In early February SOAK, or Birdie Wan Swanson, released her single “Sea Creatures,” an upbeat song with a subtle, dark atmosphere. It featured bubbly lines like “I don’t understand / what her problem is / I think she’s just a fish!” tempered by the rich ringing of low piano keys over the sound of a sea breeze. NPR promoted it as one of their “Songs We Love.” Music media gravitated towards her underground, but established work – at age sixteen she was featured in The Guardian as “One to Watch” – making her album Before We Forgot How To Dream one of the summer’s most anticipated releases. I too was anticipating a great summer album, and, even more so, my interview with SOAK at the Mid East this July. Yet, the album’s release passed without the expected explosion of acclaim. I wanted to know what happened.
SOAK approached the booth in the Middle East Restaurant with both the sheepish grin of a teenager and weary walk of someone far older. I’d been waiting only a few minutes, with a sense of mounting intimidation as I thought of how cool the nineteen-year old, Irish singer-songwriter would be. SOAK’s casual “hey” and somewhat awkward handshake put that discomfort to rest.
With the impressive experience of five years in the music industry, SOAK has a quiet confidence that suits her relatively unknown persona. Dressed in all black, and wearing plenty of tattoos – including a geometric-moose that I’d seen before on Pinterest – she projected the reticence and flippancy of a teenager. Her music reflects these staple themes of adolescence.
SOAK stood alone on the stage, equipped with her guitar, an amp, and her pleasant, though heavy Irish accent. The Middle East Upstairs housed a sparsely-crowded mix of twenty-something kids – sporting similarly stupid tattoos – greying couples, and a father with his two children seated, cross-legged on the floor, stage right.
SOAK’s music is enthralling because of her silly, youthful lyrics – on the unembarassingly titled “B a noBody” she sings, “the teenage heart / is an unguarded dart” – and interesting because of the dense layers and contours of its production. While Birdie herself is undoubtedly talented, her solo show was at best pleasant and at worst boring. Unlike her studio versions, it was difficult to hear the lyrics through her accent, and the texture of one guitar made each song indistinguishable from the next. I found myself counting the songs that had identical strum patterns.
In our interview, SOAK expressed an understanding of these muted and uninspired aspects to her solo shows. We talked about songwriting, and whether she writes with a specific audience in mind.
“When I started, I was never writing for an audience, but just for me. In the past couple years, I write knowing the band, and what it sounds like live, but don’t know specifically. The solo stuff is kind of quiet and delicate, I guess, and the band is really loud, big songs, a lot of fun. I now try to write songs that we can do with the band, and have it really loud and fun. Just a lot of fun onstage. For the quiet shows, the solo shows, people tend to not sing along or anything, because like everybody’s just trying to listen.”
It was unclear from our interview why SOAK would do a solo tour when she writes with the intention of playing with a full band, and enjoys those shows far better. Was it a funding problem? Did she not have enough of an audience to support a full band?
“I kind of get weird audiences. Some places, the audience will be a lot of people that just turned eighteen. Or I get a lot of ‘scenesters,’ people that clearly are just there because they heard about it on like, some Tumblr or something. A lot of those guys come to my shows. A lot of 18 to 35, but then sometimes they’ll be like 50, 60 years old, which is kind of weird but also nice to have that reach.”
This makeup does not indicate a substantial fan base in the US, but it holds hopes for people who would at least spread the word about SOAK, whether blogging about the show they went to, or by gifting one of her CDs to their grandkids.
If not for her solo-shows, SOAK certainly deserves some of the attention she has received from publications like Pitchfork and NPR. Despite at times immature lyrics, the songs she writes are nonetheless transcendent. I’d asked SOAK about her songwriting, and to what extent her own experience informs the process.
“The way I write songs is that whenever I didn’t feel comfortable talking about something, talking to my friends or family about it, I’d sit down and play and kind of sing along, and write out what I felt. Having it down in front of me made it a lot easier to understand. That’s how I started writing, and all those songs were written in that kind of state. So I guess, when it came to recording, we tried to keep each song kind of true to the moment it was written, and not to change it up too much. They’re all real life.”
Her lyrics are genuine, and recording with a band has allowed her to make them both dynamic and energetic. The varied instrumentation of her album is impressive, but when I told her this, she scoffed. “Yeah, people have said that before. A lot of instrumentation and structure of the album wasn’t expected. Then in the UK we’re doing a lot of like full-band festival shows, so it’s a very different dynamic.”
Seeing SOAK with a full band would be an entirely different experience. It would highlight the potent feelings that SOAK’s music captures. An adolescent sense of uncertainty and pre-mature fatigue is present in songs like “Sea Creatures” in a way that even her older audience can recognize. Perhaps because of her age, SOAK’s musi-
cal process is some ways in a similar transition to that which many teens, twenty- something scenesters, and even balding dads experience.
When I asked SOAK to describe her sound, she said she simply could not. “I have no idea. I know what I don’t like being described as. I always get described as like, folk, and I don’t think I’m that at all. It’s like, people see one person on tour, singer-songwriter, and they say it must be folk or it must be pop. I see a lot of people define my music badly. Different than what I think it is.”
As she spoke of this incongruence between how she is seen and how she sees herself, SOAK became visibly uncomfortable. She seemed to be feeling the unease that is potent in her music, that of the seemingly endless process of growing up. Perhaps that uncertainty and failure to self-define halted SOAK from capitalizing on her momentum.