At the age of just 23, Joy Crookes has already been heralded as the voice of a generation – and it’s not hard to see why. The London-born singer-songwriter released her critically-acclaimed debut album, Skin, at the tail-end of last year and has already received two BRIT Award nominations off the back of it, for Best New Artist and Best Pop/R&B Act. Here, she talks to us about her musical heroes, finding inspiration amongst the streets of London and the catharsis of writing an album.
Joy Crookes is describing her childhood bedroom. “I had one of those beds that’s really close to the floor,” she recalls, as she chats from her family home in Elephant and Castle, “then I screwed guitar holders into my wall so that the first thing I saw when I woke up was my guitar.” Though the last few days have been a whirlwind for the 23-year-old singer-songwriter – a trip to New York to promote her recently released debut studio album Skin, an appearance on The Graham Norton Show and two BRIT award nominations, Best New Artist and Best Pop/ R&B Act – Crookes’s vivacity is palpable. Her music is identified by deep, brooding reflections and a charismatic energy you also feel from chatting with her. Today, she slouches when she’s relaxed and sits up excitedly to gesticulate a point with her red pointed acrylic tips, gold rings glinting over Zoom, dark hair falling around her face.
This image she depicts, of a young Crookes looking up at her guitar with musical reverence (she also plays piano and bass), says a lot about an artist destined for greatness, and she describes her musical obsessions as starting early. On social media, she has told fans how she had “suffered from mental-health issues” since she was “young” and as we chat she makes a passive reference to being bullied at school in her teens. Part of metabolising all the frailty of the world and self was through writing and singing songs, buying her first guitar from Argos and teaching herself to play.
In her bedroom, instead of posters on her walls, she had “CDs everywhere” and happily chats about a few of them that made up the furniture: Gilles Peterson live albums, Trojan Sound System, The Foundations and The Rolling Stones. “I used to wax my legs listening to Patti Smith!” she shrieks. Other musical icons that get a namecheck are Kate Nash and Alicia Keys. She smiles as she recalls making musical discoveries at the sometime detriment of her neighbours. “I remember the [neighbours] once being like, ‘Joy, if you play Alicia Keys one more time on the piano, we’re going to kill you!’” she laughs.
Some liken her to Amy Winehouse, thanks to her soulful cadence and the richness of her lyrics, reminiscent of a bygone era. However, any comparisons to Amy, Crookes has said, are probably due to them having similar musical heroes. She discovered Black jazz singers on YouTube when she was 14 and has talked passionately in the past about women that she is in deep gratitude to: “I was diagnosed with depression so young, and these women could get on stages and sing from the darkest depths of their souls. I can’t sit here and credit Amy, the root is those women: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Nina Simone. We wouldn’t exist without those women.”
Her musical education was also informed by her parents. Although they separated when she was two, she divided her time between her first-generation Bangladeshi mother, who played Justin Timberlake and Timbaland as a way of connecting with a Western musical palette, and her Irish father, who she describes driving her around their home city of London in his Peugeot 206 introducing her to “the greats”. “Once he put on [Pakistani singer] Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and he was singing it phonetically with an Irish accent.” It was her dad who also helped shape her lyrics; he would recite poetry to her when she was a little girl, and the lines of WB Yeats and Paddy Kavanagh stayed with her.
Crookes has woven these musical and lyrical threads for as long as she can remember. “I’m a sponge to everyone I grew up around and everything I heard.” It’s well-documented that she started putting her own original songs on YouTube when she was 15, and it’s here that she first caught the attention of the music industry. Leaving school a year later, she went on to sign a record deal with Insanity Records, an imprint of Sony Music, in 2019.
Her brand of deep, stirring melancholy has since earned much acclaim – she was nominated for a Rising Star Award at the Brits, ranked fourth on the BBC Sound of 2020 poll, and sold out her debut UK tour in hours. As for Skin, it has been met with rave reviews by fans and critics, who have called it a “masterclass” and Crookes “the new face of British soul”. Indeed, a few days after its release, it landed at number 5 in the UK charts: no mean feat in the same week that Adele, Coldplay and The Beatles released albums. Spotify places her with the most exciting artists in the genre: Sault, Cleo Sol and Jordan Rakei.
In another life, Crookes tells me, she might have been an archaeologist and it kind of makes sense. The album is an excavation – taking us into private moments of intimacy, singing about everything from trauma, sex, love and politics. Consisting of a collection of 13 tracks written and honed throughout Crookes’s adolescence and into her early twenties, it was finessed during the pandemic.
After almost two years of lockdowns and restrictions, Crookes admits that the superficial sheen of being online has ignited her passion for finding something real. “I’ve been struggling a little bit on social media because I’ve noticed that my algorithm suggests a lot of ‘perfect’ looking girls,” she tells me with an almost eye-roll. “I really struggle with social media and the perception of beauty because what I find beautiful in real life is… maybe something about the way that someone’s skin is, or a mouth that’s a bit too small for their face, but it makes them look beautiful.” That Crookes’s eye for beauty delights in the detail should come as no surprise, and her take is refreshingly optimistic – there is beauty yet to be unearthed in the world offline. The period also gave her time to happily self-reflect which, in her case, is an artistic challenge to write about.
It makes sense then that the album has been described as “a statement of selfhood” because Crookes uses the opportunity to confront herself by not shying away from the honest and intimate, revealing a vulnerable, deeply empathetic side of herself. This can be heard across all the songs, including To Lose Someone, touching on the pain and confusion as a relationship ends, and Unlearn You, about her experience with abuse and assault. While the big, danceable power of Feet Don’t Fail Me Now is Crookes imploring herself to keep control in a moment bigger than herself. It might be in these more devotional, meditative moments that, while Crookes’s music is defined by moments of joy, you get a sense it’s also her release. “Music is everything for me,” she tells me with a sigh. “It’s the bane of my life and it’s the best thing I’ve ever had in my life, and will always be the best thing. It’s my constant.
While Crookes is at the centre of her music, she has invited London to be the other character braided throughout. The album is sprinkled with those who she has crossed paths with in the city – from cab drivers to Tory neighbours, immigrants to anti-immigration activists. Songs like London Mine mention the capital directly (“I’ve been fooled by the charm/Of the Kennington Road”) as does When You Were Mine, about Crookes’s first love, who ended up being with a man after they broke up. The track references Brixton, the area mapping the site of their relationship. In the making of it, she has described the frenetic highlife pace of Ghanaian guitarist Ebo Taylor as an influence – and a need for it to sound “messy”, something achieved by the aid of Japanese whiskey.
After all, Crookes’s relationship with the city is innate – her father, a structural engineer, helped build part of the city (she proudly mentions that he was involved in creating Piccadilly Circus’s LED lights) and her mother, who ran a catering business, fed mouths across it. It was the musical identity of being surrounded by the diasporic immigrant communities of south London too, that had a huge impact.
Using music as therapy might be a welcome escape in an increasingly tumultuous political climate – some songs, such as 19th Floor, illustrate the contagion of gentrification head on (“Lost the tower where my heart is/Cinema skylines that I don’t recognise”), and Crookes penned Kingdom as an instant reaction to the Conservative Party winning the general election in 2019. A tweet from the time of release sums up her thoughts: “Wrote this the day after the tories were elected. Safe to say I wasn’t happy.”
Politics, she says, have always been part of her life, but a turning point was the 2018 Windrush scandal. “I was talking to my dad a lot about the way that the Western world viewed immigrants and refugees,” she tells me. “And my own family are asylum seekers, so it all hit home, and at that point there was anger. It feels so natural [to write about it] – it’s just the stuff that gets my blood boiling.” Expanding on this point, her album is so called because “biologically, skin is one of the strongest parts of our bodies, but if we translate skin into identity, socially or externally, that’s something that’s used against you all the time. It’s multifaceted, it’s layered, and it’s a point of weakness for a lot of people.”
The title is also an ode to historical love stories. Crookes recalls finding a love poem her dad wrote when he was around her age, also called ‘Skin’. “At the end, he wrote: ‘skin, I’ve melted into you’,” she says. “So, I took a picture of it and then wrote a song in response to the poem.” The memory is a good example of how her music acts as a microbiome to connect stories, lives, heartbreak and jubilation.
At one point during our conversation, I catch a look at her phone background – a black and white picture of her and her brother as children and she smiles as she describes her family influence. The skit at the beginning of 19th Floor is a recording of a gentle and conversational “I love you nani”, an ode to her maternal grandmother (the title references the flat her nani lived in for 30 years in south London)… a generous moment of intimate sharing that takes us to these times of love and connection with family, lovers and even ancestral longing.
Crookes, like her name suggests, advocates stepping into joy by any means possible. When her album was released in October, she stood outside various London sites – including Selfridges – with a sandwich board reading ‘JOY CROOKES: NEW MUSIC THIS FRIDAY’, and a megaphone in a rickshaw doing self-promo. This humour is characteristic, and she brings it in the room as she shrieks with laughter about all this.
She is a cultural joy-seeker, too. She lights up talking about fashion, and her style is a mood board that swirls between vintage sportswear to being in “love with mod fashion” and the glamour of Bollywood starlets in the 60s. Her favourite pieces at the moment, she explains at top speed, are some Grenson boots and creole earrings from Indian jewellery designer Bhavya Ramesh. There is also thrill to be had with updated South Asian style choices for occasions such as the Brits, where she wore a lehnga, and which, at the time she said she hoped “young girls can see someone who looks like their mum, their auntie, their gran on the red carpet”. Of her style, she isn’t asking for a lot – “I just basically want to be a brown Audrey Hepburn. That’s where I’m heading,” she laughs.
Crookes sees her music videos as full cultural productions interweaved with style and storytelling, and she finds inspiration in other creative connections. She discusses a recent exhibition by the artist Pepón Osorio – Badge Of Honour – at New York’s MOMA – a work on incarceration that enabled her to reflect on the similarity between neighbourhoods in New Jersey and her own. “He was concerned to learn that for many young people there, which is exactly the same as growing up in Elephant and Castle, having a parent in jail was considered a badge of honour,” she recalls. It’s music that she always comes back to though. She takes pleasure in talking about Billie Holiday’s book Lady Sings The Blues and reaching for her Spotify, she recommends Zimbabwean band Hallelujah Chicken Run Band and new music from American R&B singer SZA.
She sums up life’s pleasures simply. “I love cooking, driving, making love,” she grins. “Those are some of my favourite things in the whole world. It feels like I have my own agency when I cook.” She lists her favourite Indian street food in London, from Marylebone to her own talents (“I make a pretty banging korma!”) and her YouTube cooking show Cooking With Crooksie is a light and airy offering, where she intermittently uploads videos of making food with fellow artists such as Miraa May and presenters such as Amelia Dimoldenberg.
Crookes is now gearing up for a European tour in early spring and the summer’s round of festivals. At this stage of her career, selling out shows is still a novelty, but her fans on social media indicate that this is her about to go stratospheric. Crookes, meanwhile, remains thrillingly unafraid to take you through euphoria, heartache, melancholy and back again, challenging listeners to remember the last time you really felt connected. To her, the music says all she wants to say: “If there’s a song that stops you from feeling depressed, or if there’s a song that makes you feel like your depression is heard, then… great! I’m glad that I could do that.” And with that she clicks off, still dreaming, still looking up at the music, finding the connections between disparate worlds and the beauty in the strength of her – and our – skin.
Joy Crookes’ debut album ‘Skin’ is out now