Carrie Lyell catches up with singer songwriter SOAK ahead of the release of her heavy-hearted second album, Grim Town
BY CARRIE LYELL, IMAGE BY ELLIUS GRACE
The last time I spoke to SOAK was in 2015, shortly before the release of her debut album, Before We Forget How To Dream. Bridie Monds-Watson was at start of an extraordinary journey, personally and professionally, but it’s not always been scenic route. SOAK’s follow up record – Grim Town – is a concept album which beautifully chronicles those highs and lows. It’s a vividly drawn, dystopian portrait of the 22-year-old Derry-born musician’s mental state, imagined as a grey, placeless universe where all of our fears and insecurities are brought to life. “It’s the suffering that starts in the corner of your mind and ends with total loss of identity and control,” goes the blurb that accompanies the album. “It’s the grim realisation that you are not who you thought you were, and that the only way you can face your most excruciating fears is through an unforgiving, unadulterated pop song.” Buckle in – we’re headed for Grim Town.
DIVA: Tell us a little more about Grim Town and how you found yourself there.
SOAK: After my first record, I’d really been neglecting my mental health. When it came to finishing touring and going back to Derry, where I grew up, it brought back a lot of memories. Initially, this album was really difficult because I’d put so much pressure on myself… it was as if I was writing the album for my record label, even though there was no pressure from them. I had huge moments of self doubt and a kind of personality crisis. I’d reached my lowest point, and realised that I needed to write music like I wrote it when I was 13. Then, it was a private thing between me and a guitar, saying everything, just to get it out of my brain. Once I reverted back to that kind of way of making music, it all flowed from there, and Grim Town was written and done within six months. I guess I just took time to grow up a little outside of music and then came back to it.
It’s not easy to face your mental health like that. Did writing the album feel like catharsis, or was it painful exposing those emotions?
It was a really painful process to write the lyrics for the album. I’d kind of been writing them over three years, constantly, when I thought of things, just writing them down and getting them out of my head. Because it’s always easier to look at things with perspective. When you can see something rather than think it, I guess it helps a little bit. But yeah, it was really painful. I guess I was having a harder time than I thought. It was a long process and it was draining but ultimately, I came to accept a lot of things about life and myself.
It’s really relatable, and listening to tracks like Life Trainee took me back to a hard time in my life, feeling like I should have it all figured out and beating myself up because I didn’t. What’s the response been like so far?
It’s always terrifying, coming back after a while, releasing music and being like “I’m not dead, I’m still here!” [Laughs] I had no concept of how that was gonna go, but it went really well. I feel like I’m speaking to a new group of people, which is nice. It means something to people. The first album didn’t have the same emotion behind it.
It is astonishingly raw, honest and exposed.
Yeah, absolutely. The first record, I mumbled the lyrics, because I was scared. I was still a shy, scared teenager. This one, it’s a lot more about shouting things and getting them out of your system. Honesty is the main point behind it; not being afraid to say things things if you mean them.
I know you felt nervous about the reactions of your family. What do they think of Grim Town?
Both my parents work in mental health so I’m lucky they have that understanding already. But I was scared they would be sad that I had felt those ways and that I was that depressed. I know it was really hard for my mum to hear it the first time. But she knows how I am now. I’m a lot more open about how I feel to her and other people. It’s a tough thing to hear your kid say things like that, but I think ultimately, it was good. It helped our relationship and I think it’s made people understand where I’m coming from a bit more. Ultimately my mum is most proud, not about music, but that I’m being honest about how I deal with mental health which I think anybody doing that is never a bad idea. Every little helps in that sense. Lyrically, with this album, I don’t want to hide things because that does no one any good. I wish, whenever I felt that way, I heard an album and was like, “Yes, that’s me”.
Your sound and your look have really evolved since we last spoke. It feels to me like you’re stepping into yourself.
That’s everything I wanted to do. On my first album, because I was so young and just amazed that I was even in this world to start with, I went with the flow a lot because there are adults and big industry people telling you to do things. You feel a bit dumb. So you’re like, “Sweet, yeah, done”. With this record, I was like, no. I want it this way. I feel completely in control of every element of this album and I didn’t feel like that for the first record. And in my own skin, I feel so much more confident, looking like I look and being myself in that regard. So this is a really good representation of me, and it shows a journey and a development and a growing up, which is cool.
Would you say the same is true of your sexuality? Is that something you feel able to own more than you did on the first record?
So much. On the first record, I put myself out there a little bit and then I ran right back in the rabbit hole because I got scared of the idea of only being a queer artist and that being all I ever amounted to. That’s not Bridie, that’s gay Bridie. But now, I’ve come to realise that I’m not afraid to be myself. I’m not afraid to be in people’s face about what I have to say and what I’m about. Before, I thought that because everything was ok in my gay world that everything in the world was ok. I’ve been so lucky in my life and never experienced homophobia, really, on any level.
I guess I just did some research, opened my ears to the world and saw how much unfair shit goes on and how many people have a hard time. Every time a gay person or a queer person speaks out or just is who they are, it sends such a message and it’s visible. It helps show people how normal and not a fucking big deal it is. I realise my position now and I know a lot of my audience are within that community as well and I want to show people I’m proud of myself, because I am, and I wanna help, if I possibly can. That’s my viewpoint now.
Can I just say what a style icon you are these days. Have you always been interested in fashion?
[Laughs] Thank you very much. I always, always was, but I felt like I couldn’t ever say that. People would laugh at me because I was a little chubby girl who looked like a boy. But I’ve become so much more comfortable in my own skin that people can see me however they want and I don’t care. In terms of fashion, it’s been so, so fun over the past couple of years to experiment and wear whatever I want. I love whenever I see other women wearing suits. It feels like such a powerful message. And I love when I see boys wearing skirts. I love that clothes are a spectrum and it does not matter what you wear, in the same way that it does matter, because it’s all a statement. It’s so great to see people breaking barriers with it. I find so much joy in how you can show yourself with clothes and I’m so glad that people are like, “I like how you dress!” It’s the biggest compliment to me.
The album is a dystopian universe, but the real world right now is pretty fucked up too. How much of that trickles into the music you’re making and the art you’re creating?
People always ask if it was based off a real place and initially it wasn’t really, but now the world is Grim Town and I feel like it’s a decent reflection of the time that we’re in. I mean, the world’s trash right now. It’s shit. But there are so many beautiful people putting so many beautiful things into the world because of it, and that’s what we have to focus on right now. At least people are recycling the trash into nice things.
The album is a reflection on your state of mind at the time you were writing it, but where would you say you’re at now? Lost somewhere in Grim Town, or on your way out?
I think, as with most people’s states, one day is good, one day is bad. On a general, I feel really comfortable in myself and with my life and I’m in a really happy place. I feel like Grim Town, I got through that, and I’ve crawled out the other side of the tunnel. I deal with things differently now, and I talk about things more. I’ve learned so much, mainly through life experience. I guess it’s all just learning, really.
This article first appeared in the May 2019 issue of DIVA – grab your digital copy right here!
Like many businesses, DIVA has been hit hard by the economic impact of coronavirus and we need your help to keep the presses rolling throughout the pandemic. Visit our PayPal fundraising page and give what you can. Your support means the world.