On Monday, SOAK released a digital tour of Grim Town (Population: 1), her new album out now on Rough Trade Records. While Grim Town refers not to an actual place but, rather, a state of mind, the visual map, featuring landmarks like “Missed Calls St.,” “Wise Up Lane” and the “Empathy” store, makes it feel as real as any neighborhood. Her second album under the SOAK ID, Bridie Monds-Watson’s Grim Town makes a noticeable departure from the washed pop-rock of her 2015 debut, Before We Forgot How To Dream, which she released at just 18. Since then, she’s won Ireland’s Choice Music Prize and received a Mercury Prize nomination. A native of Derry, Northern Ireland, now residing in Manchester, Monds-Watson takes a good hard look at her home, emotional health and transition to adulthood on Grim Town, all while fashioning for herself—and the listener—a dark new universe where all manner of internal unrest rules. But Monds-Watson doesn’t leave the listener in an emotional ditch. Grim Town, which holds a bold new sonic palette of explosive pop and dark production, is a journey underground and back up to the light again. It’s an album about growing up, finding happiness and fostering relationships—including one with yourself. We chatted with Monds-Watson about her new sound, growing up in Derry and visiting Grim Town. The conversation has been edited for length.
Paste: I’ve seen the album’s title, Grim Town, described as referring to “a sonic dystopia.” What does that mean exactly?
Bridie Monds-Watson: A ‘grim town’ always was just something me and my friends would say to describe something that was a bit awful. Basically I was going through quite a depressive period of my life, and I was trying to work out how to make myself feel better, how to process all the thoughts I was having. And something clicked and the idea came to me to combine those ideas with Grim Town and to create Grim Town. So more of a state of mind. The album is kind of like that, but sonically, that environment.
Grim Town is being called a concept album. Is that a term you embrace?
It’s, I don’t know, a bit annoying. I mean it is a concept album at the end of the day, but it’s built off my life and so I don’t welcome the phrase concept album. But that is what it is quite accurately.
You mentioned you were going through a depressive period, and some of these songs do talk about that and some other personal issues. This is your second album, so maybe you’re kind of used to airing your feelings in your music, but were you still nervous to put these songs out?
No. I think I had a lot of time to consider what I was saying on the record and to analyze if I was doing it correctly or not, and by the time it came to putting the songs out, I was very comfortable in what I was saying and had come to terms with a lot of the ways I was feeling. So, actually, releasing the music felt [like] more of a relief to just be honest and vulnerable, like that comfortably.
Grim Town is dark in certain places, but at the same time there are songs on here like “Everybody Loves You” which feel kind of uplifting and almost hopeful in some parts. Why did you choose that as the first single?
We released it as the first song of the record because it felt like the right song to bridge the gap between both records. I think with “Everybody Loves You,” sonically I was trying to create an urban ballad, like crunchy, while it’s also being dismissive and angry and frustrated. The whole song is about just really not wanting to go with the flow, kind of rejecting popular ideas and not wanting to follow the crowd, really. And then coming to the conclusion that you don’t decide what you’re into and what you like. It kind of just happens. The whole song is like a buildup being like, ‘No, no, no, no, no,’ and then at the very end it just breaks through, and it’s this undying acceptance of admitting what you want. And that song was just really fun to make. When I finished that I was like, ‘Yes, this is what I want to sound like. This is the direction that I want to go in.’ And yet it just felt right to release it first. And because I think sonically this album is quite far from how the first album is, I didn’t want people to be too shocked and maybe put off. So I felt like that was the right song to ease people into.
In a few places on the record, including “Knock Me Off My Feet,” you mention the neighborhood where you grew up in Derry in Northern Ireland. How is your relationship to where you’re from now?
I was literally just there the other day. I’ve always felt very grateful to have grown up there. I think with any small town, there’s a certain limitation of opportunity. It felt right for me to move away from there and see more of the world. But I had a really enjoyable childhood there and made some of the best friends of my whole life. It’s a really beautiful place and the people have a certain charm and friendliness to them that is very hard to find anywhere else. So my relationship with my town, I’m glad it happened. I’m glad I’m from there, but I’m also glad that I don’t live there now and that I can get back in and visit.
You mentioned the first single and how that signaled this album’s new sonic direction. How did the recording process change for this record?
I think with my first album my sound wasn’t really developed. [On Grim Town], if I had an idea I just ran with it and saw where everything took me. It was not shying away from certain genres and not fearing being too pop, just kind of going with my gut and seeing what felt right. And I think as well, I was writing a lot for what it was going to sound like live and imagining the live element of the music. I guess musically I was just going for it, and I was really lucky that I got to make this album with a producer called Ant Whiting. We had a really good understanding of each other in terms of I could describe a noise and he would be really good at calculating it and creating it very quickly as a producer. We just had lots of fun experimenting, really.
Have you played these songs for a crowd yet? How did they translate in a live setting?
We played a couple of shows in America a couple of months ago and we had a really amazing reaction. People were dancing for the first time at our shows. People were singing along. It felt really good to have that versatility to the set and to the music. And I think when I was writing the songs, I was conscious of keeping it entertaining for me to play and complicated enough that it was exciting for us to play live, too. I felt satisfied with the shows and felt happy with how everything was coming across. So it was really enjoyable.
The album opens with a voiceover, and a few recordings appear throughout. Why did you decide to place those in the record?
Even though Grim Town is a state of mind, on the album I’m trying to create the environment. I felt it was fitting to have some sort of entry into that environment because the way that the album is tracklisted, I wanted you to begin at your lowest low and by the end, they’ll see some element of hope or inspiration to just make the most. And then I had the idea that it’s essentially a study. You need [a] way in and a way out. I’ve spent a lot of time on trains going to London from Manchester, and it was always the grimmest experience because I would be on the morning trains with businessman and that’s kind of just where the idea came of creating this comically awful train sequence that brings you into Grim Town. It’s my granddad that is the narrator for that. I think a lot of this album is about mental health. And the way I’ve always dealt with mental health was to try and make light of a lot of situations through making jokes and stuff like that. So the entrance sequence is quite comical, while being like awfully depressing.
So why did you decide to close the record with “Nothing Looks the Same?”
“Nothing Looks the Same” is the main point in the album that things look up, and I wanted to leave the album on a high and on a moment of self reflection and hope. And that was one of the last songs that I wrote for the album, and I always knew that was how it was going to end. And the whole album is meant to be listened as one whole thing. Once you get to that point, you’ve been through all the ups and downs. I was just trying to put my life on an album and nothing looks the same for me. But I wrote that song when things were feeling better and I had a new love for life that I just wanted to make the most of it and I wanted to leave the listener with that moment of, ‘You’ve succeeded all these trials and tribulations in your life and you’re going to have more, but you’re doing a good job.’ And people don’t get told they’re doing a good job often enough, and I just want to leave it on a note of optimism.
We’ve already talked about how this album goes in a pop direction, and I feel like sometimes when an artist does that, it’s all people want to talk about. But it is really interesting. Are there any pop artists, or artists of any genre, that you drew sonic inspiration from in making this record?
So many. I listened to so much music over the years I wrote the record. I listened to a lot of Radiohead and Pink Floyd and Fleetwood Mac and then also Car Seat Headrest and Snail Mail and Pinegrove. So like a lot of different kinds of things.
It’s been more than three years since your first album came out and you came into the music world at a pretty young age. Have your views of the music industry changed at all now that you’re a few years into it?
I think I had a pretty good understanding as a younger person, but as you get older, your perspective changes a bit. And I think I just have a more clear version of what I want to do and how I want to continue in music and how to do that on my own accord. And it’s just kind of reinforcing the original thoughts I had on the music industry and reminding yourself to stay true to what you’re creating. I guess the music industry’s a weird one because it changes and shifts and moves and there’s no real format that you can rely upon and you’ve got to make sure you have good people around you. But I think just kind of trusting your gut has always been the main thing I’ve stuck to.
And what have you learned about yourself since you released that first album?
Crazy amount. I guess music and the music industry and touring has been my main education in the past six or seven years. And I think I learned so much about myself through music and through touring and learning about how all that crazy stuff works. But I think equally I learned loads whenever I took like a two-year gap between my last album and this album, where I did no shows, I just wrote a record. I spent so much of my younger time in music being told what I was and kind of labeled. And it definitely took a little while to shake those labels off and work out who I was for myself and work out what I thought about me, which I think is kind of hard to do in music maybe sometimes when you’re younger and you’re constantly being told what you are. But in terms of like being lucky enough to tour the world and the life experiences you get from that is just incredible. Money can’t buy that kind of lessons.
Grim Town is out now on Rough Trade Records. Read the Paste review here, and then buy the album right here.