Bridie Monds-Watson has been one of the biggest breakthrough indie talents in the past few years. Starting out by self-releasing sparse and ethereal folk on the internet under the name SOAK, she soon found herself swept up in a wave of industry hype with majors and indies alike fighting to be affiliated with her. She signed to Rough Trade aged just 18 in 2015, and was nominated as the youngest ever Mercury Prize nominee the same year for her debut LP Before We Forgot How To Dream. Her promise and unbridled talent saw critical acclaim and worldwide tours come her way – and then things went quiet.
It’s been just over four years since the release of her debut, but the Derry-born artist is back. Her skateboard has been ditched and the fringe, which once drooped over her eye, cut short and slicked back. A lot has happened since her debut, from relentless touring to a move to Manchester, and her second album – Grim Town – is about these connecting years, the return home to Derry and her arrival in Manchester. In a room devoid of natural daylight, I make a call down the M62 to her Manchester residence. She answers in her hushed, laid-back Northern Irish brogue.
“I couldn’t think of anything more boring than making my first record again, so I didn’t really focus on any genre in particular and just did what I wanted to do,” she tells me after some awkward pre-interview small talk. Without dwelling on the clichéd ‘difficult second album’ too much, SOAK has used the opportunity to her advantage seeing it as a chance to experiment with new approaches, structures and styles. “It’s more of a state of mind more than any physical place. I was trying to get everything that was going on in my head into one place because that’s how I was feeling.”
From the highs of touring, with adulation every night and recognition always near, the return to a much slower pace of life always hit her hard. Upon asking whether Derry is the main inspiration, Bridie pipes up: “It is in part Derry, in that that was the location that I went to after tour. I guess returning to the place where you grew up after a time away can lead to being haunted by your childhood and your experiences while you were there. I do love Derry, but I think most people from small towns hit a point where they want to experience more and open up more opportunities. I think it was the circumstances and could have been anywhere with the way I felt.”
Back in Derry, severely depressed and struggling with her identity off stage, she took some time off to rest, recover and rediscover who she was, both as SOAK and as Bridie. “I just told everyone that I wouldn’t do any more shows before I write the album. It took a good year before I actually got back into writing the record and I grew up a lot. I had a big identity crisis as to who I was and about whether I was actually a musician. I didn’t really know who I was without the SOAK part, so I took a lot of time out before I actually wrote the album. I think that if I wrote an album straight away it wouldn’t have been any good.” With a time to reflect on the tumultuous couple of years her music’s success has brought, Bridie has crafted more than a series of songs in what is both an account of her mental health, self-acceptance and, ultimately, a much happier existence.
A droll train announcement introduction expresses the hopelessness and futility that a lot of people in their early 20s feel. That sense of loss, isolation and uncertainty in the world is a common one in that suspension period somewhere between teenager and adult. Grim Town combines these feelings with that of small town hopelessness and the idea of never being able to leave. Its introduction reflects a mindset common in the modern world, one often caused by the austerity and recession that surround us. There’s a humour that underlines the announcement and, as such, the light refracts throughout the rest of the record, even in its darkest points. “The tracklist is meant to be like you’re climbing out of the well,” she tells me, with tracks starting at the low point and arriving somewhere close to acceptance. Lyrically, the record tackles some pretty dark and personal issues, but its sound is fuller and bigger than ever before. Her vocals’ ethereal quality still rings hauntingly throughout the record but strings and synths resonate harmoniously. Songs such as Knock Me Off My Feet show her pop sensibilities at their very best, sitting nicely between Robert Smith and Robyn; while Everybody Loves You provides a hook so infectious, so resonant in your subconscious, you’ll be sure you’ve heard it before.
Harnessing the power of a bigger band, the new album sees Bridie step everything up a level. “I think the music has changed mostly because I wanted it to be more from the perspective of a band. I’ve always wanted to be in a band, and I kind of played on my own before because I had to. With this record, I wanted to make it really fun to play onstage and live, and fun for the people in the crowd at the same time. I was looking at new ways of writing, new genres and new structures. I was trying to be a lot more unpredictable in my approach to the music.”
A triumphant return, Grim Town will see SOAK hit the international touring circuit again. “I had such an amazing time to playing live for the first album, but now I think I’m going to enjoy it even more. I feel that I know my limitations a lot better than I did, so I imagine I’ll have much more stamina.” At the start of her last world tour, SOAK was barely a legal adult; now, four years on, she is back with a more developed and sophisticated sound which is sure to excite her existing and new fanbases alike.
Grim Town is out now via Rough Trade. SOAK plays District on Friday 3rd May as part of the Sound City+ VIP showcase.