Joy Crookes is eating daal in her car when NME catches up with her outside a recording studio in East London. This is Hackney daal, she says, so it’s intriguing to her – and different to the home food she’s used to, that staple of her Bengali/Irish mixed heritage she jokes she was “force-fed like fucking water.”
“But you’ve gotta feed yourself,” the 21-year-old asserts confidently. “My belly gets hungry every day, and so does my mind. You’ve gotta read stuff that will subconsciously feed you, listen to songs that do the same. I think if you’re a lyricist, and you’re not feeding yourself good lyrics, a book, poetry, what’s the point? That’s just research. That’s case studies.”
Nominated for the Rising Star award at this year’s BRIT Awards, and featuring on our own NME 100, it does seem like Joy’s got a healthy appetite for music. Her soulful sound is rich with tender feeling and meltingly-smooth guitar strokes and there’s genuine vulnerability in her voice – take her early hit, ‘Don’t Let Me Down (demo)’ for proof.
“I just have to be able to get on with what I’m doing regardless of whether people validate that or not,” Joy shrugs off our congratulations. “I don’t think I base my success on recognition. My goal is just to write great music. That’s always been the goal. Whether people get on board or not, that’s up to them. I think you shoot yourself in the foot if you’re doing everything for fame.”
It’s a very common-sense approach from someone who found success via uploading cover songs to YouTube, and all while still a teenager. Some of these videos are still online. A much-younger Joy sings into a microphone, guitar in hand, effortlessly crooning affecting tributes to The Pogues and Bob Dylan. The emotion she pours into her sound is instinctual, and deeply moving. It makes sense that dropping out of school after GCSE’s and working at a Fulwich restaurant while pursuing music became hard – but necessary – work for her.
“I didn’t know people could do music,” Joy says. “I glorified musicians. I thought it was some special thing that happened overnight or someone’s dad knew someone. I didn’t know how it worked. But I felt like, if I didn’t take the opportunity, I’d be stupid. My parents weren’t exactly handed opportunities left right and centre. My dad’s not a multiplatinum fucking record producer. And my mum’s not a fashion designer. We’re all a family of immigrants. So they had to hustle. And they just said, ‘You’ve got an opportunity. Run with it.’”
Joy clearly has. Even the playfulness of songs like ‘Two Nights’, confronting the reality of wastemen and the failures of infatuation, over layered beats and the hum of her warm voice, reveal conviction in their sweet delivery, their strong lyrics. ‘Early’, her latest feel-good collaboration with Irish-musician Jafaris, too.
“I think you shoot yourself in the foot if you’re doing everything for fame”
“I listened to MTV mostly,” she laughs, on the subject of early musical origins. “As I got a bit older and my emotional intelligence grew, my dad would play me records in the car and then my mum would play records at home. I was brought up in a time when, HMV was a place that people would go to and buy CD’s. Y’know? And it was fun. It wasn’t all social media. For me, it was a great pastime to go to HMV on a Wednesday. I always liked arguing with the guys that worked there. I remember when James Blake’s album came out. And loads of these smelly blokes in HMV were like,” she makes her voice go nasal, “‘oh I don’t know about his voice!’ I remember going up to them and just being like, 13 or 14, like ‘are you fucking mad? He’s great, what’s wrong with you?’”
She’s still just as passionate, just as willing to challenge and be challenged, all these years later. Joy used her voice to call out a lack of diversity at the BRIT Awards nominations earlier this year. She’s not shy about advocating for therapy and more conversations about mental health. The despondent ‘Kingdom’, a song she wrote and uploaded to Instagram after the Conservatives won last year’s General Election, has had over 100,000 views.
“I think my main point is unity and honesty,” she says, on sometimes feeling ‘the need’ to write in response to her own felt pain or politics. “Whether my honesty is the same one as someone that lives 2,000 miles up north, maybe not. But my truth is the reality that I live in, the reality that a lot of my friends live in. And if all I want to sing about is my world, then that’s what I’ll sing about. I’m not trying to take other people down. I’m trying to celebrate what we have. It is a celebration. It’s unification. And y’know what? If I’ve gotta cuss someone out in my song, I’ll cuss that person out, I’ll cuss something out. But it’s only ever for a reason. I wouldn’t do it just to be criticising or pointing fingers at people. I’m trying to have a sense of unity. And also a bit of humour. Y’know? Like, where we live is called the United Kingdom. It isn’t fucking united! United my arse! ”
She’s laughing, but it’s all very much coming from a place of love with her. “I know it sounds corny, but it’s true. It’s all about love for me.” And if that love involves anger too, then so be it. “I’m trying to write from passion, not division,” she says. Joy does have the sound to prove it.