Joy Crookes: ‘If I was white, would people still classify my music as R&B?’

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Joy Crookes has rarely been afraid to say exactly what she is thinking. Her rich and vibrant debut album, Skin, released on Friday, is autobiographical, painting a picture of her life in south London, and tackling topics from race, mental illness and generational trauma to kitten heels, casual sex and flowers.

It deals with the politics of the personal, but also finds Crookes using her voice to call out the Government and the 1 per cent. “England’s blowing smoke, it needs attention. Could use a lick of paint, a change of colour, before they send us back across the water,” she sings on “Kingdom”.

“I just don’t like to see people getting mugged off,” she explains from a taxi on her way to Berlin airport after a press trip. “You have to break shit to fix anything. You just need to cause discomfort in order to have the conversations that are needed. British people, we’re very capable of beating around the bush.”

Still, there are a couple of tracks she was initially worried about releasing. “‘Unlearn You’ is about sexual abuse, and ‘Kingdom’ is about wanting to smash the Tory party into pieces. Put it this way, if you’re out for dinner and those were the two first topics you brought up, would there be dessert? I’m not scared now, though, because… well, I’ve done it.”

Joy Crookes (Photo: Toast)

Crookes, who is 23, never intended to be a voice for her generation. She says she “isn’t ready for that pressure. My job is just to represent myself.”

Rather, Skin was written about the “stuff I’m really passionate about, the things that grind my gears. Sometimes I wish it was a bit more calculated because that sounds better in interviews, but it wasn’t.”

Crookes started writing music a decade ago, inspired by artists such as Nina Simone, The Clash, Metronomy, Massive Attack and Kate Nash. “I found that music, regardless of genre, was capable of giving me solace. It always let me know that whatever I was going through in my own head, someone else had been through it as well. That was true for the deepest stuff, as well as the most menial.

“I liked that these artists could connect to a young girl living in Elephant and Castle. I thought that if I was writing music, I could put my emotions somewhere as well. Plus, it was less work than writing a diary.”

Crookes comes from a non-musical family, and her parents – her father is Irish, her mother Bangladeshi – were supportive but worried about her chosen career.

“If I had a child and they came to me and said, ‘I’m going to become a musician,’ I would probably have a heart attack too,” she says. “That’s not a cultural thing – the music industry is just a very volatile place.”

Undeterred, she taught herself how to play piano, guitar and bass and uploaded cover versions to YouTube. “That DIY punk nature has always been a part of what I do,” she says.

Aged 16, Crookes shared an original track “Poison” (a rerecorded version also features on her album) before releasing her first proper single in 2016. Over the following years, she released a trio of EPs and toured extensively.

Her parents still worry, but not about her failing. “Now they just worry about losing touch with me, because I’m so busy,” she says. Voice notes from her uncles and grandmothers are threaded throughout the album.

Joy Crookes performs at Cornbury Festival 2019 (Photo: C Brandon/Redferns)

Last year, she was shortlisted for the Brits 2020 Rising Star Award alongside The 1975’s labelmate Beabadoobee. She lost out to the eventual winner, Celeste, but this puts her in good company: Lewis Capaldi and Dua Lipa missed out on the overall prize and ended up doing all right for themselves. Next month, her headline tour will include two sold-out shows at O2 Forum Kentish Town in London.

Being nominated for the award “gave me anxiety”, admits Crookes. “It made me feel like all these people were watching. I started questioning if I should play things safe and follow the format – because there is definitely a format for success.” It also gave Crookes a sense of urgency. “ I realised I needed to go all out. Obviously, accolades are a nice thing but you need to observe, not absorb.”

Despite the pressure, on Skin, Crookes follows her own path. “I think if I played it safe, I’d be really embarrassed,” she explains. “When my mates and I celebrate our birthdays, the last cheers always come with the realisation that so many people didn’t make it to this age – and we’re not even old. So, if I’m playing it safe, what really is the point?”

According to her, you only need to look at the front cover of Skin to know “it is a bold, brave album. That’s symbolised by my gold titties on the cover,” she says, grinning. “I wasn’t allowed to keep the nipples, though.

“I didn’t set out to be bold,” she continues, explaining that it’s just who she is. “Every day I think, ‘Should I say that?’ before realising I’ve already said it now.”

That openness has translated into her music. Post-Brits, “There was a part of me that was bricking it, thinking I’m not going to make anything that has any commercial viability,” she starts, before quickly adding, “Not that that is the be-all and end-all for me. I love the challenge, though.”

In the past, Crookes’s music has been called neo-soul and alternative R&B but she says Skin is a pop album. “If I was white, would people still classify my music like that? Because I feel like these genres are very much interlinked with race and the way I look. I just wish that wasn’t the case.”

Those expectations based on her heritage are something she has always had to endure. “Growing up in Elephant and Castle, people used to say stuff like, ‘You play guitar? Do you think you’re white?’”

Today, she would point out that gospel musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe pretty much invented rock’n’roll in the 30s, but “there was a period when I was really young where I felt embarrassed by the music I made. I was scared about what people expected of a brown girl. I never felt like I couldn’t do anything because other people told me I couldn’t, though. If anything, that just encouraged me to do it. Now, I believe there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing whatever I want.”

Joy Crookes (Photo: Toast)

Talking about race, Crookes is quick to point out that “trauma porn and suffering sob stories are the opposite of what I am about”.

“But I think people expect that from ethnic people. Today I was asked if I’ve ever experienced racism – it’s just not the first thing you ask someone. Anyone that has ever been part of a minority group, race, sexuality, whatever, there are always going to be people who think it’s appropriate to point at your most vulnerable part and ask about it. It’s no one’s business.

“I love the power of love. I love the power of being empowered. I’m not here for you to get your string section out while I give you a sob story,” she continues. “I’m not looking for a professional victim complex. I’m not going to serve your headline with my shit, it’s not who I am.”

Refusing to play into other people’s narratives, Skin is an empowering listen. “There’s a strong feeling of ‘F**k ’em’ in it,” she says, grinning, revealing that that is also one of the best pieces of advice she ever received from her father – a mantra to deal with people who don’t understand, don’t listen or just aren’t worth the time.

So why does Crookes’s music connect to so many people? “I think it’s cos I’m the type of girl that will probably have a beer with you. I’m capable of being accessible – not just musically but as a human being,” she explains.

“It’s weird when artists hit their head and decide to have this level of mystery around them. I’m the opposite.

“There is a strong, unapologetic nature to all my favourite artists, and I want to be like that. They’re just real human beings, faults and all, but they’re the ones who make me feel empowered.”

Skin is out now

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