Joy Anonymous: pop-up rave duo spreading the gospel of connection

Each week in First On, we introduce a shit-hot artist you’ll see opening the bill for your favourite act. Joy Anonymous' guerilla gigs in the capital brought relief to NHS workers last summer – now a Fred again.. support slot and Glastonbury appearance will help the good word travel further

When NME catches up with Joy Anonymous, they’re buzzing after a “phenomenal” release day for their new single, ‘JOY (Love’s Not Real)’. The London-based pop-up rave duo took over the capital by foot and boat, speakers strapped to their backs, performing and DJing from midday to 2am. For anyone else, this marathon stint might sound exhausting, but not Henry Counsell and Louis Curran, who have put on over 100 six-hour pop-up parties since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown.

An instant mood-booster that fuses elements of disco, house and gospel, ‘JOY (Love’s Not Real)’ is primed for the upcoming summer festival season. Carrying a jubilant vibe, their first release of 2022 is reflective of how much the world has changed since the pair first started out, in pre-pandemic times. Having performed in bands prior (including Camp Counselor), DJ’d and thrown parties together previously, the duo formed Joy Anonymous in 2018 with the intention of bringing, well, joy, to people when they needed it most.

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“At the start, I was supporting a few friends who were in Alcohol Anonymous groups,” Henry Counsell tells NME. Going to these meetings helped him to start “seeing the beauty of when you have all these different people at different levels; some people had been there for years and years, others were newcomers, and you’d see how someone sharing their story made others in the group feel like they weren’t alone”.

These experiences proved pivotal, with Henry and Louis deciding to put joy at the centre of their own music meetings. “Lots of people struggle to find or identify what joy is,” Counsell says. “Not just happiness, it’s the actual feeling of emotions. So we wanted to get people to come and share their joys, then maybe people could find joy in their lives”.

With shops closed and venues and nightclubs shuttered, they decided to head to the South Bank in the capital and play for people who were exercising. That 30-minute starter set quickly turned into nightly sessions. “By the fifth night, 300 people were there, we had a drum kit down and people jumping on the mic singing and telling their stories. We would keep going until the batteries ran out,” Henry says. With NHS frontline workers who had just finished their shifts drifting into their audience, Henry and Louis felt as though they were delivering “an act of public service; they would tell us how the meetings were helping their mental health,” Henry says.

After the mostly-improvised shows, which packed emotional punches alongside party anthems, the pair would pinpoint why the meetings were so popular. There was one thing they kept coming back to: accessibility. “There’s no ‘you have to wear this thing, be this age, be this kind of person’,” he says, citing that the South Bank area contrasts high risers with homeless shelters.

“We’d often have people come down by themselves and say they felt safe enough to get involved, just because people would be looking out for each other,” Counsell says. “When we were playing, all of these people would cross-pollinate without a thought,” Curran adds.

Joy Anonymous
Credit: Lily Resta

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Among the Joy Warriors – as the duo’s fans are collectively known – was a German man who had been having a long-distance relationship and came to the UK to live with the new partner. He was jilted upon arrival, and tearfully attended one of the South Bank pop-ups for some release, and decided to stay for a month and attended the sessions weekly. Another poignant moment arose when two girls whose first date was at a Joy Anonymous meeting – they are now engaged, and the pair are to perform at their wedding. “So many personal things happened which we’ve helped facilitate,” Counsell says.

Their debut album as Joy Anonymous, 2021’s ‘Human Again’, was informed by these pop-up sessions and this community-focused collection became an uplifting light during dark times. As well as sampling noise from the evenings, the guest features are all from people who jumped on the mic at South Bank: grime rapper sbk on ‘Where I Wanna Be’, afrobeats artist K4mo on ‘Man Like’ and introspective Somali vocalist FACESOUL on ‘If I Held Your Hand’.

Now, the pair are working on their next album and have been playing unreleased tracks at shows, most recently while supporting dance producer and songwriter Fred again.., who Henry lives with and has made music with since he was 16-years-old, resulting in credits on Fred’s ‘Actual Life’ albums). “Instantly, people are singing along without having heard them,” Counsell says. “It’s nice to feel like we’ve built all of these sounds and ideas up from South Bank,” Louis adds of the 500 hours of audio they’ve stored up. “Something we take pride in is constantly trying to find new ways to make us feel inspired,” Henry says.

This DIY ethos is symbolic of the pair’s unwavering, hard graft attitude, too, which afforded them their initial big break. Louis hand delivered white labels of their edit of a Celine Dion track to record stores across the capital, iconic record shop Phonica bought them all and the pair ended up working with producer Switch [M.I.A, Beyoncé] as a result.

This hands-on approach remains just as important to the pair. “We want people to know that it’s not this thing that’s moving apart from us,” Counsell says, recalling that people would come up to them after a South Bank session and be surprised that they were carrying all their own gear home. ”We want people to know we’re out there trying to reach people.” With a headline London show planned for next month, and a slot at Glastonbury in June, the gospel of Joy Anonymous is about to spread even further.

Joy Anonymous’ ‘JOY (Love’s Not Real)’ is out now

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