Over the last two years, Joy Crookes has released enough music to fill a (decidedly accomplished) debut album.
Those early EPs and one-off singles show a nuanced and individual ear for melody, while her “mad honest” lyrics depict love lost and found on the rainy streets of South-East London.
They’ve earned her fourth place on the BBC Sound of 2020 list, which tips acts for success in the next 12 months.
But if the attention is welcome, Crookes isn’t sure she’s enjoying it.
“What does it feel like? Anxiety central is what it feels like!” laughs the singer.
“I could give you the pretty answer but, honestly, it feels like when you go to Winter Wonderland and you get on that huge tower that rises up above Hyde Park then – whomp – it drops and your stomach rises to your eyeballs.
“It’s half an incredible feeling because there’s so much adrenalin, but the other half is like, ‘I’m going to die, I’m going to die, I’m going to die!'”
The 21-year-old, who is of Bangladeshi-Irish descent, first came to attention when she posted a cover of Hit The Road Jack to YouTube as a teenager.
Since then, she’s developed a sound that combines the eclectic range of music her father played as he drove her to her weekly Irish dancing lessons.
“My dad wanted to give me a real education, from Nick Cave to King Tubby to all this Pakistani music,” she says. “He’d say, ‘This is from your ends of the world, you should hear this.'”
On her best songs – Early, Mother May I Sleep With Danger, Don’t Let Me Down – Crookes’ blends dreamy guitar lines with shuffling hip-hop rhythms; or rococo piano motifs with lilting Brazilian chord progressions.
“It’s like you’re a lab scientist, mixing things together,” she explains – but everything revolves around her husky, soulful voice, which evokes the spirits of Ella Fitzgerald and Amy Winehouse.
To celebrate her position on the Sound of 2020 list, Crookes took a break from recording her actual debut album to chat to the BBC about her rise to fame, impersonating Liberty X, hustling her school-friends, and the pressure to succeed.
The top five acts on the BBC Sound of 2020 list are being revealed in a countdown, with one revealed every day until the winner is announced on Thursday, 9 January.
What’s your first memory?
When I was three or four I went into my mum’s room and put on her knee-high boots, then I summoned my family like, ‘Mum! Dad! Assemble!‘
They sat on the sofa, and I walked in and performed Just A Little by Liberty X. We had it on VHS and I stood in front of the TV doing the moves.
Amazing song choice.
Maybe not for a three year old! I remember the night before, I got my mum to cut a hole in my black vest because the girls in the video had leather PVC suits with holes where their cleavage would be. I mean, I didn’t have cleavage at three or four, but I wanted to look like them.
So your first memory is a musical one?
Yeah, it’s so vivid in my mind. I was so, so concentrated on that performance. I hadn’t even practiced it, I was just like, “This is my time to shine!”
I heard you were quite an entrepreneur as a child, too…
Where did you find that out?! But, yeah, when I was about nine, I worked out it would cost me £80 to get everyone in my family Christmas presents. So I went to Poundland in Elephant and Castle, and you could buy a box of 10 candy canes for £1. I worked out that if I sold each of them for £1, I could make 900% profit.
I also had a side hustle selling clothes, because that £80 needed to come quick. If someone said, “That top looks great on you”, I’d say, “I’ll give it to you for a fiver”.
When my mates came round to our house, little did they know, it wasn’t playtime, it was selling time!
If music doesn’t work out, you can always apply for the Apprentice.
I probably will!
You grew up listening to music – but was there a point where you thought, “This is something I can do for a career?”
I never had that epiphany because I never thought music was a legitimate job. I thought that pop stars were pop stars and that’s who they were. I almost didn’t see them as human beings until Kate Nash came about.
She made me realise I could use music as a diary. I was going through a lot at home and I didn’t have anyone to talk to, so I just used my guitar. But I didn’t really think, “Oh, I’m a musician now”.
How did you learn to play?
With piano, I learnt a couple of chords at school, then I taught myself the songs from the film Once by looking up the chords on YouTube. With guitar it was the same: I learnt two chords from a family friend, then I went home and learned a lot of Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber songs because, no offence, I thought they’d be easy.
I used to have a cupboard that had a mirror on it, so I’d sit down and watch myself playing guitar. That’s really good when you’re learning, because you can watch where your hands are going.
So that was my mentality, and then I started writing after that.
What happened next?
My mum’s friend had a son who was my age who played the most incredible Brazilian guitar. I loved Astrud Gilberto, so I asked him round to mine and I said, “Do you know this song Hit The Road Jack? I think we should cover it”.
So we recorded it on iMovie, put it on YouTube and it got 500,000 views – which was mad.
Things really exploded in 2017 when you played Mother May I Sleep With Danger on the YouTube channel Colors. The video’s now been watched 8 million times. Did it change your career?
That song was never meant to be a single. I wrote it on my own, at the piano, on the first of January 2017. But the Colors performance made more sense than the record, because I’d been playing the song on tour. When you tour a song you get to know it – you stay over at its house, you meet its mum, you get to know the sibling it doesn’t like. So by the time we did Colors, it was a walk in the park.
That performance was our third take and I remember I pretended my mum was right there and I was singing it to her.
The video really changed everything. For about six months after that, everywhere I went people would say, “Are you Joy from Colors?”
You thought music wasn’t a viable career, so did that video force you to rewrite the story in your head?
It definitely started kicking in there. We’d gone to Germany [to make the video] and I was like, ‘What do you mean I’m flying to Berlin for work, to sing songs?’
But even after that, I went for a job interview as a waitress at a Kurdish restaurant.
Did you get the job?
No! As soon as I went for the interview, I regretted it. The manager was looking at me like, “What do you mean, you can’t work on most days?”
Several of your songs, like For A Minute and London Mine, are love letters to London. Why does it inspire you so much?
The beauty of London is that it wouldn’t be London without all the immigration, and the mix of cultures and colours and the smells and the stories it contains.
I grew up on a street where my neighbours are Bajan and the neighbours after that are Bengali and the neighbours after that are from Nigeria. I learned so many mannerisms and different forms of respect and stories and myths and legends from all these places. I wouldn’t be the person I am without London. It inspires me to be a certain kind of woman, and a certain kind of person.
American musicians often eulogise their hometowns, but it’s not so common in the UK. Why is that?
I love my area, and London as a whole, so I think I should sing about it and celebrate it.
But when I write about London, it’s also a response to the austerity of the last 10 years. For A Minute is about growing up in an area that may not be rich or vibrant, but making the most out of things like having £2 to go to the chicken shop after school. There’s a lyric, “eating sunshine every day”, that’s a comment on poverty.
Then I also talk about “creamy legs in London air” because when I was growing up all the girls from secondary school, who are mainly black and brown, would have the most moisturised legs you’ve ever seen in your life.
So I try and have a positive message: “Hey, this is the sick stuff about London. If we all packed up and left, and went back to India, Yorkshire or wherever, you wouldn’t know what to do. It wouldn’t be London any more.”
There’s a fearlessness in the way you talk about relationships, too. I love that line in Man’s World – “I find my love in red wine”.
I was very angry when I wrote that! I’m saying I find my love in something that’s an object, as opposed to you. You are less important to me than a drink.
At least alcohol’s always there when you need it.
Exactly. That’s probably a very Irish message!
On a more serious note, you’ve been playing a new song recently that addresses your mental health…
Yeah, it’s called Anyone But Me. The first line is, “Seven years strong with my therapy, making mosaics of my memories,” so there’s no mucking around. It’s literally like, this is how I feel: I feel like there’s another person living in my head.
It’s something I’ve battled with for a long time. I remember when I was 12, I rang up the NHS and said, “I can’t get out of bed. I’m not ill, I haven’t got a cold, I just can’t get out of bed”. And the guy on the other end of the phone said, “Ah, have you heard of depression?”
Have you spoken to your therapist about how the music industry could affect your health?
No, I haven’t been able to see him because I haven’t had time – which is not good. And I’m kind of struggling with that now. The first album just makes me want to crap myself. I’m like, “Why am I stressed every day, I should be excited about this? But why should I be excited when this is nerve-wracking?”
I’m massively over-thinking everything. It’s like when I did my GCSEs, I was the type of person who’d leave an exam going, “Oh my God, I failed that”. Then I got all As and A stars, and dropped out straight after.
Where does the pressure to succeed come from?
It’s all me. My manager is like, “You don’t have a deadline for the album”, and I’ll go, “Yes I do. It’s May.” I’ve got IBS. I am the most stressed person ever.
That doesn’t come across in the music…
I can’t imagine what an IBS song would sound like, though.
Maybe like that Mabel song, The Anxiety Anthem? I could do the IBS Anthem, and the video would be me against a green screen, and the background would be the inside of your insides.