Soak (photo by Ellius Grace, PR)
Derry's Bridie Monds-Watson was barely 14 when she began writing some of the songs that would land on her 2015 debut album, Before We Forgot How to Dream. Recorded under the moniker SOAK, her songs were gentle ruminations that were sometimes cagey, more often direct, and rich with poetic metaphors. She burrowed into the things that weighed heavily on her mind and sang about them with a raw vulnerability: her parents' divorce, her friends, confronting LGBTQ bias and bullying, her search for self-compassion and love, and the complicated passage from childhood to young adulthood.
As Monds-Watson explained in a 2015 FUV Live session and wrote in her own album notes, she envisioned an perfect way that people might listen to Before We Forgot How to Dream: in a dark bedroom by candlelight (and with an endearing teenager's touch, it should be a listening session that involves pizza). Those concise instructions were apt for this hushed album of reflective grace, designed for introverts.
So it's safe to say that Monds-Watson never quite anticipated what followed her quiet record's release: very public success, trotting those personal songs out at cacophonous festivals before throngs of thousands of people, and a touring musician's peripatetic life. Before We Forgot How to Dream was a critical hit too, winning Ireland's Choice Music Prize for album of the year and a Mercury Prize nomination too. On the road and far from home, Monds-Watson life eventually tilted out of control: as she discussed at a recent FUV Live concert at Rockwood Music Hall, in the aftermath of all of that success, she was depressed and in in her own emotional "grim town." Most troubling, she'd lost confidence in her ability to write songs.
Smartly, she called a hiatus for herself, left Derry, and headed to Manchester, England — a city which has always served as a Northern refuge and inspiration for musicians. She hung out with friends, got her head together, and reflected on what she wanted out of music — or if she even wanted to be a musician at all.
Thankfully, she very much does. SOAK's second album, Grim Town, arrives four years after her debut, and by leaps and bounds, it shows off a rejuvenated and even reinvented Monds-Watson. While there are dreamy, contemplative tracks that hark back to her "Sea Creatures" days, a decidedly assertive electric guitar and savvy hooks are now her weapons of choice. Grim Town glows with confident pop chops, notably tracks like the chiming euphoria of "Knock Me Off My Feet," the hooky theatricality of "Déjà Vu," and the tempo-shifting tumble of "Maybe," a sign of a songwriter who realizes that taking risks is the way to go, both in music and in life.
For one thing, it's a far more upbeat album, with a jazzy undertow and brassy asides — a serpentine sax solo glides through the denouement of "Get Set Go Kid" and there's big-hearted swagger to "Scrapyard." Monds-Watson's voice is a marvel of changeable moods: on the quiet spectrum, the stunning "Valentine Shmalentine" is wreathed in ocean tides and husky yearning, while the soaring, synth-drenched "Life Trainee" is built for encores in big arenas, illuminated by a sea of hundreds of lighters. It’s a far cry from Monds-Watson's nascent visions of one person in a dark, candlelit room, breathing in her poignant lyrics, but one that suits where she finds herself now.
The ability to confront a period of despair and supersede it is at the heart of Grim Town, and Monds-Watson's relief to have weathered her own private storm is evident. There are loose ends here left deliberately untied— just 23, Monds-Watson leaves her options open, untethered to a particular style, direction or sound. Grim Town is a joyfully communal album, a push away from isolation and sadness, and also the best advertisement ever for escaping to Manchester to follow your heart and rest your head.
Listen to a rebroadcast of Soak's 2019 FUV Live concert at Rockwood Music Hall on UKNY on Sunday night, August 18, at 11 p.m. on 90.7FM, streaming online, and also available on demand.