Music

Her astonishing debut album saw SOAK become the youngest artist to be shortlisted for the prestigious Mercury Music Prize. So, can her ambitious follow-up, Grim Town, reach the heights of her early success?

By Dave Faulkner.

SOAK’s Grim Town

SOAK, aka Bridie Monds-Watson.
Credit: Ellius Grace

A distorted church organ plays a meandering series of notes as a genial Irish voice announces:

Welcome aboard the Southbound Lassitude 432 to Grim Town!

If you’re standing please continue to stand, there are no additional seats.

In the background we hear the sounds of a large railway station, the hubbub of travellers and departing trains. The mock PA announcement continues, with the stationmaster calling out to “the lonely, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the lost, the grieving…” It is a rollcall of the misbegotten.

Please surrender any faith, aspiration or optimism to platform staff if you haven’t already.

There will be no refunds or compensation for inconvenience.

Refreshments will not be available.

Enjoy your journey.

With this short opening sound montage, titled “all aboard”, we enter the dystopian world of Grim Town, the second album from SOAK, aka Bridie Monds-Watson, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Derry, Northern Ireland. In the two years leading up to the album, Monds-Watson had been stuck in Grim Town, an imaginary place that became the locus for all her feelings of awkwardness, alienation, disappointment and hopelessness. Its namesake city might be a dreary place but Grim Town, the album, is resplendent in glorious musical sunshine, its carefree melodies sneakily disguising the bleakness at its core. This is powerful pop music that touches upon the profound, rich in melodic and emotional complexity.

The traveller’s advisory of “all aboard” dispensed with, Monds-Watson clears her throat and launches into “Get Set Go Kid”. The rhythm is gently propelled by the pitter-pat of brushes on a snare drum, echoing the sound of a locomotive as it clatters over railway tracks. As she sings, SOAK bitterly recalls the banality of high-school sport, her words dripping with irony:

Awards rain, it’s sports day

Everyone gets a prize!

Even stubborn on the sidebench,

For cautioning a step outside.

Get set, Go kid

Accept this plastic medal,

Creep back home to hide.

Well done you did it! You’re alive!

After a complete shift of musical gears, the final line of that verse returns as a refrain at the end. “You did it, you’re alive!” What had been a worthless accolade earlier has now become a badge of honour. Congratulations, you made it through high school and all that came after it with your spirit intact. The dramatic arc of “Get Set Go Kid” represents the entire album in miniature: it’s a picture of survival against the odds.

Grim Town follows the acclaimed debut album Before We Forgot How to Dream, which was released in 2015, when the singer was only 18 years old. In fact, many of the songs on that album were written even earlier, when she was 15. It was hard to believe someone so young had written songs of such depth. Before We Forgot How to Dream was an album about being a teenager, written by a teenager, albeit one with the penetrating insight of a young Joni Mitchell. It was an astonishing debut, and it led to SOAK becoming the youngest artist to be shortlisted for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Music Prize.

As a result, expectations for Grim Town are very high. SOAK not only meets those expectations, she exceeds them. Certainly, this is a much more ambitious album overall, and Monds-Watson has stretched herself as an artist, both as a performer and a songwriter. Her lyrics were always brilliant but she is now able to draw on the wisdom of a few more years of adult life experience. “I’ve just grown up so much and I feel so much more confident,” she told me in a recent interview. “In many ways, this album feels like my first. And I think a lot is to do with personal growth and the fact that my last record was four years ago when I was 18, and now I’m 22.”

The success of Before We Forgot How to Dream allowed SOAK to tour the world. That included a quick trip to Australia at the end of 2015 and her memories of a lonely New Year’s Eve far from home is depicted in the second-last track, “Missed Calls”. At the time, the outwardly confident singer was still uncertain of herself on big festival stages. “I was still quite scared and young,” she told me. “I was very much hiding behind my guitar.” The raw, pensive songs of her debut album gave her concert sets a sombre atmosphere and Monds-Watson found herself wanting to cut loose. “I wanted people to be able to dance and sing along and it not be a quiet show,” she said. Grim Town is more upbeat as a result. “On this album, I was a lot less scared of what people thought,” she said, and laughed. “So I definitely went the pop road a little bit.”

Songs such as “Knock Me Off My Feet”, “Maybe”, “Déjà Vu”, “Scrapyard” and “Life Trainee” boost the energy level higher than before but even the slower, quieter tracks have a strong feeling of movement. Again, Monds-Watson’s growth as a songwriter is largely responsible but credit must also be given to the vibrant production of Ant Whiting. For me, though, the real revelation of Grim Town is the abundance of melody that simply pours out of every song. This musicality creates a separate emotional narrative that often runs counter to the themes being explored in the lyrics. “That was a way of dealing with things, to create a juxtaposition of instrumentation and lyric,” Monds-Watson told me. “To have the whole spectrum of emotion in one song and hide how dark the lyrical subject matter was.”

“Knock Me Off My Feet” is a perfect example. The music is cheerful and sprightly and the chorus line, “You can, you can knock me off my feet”, makes this track appear to be a giddy love song. Far from it. The words actually depict Monds-Watson’s sense of isolation amid the familiar surrounds of Derry. That was definitely a knock-on effect after spending her late-teen years touring:

Maybe it’s all in my brain,

People don’t look at me the same,

I feel weird and something’s changed,

But you’re still my home,

Even though I’m alone.

Her sense of culture shock crops up again on “I Was Blue, Technicolour Too”. Once again the music sounds lighthearted but the words are anything but:

How can I be home and still want to go there?

It hurts to think of her.

I still want to go there!

The off licence sign reads,

We’re sold out of empathy,

For the pity party,

Is under way.

Bridie Monds-Watson felt like an outsider from an early age. When she was very young she was diagnosed with severe dyslexia and was told she would never learn to write. She was determined to prove everyone wrong – and did – but her dyslexia made communication difficult. When she was 11, her father taught her to play guitar, which led to an enormous breakthrough at 13 when she started to write her own songs: for the first time in her life, she found she was able to accurately express how she felt.

There were other moments in her life that profoundly affected Monds-Watson. Her parents divorced when she was young and the divided loyalties she experienced are heart-wrenchingly captured on “Fall Asleep / Backseat”. It describes being shuttled from house to house to celebrate Christmas twice every year, turning the festive season into an ordeal she dreaded.

Monds-Watson is gay, coming out to her parents when she was 13, and to the rest of the world when she did her first press interviews at 15. Happily, she has always enjoyed support and love from her family but it was another point of difference between the singer and the conventional world. When we spoke about her childhood, Monds-Watson acknowledged that those early experiences played a part in shaping her as an artist: “Having any label put upon you forces you to learn more and educate yourself more. But you can use it to your advantage, as a lot of musicians do, especially queer musicians. You can use that as something to help extend your point of view.”

The early success of her music has created some unexpected obstacles for Monds-Watson, which she freely admits: “I found that really hard when I was younger. You know, when you’re between 16 and 18 and you’re meant to have all these connections, but you can’t because you never stay in one place long enough. I found that hard to deal with and that definitely, maybe, scarred me a bit.” The seventh track on Grim Town, “Crying Your Eyes Out” is an unflinching portrait of a relationship in total collapse:

Crying your eyes out,

Across the mattress,

Pushing your face up,

To the fabric

I can hear you thinking,

When the room keeps quiet

Are you quitting dreaming?

It’s taken most of me to stay.

“Everybody Loves You”, “Maybe”, “Valentine Shmalentine” and “Missed Calls” are also finely observed portraits of relationships but, really, every song on this album says something significant about the way human beings relate to each other.

The running order of the 15 tracks on Grim Town was designed, as Monds-Watson explained, “to replicate the process of crawling out of a well or a ditch”. She had been depressed for two years in the lead-up to the album. “Grim Town was my brain on paper. It was also the location of where I was, and that was a part of how I felt.”

The final track on the record, “Nothing Looks the Same”, is a dreamy burst of optimism, with a beautiful, relaxed melody set to a slow waltz time, ending the album on an emotional high. Our journey through Grim Town is almost finished but the stationmaster returns for one final announcement in the middle of the song:

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 along with us.

Everything will be alright in the end.

“What I meant by that song, I believe in myself again,” Monds-Watson explained. “I believe in what I’m doing and I just want to really live my life. I wanted people to see all the ups and downs and, at the end, feel lighter for it.”

Grim Town is a brilliant album by a wonderful artist, one who already shows signs of becoming one of the greats. I feel very confident in saying SOAK’s extraordinary journey is just beginning.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 27, 2019 as "Grim pickings".

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Dave Faulkner is a musician best known as frontman of Hoodoo Gurus. He is a music critic for The Saturday Paper.