Joy Crookes on Longing To Belong

The 'Feet Don't Fail Me Now ' singer speaks to Francesco Loy Bell about new album 'Skin', her heritage and storytelling songwriting.

WORDS Francesco Loy Bell
PHOTOGRAPHY Maya Wanelik
STYLING Thomas George Wulbern
STYLING ASSISTANT Savannah Morgan Jones
HAIR Regina Meessen
MAKE-UP
Mata Mariélle

There is nobody doing it quite like Joy Crookes at the moment. In a world saturated by self-promotion, or rather, promotion of the self as a commodified, sellable package, the 22-year-old South Londoner refuses to be characterised as a singular thing, her notion of self-identity instead presenting itself as a vibrant, living, ever-shifting tapestry. Her music is, of course, introspective, but the fruits of this introspection are born organically and truthfully, presented to us as they come. Crookes dwells comfortably in the realm of nuance, courageously choosing to shun any sort of manufactured image in place of simply laying herself bare in her lyrics, tone and production, each constituent pillar of her songs subsequently becoming their own microcosmic representation of her essence. Ultimately, refreshingly, the question ‘who is Joy Crookes?’ is left to us to answer.

Crookes’ upcoming debut album, Skin, encapsulates the artist’s willingness to explore herself through her music. An eclectic, undulating body of work, it is the culmination of 22 years of deep consideration as to her place in the world, her sense of belonging shaped by the memories and emotions of her past as well as the various characters encountered along the way. The outcome is an album that is arrestingly honest, intimate even. Crookes has peeled every layer of herself back, be that via an unashamed trumpeting of casual sex or a deeply moving plea for a loved one to keep living, resulting in a listen that almost feels intrusive, as if we are being welcomed into her own internal dialogue rather than being spoon-fed. This is not for us; this is an album by Joy Crookes, for Joy Crookes. We’re just lucky enough to be able to listen too. 

HEADPIECE Susan Fang
FULL LOOK 16 Arlington

Your vocals across the album are timeless in a way that the great vocalists are. In the same way that the album gives us a journey of your life up until now, your voice also carries history in it, alluding to the Nina Simones and the Ella Fitzgeralds while also kind of announcing yourself as the heir to their throne. While you were making the album, did you listen to and try to take inspiration from the great singers in the musical canon? 

Not just while making the album, but when I was making myself too. The great female, Black jazz singers are my biggest inspirations because of their unapologetic and fearless voices on and off stage. I get compared to Amy [Winehouse] a lot and that’s a lovely and a great compliment, but my narrative is not anything like Amy’s narrative. My narrative is more similar to those Black women that founded Jazz because they’re talking about their skin, they’re talking about certain topics that fundamentally are not part of Amy’s experience necessarily. I am not saying my experience is the same as the greats – but that I have more of a shared experience with them than Amy. That’s not to take any credit away from Amy – it’s just something that can annoy me sometimes because it’s definitely those women like Nina [Simone], like Ella [Fitzgerald], like Sarah Vaughn that give me that… fire. I’ve been watching their old videos since I was 14, so it’s a part of my makeup.

The production is versatile throughout the album; at some points it’s very maximalist and it almost sounds like there’s a whole live band behind you, and at others, it’s pared-back so it’s just your voice acapella. The result is very experiential – almost like being plunged into a sort of whirlpool. I remember going to Houston a few years ago for Solange’s album launch and, in the Q+A afterwards, she expressed frustration at being referred to as a singer when, in actual fact, she had spent hours on end trying to find the perfect drum sample for a song, or the perfect strings. I know you had a strong hand in the album’s production, and I wondered whether you ever experienced a similar annoyance at being labelled as a singer when, in actual fact, the way you express yourself in your music is so much more than just that? 

It’s a bit of an ‘is the Pope Catholic?’ situation, you know? I hate proving myself, but also it makes me feel like my dick grows bigger when people find out. I am completely on Solange’s side, that’s why I love Solange. Her entire musicality is her, her entire vision is her, her entire brand is her and it’s the same with me. I’m across everything to the point that I was there doing the mastering for the album. Also, funnily enough, I am credited as the co-executive producer on the album. So, it’s fucking lit, you know?

That is fucking lit! In the opening track, you sing “Down by the river – I remember where I belong”, and I was really struck by the sense of belonging throughout the album-

-Longing to belong, I think. That’s why the album is called Skin, ‘cause I am always longing to belong. I want to belong everywhere, and I want to believe that anywhere I put my foot is where I belong.

That’s why the album is called Skin, ‘cause I am always longing to belong. I want to belong everywhere, and I want to believe that anywhere I put my foot is where I belong.

Joy Crookes

FULL LOOK Boy Kloves
ACCESSORIES Joy’s own

How far through your journey towards belonging do you think you are now? 

Just 22 years. I’ve still got quite a few to go. I do feel, especially after making the album, a lot more myself, like I am me. I know that sounds really corny but I feel like that makes sense to some degree.

It makes sense, especially since the album is like a tapestry woven by your own experiences. I also love the way in which, in any given situation or past relationship you describe throughout, you go a step further than just talking about the subjects, almost casting them in your songs. I’d love to know more about your choice to bring this ‘cast’ of characters throughout the album to life by giving them a voice.

To be honest with you, I don’t have an incredible education, in the sense that I left school at 16. I had a really good education, but it’s not like a Uni degree or anything like that. I don’t read enough. So my thing, like, my fuel is people. I love speaking to people. I know my postman, I know the bin man, the man that reads the electricity metre, the local tailor in this area, the local men’s tailor in this area! My mates actually take the piss ‘cause every time I go home after a night out and we’re in a cab, I always make friends with the cab driver. I love human beings – I’ve got that from being from South London. So it’s weird, no one has ever said that about my music, that I’ve got a cast or that I am allowing those people to speak, but that is one of the biggest compliments to me. That is genuine storytelling, it’s empathy beyond myself, genuine empathy. It’s like I connected with that person so much I let them speak.

My fuel is people – I know my postman, I know the bin man, the man that reads the electricity metre, the local tailor in this area, the local men’s tailor in this area! I love human beings – I’ve got that from being from South London.

Joy Crookes

Even if you fucking hate them. That’s what I like about it – even with people who you seem to perceive less favourably, you vocalise their side of things. It makes your conquering of the situations that much more satisfying.

And that much more empowering, because you can really hear those people. I believe in that type of politics as well – that’s why I wrote ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me Now’. If you don’t talk to people, regardless of whether you agree with them or not, you don’t get anywhere because you don’t learn anything. I think it’s important to give voices to the people in my life or in my stories that I love and that give me pain at the same time, because it all leads back to me and my understanding of that person. If I can understand them then maybe I can be more forgiving to myself, my good and bad parts.

In the same vein, you allow the album to be thematically messy; it doesn’t neatly conclude episodes from your past, and actually, you almost cast yourself as an imperfect protagonist in that you aren’t afraid to be honest about your own instances of desire, of longing and of lust, each manifested in wholly different ways. Was it important to you to show the listener that you too are somewhat imperfect, you too are subject to irrational emotion and feeling as we all are? 

I think it’s a strength, really. It’s letting go of your pride. Only pride would stop you from being like “I want you” or “I’ve built my life around you” or “you’re at your best when I am in my worst ways”. I am just like, “yeah, you got me fucked up a bit”, and I can’t tell the story without admitting that. 

Nostalgia is a theme to varying degrees throughout the album. In ‘When You Were Mine’ you say: “I don’t miss you, it’s not that way / but somebody better want me like that someday” which to me completely sums up the Catch 22 of nostalgia as a concept. It’s like, by virtue, you know that specific person and circumstance wouldn’t work if it were transposed onto today, but you also long for replication of that experience, in this instance that nostalgic love. How much do you feel nostalgia plays a part in the album?

I think I spend 96% of my life reminiscing. Nostalgia is… it’s what we said earlier, it’s a longing to belong, right? I feel like that’s just my kind of sandwich. That’s who I am. My memory is ridiculous; I can go to places I went to when I was eight or nine and remember streets and where the library is and this, that and the other. I think it’s just fundamentally a part of my blood to be nostalgic, and to long for something because I actually get a lot of kick out of longing for things. Maybe that’s quite a Bollywood part of me, I don’t know.”

You also play with scale and habitat in a way that makes it distinctly personal to you. Yes, there are plenty of references to London, but it’s not about London, it’s about the significant minutiae within the city attached to your memories that have embossed themselves on your mind, and that do the same to the listener. It’s almost like a scrapbook tour of Joy’s nostalgic London: the 19th floor of the tower, or the bakery table with the “plate of cupcakes to sugarcoat the aftertaste” in ‘Unlearn You’. What was behind the decision to zoom in and out so much throughout the album?

It’s as you said. It’s all those really small things. ‘Unlearn You’ is about my experience with assault and abuse. It’s one of the hardest songs I’ve ever written; I find it hard to talk about my experience with my past in general, so I challenged myself with writing a song about it. What I do as a human being is I deflect, so my way of deflection actually is that I will sugar coat, no pun intended, a story with “Oh and this was the colour of the cupcake” and “this is what they were doing and this is what they were wearing”, to almost push away from having to admit what I am about to say or get into the core of it. The core of that song is “I wanna unlearn you from my body”, but how did I start on cupcakes? I think it’s a deflection mechanism, and also it’s just the way that I speak as a human being. Being Irish, and Bangladeshi too, we tell stories with every fucking detail before we actually get to the point, so I think that that’s just what I’ve done, but I’ve used London as those stories. 

‘Unlearn You’ is about my experience with assault and abuse. It’s one of the hardest songs I’ve ever written; I find it hard to talk about my experience with my past in general, so I challenged myself with writing a song about it.

Joy Crookes

Despite the vulnerability of the album, you also don’t suffer fools easily in it, and you don’t shy away from challenging the cast of characters we discussed earlier to have more integrity and honesty, especially relating to men. The album kicks off with “You wanted my body not my mind / not just your lover for Friday night” in ‘I Don’t Mind’ and ends on a rallying cry: “You came here through a woman, show some fucking respect. We’re your bitches we’re your hoes, we’re the people and we know, all we want to do is be accepted but we don’t,” before you finish with “You’ve got nothing on me.” Was it significant for you, aside from showing your vulnerability, to have moments of strength and power on the album?

Definitely, because it’s how I am. I am foul-mouthed and dirty-minded, I am all these things but I am also incredibly passionate and deep and love human beings, so I think that was naturally going to be the case. But I do love the statement of intent by starting the album with “You wanted my body not my mind” and ending with ‘Power’ – with the last song almost being a bonus track which has also got funny lyrics like “mattress surfing” and “bound to no beds”. It’s like, you know what, I am going to make mistakes and fundamentally, at the end of the day, I am just going to be a human being. It brings everything back to square one. My favourite people in the whole world – the artists I look up to, be that songwriters or even painters – they’re real-ass people that are kind of shit at times and do shitty things and make mistakes that I think the general human being would make. I’m obsessed with knowing that, whatever I go through as a human on a day to day basis, the people that I look up to go through the same thing too. Like Frida Kahlo, people put her on such a pedestal but she was a bit of an asshole at times, and had affairs and had a foul mouth. She wasn’t the capitalist version everyone’s made her now.

The iPhone case version. 

Yeah, the iPhone case version or the yoga pants version. 

That’s also why the album is called Skin – because, as much as skin is biologically so strong, socially it is something that can be used so fucking heavily against you, and that juxtaposition is everything I am about as a musician, my writing and what I have to say. It’s weak and it’s fucking strong at the same time.

HEADPIECE Susan Fang
FULL LOOK Daniel W Fletcher

While the album, on the whole, is more introspective, in songs like ‘Kingdom’ it does delve into social commentary. This year has been incredibly bleak for a variety of reasons; as a South Londoner of Bangladeshi and Irish descent, how does it feel to be creating music in Britain in 2021? Do you try to be political or is that just a natural byproduct of the environment you are creating in?

I don’t think every artist has to have the pressure of [being political], but for me, it’s a natural pressure that I have because of the music I am into. My favourite band is The Clash, and their songs are either talking about, like, the CIA and Vietnam, or just Brixton. I think I’ve always been attracted naturally as a music consumer to political songs and people that tell us the sign-of-the-times, so I do put pressure on myself to say what’s going on because I like landscapes. I think that if you’re looking at the London landscape, you can’t ignore the fact that it’s doused in the fucking shittest government you can ever think of. People love to point fingers at countries in Africa, countries in Asia, countries in the Caribbean, yet so much of that is a byproduct of this country. So I can’t see London without seeing the fuckery of London too, which is the Houses of Parliament and the Tory government. I can’t unsee the protests of last year. I can’t unsee dating someone of Caribbean descent and their pain watching people that look like him die every day on TV for doing nothing, for doing jack-shit, and I can’t ignore the fact that it is a part of my lived experience as well. That’s also why the album is called Skin – because, as much as skin is biologically so strong, socially it is something that can be used so fucking heavily against you, and that juxtaposition is everything I am about as a musician, my writing and what I have to say. It’s weak and it’s fucking strong at the same time.”

Do you think there is a sense of the political within your introspection too?

I think the political side of the album varies between the obviously political and the personal political. [The content of ‘Unlearn You’] for example is something that unfortunately so many people have to go through inside as opposed to being able to be out about it. You could almost argue that a majority of the songs have that slight political skew. I think for me to be able to be a Brown woman who speaks so openly about my sexuality, and be like, ‘well I don’t want this to be a future ting, I am also just enjoying this casual sex’ – that can also be political too. 

You seem to be extremely proud of your heritage – you channel your Bangladeshi roots in your music video for ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me Now’ while also respectfully incorporating the other cultures that you maybe grew up around, and in March you did a live session in Bengali for the first time. How important for you is heritage, both generally and in the way it shaped the album?

It’s part of every narrative and every relationship I have. Everyone I can think of that I love, there is a connection via heritage too. I will be gassed about wearing my own people’s clothing or my traditional clothing or the fact that I am a Grade 10 Irish Dancer, but then I also will recognise that in my friends who are from, like, Congo for example, and they will be telling me about being able to speak Lingala or not being able to speak Lingala. I think that, fundamentally, heritage is a massive part of me because of where I grew up in London as well. For me, it is so deep-rooted because I have stories in my blood and in my ancestry that I didn’t even understand, but I react to every day. It’s epigenetic.

I think that, fundamentally, heritage is a massive part of me because of where I grew up in London as well. For me, it is so deep-rooted because I have stories in my blood and in my ancestry that I didn’t even understand, but I react to every day. It’s epigenetic.

Joy Crookes
FULL LOOK Vintage Studio
BOOTS Roker
JEWELLERY Vellva

It kind of reminds me of a study I saw of Holocaust survivors that found that the trauma they experienced was physically passed on to their children’s genes.

Yeah, or the fact that a lot of ethnic people in the UK have autoimmune diseases. That’s epigenetic inheritance, or generation trauma, and I’m a byproduct of that. Imagine the fact that some of our parents have fled wars, some of our grandparents have seen their siblings be shot to death in the fields. I really, really believe in generational trauma, that it’s a real thing and something that needs to be addressed within our communities. Talking about mental health and my emotions in the way that I do, I think, encourages my family as well, and makes us have conversations and break down walls that I think need to be broken down for generations. So when people say, ‘oh you represent this, that and the other’, it’s like, I am trying to represent myself. By wearing traditional clothing to the Brit awards, you can say that I am representing Asians but I am not trying to do that, that’s not my responsibility. But, I do know that back home there’s a Bangladeshi woman called my Mum that is seeing that, and wasn’t able to do that when she came here.

Again, it’s that sense of the personal/political.

Yeah. Heritage is really important for me, but it’s complex and it’s deeper than a bindi, it’s deeper than looking pretty. Even in my ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me Now’ video, I used my culture to tell a story and try and undo a narrative of complicit culture within my community by making sure that there were plenty of gay Bangladeshis, or plenty of the spectrum of Asian people, if that makes sense. So, yeah, it’s a huge part of me but it’s because I was born political – it’s not like I had a choice. It’s part of my DNA, you know, even on my Irish side.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

My friend’s dad used to say “walk with purpose” to him and he told us that when his dad passed. It sat with me for so long. There are times when I suffer massively from anxiety and social anxiety, and going outside and even buying a pint of milk feels like, “Woah, people are looking at me”, not in a public-facing way, just in a human nervous way. So that kind of feeling of “wherever my foot goes, I belong” and walking with purpose has been one of my favourite pieces of advice, and it’s helped me navigate really difficult situations and places. One of my favourite pieces of advice from my dad is second. He used to walk into my room in the morning with a thick Irish accent, and be like, “Joy, fock ’em.” 

I love that one “Fock ’em!”

It actually does really make sense and, when delivered correctly, it’s one of my favourite pieces of advice. It’s clean and precise and just really hits the spot.

What do you now see as your ultimate aim with this whole music thing? What’s the goal?

Longevity. Like, ninth album. But also, challenging any kind of norm:  challenging myself, challenging fuckeries in society and in the world that we live in, and always having something to say and being driven and passionate, I think. But longevity is key for me, ‘cause I think with longevity it means that I have time to really indulge in that experience and that drive and that passion, and have something to aim towards constantly. 

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