Since the release of her debut single ‘New Manhattan’, then aged just 17, South Londoner Joy Crookes has been adhering to the mantra that slow and steady really does win the race. Nominated for the BRITs Rising Star Award in 2019, she’s sold out multiple shows across the UK and Europe, played Glastonbury and drip-fed a trio of EPs. Only now, however, is the 22-year-old readying the biggest step of all.
“All those notable achievements gave me imposter syndrome. I was so grateful, of course - but I don’t rely on external validation. It’s just not who I am,” she explains. “If anything, it makes me go the other way and go, ‘Fuck - now, we need something else out of me!’ That terrifies me.”
However, daunting as the prospect may have been, Joy has stuck to her guns, taking the time to fully flesh out narratives for this month’s debut album ‘Skin’. It’s a record that sees the singer tackle heartbreak, self-identity and the pains of growing up with an astonishing vulnerability. Full of openness and depth, ‘Skin’ brims with nostalgia, but delivers it in a manner that feels deeply personal - often to a point that’s almost too close to the bone, such as on the sensitive ‘To Lose Someone’ or opener ‘I Don’t Mind’.
“It’s funny, because though lots of thinking goes into the music and lyrics, it’s just as important not to think,” Joy considers. “That’s where the nostalgia comes from - when I’m writing lyrics and I’m not thinking, it’s my subconscious doing [the talking]. The best thing it can do is flow.”
It’s an unassuming way of describing her process, but there’s evidently far more going on here than merely channelling the vibes. Her journey has been a constant evolution of self-understanding, of slowly piecing herself together. “Actually, none of this has anything to do with music - it’s to do with myself and my own healing. I think naturally, that just kind of seeped into my music because I was taking such a personal angle on everything,” she says thoughtfully. “The feeling of longing is something that I’ve always meddled with. Because of my mixed identity and heritage, but also the people I’m attracted to, and growing up in South London - an environment where suffering was such a normal thing. And I think because my life has always been a little bit polarising in places, nostalgia is something that gives me a home when I have nothing else to hold on to.”
“I come from a lineage of Bangladeshi women who are naughty and fight back.”
Joy Crookes on working with Matt Maltese…
“It’s funny because he thought I hated him, which I thought was hilarious: the moment I met him, I knew I loved him. And the second time we wrote together, we wrote the song ‘Skin’. I walked into the studio in a very fucking certain way that day; I knew we were gonna come out with a song called ‘Skin’ and I knew how I wanted it to sound. But they had to listen to what I’d gone through the night before for me to get something like that. I was in a Juicy Couture tracksuit, crying my eyes out. Because of that, I became really good friends with Matt. He’s one of my best friends now. From that experience, and to be able to open up to someone that much, it’s a very strong bond.”
‘Skin’ is a record that blends this core of introspection with a timeless, jazz-infused vocal. It’s also one that gets by with a little help from its friends, recording at the legendary Abbey Road with production from Blue May (Kano, Shygirl) and Stint (NAO, MØ), and collaborating with Matt Maltese for a title track co-write. “I always wanted to have a certain quality of sound with this album, and I was working with someone [Blue] who is incredible and facilitated my madness. So, when we wanted strings, we both said it must happen at Abbey Road!” she laughs. “There was a slight level of ridiculousness that we tried to go for and were allowed to go for, so we took advantage of that. And that over-ambitiousness actually ended up being achievable.”
The result is a mesmerising soundscape of soul and jazz, with a palpable orchestral atmosphere that rubs up alongside Joy’s old-school inspirations, from Young Marble Giants to Nina Simone. It’s an eclectic melting pot of everything that’s at the centre of the 22-year-old’s curious and music obsessed sonic world.
At the centre, though, remains Joy, who speaks humbly and with generosity about the process that’s led to her long-awaited first record. “I think I come across as self-assured because I’m a DIY person; if I can’t find someone else to do it, I’ll do it myself. But for the first time, I found a family and a community who helped me feel safer - especially when I was going into my brain demons. They believed in me and came together to create this thing,” she says. “More importantly, I fucking stuck by myself when I needed it the most. And then I had my first album in my hands! The only way to describe the feeling of that is the biggest amount of euphoria. It was the first time I ever felt proud.”
It’s been a long voyage to get to this point - one of self and sonic discovery. And now, with a debut that comes good on all those early plaudits, Joy Crookes is determined to speak only truths and break every rule. “Everything’s just a big ‘fuck you’, really - like wearing a lehenga to the BRITs. I knew no one else would be doing it, which is a shame, but I was going to do it,” she beams. “I come from a lineage of Bangladeshi women who are naughty and fight back. And because of that, following rules is not cute to me. It’s not in my blood or in Bangladeshi blood. Rebellion is part of our fucking DNA!”
‘Skin’ is out 15th October via Insanity.
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