Joy Crookes is the south London singer-songwriter who’s a born storyteller
31 May 2019
Photography via Toast Press
In December 2017, YouTube channel Colors uploaded a video of Joy Crookes performing ‘Mother May I Sleep With Danger?’, a jazz-influenced, playful track about growing up. Since then, it’s been viewed over seven million times – more than any other video on the channel.
In the year and a half since, Joy, who hails from South London, has released two EPs, performed at festivals including BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend, as well as touring to perform international, sold-out shows. She’s 20 years old.
Her third EP, Perception, is out today – a versatile record with a range of influences, the kind of music that works at pres before a night out and on the way home too. There’s jazz, soul and trip-hop on ‘No Hands’, a sunlit, upbeat song about maintaining your independence in a relationship, and even grime undertones on ‘Hurts’, a track about a friendship gone wrong. But Joy doesn’t think any of the labels that she’s often given encompass her whole sound.
In person, she is animated – Joy talks with her hands and considers what she says carefully. “White kids get to say their music is indie or alternative, so why can’t I?” she asks. Her voice is alternately soulful and playful, sarcastic and plaintive, which has drawn comparisons to musicians like Amy Winehouse and Sade. “That’s a lot of weight to carry, but I think of it like, people like what I’m doing, so I’ll keep doing that.”
In the music video for ‘Don’t Let Me Down’, a love song with a bittersweet finish where Crookes’ voice takes centre stage, three sets of arms move behind her as she sings, mimicking depictions of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi. Questions around heritage pop up for Crookes frequently, and when we talk about it, she admits that it sometimes gets tiring.
“I’m not an ambassador for the United Nations or something, I pick and choose when to talk about my cultures – but as soon as I’ve outright talked about Ireland or Bangladesh, you kind of get put into that box”
“I’m not an ambassador for the United Nations or something, I pick and choose when to talk about my cultures – but as soon as I’ve outright talked about Ireland or Bangladesh, you kind of get put into that box. But culture and heritage always brings all sorts of things to the table,” says Joy, “We’re so busy living those lives, we don’t have the time to sit and say, this is my white side, this is my brown side.”
Sometimes she gets asked what her family think of her career – but she asserts that it’s not the stereotypical standoff that some people think. “My family have always known I was headstrong, and that I would do this,” she says, “They’re hustlers, they saw an opportunity and they took it, and so have I.”
Joy started writing music when she was 12, coming home from school and opting to write songs instead of keeping a diary. “Music is so interesting because you write things from your subconscious,” she says. “Sometimes I can be in real denial about something, but my music will say, well, actually, this is how you feel.” Years of YouTube covers and performing at local venues followed. Her path into music wasn’t sudden either – she emphasises that there wasn’t a moment of clarity or a switch that made her think she had to commit.
“I took it day by day,” says Joy. “Of course it is difficult and it stressful – it’s all these hours of blood, and sweat and tears, and you’re pouring your trauma and your happiness into these three, four minute songs. But when it works out, it just feels right.” She writes her own music and maintains a heavy hand in the production elements too, admitting that the control she has over her music is integral to its vulnerability.
“Every song comes from quite personal experiences, and they collect over time,” Joy tells me. “I’m not the type of person to go: ‘I’m going to write my EP today’. The last EP was a little more introspective, so it became obvious that in order to understand myself better, I had to look outside a bit more.”
That honesty is buoyed by Crookes’ natural knack for storytelling. Some of her lyrics are unexpected phrases –“I know you’re the type to tip waiters with all your emotions”, from ‘Don’t Let Me Down’ – which never overwhelm the music itself. Throughout our conversation, she peppers in anecdotes – whether it’s about falling out of love or maintaining musical autonomy. “Storytelling is rife in my cultures,” says Crookes. “From my dad telling me stories, to listening and talking to people in my area – older people, the tailors, kids.”
“Music is almost such a selfish job, you kind of have to ground yourself in other things. I’m a huge advocate of therapy, doing things for other people”
Joy grew up in Elephant and Castle (she moved out at seventeen but goes home often), and her eyes light up when I ask her about it. “Elephant is such a melting pot and it’s influenced me so much – it’s real life, I’m grounded when I’m back there,” she says.“Music is almost such a selfish job, you kind of have to ground yourself in other things. I’m a huge advocate of therapy, doing things for other people, driving, taking care of my brother – that’s my support system. It’s also about, well, what kind of position do I want to take as an artist?”
Crookes is outspoken about what she believes in. She wrote ‘London Mine’, a soaring ode to London as a response to the treatment of immigrants after the Windrush scandal broke. We meet on polling day for the European elections, and we talk about racism and Brexit, before she tells me that going to the polling station was the first thing she did that day. “This country wants to be heard, and people want some stability. This move to the right, austerity – all it’s doing is providing people with those spaces but in completely the wrong way,” she says. “I’m no professional on Brexit, I find it hard to keep up, but I can tell you that it’s a scary time.”
Joy Crookes is booked and busy for the next few months – there are gigs, shows, festival appearances on the horizon. But what comes after that? “Maybe I’ll become a professional pool player,” she quips, “I’d like to do some poetry, dancing, teaching, a little bit of everything. But I have already started writing the next EP.”
Joy Crookes’ new EP Perception is out now. You can listen on Spotify.