Bare (which features a track titled 'Lisbeth'), and the three-track Bits and Buttons.
'I think I got caught up in it all at the start,' Donaghy now admits. 'It all happened so fast, and so many people offered to record me. Glenn Rosborough of Intermission offered and I was amazed, so we did it and he produced it so well.'
While lyrically there is still a feeling of dampness behind the ears in Donaghy's work, there is a marked progression in sound between her two EPs. Her ability with melody is obvious on both titles, but the denser sound of the first release has given way to a lighter feel. And across the three tracks that span her most recent release, Donaghy demonstrates her whispered lilt to arresting effect.
'I like getting the darkness out in songs rather than feeling it all the time, so when I recorded Stripped Bare I just felt so much better and the performance was better too, I think. Then Bits and Buttons was a bit happier and I enjoyed recording the songs with Sean Woods. He did a great job producing. I love both EPs equally. All the songs are very personal to me and if people want to get to know me, just listen to the lyrics.'
Paddy Glasgow and his colleagues at Glasgowbury evidently liked what they heard. Before she knew it, Donaghy was catapulted onto the Eagle's Rock stage, performing to a tent of unfamiliar faces from across the country. The significance of the opportunity was not lost on her.
'I was so honoured to have played the last Glasgowbury,' she beams. 'I was playing with people whose music I love and am inspired by, and it was crazy to be on the bill with those amazing acts. I will never forget playing there. They treat you so well and are so respectful of you. The crew couldn't do enough for me. The crowd were so great and intimate and I loved engaging with them.'
Having gained momentum as a solo performer, Donaghy now divides her time between promoting the Susie-Blue persona and supplying vocals and guitar with a new band, Taking Monroe, which features two of Donaghy's closest male friends. The band are currently readying a debut single. Surely it must sometimes feel like an exercise in plate-spinning?
'Well, between university work, writing new songs and gigging, it's all been a bit hectic,' Donaghy laughs. 'But I love it all so much. I can't wait to gig and have fun, travel about a bit with my new band member in Susie-Blue, Jack Carlin, who will be bringing some percussion to the show, and maybe we'll be recording some more. You never know, there might be an album in the making.' Because in 2013, with the City of Culture celebrations in full swing and a wealth of opportunity at her fingertips, what's stopping her?