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Joy Crookes Is Making Music On Her Own Terms

Joy Crookes knows to honor her roots. In the new music video for her trip-hop single “19th Floor”, she pays tribute to her immigrant grandmother and the immigrant community in London. The Ebeneza Blanche-directed visuals feature a diverse cast of individuals around the city, and a man falling out of a building who’s saved when his neighbors catch him before he hits the pavement. “It was beautiful, and the cast was lovely,” Crookes says.

The 23-year-old singer herself also pays homage to her biracial Bangladeshi and Irish heritage, wearing a dupatta in one scene and Irish step dancing in another. The latter even led to a minor injury on set; she broke her metatarsal even though she has years of training under her belt. “But somehow after putting down my shoes and then putting them back on after many years, I break a bone in my foot,” she confesses. She’s fine now, though. (Thankfully.)

“19th Floor” is featured on Crookes’s debut album, Skin, which debuted in October and ascended to number five on the U.K. charts, even with Coldplay, Adele, and The Beatles releasing music the same week. Romantic, empowering, emotional, and raw, the project showcases her smoky voice and honest songwriting in the best light. In her rise, Crookes might’ve earned comparisons to Amy Winehouse or Adele, but with this LP, she proves she’s in her own lane. “I don’t think it’s comparable to anything else,” she says of its distinct sound, which fuses elements of jazz, R&B, soul, and pop. After a trio of EPs and about a dozen of singles, Skin is “braver than anything I’ve ever done before,” she says.

With two BRIT Award nominations this year (and a Rising Star nomination in 2020), Crookes may already be a popular name in the U.K., but she’s still introducing herself to American audiences. Lucky for her, she likes a challenge. Regardless of when or how you discover her music, whatever you take from it is up to you, the listener. “The beauty of art is once it’s handed to the listener or the crowd or the audience or whoever’s there, they really can interpret it however they want, and trying to control that is just not something I ever want to do,” she says.

Speaking in London after vacationing in Mexico, shaking off the “January blues” following the holidays, Crookes is already in the midst of writing new music again. She also plans to tour Europe if the conditions under COVID allow. Here, she talks to about her music videos, how her upbringing inspires her music, and why she’s compelled to use her voice.

Your recent videos, like “Trouble” and “When You Were Mine”, are so visually stunning and transport viewers to a different place. How do you work on translating your music to video?

Sometimes you can just have an idea or something has always been in your mind because you sat with a song for so long, or there’s sounds in the song, like [in] “Trouble,” there’s a sound of swords. So we just thought, We’re gonna do something with swords. What do we do?, and then getting to collaborate with just super-duper talented and collaborative directors and producers and production companies and trying to make maybe your idea or another person’s idea come to life. With “Skin”, I knew I wanted to do something intimate, but I knew I wanted it to be different and interesting. And when NONO [director Nono Ayuso], came up with this idea of going around London in a bed, I was like, “That’s like performance art. I would absolutely love to try something like that.” And it’s so vulnerable. And so challenging. And it goes back to loving that challenge and trying to constantly push some kind of boundary. Even in “Trouble”, I had to learn how to fight and then how to do choreographed dance moves and stuff like that. And I basically act ’cause I’m pretending to fight a man.

So it’s just creating these alternate realities and making sure that it not only fits the song, but tries to elevate maybe the message of the song. And that’s kind of how we always go about videos, especially with this kind of campaign.

What would you say is the message behind “19th Floor”?

“19th Floor” is a celebration of my grandma’s journey as an immigrant to this country. And it touches on things like gentrification because, you know, she’s a political asylum seeker. So in many ways, she was put where she was put and she made a home of wherever someone told her her home was. And it’s really interesting how dismissed immigrants are across the world, especially inner-city immigrants, and just big city immigrants. And I think places like London, New York, [and] Los Angeles would not exist without immigration and immigrants, and the rich tapestry and culture and food and life that they bring into these places. So it’s a celebration of that. And also just a recognition of, “I wouldn’t be here had you not enjoyed the 19th floor” and the 19th floor is also a symbol of how far she’s come. It’s so high up; it’s like her journey was long.

How much does your upbringing influence your songwriting?

I think massively, but I think my upbringing inspires who I am today. I often look back to try and understand the present and then move forward. And I think not everyone’s like that, but I think if you are someone that is trying to sometimes progress or look at maybe patterns in the way that you live, I think it’s important to look back in order to be able to understand your present and where you’re trying to go and what you want to undo and what you want to carry forward. And maybe what you’re proud of.

Definitely. When it comes to being proud of your roots, is that something that you’ve always embraced or did it take some time to realize the importance of where you came from?

I think it came over time. I mean, I intellectualized it over time because I became older, and my emotional intelligence grew just naturally as an adult, but I think I’ve always been someone that tried to answer questions. So when it came to focusing on my culture, maybe that was something I was subconsciously doing for a long time and became more apparent as I became an artist and an adult and a young woman. But I don’t know, there was not a significant moment where that just suddenly switched. I’ve always been this person. It’s just nice to know why and where I became this person from.

joy crookes

I think that’s really interesting, especially as a first- or second-generation immigrant kid and knowing that it’s part of you, but not really understanding until you’re older. It definitely happens gradually.

For sure. And sometimes we don’t have the tools that we need to really understand who we are. ‘Cause our parents might have been just getting on with letting us survive, you know? It’s a luxury and it’s a real privilege to be able to ask some of the questions that I do with my family and myself.

It’s been months since you released your debut album. Now that you’ve had a moment to breathe, what does it feel like for you?

It’s been an incredible experience. And it’s taken so long that it’s a little bit like running a marathon, even though you might have set a personal best, it kind of feels like, “Okay, and what now?” You run that marathon and the next thing you know, you are in silver foil having a stroke. And I feel like even though that sounds pessimistic, it’s not; it’s beautiful to have been able to get my personal best. It’s beautiful to have even ran the marathon but it’s disarming at the same time as well—the end of it. And it’s exciting too, but there is this weird lull period, and I think a lot of artists just don’t talk about it, or if they do, it’s in our community, but it is very over- and underwhelming at the same time.

I’m sure it’s exhausting as well.

Exhaustion is born when you mix all of those things together: the adrenaline, the expectation, and lack of expectations, the surprises, the opportunities. It feels like all these fireworks are going off around you. And it’s amazing to watch a display of fireworks, but at some point you wanna go to sleep as well.

“It’s a real privilege to be able to ask some of the questions that I do with my family and myself.”

I really like your single “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now”. You’ve talked a little bit about being self-aware and asking questions, and you definitely address that in the lyrics. Considering it’s your response to a movement of political activism and the guilt and other feelings that came with that, what was that songwriting process like for you?

I wrote “Feet Don’t Fail Me Now” quite a few times. Lyrically, I changed it quite a few times. I always had “feet don’t fail me now” as the chorus. I always had “Man, I guess I was scared,” but I kind of had to work backwards in order to understand what the fuck I was singing about. And I was just really interested at the time; there were all the protests with the Black Lives Matter movement that were going on, and I was really interested in writing songs that were social commentary songs, ‘cause I’ve always been attracted to political songs myself as a music listener. And then I just thought, Well, you know, I’m not really trying to answer anything here. I’d just like to take note of what’s going on around me. And what was going on around me, and I guess everyone, was how politics and being political became “fashionable.” From an anthropological perspective, [I thought that] was very interesting.

It was also frustrating, ‘cause I noticed that people would be holding picket signs or would be signing petitions, but a lot of people weren’t actually holding themselves accountable, including myself. There were so many things that I, as someone who grew up in a country that is founded on racism and colonialism, et cetera, how much of that has gotten into my brain. How much unconscious bias do I suffer from? I can’t go around pointing fingers. The whole song is about someone that is refusing to look within but is happy to make it look like they’re doing all the right things, but is not actually addressing any of the problem within themselves.

And I think overall, as much as that might sound like a cynical thing to sing about, I think it’s really positive because actually, it’s [about] holding ourselves accountable and it’s also humanizing humans. We’re not gonna be perfect. We’re going to make mistakes. And it’s also commenting on the fact that cancel culture is not something that I think should be cradled or accepted as much as it is. I think it’s important for all of us to have space, to be ignorant, but also to be concerned and ask questions and correct ourselves and learn. So the overall message of this song is: Hopefully we can be braver and have conversations that we wouldn’t necessarily have.

joy crookes

I want to talk about “Skin” too, because it is very powerful and uplifting. Was it directed toward anybody in particular, or to yourself?

Yeah. I wrote that song for one particular person. I didn’t write that song thinking this is going to necessarily be for my album. I wrote that song for someone intending to go home and play it to them that night. I just had someone I was very, very close to and I believed that they deserved to feel like they belong on this planet and wrote them a song because I didn’t know how to say it in words, I guess. And they were just suffering from very bad mental health issues at the time. And it was just my way of going, “You’re loved and you’re wanted and you’re needed here.”

Do you ever think about where you see your career in a few years?

I’d just like to have longevity. I’d really like to make this my job for my life. And I’d really like to be on, you know, a fifth, sixth album, and I’d really like to feel secure and certain, not that I don’t feel certain about this, but it’s a precarious job and it’s not an easy job. And I’d like to find security in longevity and I think longevity is security to me, and that is my biggest goal.

“I have a voice. And we, as women, as Asian women, may not have had a voice five minutes ago.”

And what’s giving you hope for that?

That the world needs it. That I need it, more importantly. I don’t do this for anyone but myself. Well, not necessarily. I do this for other people, but I don’t always have them in mind when I’m making [music].

It’s just my vocation. It’s the way I speak. I’m someone that’s so interested in history, not only my own, but everyone else’s. You are not often handed the tool to speak through song. Not everyone has been handed that tool. And it’s such a privilege and such an opportunity and such a vessel. You can say “it’s just music,” of course, but it feels so important. I feel so lucky to be able to have this as my job and not because of the shining lights and the, this, that, and the other. It’s like, I have a voice. And we, as women, as Asian women, may not have had a voice five minutes ago. And I’m here living in the U.K. and releasing music as an artist, and I’m establishing myself, and it feels like—I may sound like an immigrant daughter right now–but it really, really feels like that’s not something I should ever let go to waste.

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