Postcards from the Edge — Soak Takes Us to Grim Town

SOAK is the assumed name of Bridie Monds-Watson, a young woman from Derry, Ireland who released her debut album, “Before We Forgot How to Dream” in 2015 when she was barely out of her teens.

That album landed her a coveted spot on the Mercury Prize nominee list.  While she may be one of the youngest ever nominees, her songwriting is as emotionally mature as any nominees past or present.

Ironically her youth might have something to do with that.

“I was so sure of myself at 16, so sure of what I was about that I didn’t give a fuck,” she says now.  That self-assuredness may have allowed her to be honest in her songwriting but it was her voice that completed the package. There is nothing flashy about her singing.  She can come across raw and vulnerable or polished and self-assured. In fact, you can almost hear how if she wished to be, she could be molded into a pop star.  Luckily Soak has surrounded herself with a team that has wisely allowed her to follow her own path and the results have been rewarding for all involved.

Her follow up record, “Grim Town” is less of a follow-up and more of separate volume, not quite a restart but not a continuation.

Based on its name, “Grim Town” doesn’t sound like a place you’d want to visit, but ironically it is, and it’s a lot more upbeat than you’d think.

The lead single, “Knock Me Off My Feet” is catchy as hell with a melancholy vocal that Bernard Sumner would be proud of.

To follow is “Déjà Vu,”  which is just as catchy with shades of Pet Shop Boys and Lykke Li, not something you’d expect next to the more sparse acoustic tracks also found on the album.

This is what sets Soak apart. She does what she wants and doesn’t seem worried about chasing trends, letting out whatever is inside her at the time.

Songs on the album delve into personal issues that have plagued many of us and tackle modern-day anxieties head-on.

Listeners will come out the other end having felt as if they’ve just confided in a good friend, the weight on their shoulders not entirely gone but the load lightened.

Soak spoke to Collide from Manchester, where she was getting ready to hit the road in support of “Grim Town.”

Culture COLLiDE:  Congrats on jumping over the second album slump.  How did you pull that off?  What was different from the first one?

Soak:  Pretty much everything really (laughs). It was the old cliche that you have your whole life to write your first album and a year to write the second one.

I wrote my first album just because I needed to talk to someone and that someone was myself. I was just writing an album in my room subconsciously and there was no stress or anything to it but when it came to this record my whole life had kind of changed. I’d gone through the cycle of the first album and came out the other end and obviously, I’d learned a bit and had more life experience but I kind of found myself not knowing myself or what I wanted. I suddenly of had this audience I never had before and I was like what does this mean.

I didn’t know what I wanted to say or what music I wanted to make so this album was sort of a huge struggle.
Mainly because I was going through an identity crisis and a bit of a rough patch.

This album is born out of that…it feels like a first record because it feels so separate from the first one.

CC: That’s weird that you say that because you can sense that and I’m not sure how to describe it. It’s not a restart or a reboot, but it feels like a starting point but doesn’t discount the first album. Was the recording process different between the two?

Soak: I recorded them both in different studios but both quite jazzy professional places.

My first album was recorded with my friend Tommy quite near my house in Donegal, Ireland and it was made over a couple of years. This album was a very concentrated kind of two months in London with a guy name Ant Whiting (MIA) who was great.

It was mainly kind of me and him like the first one was. I’ve always been involved in production but more-so on this one because the album as a whole means so much to me and is so personal that it was hard for me to let any of it step out of my hands.  Obviously, we’ve brought in people to do the strings and bits but ultimately it was just the two of us in two months in London in his attic recording studio.

CC:  Wow. That’s really fast for a whole album. It’s really well produced. The sound is great. I wouldn’t say pop but poppier.

Soak: Yeah absolutely. That was a conscious decision for sure. It took two months to record but it took two years to write. I was kind of away moping around for a while then like 6 months trying to get it all down and out of me.

CC: How do you write? Lyrics? Melody? What comes first?

Soak: I’m constantly writing lyrics down as I’m walking around because I know I’ll want to use them. I‘m always on the go thinking about things and writing down melodies, words, etc., then I’ll sit down and try to gather it all to write a song.
I usually have a rough idea of how I want it to sound because I’ve demoed it at homes and done loads of mixes and a million different versions. On a technical level, I know how I want it to sound but not sure how to make it sound that way.  If life happens in the studio where I can kind of boss around (laughs) I guess.

CC: How did you get started. You’re so young you couldn’t have gone through the cliched shopping around getting rejected by labels.  How did it all happen so quickly for you?

Soak: My whole career to this point has been an accident in a way (laughs). I started making music because I just love it and its the only way I know how to express myself.

I never planned on going into the industry.  I put some songs on the internet.  I sent some to radio stations and really quickly a bunch of publishers came my way and it all became quite real.

I think I was 16 when I signed the publishing deal and 17 or 18 when I signed my first record deal.  I never wanted to be Avril Lavigne or anything but it all just kind of came together.

CC: So many artists are going to be reading this like What the?!…

Soak:  Yeah (laughs) I know. I would hate me for that.

CC: Was there one person in particular that made this happen on the industry side?

Soak: I wouldn’t say there was one person in particular; it was an accumulation of people that believed in me. I know the first person to play my song on national radio is Phil Taggart who is also from Ireland but was on Radio One at the time.  It was an awful demo but he went and removed the white noise so he could play it on the radio, which he didn’t have to do but he really liked the song and wanted to play it. I think that’s the moment where things shifted and started to build from there and sparked all the interest.

CC: It’s crazy that someone all the way out there in Derry could make that happen from her bedroom basically. It’s fascinating and amazing at the same time. What has your experience been with the labels and the industry so far? You’ve avoided all the other cliches. Have you avoided label interference as well?

Soak: Yeah. My whole process since signing has only really been great. I signed with Rough Trade and it has always been a conscious decision to avoid anyone that’s tried to shape me and I’ve been lucky that everyone I’ve worked with has been really hands off and let me become me.

With this record, the most important thing to me is that I wasn’t given any deadlines, just the freedom to make the best thing I could and tell them when it was done. I think if I had a time limit on this record it would have been a terrible album.

CC: That’s good to hear.  You’ve talked about this album and the recording of it as a way of dealing with your mental stress and personal things. Has it worked?  Not in an “all of my problems are gone” way, but has it been therapeutic as you had hoped? Can you talk about that?

Soak: Yeah, the album and the way it’s track-listed, I wanted it to reflect the movement or the process of being in a rut and slowly but surely climbing out of that rut or making it to the other side. The process of writing the record and creating it was really cathartic and very therapeutic because I was digging up a lot of shit in my head and my past that I hadn’t quite dealt with. It was a little excruciating but ultimately quite satisfying. At the end, I’ve finished this record and said all of these things, which felt like a huge relief for myself—it gave me reassurance. Ultimately I’m really proud of what I’ve made and I feel like getting a lot of it out of my system helped with the pressure I had internally.  I think I’ll always struggle with my anxieties and depression but I think making this album was the pinnacle in teaching me that I can help myself.

CC: Yeah depression never just goes away and you have to find new ways to deal with it whether it’s exercise, listening to, or making, music or talking about it or whatever works for you. You’ve done some live shows already for the album, is it hard to go there mentally while performing any of this material? Is it hard to inhabit these songs onstage?

Soak:  It’s hard to do but more so because I didn’t play shows for two years.  I was like, ‘I’m not doing shows until I finish this record,’ and I was a bit burnt out by my first album cycle. Now, the idea of being able to speak to an audience and brave your own feelings is exciting because I can express myself but also see the crowd mirror how I feel and be able to express that, which means so much to me. To get up on stage, sing these songs and reprocess it, I can channel my current problems I’m having through that and then see audience members singing along, emoting back to me and be moved by it, that human relationship is what means so much to me. For so long I was so scared to ever admit that I didn’t feel great in my head or admit that I was having concerns or worries because I didn’t want to feel weird. Then, I just put it all out in the world, how I was thinking and feeling, and then to hear that it also helped others amazes me. To help reduce that stigma helps me, but it’s so nice to help other people.

CC: Music is probably one of the number one thing people turn to when they have anxiety and stress, so to make something like this that people can use as a tool to deal with it must be rewarding. As you put this tour together, has your show grown? Are you going out solo or do you have a bigger band to make this fuller sound?

Soak:  We’ve done about 12 shows with the new setup and the new songs. I’ve always wanted quite a big band because there’s a lot of production on the record and I’d like to replicate as much of it live as we can. We’ve introduced Sophie to our band, she plays bass and keys. There are four members. Everyone is quite busy playing a million instruments onstage.
It’s really nice just to have another girl on the road with me as I’ve usually toured with mostly guys.  It’s like having a sibling on the road. That’s our crew.  We travel with the band and our crew and one day we’d love to have a big light show and all that.

CC: What’s your favorite city from your first tour?   Is there anywhere you loved? Also, where is your biggest fan base that you weren’t aware of?  Are you huge in any random places that surprised you?

Soak: That’s a hard question because I’ve been lucky to go to so many wonderful places. I really loved Iceland but we also got to play Red Rocks with the Lumineers and that was pretty wonderful. We really want to go to Japan. We’re dreaming of heading there. I’ve gotten a lot of fan messages from Japan and Brazil, which is quite funny. I really just want to go to everywhere I’ve never been.

With that, SOAK is off to hit the road taking the songs of “Grim Town” to people in their own grim towns, towns where they too may feel lost or alone.

Audience members that might also be too afraid to tell anyone what they are feeling will see someone onstage who looks like them and feels like them.

“Grim Town” is out on 4.26.19 on Rough Trade Records.