- 21 May 19
To coincide with the release of her second album Grim Town, Derry singer Soak talks music, Brexit, borders, championing Northern Irish artists, and how a gay music festival - curated by herself and emerging Dublin band Pillow Queens - may well be in the offing...
If you get a minute, have a look at the trainlines on a map of Northern Ireland. No, go with us here - observe the four lines that extend out, hydra-like, from the epicentre of Belfast in the east. One goes to Dublin. Another goes further east to the affluent seaside towns of Bangor and Holywood. A third goes north-east to the harbour port of Larne. And a fourth, taking in the broad sweep of south Antrim, north Antrim, the north coast, goes west - like an afterthought - to the rest of Northern Ireland, before ending, exhausted, in the city of Derry.
It's often been suggested that the transport infrastructure in Northern Ireland fails those living west of the Bann River. For many who live there, there's a sense of these places having been abandoned, forgotten.
These feelings permeated Bridie Monds-Watson's first album, Before We Forgot How To Dream. Growing up in a part of Ireland where - from one perspective at least - nothing happened, nothing developed, she made imaginative landscapes and dreamed of something different for herself: "I donÕt get this town/ And neither do you/ We should run away", she sang wistfully on 'Sea Creatures'.
That feeling of wanting to get away has not been abandoned. Trains and transport play an important role on SOAK's second album, Grim Town. On the opening track, 'All Aboard', we're on a train headed for the eponymous town. A conductor's voice blares out, telling us that the train is "for the following passengers only: recipients of universal credit or minimum wage. The lonely, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned, the grieving."
Grim Town isn't exactly Derry (although they both share that sense of being cut off, abandoned). It sprang from SOAK's experiences living in The Maiden City, but it's an invented space, created by the artist so that she could process her own feelings about love, heartache, depression, divorce and social anxiety.
"A dystopia that I've created in my brain," is what she called it in a statement ahead of the album release.
"I was trying to take my brain out of my head," SOAK says now, speaking to Hot Press in a central Dublin hotel, "and have it in front of me so that I could process things. I thought that seeing things from a distanced perspective would help me deal with them."
Grim Town, she says, involved working through a down period. "After the last album," she explains, "I felt the pressure of having a bit of success and people expecting things, and it crippled me at the beginning."
The pressure eventually gave way to a deluge of songs - 40, in fact - with SOAK discovering what she wanted Grim Town to sound like when she wrote, 'Get Set Go Kid' - the unnerving, atmospheric opening song. It deals with that feeling when 'normal life - growing up, getting a job, getting an apartment - precipitates an existential crisis.
"I was trying to make an audio representation of what I wanted Grim Town to be, and 'Get Set Go Kid' was the beginning of that whole idea. Once I'd written that song I was like 'okay, this is a place now'. The rest of the album was trying to build around that place.
I wasn't scared of pop
With Grim Town as the locus, SOAK was able to write about herself, while also being able to say, "This isn't exactly me, this isn't my city, that's not my ex."
"It felt like less vulnerability to speak about things as if they were someone else's problem, or as if there was multiple people feeling that way," she explains. "In the song 'Life Trainee',for example, I'm speaking about myself, but also about the people around me. That kind of mutual understanding makes things less scary.
"So I learnt loads through the process of writing, in terms of how to be vulnerable and how to talk about issues. And definitely - for myself, my own mental development and for growing up in general - it was really important that I wrote the album just to understand myself. But also, in feeling I understood, hopefully I was helping other people understand."
The journey towards self-understanding wasn't straightforward. In the snappy, hook-filled single 'Knock Me Off My Feet', she begins with: "I've always done the best I could/ To get out of my neighbourhood/ Growing up, I've spilt my blood/ But you're still my home".
Having lived in Manchester for the past few years, SOAK has been able to come back to Derry and rediscover it anew.
"For a while I felt like I'd outgrown my home," she admits. "Not in an egotistical way, more in a personal way. I just wanted better transportation links. Or more places to eat. Or to be able to meet new people. That was it. And leaving was just naturally what I would've done, even if I wasn't in music. My nature is to travel a lot. I don't like being anywhere too long - it's like ADHD - I just want to be going. That whole song is an ode to my hometown, because I still love it. It's such a weird thing to do interviews about Grim Town and be like, yes my hometown plays a part, but I don't hate it. It isn't 'Grim Town'. It's just an element of any environment I could've been living in.Ó
Grim Town sounds almost nothing like SOAK's first album. Before We Forget was sparse and introverted, whereas Grim Town is layered, involved, joyful in the face of adversity; it embraces everything from offbeat alt-rock to unabashed pop. What were her thoughts going into the studio?
"There was so much that I was trying to cram in,Ó she says. ÒI wanted to get the whole spectrum of emotion and musical expression Ð all the dark moments, the high moments, the pop-y bits, the weird bits. I wanted it to be surprising. I didn't want make the album anything like the first. And I hope my next album isnÕt like this one. Being unpredictable was a huge element.
"But also, as I've gotten older and made more music and done more live shows, I've become more confident. So I had a better idea - when producing the album - what I wanted it to sound like live, what I wanted it to look like. The first album I was very shy - just hid behind the guitar the whole time - whereas with this, I was more courageous. I wanted the connection with the audience and I wanted it to have more joy. I wanted honesty to triumph. I was listening to everything. And I wasn't scared of pop on this album, whereas before I would've been looking down on pop. I was listening to Broken Social Scene, Snail Mail, Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, and just trying to have fun with it not limit myself."
This time, she worked with producer, Ant Whiting. !He produced the record in Shepherd's Bush in London, in his home studio," SOAK says. "I went down there for eight months, Monday to Friday, going back to Manchester for the weekend. It was a really fun, laidback experience, because my label were absolute legends in terms of giving me time. Ant was the perfect person to work with on it. At the birth of the album I wasnÕt sure where to go musically. He really helped me shape it."
Champion of NI Music
I mention to SOAK that my Belfast-Dublin bus got stopped at the border by the Gardai on the day of our interview, with IDs being demanded of us at 8 in the morning.
"That's mad!" she exclaims.
As someone from the North, who grew up right on the border, does SOAK think her voice is being heard in the Brexit debate?
"I don't think anybody's is," she shakes her head. "It's all one-room discussions right now. Initially there was almost comedic that it's gotten this fucked, but there's an underlying tone of terror - and you saying that about your bus terrifies me a bit more.
"I'm bored talking about it, as everyone in the world must be, because it's such a mess. But I actually live in the south by about five minutes, so to go to Derry to see my friends when I come home would be an absolute shit-show. And just in terms of touring musicians, getting around will be more difficult. That's all before even mentioning the fucking spectrum of lies that people have been told."
As always, Northern Ireland seems to be an afterthought when it comes to these things. That is even more true of Derry. When Derry was made 2013 UK City of Culture, it was an opportunity to transform the city, but it didn't happen. "It's like the circus came to town and just left," she sighs. It must have been an exciting year at the time though...
"It was incredible, because Derry had been in the dark for so long. Not that there wasn't artists there, but there was no light being shone on them. There's always funding in Britain, but little carries over. It was great to see things like BBC Big Weekend coming to the city, which brought so much media representation for the artists there. Me included - I got a huge platform off the back of that and was given so much support. But it just left. It was there and then it was gone in a second."
Still, at a grassroots level, artists seem to be doing incredible things independently in Northern Ireland...
"I've been around the music scene in Derry for ages and it's definitely going through a big moment," nods SOAK. "You have the likes of Touts, who I'm friends with and love. Then I think ROE's great. The calibre of music coming out of Derry - for such a small place - is impressive."
It was a powerful statement about the quality of music in the North right now, when Snow Patrol released the bill for their Ward Park gig in May. It will see SOAK playing alongside the likes of Ash, Foy Vance and a host of up-and-coming acts like Brand New Friend, Jealous Of The Birds and Kitt Phillipa. Frontman Gary Lightbody made clear that, for one of the biggest gigs eve in the North, he was supporting Northern Irish acts all the way.
"Gary has always been such a great champion of NI music," says SOAK. "Not in my lifetime did I think I'd see a bill like that, ever."
When SOAK debuted some songs from her album at a Dublin show a few months ago, it prompted a particularly fervent Hot Press reviewer to insist that she, and hotly tipped support act Pillow Queens, put together a gay music festival in Ireland. When's that happening?
She laughs. "That's a really good point! It's coming in a very minor way because they're on tour with us in May. I'm so down for this. We're sharing a big gay bus together and that's where we're going to discuss this plan. It will happen though. I'm determined to make this happen. Hopefully we'll have that festival bill ready by the end of our tour."
We live in hope...
SOAK's new album, Grim Town, is out now on Rough Trade.