The south London singer reflects on how post-punk, the Black Lives Matter movement, and her grandma came to shape her first full-length record
“Biologically, skin is one of the strongest parts of our bodies, but socially and externally, it can be used against us so easily,” Joy Crookes says of her debut album’s namesake. “It can be deemed as a weakness, and that juxtaposition between strength and weakness is something I grapple with massively throughout the whole of the album.”
Like skin, the album from the London-based, Irish-Bangladeshi singer is multi-layered, poetically weaving themes of race, class, and Brexit into a personal record that also examines her identity as a young woman in Britain. As she prepares to share Skin with the world, the 23-year-old is speaking to Dazed via Zoom, an appropriate means of communication given that the album was conceived amid virtual quizzes in lockdown.
“For the first time, I think, as British people we had to sit and face ourselves,” she considers of the past year or so. “What I mean by that is, you know, if we were angry, we couldn’t go to a pub and punch someone, or if we were insecure, we couldn’t go and sleep with someone, or take anything out externally. We actually had to sit with our feelings. That for me was really life changing.”
Among cinematic strings and jazz-inflected piano, Crookes’s voice paints a vivid portrait of her identity, as do sonic touches like handclaps, chanting, voicemails, and laughter, and lines like “Bopping down Walworth Road”. Below, she talks through why the ‘regeneration’ of her native south London, the Black Lives Matter movement, post-punk, and more inspired her first album.
SOUTH LONDON GENTRIFICATION
Joy Crookes: On “19th Floor”, I sing about “Cinema skylines that I don't recognise” and “Nothing same but nothing different”. What gentrification does is – it does the obvious with the coffee shops – but what it does to people, I think, is it makes you question your self-worth. It makes you question, ‘Was this area not enough when it was just immigrants and markets, more working class, real people – was that not enough?’ My mum’s side of the family comes from a council estate in south London, so for me it’s like, does that mean that we’re not good enough? I think Grenfell really did that, too. It’s something I really struggle with.
Joy Crookes: I’m influenced by so many people like Massive Attack, D’Angelo, Ebo Taylor, Nina (Simone), Solange. But also old post-punk bands that aren’t really that known from London and beyond. Young Marble Giants, from Wales, is one of my favourite post-punk bands. I just love the music, to be honest, and I appreciate what punk music did back in the day as well. I love the culture around it and the way that punk artists conducted themselves as people, in this almost activist way.
Joy Crookes: (I included vocal snippets) as I think they’re really important in contextualising the songs and the stories, and it allows you to understand what kind of people exist in the spaces I might be talking about. Adding my grandma before “19th Floor” felt super normal to me but maybe will be interesting to someone else, and just having that bit of context, I think, hopefully makes people understand better. She’s happy that she’s on the album (even if) she doesn’t completely understand it, but yeah. I just love her so much!
Joy Crookes: “Feet Don't Fail Me Now” was a response particularly to the Black Lives Matter movement and protests, because I was pissed off with people being online activists and that world that people decided to exist in when, actually, there was no care. I was holding myself accountable but also everyone else accountable for being so fucking complicit. I think we’ve all been guilty of being that character, really.
“I was pissed off with people being online activists and that world that people decided to exist in when, actually, there was no care” – Joy Crookes
That year, though, for the first time ever I felt like I could say how I was feeling without a filter. And not only to do with race, but I felt like everyone bursted a little bit and it was like, you know what, ‘This this how I fucking feel’. It felt like, I don’t have to beat around the bush anymore, I can actually talk about how I feel about this world and particularly this country for the first time without having to make anyone feel mollycoddled.
Joy Crookes: There was such a huge loss of control that whole year, that it felt like I needed to create that control. I would tell myself, ‘You have to play piano for two hours today. And even if you come up with something you don’t like, you have to come up with something’. I’d time myself and be like, two hours of piano now, then one hour of production, one hour on the guitar. I had to create that routine for myself because otherwise I felt like, I was gonna go crazy. I needed to be on top of my mental health as well – it was quite a crippling time for a lot of people. I knew I could be one of those people.
Joy Crookes’s Skin is out now