Joy Crookes on Influences, Songwriting, and the Strength in Vulnerability Photography: Katie Silveste

Joy Crookes on Influences, Songwriting, and the Strength in Vulnerability

Joy Crookes forges her own path. The 22-year-old London-based crooner released her debut single “New Manhattan” in 2016 at the age of 17, paving the way for a bright and illustrious career in the world of neo soul. Born to a Bangladeshi mother and an Irish father in Lambeth, Crookes’ music, activism, and lyricism explore the injustices of practices such as racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and gentrification, concurrently melding her passions and talents in a silky, compelling, and pioneering blend. She was nominated for the Rising Star Award at the 2020 Brit Awards, firmly binding her position as one of the biggest and brightest young talents in the industry. Our publisher and founder, Kristin Prim, caught up with Joy to talk about influences, songwriting, and the power of both vulnerability and self-preservation.

KP: So, I guess I should start this conversation with the very first thought that I had upon listening to your music for the first time. The initial time that I played Influence, I couldn’t help but think that you were the legitimate love child of both Amy Winehouse and Billie Holiday. When I eventually ended up on YouTube, watching some live performances while prepping for this piece, it seemed to actually be a very common comparison that you draw, word for word, between the two. I can imagine that hearing such things repeatedly could get quite wearing after a while. Do such comparisons please you, or do they unnerve you to hear after a while as an artist?

JC: I think that if we’re on the subject of women and feminism – and you having a platform that focuses on women – is that we’re always compared. Obviously, I think it’s an amazing comparison. I’m very grateful. But do you ever think about – when you’re being sold a male artist versus when you’re being sold a female artist – that men are generally never really compared? Whereas with women, it’s always like, “This is the next ‘this’ person. This is the next ‘that’ person.” I’m sure Billie and I’m sure Amy had the same thing happen and it’s kind of like… I don’t know, I just often see that pattern.

KP: Well, I wonder if too – and this is sad and I get into this a little bit later – but I don’t feel that it’s super common today for jazz and soul to be produced at the rate that it used to be. So I think perhaps it’s easy to draw those parallels also for that reason, when there aren’t hundreds of young, well-known artists creating new jazz or soul music.

JC: For sure, for sure, for sure, and I understand that. I understand where the parallels come from and I’m grateful for those comparisons. I just think that naturally people are more quick to compare a woman than a man. I’ve just noticed it a lot.

KP: So I believe that “Mother May I Sleep With Danger?” was the first song of yours that I came across and it’s really, truly, genuinely brilliant. I still play it quite frequently, actually. What is the story behind that track, either lyrically or compositionally?

JC: I was going through a phase, I was going through that whole “I’m a super teenager right now” thing. Basically, I guess I was filled with a lot of angst and I had to learn how to be quite independent from the age of 17, which is when I wrote the song. It was kind of a response to all of that. I guess the cheekiness comes from the fact that any Bengali daughter to a Bengali mum will know that there are certain boundaries you shouldn’t cross and I definitely was crossing them.

KP: Another great track of yours that I love is “Poison”, which I specifically admire for its rawness and also its simplicity. I know that you wrote it when you were super young… you were 15, I think, right?

JC: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

KP: Is there anything that you can share about the content itself of that song, or its composition in particular? It’s so interesting because it’s so simple, but almost complexly beautiful. It’s rare we get songs that are that raw today, in that sense.

JC: Thank you so much. It’s a song that comes from a lot of anger to be perfectly honest. I think that with a song like that, the most simple songs, in my opinion, fall out the quickest. I think that I was in such a place of rage when I wrote that song, that it wrote itself in 10 minutes and it was done. When I played it to my friends and family, they were like, “Yeah, it’s fine. It’s not that special.” Then I went to a gig and played it and everyone was like, “What the fuck?”

KP: [Laughs]. Yeah, it’s beautiful.

JC: Yeah, and I was really young at that age. So I think to be able to get that level of simplicity when you’re 15, or when you’re 17, or when you’re 21, like I am now, you’re constantly trying to explain yourself and sometimes songs are a bit immature, whereas I think that song in particular is really mature because I still play it to this day.

KP: Definitely, it’s aged very well. Who do you admire musically, either from the past or the present?

JC: I admire everyone, I like so many people. I admire Gnarls Barkley, I admire… God, I’m trying to think of the ones that I don’t usually –

KP: I know, it’s hard.

JC: Solange, I admire… God, Nina Simone, I admire… My God, I like The Smiths, Van Morrison, The Clash, like so many. I love music so much.

KP: Is there any album or song that you feel has been most formative to you in any way?

JC: Most formative? Probably To Pimp a Butterfly by Kendrick Lamar. It’s really upfront and it threw me into not being afraid to speak what was on my mind politically.

KP: That’s amazing. “Anyone But Me” opens up with the classic line from “Love Me Or Leave Me,” a song that has been covered by a multitude of iconic jazz artists throughout the ages, but especially in the early to mid-20th century. My personal favorite cover of that full song is actually by Peggy Lee. How much does jazz from that era influence you, if it does at all?

JC: I think that jazz has always been a subconscious thing. I think that it’s particularly been the black female jazz singers that have preoccupied my mind and heart when I was young, very subconsciously. I only realized that as I got older and I was trying to find my voice. I think that the bravery that those women showed and the strength and the “don’t fuck with me” nature about them, was really compelling and something that I felt like I could connect with. I think there’s a huge lack of representation of brown women, so seeing a strong black woman is just as powerful for me and growing up with a brown mother, I think it definitely was. I look at women who are strong, who are faced by challenges within society that shit on them as a result basically, and can go up and say whatever they want to say. Have you read Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues?

KP: No, I never have actually.

JC: She wrote a book about her life, you should read it!

KP: I’ve always meant to pick it up, but I’ve never gotten the chance… but now I will.

JC: I read it in New York actually, because I just was like, “This is the perfect backdrop for me to understand her story,” but yeah, that’s a fantastic, fantastic book.

KP: I definitely will. You’ve spoken about re-weaponizing vulnerability as a strength. I personally couldn’t agree with that any more. I know that when I was younger, I remember so vividly thinking that even crying was this symbol of weakness, but now I see it as something so beautiful and an incredible visible sign of strength. What led you to this level of rawness? Was it initially difficult or did it always come naturally to you?

JC: It’s always been my thing. I internalize things as well. It’s very easy to deal with your own demons in your head and I’ve definitely done that but I’ve always been someone that needed to talk to someone. I’m such a talker and my whole family has known that. I say it as it is, I’ve always been that way, so naturally that would transcend into my music because that’s how I am as a person.

KP: Is there any advice that you would offer women who are afraid to show that vulnerability?

JC: I think that you shouldn’t force yourself if you’re not feeling like you want to be vulnerable. There’s a reason why David Bowie had nine alter egos. There are ways of going about expressing yourself and I think that vulnerability comes down to expressing yourself and not everyone wants to express who they may be at home on the sofa, but there are so many different ways that I think no way is wrong. I think that identity is completely up to you. If you don’t feel like you want to be vulnerable, then you don’t have to be, you know?

KP: Mmhmm.

JC: I think that you can be vulnerable in your personal life, but in your work life; you’ve got to separate the artist from the art sometimes. Yeah, I just think there’s nothing wrong with people that don’t talk about their own lives and talk about other people’s, or have their own alter ego, or they hide their face when they perform. I don’t think that’s an insecurity and I don’t think it’s necessarily a weakness. I think it’s just however you want your art to be is up to you.

KP: Totally. So going back to what we were speaking about earlier, for those who may not be familiar, “Power” is an incredible track of yours that touches on everything from misogyny to racism. What inspired you to pen a piece like that?

JC: It was a conversation I had just before I wrote the song with a woman named Audra Mae, who is from America. She asked me loads of questions and I didn’t really know exactly what she was doing, but I don’t know, she had a weird power over me. She knew what to ask and she knew that she was getting something vulnerable out of me. Then she left the room and said, “I think you’ve got a song now.” I wrote “Power” in less than an hour, actually.

Joy Crookes on Influences, Songwriting, and the Strength in Vulnerability

Joy Crookes, Photography: Frank Fieber

“I think there's a huge lack of representation of brown women, so seeing a strong black woman is just as powerful for me and growing up with a brown mother, I think it definitely was. I look at women who are strong, who are faced by challenges within society that shit on them as a result basically, and can go up and say whatever they want to say.”

KP: That’s amazing. I read that you didn’t have the best experience in the studio when you were initially first recording, due to a producer. You solved this by becoming “self-sufficient.” You learned how to produce and use Logic. You learned how to better play both the piano and guitar and just became more comfortable with your voice. How important do you think it is for women to command their own ships? What are some pointers that you can lend that you’ve learned along the way, if any?

JC: I think there’s the obvious kind of solution, like to learn how to produce yourself. But I think that the obvious one I would go for is to learn how to say no… if you don’t agree with people, just don’t back them. But also you can be vocal. If you go to the studio with a friend, or a manager, or whatever, try to communicate how you feel. Sometimes I think you’ll know on a personal level whether that’s doable or not. Some people are just ignorant and stubborn and you can’t do that but I think for the people that may have just had a shit day, or just acting shitty, you can take a step back, take some time away from that person, and then try and communicate.

I think that communication is key and I think that we’re so used to being let down and we’re so used to being underestimated. I think we should give people a chance, to try to hold them accountable and tell them, “You make me feel like this when you say this and from now on, I want to do this, or I want to be treated like this.” I think if that doesn’t work, then you need to move on but yeah, I think communication is key.

KP: Absolutely. So you were nominated for a Brit [Award] at just the age of 20, which is an incredible achievement… I guess I want to leave this question pretty open-ended. What advice would you offer women who long to be successful in something that they’ve only dreamt to pursue thus far? What advice would you give them about succeeding in life in general?

JC: I think that work ethic is really important. I think not overdoing yourself. Sometimes I think about how I would feel on my deathbed if I knew that I was doing this, and then I’d tell myself to relax. I think that again, it’s important to learn how to say no. I think the most important thing that I can say and give advice to women about pertains to instinct. Your instinct is there for a reason. There’s a reason that when we have children, we wake up in the middle of the night before they start crying, because we just know. I think that a woman’s instinct is the most powerful, powerful magic that we’re all born with. Just remember that it’s there and remember that when you get a pit in your stomach, or when your heart doesn’t feel right, or when you’re like, “I don’t fuck with this person,” to run with it and to know that, yes, it might come from a place of insecurity, or jealousy, or X, Y, Z. But if your instinct is calling something out and you don’t even know why, even if you can’t even intellectualize it, to keep an eye on it and watch out for that, whatever that is, be it a person or a situation… trust your instinct.

Cover Photo by Katie Silveste