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Joy Crookes: the Blessing and Curse of Living in Your Skin

With a Bloody Mary in one hand, and her heart in the other, Joy Crookes handed over the insights of some of her most intimate moments on her debut album ‘Skin’ to us whilst on her tour stop in Sydney. She speaks on the gentrification of South London, music as a remedy, and the state of flow that keeps her afloat.

Joy Crookes is a dominating force in music today, and her debut album Skin is clear enough evidence of how and why. She channels the vivacity of artists like Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone as her voice beckons across gorgeous brass arrangements at one peak of the album before gliding across soft and emotional piano melodies at the next. She’s a master at her craft, and it all stems from her ability to be unapologetically vulnerable in the way she creates. On Skin, she creates a safe space not only for herself but for those around her as she steps into musical realms and dialogue that oftentimes feel too personal to be listening to. Nonetheless, her no-fear attitude and drive to be her truest self are what makes Crookes so captivating. Just like the largest organ on the human body, Skin exposes several layers to Crookes, as she navigates the headspace she created and formulated the album in during the peak of the pandemic. Having Skin recently announced as a nominee for The 2022 Mercury Prize, the world is well and truly at her feet, and we’re sure her feet won’t fail her any time soon. We caught up with the artist before she took the stage in Sydney to talk more about the album.

It’s a massive pleasure to meet you. This is obviously your first time in Australia; how are you liking it?
I haven’t had to deal with any spiders. So I’m enjoying my time.

How are you finding the weather? Because I know that there’s a typical image of Australia about it being sunny and whatnot.
Yeah, it’s fucked. It’s really disappointing. Does rain have links with spiders? Because I’m scared.

[laughs] Not spiders, I don’t think.
I haven’t seen any sharks either. I also haven’t been near bodies of water. Just so you know, I’m hyper-vigilant. But I’m enjoying it. Everything’s really, really nice. The food in Melbourne was insanely good as well.

How was the show in Melbourne last night?
It was so good. Yeah, I kind of knew that these shows would be fun because I feel like Australian people are quite fun. So that’s been really good. I can’t complain at all. It’s so weird that I was so far away from home but felt so familiar with the people.

I feel like Australian crowds always hit a little bit different. Especially with international artists.
Yeah, exactly. And they appreciate that we travel across the fucking world. 

Yeah, of course. You’ve always been super loud and gracious about where your music has taken you. And obviously, that recently took you to Glastonbury. I saw you shed a bit of a tearful moment on stage. Tell me a little bit about that experience.
It was interesting, the whole band and I was saying that we weren’t actually nervous when we got there. When we were about to perform, it kind of felt like we prepared for such a long time for that moment. I don’t know, sometimes, when you perform, you can really get into a state of flow, where you’re not thinking, you’re just doing. I think that moment when I started crying, it all kind of hit me, and I realised what was happening. Because I was in such a state of flow, just from the beginning of the set, and by then, I was kind of towards the middle, and by the last quarter of the set, it made me realise “oh my gosh, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity” and it like gobsmacked me. I think at that moment, I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t even realise I was crying. It just all hit like a wave of emotions.

How did you feel getting off stage and being like “fuck, I actually did that”?
We all just got drunk. All my mates and I had the funniest time. I kept having to remind myself that day that that happened, because it was so surreal. I can’t really explain. I can’t really explain how surreal that was.

I want to touch on your roots in South London a little bit, because South London has been typically painted as the “rough area” of London. I want to tap into your own experiences growing up there and the memories of your youth.
I mean, it was rough, unfortunately. You have a lot of marginalised and institutionalised communities living amongst one another. Myself and all of my mates were children of immigrants. And our parents came from working-class backgrounds, so, unfortunately, it was not necessarily the easiest place to live, but I didn’t have that comparison. I loved it. But I was always told it was a shithole. One of my friends once said, “Oh, you romanticise it” and I was like, I don’t think I romanticise it. I think I just love what is here that everyone tells me is shit when actually I really rate it. One of the best songs that I think encapsulates South London is a song that I have off one of my first EPs called ‘For A Minute’. I talked about creamy legs, picking up chicken wings and chips after school. Like, yeah, that sounds like basic and rubbish stuff. But to me, it was what made it really beautiful. So I feel really grateful for growing up there. And I grew up around every community you can think of, so I’m in love with it, and I always will be. I’m losing a lot of it to gentrification, but that’s just how it is. And I think it’s amazing that in songs, I can immortalise those memories that I have in my childhood.

I feel like I can relate to that notion as well, coming from Western Sydney. It’s a similar situation where it’s being taken over by gentrification, and it’s a largely poverty-stricken area, so I get that fully. How, when you’re away from home, do you try to stay connected?
I don’t know if I struggle with that. Maybe just the fact that my bass player is from South London; the rest of my band are all Londoners. We talk a lot of shit. I don’t know. I think it’s just instilled in me. So I don’t really think about how I keep it. It’s just you know where home is. And you know how to tap into home. I think that kind of comes naturally to me, and also I just got a loud mouth. So I feel like it’s just a natural thing. It’s a natural disposition.

For sure. I really enjoy your track ‘19th Floor’ off your debut album Skin because it kind of plays out as an ode to South London. What are some of your favourite things about home?
I love the food, the food is really good. I used to go to stores outside the shopping centre that was in my area. There are stories from all over the world, Colombian stores; I’d have African aunties making me jollof rice, Asian aunties making all sorts of food, we had this Chinese place in the area. It’s amazing to be around so many cultures, not only the food, but the mannerisms and the cultural values and being able to grow up around so many polarising communities where you would think that they can’t stand together or be all merged together. So I felt really fortunate to be able to learn so much about the world.

And what a way to learn about people, through their food, something that everyone’s bound to.
I think it’s a massive icebreaker. I think you can learn so much. And when you break bread with people, you can learn so much about them. In fact, I do all my meetings around food. So whenever I have label meetings and stuff, I refuse to go into the office, I always get them to come out for food. For me, I just think people are more themselves when they’ve eaten.

Circling back to, Skin, it was supposed to come out in mid-2020, but then the pandemic hit. Did it act as a blessing in disguise at all?
I thought, aside from the world being in immense tragedy, for me, personally, I really enjoyed it. I felt like it was the first time I didn’t have any distractions. And I had to really sit with myself. And I think I needed that to be able to make the album that I did. And so I thought the pandemic for my work was really, really helpful. It taught me a lot about myself, because I had to spend so much time by myself.

I read that you like to refer to yourself as a sponge, where you like to soak up all the sounds around you. What kind of sounds did you wring out onto this album?
So many different influences. We were listening to D’Angelo, we listened to Tony Allen, Fela Kuti’s drummer. We were listening to Massive Attack, Young Marble Giants who are like a 1970s post-punk band from Wales, who were one of Kurt Cobain’s favourite bands. Loads of different things. I love music. I’m like a huge music head anyway, so we had a bundle of references. And what would be amazing is when my drummer for the album, Tom Skinner would walk in and be like, “Oh, yeah, this reminds me of Young Marble Giants”, I’d be like, “What the fuck?”. And they’re such a cult band, you would never think that someone would get the reference. So I mean, you had like insane musicians like Skinner himself, they brought their own kind of feel and their own influences into the music.

I feel like the album kind of exists within a lifetime of diary entries just because of how candid and honest it is. How did it feel to be able to put something like that out as your debut album?Honestly, I actually think that vulnerability is a strength, and I felt like that, especially after something like the pandemic. Sincerity and authenticity is something that a lot of people were searching for, including myself with music. I noticed that I was listening to music that had more of a message, especially because during the pandemic, we also had the Black Lives Matter movement. And I think that people were having conversations that were I guess “uncomfortable”, whereas I’ve always been quite good at them. I don’t really struggle with heeding that I don’t know, and just listening, which I think, leads to me being a songwriter, because I think you really need to listen to people to be able to tell stories, it’s not always your story you’re telling. You could be telling your story but telling a whole community’s story at the same time. I just always knew I needed that. I think I’d be upset if it wasn’t so honest. It felt like I wasn’t scared. There were things I was scared of, but the vulnerability was not something I was scared of. I thought that that was a really refreshing thing.

I think that comes right into play on the opening track, ‘I Don’t Mind’, where you talk about this situationship that you know doesn’t serve you any good long term. Tell me a little bit about the story behind that track, and the decision to make it the opening track to the album.
I was sleeping with this guy, and he just needed to understand that it wasn’t anything more than that. And I think that to some people, that’s a big statement, where a brown woman is like, “Oh, you just want to have me for my body”, but there’s a lot of ownership in that, I think. I think it’s a weird taboo in our cultures to be able to do something like that. I just wanted him to understand it was a wrap. That’s it, stop trying to catch feelings. And then I played it to him and he just didn’t get the message.

Really? Even after all of that?
I played it to him in my living room and was like “do you not understand what I’m saying?”, fucking hell. [laughs]. But then I played it to one of my first, realest loves that I was ever with, and he absolutely loved it. And he understood it. Like, he really picked it out and picked parts out of it, because I produced it as well. And I knew I fucking loved him from that. So yeah, I’ve played it for a lot of my casual partners to see what their reaction is like.

What has the majority been like?
The funniest one I got recently was “No, no, no, we can’t listen to your music. This will make me catch feelings for you.” I was like “Are you okay?”. I think you’re barking up the wrong tree babe. He also told me he loved me on the second day. You’ve got to be chatting absolute fucking shite. I am a musician. I write lyrics. I just thought, wow.

Speaking on partners and relationships, I feel like a highlight moment for me on the album was When You Were Mine. That song speaks on craving a love that you’ve already experienced, and I guess chasing and yearning for something that has already happened. Tell me a little bit about that notion.
It’s just about my ex who entered a gay relationship after our relationship and just being like, you know what, I respect it. He really looked like himself, and he is still with the same guy to this day. Also, there was something really powerful about them going through Brixton, which is quite a homophobic area in London, being hand in hand and me being like, wow, there’s so much power in that. I hope that someday I can find that.

Going through the album, it takes a bit of a dip in pace towards the latter end. I want to touch on your self-titled track ‘Skin’. It’s one of the moments on the album that kind of jolts you to standstill. Tell me about the personal perspectives you’re writing from on that track.
I just came in the day after something really serious happened with a really close person in my life. And they were really like, on the brink. And I had no way of articulating in conversation how to make them feel stronger. So I thought the number one thing I know how to do is write a song for someone I love, which I always have. The songs, for me, are things that I can’t necessarily say in conversation; I feel I can articulate sometimes better in songs. And there’s a conciseness about it being two to three minutes long and trying to say everything you need to say in those minutes.

Do you think you wrote a lot of songs for specific people?
Yeah, well, just like a specific memory, or like something that’s happening in my life. Though I’m not really worried about politics and stuff, if I’m not passionate about something, if it’s not close to my heart, I find it hard to write about, it doesn’t feel genuine. I wanted to write like a Frank Sinatra song. I did it my way, it has the big punch line at the end, and then it goes back into the story. So I knew what the song wanted to look like. I just had to write it. And I knew that the album was going to be called Skin, but I didn’t actually have a song. A lot of lines in that song, I actually said to that person the night before. So I just wrote down what I said to them and put that in song.

I think it’s a beautiful track because of how differently it speaks on mental health.
It’s so personal. It’s hard for me to sing that song because it’s so powerful. It resonates with people because I really didn’t hold anything back. I wrote that song intending that to be heard by one person, not by so many people that have listened to the album. So I think that like I knew it was fantastic when I wrote it, in a way where I was like wow, I really said what I needed to say. I hadn’t even written the verse, just the chorus, and I was like, that’s exactly what I wanted to say last night, but I couldn’t say it. And when I played it to him, we both just didn’t know how to react.

How has the journey of living in your own skin been for you so far?
It’s a constant everyday celebration and battle all at the same time. But I’m enjoying it, and I’m grateful. And I’m in a position that so many people have never been in. And I’m really aware of that. Just like an amazing life to be living. It just feels precarious. And naturally, I’m like, oh my god, how long is this gonna last? But yeah, I’m really grateful. I’m grateful that my vocation is something that I love. And I feel a lot of purpose in my job. So it’s good.

I feel like it’s a definite, how much of your heart you wear on your sleeve whenever you write music, whenever you’re in that creative space. What’s something you can say to people who are trying to tap into that and hone their skills a little bit as musicians and songwriters?
I think instinct is really, really important. I think that the closer you can get to your instinct, the better. And if that means you have to remove distractions or if you have to remove people. You have to find a space that you find comfortable enough that it can contact your instinct. I think that when your instincts are there, it’s easier to get into a state of flow. I think that not thinking is the best place to be. And however you achieve that, is the goal. The state of flow is a wonderful thing. Even when you write essays, when I was in the state of flow of essays, I was like, fuck yeah, this is sick. I love academics and history. So sometimes it felt just like, wow, I feel really connected with this piece of work. But yeah, state of flow always.

Obviously, you’re touring straight off of releasing your debut album. You just knocked off Glastonbury. What’s locked in for the rest of the year for you?
I’m writing my second album, trying to get into my state of flow as much as possible. And I want to make something even more candid. I don’t want to hold back. And I’m really interested in pop music; I’m really interested in how I can create music where it may have one message that’s subliminal. And everyone hears the second message and dances along to it. But there’s something deeper in that. Yeah, I want to be able to do that. I’m focusing on that. I’m just getting back to songwriting and hoping to channel that into another album. And yeah, we’ll see if it goes right.

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