Roundtable: The self-education of Joy Crookes

I visited singer-songwriter Joy Crookes at her South London home to talk life, music and Frida Kahlo over juice and jollof rice. Photos by Tineka Ashley & make-up by Marielle Mata

This post was originally published on the Roundtable Journal blog.


Joy Crookes describes her music as a nostalgic take on little stories about her life. Others have described her as a South London sensation with a hypnotising sound, but this isn’t a description she relishes. Joy grew up in Elephant & Castle and  still lives now, just down the road from her mum. “When you’re from Peckham, Brixton or Elephant & Castle, people expect you to be a ‘South London girl’ but that’s not me. I was listening to punk bands, and being different, for no one other than myself. I’ve never felt a part of this. I spent a lot of time by myself, just working things out and figuring out who I wanted to be.”

Self-reflection is a big part of Joy’s life at the moment, and it helps explain the soulful wisdom at the heart of her lyrics. “I try and read, self-educate.” Her cosy flat is crammed with books, from The Great Gatsby to One Day, but the streets of Elephant & Castle are where she learns the most. “It’s a very grief and poverty-stricken area but it’s so diverse and beautiful in its sadness. Every time you walk down the street, you’re constantly learning things you’d never learn at school.”

Joy’s self education continued with music. “Piano is easy to teach yourself, because it’s all there in front of you. If you press that, it makes this sound, and if you press those three together, you get this chord. I’m pretty anti-theory, but I know what sounds right.” When the piano began to feel limited, she picked up a guitar. “I learnt the guitar when my mum was away one weekend. It’s harder than piano, but I wanted to learn it so I could become a songwriter.”

Once she’d nailed a few basic chords, she started performing covers: everything from her dad’s favourite artists to the song at the end of the film Juno (she starts humming: “you’re a part-time lover and a full time friend…”). After putting a string of covers on YouTube, she gradually started throwing her own songs into the mix. But, it was when she covered Hit the road, Jack with a friend that Joy was first noticed. “It took us six hours to record the bloody cover, because we forgot to press record on the best take. We just used a microphone that cost £100 and recorded it in my bedroom, no software or anything. And that just blew up out of nowhere; it’s got like 500,000 views. I got signed off the back of that.”

Apart from the vocals, most of her songs are still recorded at home. It’s at her desk, under the watchful eye of a Frida Kahlo poster, that the magic happens. She pauses here and points to the huge poster: “That woman there is a huge inspiration to me. There’s a difference between not giving a fuck and wearing your heart on your sleeve. She didn’t give a fuck, but she did it in such an honest, relatable way. She was incredibly brave, especially for a woman who, on paper, should have had all her bravery stripped from her.” Beyond the poster, Kahlo’s face adorns postcards stuck by the window, a pillow squashed into the corner of the sofa, and the case on Joy’s phone. There are books about Frida’s life on the crowded shelves and an iron-on patch of her face, waiting to embellish the right t-shirt or denim jacket. The daily reminder of Frida’s bravery is what keeps Joy going if she starts to lose faith.

Musically, The Clash has had a huge influence on Joy. “They just had no boundaries. I have every single album, and each one is so different; they were sponges to everything around them. There was a murder outside one of their studios once, so they wrote a song called Somebody Got Murdered. And they’d be listening to reggae for a week and decide to make a reggae album – but not in an appropriating way, in their own way. They were just fun.” When she spotted lead guitarist Mick Jones in Notting Hill a few weeks ago, she chased him down the street.  “I realised afterwards that I’d been crying and bowing. He was like ‘babes, I thought you were gonna ask me for directions.’ He thought I was mad.”

It’s clear that Joy’s love of music runs deep; it’s a key part of her everyday life and the way she experiences the world. “You always want to listen to a song that emulates how you’re feeling. I know if I stub my toe, I’ll want to listen to White Riot by The Clash. When I’m walking past a good-looking guy, I want These Boots are Made for Walking.” Beyond these little moments of musical mirroring, songwriting is a powerful form of therapy for Joy. But, she admits, “It scares me a little bit that expressing my feelings through music has become my job.”

Her process reflects the way she sees her career unfolding. “My music is solely dependent on what’s going on with me at that moment in time. I might start a verse and finish the song six months later, because I know that whatever I’m talking about will come to a conclusion where I’ll be able to write about it. I’ve got a song at the moment that I think is going to be about the whole Harvey Weinstein thing; how every time you go on BBC news, there’s another woman who’s been abused. And everyone’s shocked, but at the same time no-one’s shocked, because it happens to everyone. Songs like that take time and I’m not here to be a hype artist, I want to be an artist who’s respected and here for a long time.”

At just 19, she’s just been on her first European tour, a big milestone in any artist’s career and one that she counts as a learning curve. “It helped me realise that London is a bubble,” she ponders. Travelling and performing alongside her friend Jacob Banks, she visited Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, Barcelona, Madrid and Zurich. “There are memories in every city,” she says wistfully. “Like in Zurich, we ended up in a brothel because it was called Chilli’s and we thought it was a food place.”

Joy doesn’t have a master plan, and she’s not in any particular rush to find success. “I’d like to eventually release an album, but my main goal is longevity. If I do release, I want to do it at the right time for me.” She hesitates here: “It’s hard to put a deadline or a timescale on creativity. Sometimes finding what you actually want to do next is part of the journey.”

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