Carla Jenkins has an in-depth conversation with Derry's SOAK about her latest LP 'Grim Town', with photography by Ellius Grace.
“The focus should be on the younger people trying to make something of themselves, not making it virtually impossible for them to live anywhere.”
When I called to interview Bridie Monds-Watson (better known to us all as SOAK), I was sitting on the floor of a train. This is a position that both myself and Bridie seem to know well: the opening of ‘Grim Town’, SOAK’s second album, released at the tail end of April, has a train conductor (voiced by Bridie’s grandfather, Fabian Monds) declaring in a Northern Irish brogue that this is a journey to be made for those amongst us who are known as “the lonely, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the lost”. It is a haunting, electrifying start to the journey that we are about to embark on.
‘Welcome aboard the southbound 432 to Grim Town. If you are standing, please continue to stand. There are no additional seats. Please note this train is for the following categories of passenger only: recipients of universal credit or minimum wage, the lonely, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the lost, the grieving. Those who are unmedicated and have salaries or pension plans should vacate the carriage immediately. Passengers will be required to disembark and travel on their knees from this point. Sustenance will not be avail- able. 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.’
“I wanted there to be a way in and out of the place, and when I began the record it felt like the train was the best mode of transport to the town,” Bridie explains when I point out the synchronisation of current location. “I’ve spent loads of time going to London whilst I was making my record, and getting the shockingly overpriced Manchester to London train on a Monday morning, and it is quite depressing. It’s full of businessmen in suits. It was the inspiration behind trying to create that environment but making it comically depressing.”
Contrary to what the title might have us believe, ‘Grim Town’ is a record that I think embodies hope. It is light, airy and sweet, but also difficult in moments as it seems to vocal- ise pain that has only just healed at the time of writing. There is a fragility about SOAK, but when she sings, that fragility is transformed into something completely different. Like ‘Grim Town’, what you see on Bridie’s surface is not what you get.
“Calling an album ‘Grim Town’ I knew in people’s brains they were gonna think it was the most depressing thing. I guess throughout the album I’m just being cheeky, making light of the situations. I know it’s sad sounding but I guess I just thought it would be fitting to begin the album in a state of laughable depression.”
The title is hilariously despondent for something that is such a joy to listen to, and Bridie laughs as she tells me that “people think I cried the whole way”.
In actual fact, her journey towards her second record as SOAK hasn’t been something quite so emotionally straightforward. Being a face of what I’ve previously described in my writing as ‘bedroom pop’, Bridie first began play- ing music when she was only 13, eventually uploading her acoustic demos online. This was the first I heard of her, with a pared-back version of ‘Sea Creatures’ sent to me (probably by someone I fancied, and this prob- ably made me fancy them more). Between 2012 and 2014, she released three EPs, and at the end of that year she signed with Rough Trade. By then, she had already toured with Tegan and Sara and Chvrches. By 2015 she made the BBC’s Sound of 2015 long-list, and even showed face on Later… With Jools Holland.
That same year she released her debut album ‘Before We Forgot to Dream’. Her Spotify tunes now have streams upwards of 16 million. So where, amongst all this, did the concept of an album such as ‘Grim Town’ come from – an album for the utterly dejected, the results of a journey of despondency?
“I wanted to talk about the change from being a teenager and becoming an adult and going through the grim shit.”
“My last album was more a representation of the age that I was, the kind of life I was living rather than me as a person,” says Bridie. “I mumbled a lot because I was shy and wanted to hide away from what I was saying. On this album everything I was saying was lyrically what I wanted to say, and I was confident about wanting to say it. I didn’t shy away from anything, any lyrical matter. It’s a lot more of an accurate representation of that kind of person that I am.”
The record came from a feeling of stop-motion after years of moving, finding yourself feeling grim in a small-town.
“I wrote ‘Grim Town’ for myself more than anyone else,” she continues. “I finished touring my first album after four years, and suddenly I was back in Derry standing still for the first time in my life, trying to get back into that life. I just ended up confused and lost about every- thing, and it was the result of other failings and having an identity crisis.
“It came from the process of trying to be an adult and feeling the pressure of growing up. I wrote ‘Grim Town’ because I needed to work through what I was feel- ing and understand that and I wanted to feel understood, more than anything. I was hoping that I could understand myself, I suppose, and that other people would feel like I was talking to them when they were listening to it. ‘Grim Town’ is my life, as if I took it out my brain and built a city with all the pieces of it.”
SOAK’s sophomore release is a more mature record than its predecessor, and not because it chooses to address more adult themes or because Bridie has grown up, but her sound has matured, in the same way you might look at a picture of someone and recognise the face you know under a face you don’t know so much.
“I wanted to talk about the change from being a teenager and becoming an adult and going through the grim shit.”
‘Grim Town’ is about place, and placelessness: it is a fictional world, yes, but one that is entirely plausible in the grim reality of the world we find ourselves in just now. Bridie is from Derry, and her album artwork was shot by Ellius Grace at Dublin’s East Wall.
“Every opportunity to say that Arlene Foster is a scumbag is one that I’ll openly take…”
“Some people think it’s about Derry, but it isn’t really. Derry just happened to be the place I was when I was writing a lot of the record. I want people to know that ‘Grim Town’ is a state of mind and that it could be anywhere. I specifically didn’t want to take the picture for the artwork in Derry, or really in Northern Ireland, and I didn’t want it to hold any significance. I took the pictures in front of a wall, and Derry is so famous for its walls… It was important that I didn’t take it in Derry.”
At the time of writing, the politics of living in Northern Ireland is once again at the forefront of the news as it was only a few days ago that the New IRA claimed, and apologised for, the murder of Lyra McKee in Creggan. McKee – a journalist not much older than myself and Bridie – is known for her LGBT+ activism as well as her stellar writing. Bridie is also an LGBT+ activist, in the sense that she openly discusses her sexuality and her disgust at the intolerance of the government that we both find ourselves under with the DUP.
“Every opportunity to say that Arlene Foster is a scumbag is one that I’ll openly take,” Bridie assures me. “Between my first and second album, I had a lot of fear. I was scared to do press and talk about being gay, that it was going to be my title and I’d be boxed off as ‘the gay artist’ and I just thought I was more than that.
“I did a lot of thinking before this album and came back to this idea. I’m comfortable with who I am and I have nothing to hide. My sexuality is so normal to me, it’s not a big deal in my life, so when I write about it it’s just natural and normal. Most importantly, my own country won’t let people marry. Out of the UK and Ireland it’s the only place. It’s just dumb. What is going to happen if people marry, will they go on fire? Politically it’s awful enough right now, is it really going to make a difference?
“I think Arlene Foster is such a key figure in the whole thing because she’s so backwards with the entirety of it. There’s just no good reason, everyone has clarified that it’s dumb to have any restriction on marriage for gay people. I think it’s important I know my audience and at every point I can I do express my annoyance about it. Hopefully it’ll spread the message, or even change it.”
‘Knock Me Off My Feet’ is Bridie’s new album’s ode to Derry, about how you can have a love/hate relationship with a place. She has a strong link with the county, obviously, but also talks openly about how difficult life is there for young people, still.
“A lot about the album is based around frustration in terms of opportunity. Personally, I’ve been so lucky to have in my career and my life the opportunities that I’ve had, [Derry] has one of the highest suicide rates in Europe and in the UK and some of the worst job opportunities; that’s been frustrating for me to watch my friends go through, more frustrating for them, and it’s seeped into the album.”
Anyone living in Dublin right now can testify to how difficult it is to live in the city: the exorbitant rental prices leave so many people, myself included, feeling expelled by a place that they know and love. One of the particular elements of ‘Grim Town’ that chimed with me was that feeling of abiding by a place that doesn’t abide by you or feeling forced to stay somewhere you aren’t happy in because it happens to be where you’re from, and you can’t afford to go anywhere else.
“It’s so important to speak about how awful the housing situation is for people at the moment,” Bridie agrees. “It’s such a weird moment in time to be in your early 20’s. The world expects so much from you and every- one’s screaming that you’re a millennial twat at the same time. You’re trying your best and you can’t afford to live anywhere. I live in Manchester, and the housing situation is actually okay here, but London and Dublin… I wanted to live there too, but I can’t afford it. People from Dublin can’t afford to live in Dublin. It’s shocking, it shouldn’t ever have been allowed to advance to that point. It’s just a mess. The focus should be on the younger people trying to make something of themselves, not making it virtually impossible for them to live anywhere.”
‘Grim Town’ is as contemporary as you’d expect, with mentions of Tesco flowers and iPhone ring tones making its sonic landscape. I suppose it’s easy to forget in amongst all the heavy shit that we’re actually just young women, navigating our ways through life and creativity, forming pockets through music or words where we can see life represented in a way that we can recognise. These pockets are everywhere, really, and I suppose it’s important to remember that in the darkness of these journeys we can create the most colourful lights. Speaking of colourful lights…
“I love Derry Girls!” Bridie laughs. “I think it’s amazing! I’ve been really annoying because I want to be on the show so bad. Every- where I can, I say that Derry Girls is the best because it is, but I’m also saying, please put me on the show!”
Finding our way to that light is what makes it all worth it. That’s why my favourite part of ‘Grim Town’ is at the end, with the re-emerging of Fabian’s voice over.
‘Dear passengers, this northbound 433 train is now departing Grim Town. Atmospheric pressure and air quality will improve rapidly. Breathe deeply, feel your heart fill with joy. A sense of dizziness and mild euphoria. Don’t panic. Gather your optimism, energy and smile as you travel onwards. Everything will be alright in the end.’
We’ve come to the end, all in one piece, and all that is left to do is breathe, and smile. Contrary to what the title would have you believe; a grim town can be a beautiful place. SOAK has created a thing of beauty.
SOAK plays Button Factory on May 30 and Body&Soul June 21-23. ‘Grim Town’ is out now via Rough Trade.