Anyone who has grown up in a small, economically depressed town will be aware of its dualities; the sense of lawlessness that can make for a utopian childhood may sour into a sense of limitation the longer you stay there. The lack of surveillance that allows for nefarious activities like underage drinking in a park (see: a knackered row of swings accompanied by one of those haunted rocking horses on a spring) gradually gives way to lack of opportunities as your awareness of the world at large expands. Usually, one of two things will happen as a result: you stay put, content with your environment or not, or you leave in the pursuit of more.
This love/hate relationship is the driving force for “Knock Me Off My Feet” – the new single from Northern Irish songwriter Bridie Monds-Watson aka SOAK, premiering below. “I’ve always done the best I can / To get out of my neighbourhood / Growing up I spilled my blood / But you're still my home / You stay within my bones,” she sings affectionately in the opening lines. Over the phone, Bridie describes the song as being about “the joys of coming from a place where you know everyone, as well as the disappointments”.
“It’s nostalgic about times when my friends and I set fireworks off in our hometown and couldn’t really get arrested, because there weren’t even enough police to arrest us,” she adds. “But it’s also about having self-doubt and being doubted by other people, and just being like ‘I don’t give a fuck, I’m just gonna do what I’m gonna do’. Which was quite a powerful thing for me to say to myself.”
A bustling indie-pop track recalling Broken Social Scene circa You Forgot It In Me, “Knock Me Off My Feet” hits on a very specific note of acceptance. It’s about reckoning with a period of change from a more settled place, celebrating growth but also embracing the chaos of uncertainty. The video, filmed at a race track, sees Bridie alternating between determinedly zooming around in a car and wandering around a mountain alone.
‘Home’ isn’t always a big part of an artist’s presence, but SOAK has so far been heavily informed by Bridie’s environment. Born and raised in Derry – an area she reminds me has one of the highest rates of suicide in the UK – SOAK’s sound is both starry-eyed and heavy-hearted. Not in an especially depressing way, though. It’s more P.S. Eliot than Elliott Smith. You know when you’ve absolutely had it but, rather than reacting dramatically, you just take a deep breath in through your nose, blow it back out through your cheeks and sit with the mess of it all for a minute thinking ‘well, this sucks’? That kind of heavy.
Bridie’s ascent has been a particularly impressive one. Her 2015 debut album Before We Forgot How To Dream – a melancholic collection of guitar-led songs she wrote between the age of 13 and 17 – kickstarted a critical embrace rarely observed in the UK and Ireland. The same year she became old enough to legally drink, Bridie also became one of the Mercury Prize’s youngest ever nominees and won the Choice Music Prize for Album of the Year. She was also shortlisted for a Q Award and The BBC Sound of 2015, and took home the European Border Breaker in 2016. As is custom, three years of back-to-back touring followed.
Now 22 and splitting her time between Derry and Manchester, where she currently lives, Bridie has been busy writing and recording her second album, Grim Town. Lighter in sound but darker in theme, the album casts a wider sonic net than its predecessor. With a more direct lyrical approach and a sprawling, indie-pop landscape that wears its influences (Troye Sivan, Phoenix and Pinegrove to name a few) on its sleeve, Grim Town was born out of a period of equal parts darkness and excitement. Although the past four years are ones Bridie describes as full of growth and discovery, both personally and as an artist, the weight of expectation that accompanies such an early ascent inevitably caught up.
“When I stopped touring and started doing the new record, I was devastated by doubt and pressure,” she says. “I found it really hard to work under the knowledge that people were expecting something. I think I spent those years of touring in a bubble and avoiding my personal life, so when I got home I ended up massively depressed.” She goes on: “I was in a pit of self-doubt in terms of how I worked creatively. I didn’t trust my own ideas. I’d make one note and then be like 'no, actually I hate music!' I was feeling really negative, and the album was born out of how I felt at that time. I wanted to make my brain a location because it felt easier to process everything that was going on in that way.”
A deeply visual album, peppered with references to Derry – house parties, pubs, feelings of detachment in a place where you can get, as another song on the album boasts, “anywhere in a £5 taxi” – Grim Town functions as a location in more ways than one. Even the sound of it is environmental; “ the dancy, poppy and The Cure-esque guitar sound on ‘Knock Me Off My Feet’,” Bridie tells me, was an attempt “to make the sound of what dancing in Sandinos, this local bar we’ve gone to for the past ten years, on my 19th birthday.”
“A lot of people described the first record as a ‘coming of age’ album, which I guess it was, but I think this one is even more so,” she explains, “It’s very specifically about the transition from between a teenager and a young adult. I feel like in the past few years of my life I’ve learned more than ever before just by doing normal things.”
I first met Bridie in 2015 for an impromptu skateboarding lesson – something she’s now eased off in favour of activities like photography and running, where the risk of sustaining an injury that temporarily fucks up your entire music career is slightly lower. With the slow-burning songwriting style of Tegan and Sara or The National on one shoulder, and the bristling energy of pop artists like Troye Sivan on the other, Grim Town feels like a logical evolution for SOAK. The thing that has always set her apart from other singer-songwriters in the UK and Ireland though is a knowing sense of humour that informs the way bleak subjects from divorce to disappointment are handled.
“If something’s a bit shit, me and my friends say ‘it’s grim town’,” Bridie explains when I ask how the album got its name. “It’s the same as if you’re ecstatic, I’d be like 'oooh! Happyville!' It’s kind of sarcastic. It became a saying among us and it felt really defining because it doesn’t look good on paper. I was always quite proud of how my last album title looked on paper because it’s quite poetic, but Grim Town just looks shit. I like it. It looks how it feels to be that depressed, like soggy cardboard.”
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