Performing My Identity: Joy Crookes Interviewed

Performing My Identity: Joy Crookes Interviewed

"I've never been this proud of myself in my life..."

Joy Crookes needed to be true to herself – understanding the boundaries of that person, however, was a little more complex.

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Confidence is something that often emanates quite naturally from musicians. But as human beings, we’re hardwired to be anxious; in fact, it’s a core part of our nature, as Kierkegaard argued back in 1844.

“I really severely suffer from anxiety,” Joy Crookes tells me over Zoom as we chat about the tumultuous events of the past year. “It's always been something I've had and I have my coping mechanisms but obviously I didn't have a coping mechanism for a fucking pandemic because I didn't know there was going to be a fucking pandemic!”

The past year has undeniably contributed to a collective rise in levels of anxiety, with isolation and feelings of uncertainty impacting even the most calm and confident of spirits. For Joy, 2020 offered a rare opportunity to stop, reflect and progress her own creativity, but it was also a natural catalyst for those intrusive thoughts. “The thing about me is that I'm very solutions-based,” she says. “In order for me to tackle my anxiety, I need discipline. I need routine and regimen and I almost act like I'm at a boarding school but I am the headmaster as well as the student.”

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To manage and control those anxious feelings, Joy committed to keeping a diary throughout lockdown, where she logged everything from waking up and exercising to seeing friends and sitting down at the piano. “Because if I didn't do that,” she adds, “I physically wouldn't think I had done anything and then that would spiral my anxiety into thinking I was useless and I was lazy and I was all these things that I love to call myself in my head. I knew exactly what I was doing with my days and it felt like I had control in a time where literally the whole world lost control.”

Despite her refreshing honesty about the effects of the pandemic on her own mental health, Joy also believes that it’s been a hugely transitional year, both musically and personally. She was nominated for the Brits’ Rising Star award last year and placed fourth in BBC’s Sound Of 2020 poll, both of which hint at what’s to come for the young singer-songwriter. She’s now readying herself for the release of her debut album, which is due later this year, and is a remarkable body of work from someone that is skilled as a vocalist and musician and has a profound lyricism that displays both vulnerability and maturity.

“I think the main statement of the album is that I just want to be me,” Joy explains. “The album is about identity, and it is as specific and as complex as that. So some of the stories are informed by people that I'm very close to in my life, and some of the stories are informed by my own experience. There's a longing and there's a bittersweet nature in the album. And there's celebration, and there's reality. It's a lived experience, it's my reality, and it's my identity. And it's me performing my identity.”

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Joy is a South Londoner of Bangladeshi and Irish heritage, and this inevitably influences her sound and the nature of the storytelling throughout her music. You can hear numerous musical influences in her debut, from Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald to Amy Winehouse and Solange, but the album also contains a multitude of personal touches, and a very distinct sense of place that puts further emphasis on this theme of identity.

“London is always a backdrop for me because it's my home. I grew up with Portuguese people, with Caribbean people and people from West Africa – with people from all over the world. And you become a sponge, because you are just constantly surrounded by people from across the world.”

The album is a clear expression of all the things Joy grew up around and so London, in a way, becomes a character in itself, highlighting her innate interest in people and their stories. “Things that seem very normal to you like taking your shoes off when you enter an auntie's house might be very alien to someone in a different part of the world. But you pick up these gestures, you pick up these expressions, you pick up a way of living and a way of carrying yourself that just becomes your identity.”

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The recently released single ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me Now’ gives a small taste of what to expect from the album, with it’s soulful jazz-pop vocals and mesmerising visuals drawing attention to Joy’s presence and ability as a songwriter. In the beautifully shot video, she represents different communities, including her Bangledeshi roots, in occasionally surreal and colourful scenes.

“I was really interested in this idea of group versus individual, collective versus individualism. And then how it's so much easier to be complicit when you're in a group, versus how you truly are and who you truly are, when you're an individual.” The symbolism in the video is very specific and Joy explains that it was all calculated, with her spending a significant amount of time working out the shots that feature her friends, Bengali girls and Bengali men, dancers and – for lack of a better expression – genuine black and brown joy.

“It's interesting to see what points are being hit and made, and the people that get the video and get the song. What it does is create discussion and I love when art creates discussion. So as much as it's nice for it to look beautiful, I like controversy; it means I'm doing something right. And the whole song is meant to be ironic.”

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The track, and the album on the whole, places Joy’s views on politics front and centre. But when we speak about whether she feels any kind of pressure to voice her feelings when it comes to injustices in her community and the wider world, Joy is firm in her response.

“I don't want to speak on behalf of every ethnic musician, but I think there is definitely more of a responsibility given to us than there might be to our white counterparts, for example. For me, as an artist, I believe that I have a responsibility to speak because I think that having a voice is so important – just as a woman and seeing how many women in my family haven't had a voice. But by no means does that mean I'm trying to represent Bangladesh, Ireland, a South Asian community, whoever – it's just not my job. And I also don't think that it should be anyone's responsibility to speak on behalf of a nation or community.”

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From 2018’s ‘Influence’ EP and brilliant singles like ‘Mother May I Sleep With Danger’ and ‘Early’ to ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me Now’ and her upcoming debut full-length, Joy’s warmth and sincerity continues to shine through with an added sense of self-assuredness. When asked about her ultimate goal with this album, she notes that she’s already achieved it.

“I'm proud of being able to speak about things I struggled to speak about on a daily basis. I just want people to know that it's me, and that's it. It is a massive career and personal milestone, and it's taken so long and it's taken so much heartbreak and self-doubt, and booking therapy sessions and not thinking I'd ever be able to write again or get to this point.

“I'm so proud,” Joy continues, “I've never been this proud of myself in my life. So I'm hopefully carrying that energy into whatever I do next, personally, or career wise. It's like, you've done it once and you can do it again.”

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Words: Arusa Qureshi
Photography: Elliott Morgan
Fashion: Kamran Rajput

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