Joy Crookes has shared her most introspective and truthful work yet with the highly-anticipated release of her debut album Skin. The 22-year old singer-songwriter draws on personal experiences from adolescence and early adulthood to present listeners with her full self in the 13-track album. The result: a cathartic collection of stories touching on topics like casual sex, feminism, gentrification, mental health issues, and more with honesty and care.
“Skin is my debut album and the proudest work I have made to date,” says Joy, “The word skin massively resonates with me as biologically it is one of the strongest parts of our bodies, however socially and externally it is often used against us. This juxtaposition is grappled with throughout the album; lyrically my album is effectively a collection of stories. The record consists of songs I wrote at the mere age of 15 up until 21. This is an album about my identity.”
We caught up with Joy to discuss the stories being told in Skin, the importance of empathy, and how it feels to be so authentic in her work.
Watch the video for When You Were Mine, the latest single from Skin.
ADDICTED: You released your debut album Skin on October 15, and you’ve mentioned that it’s an autobiographical work with a collection of songs you’ve written from ages 15 to 21. What was your process for selecting the songs that would eventually make it to the album?
JC: When you are so close to your work, you understand what’s your best work and what isn’t necessarily the best work. And when I say best, it’s kind of like, not only from an artistic point of view, but maybe from a commercial point of view in some places, too. I think a lot of it was instinctual.
Is there anything specific when you finish writing a song or finish the production process of it that makes you think like, “Yes! This is one of them”?
It’s really hard to explain, generally, which songs do your best. For me, it’s the level of authenticity in the song, how easy or subconscious, and how much it flowed out of you. With some of the oldest songs that’s harder to connect with, because obviously, they’re older so you don’t really remember the instinctual feeling.
With a song like To Lose Someone, I wrote that a year and a half before I lost that someone. So, To Lose Someone was more of a song about losing, or unlearning parts of yourself in order to love someone and give yourself to a new person. But when I recorded the vocals, I was two weeks into a breakup. So, I didn’t want that song on the album. Then I recorded the vocals and it turned the song into one of my favourites in the album because I sang from such a genuine and painful place, but it felt real. My thing is, if it feels real, then it has to work.
And then, with a song like Poison, I wrote that when I was 15. I’ve been performing that for so many years and whenever I perform it, it reacts so well that it doesn’t make sense for me to not put it on this album. It felt like it was part of my narrative. It’s interesting for me how some songs feel like they’re really part of my story, regardless of how old they are. And some don’t even if I wrote them yesterday.
What are some of the stories that you’re telling in the album?
I touch on loads of subjects: casual sex, generational trauma, gentrification, feminism, mental health issues, and abuse.
These are a lot of subjects that I think can be really broad, but that a lot of people can also relate to. Do you sit down with a subject in mind or do you kind of let it flow out of you?
It depends. Sometimes I listen to chords, and they make me remember a time and they inflict nostalgia and it makes me want to tell that story. And other times I feel like I need to write about what’s going on, such as Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, I wrote that in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests last year. And Skin, for example, I kind of had no choice, I had to write that song.
With Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, it’s about online activism and the pitfalls of online activism. So you wrote that during the Black Lives Matter movement, and people were jumping on posting black squares and all of that. I think it’s interesting that the song is written from the perspective of someone who’s staying complicit instead of choosing to speak out because it seems a little bit easier. What do you think people can do to get involved if they would really like to help out a cause?
It really depends on the scenario and situation, I think, and the song doesn’t really offer an answer. I think what the song offers is accountability and holding myself accountable first and foremost, because I can’t play a character without relating to one.
I grew up in the UK. I mean, the UK was built on racism, it was built on slavery, it was built on colonialism, and I’m literally reminded of that every day. I am a victim of unconscious bias. So, I am a victim not only of racism, but I am also someone that probably has racist notions in my head.
I think that it starts from within. Do you want to be someone that questions those unconscious biases? I think that it takes a lot of listening, knowing when to sit down, and knowing when to stand up. Knowing when to be an ally, and knowing that as a person of colour, empathy is really important.
But I think really, for me, the only way to lead with love is from within. I don’t really have the answer, I just think it’s whether you’re ready or not to question yourself.
There is a really incredible video for that song. And you’re using symbolism from your Bangladeshi background to tell your narrative in that track. Could you elaborate a bit on some of the symbolism in that video and what it means to you?
I used a lot of group shots to symbolize being in a group and finding it easier to be complicit in a group. I’ve always thought with group mentality, you can hide behind people. And that’s not someone I’ve ever really been. I’ve really struggled being in groups. But that’s why the first shot is a group shot. It’s why there are lots of different group shots, me standing with a bunch of Bengali men, and me dancing in a group shot as well.
The shot of me with the Bengali men on a moped in a white sari; a white sari symbolizes when you are a widow, and I’ve always struggled with the fact that in South Asian culture, you have to be defined by your husband’s death. And so, doing a wheelie on a moped, and being in front of all these ungodly men cheering me on, it’s like me trying to reclaim or rewrite that narrative.
That’s the same reason why I stood in front of all those Bangladeshi men because unfortunately, I think a lot of Bangladeshi women were expected to be complicit and not speak up. So to be standing in front of the group of men almost leading them, there’s, again, a rewrite of the narrative.
And then there’s a scene where my hair is braided to all these people. The reason why I did that, again, is to symbolize feeding off everyone else, as opposed to making my own thoughts. And that’s really interesting, because it looks like I’m on my own, and I’m in the air. But then you see that I’m attached to them. So as much as I want to break free, it doesn’t actually happen.
And the fact that they’re holding phones and taking selfies? I just thought it was quite funny.
You mentioned empathy, and that being the most important thing. Do you feel that in an online culture, it’s easier to lose that sense of empathy?
Yeah, it’s easy to become quite involved with your ego as well, because you suddenly think that you’re some kind of activist, and the word activist is thrown around a lot. But you’re just constantly shouting into your own echo chamber. I think that it doesn’t even become about empathy. At that point, it becomes about agenda, and about how to make yourself look the best. Yeah, so I think it can definitely eradicate empathy.
Also, your attention span is so much shorter, the more time you spend on social media. It’s literally designed for you to be constantly engaging with something new. So how do you go as far as to reach the depths of empathy? If one minute, you’re watching videos about Finding Nemo, then you’re watching a Black man being killed in America? Like how, how do you practice compassionate empathy in that world?
I want to talk about your song Skin, which I think is a song that actually does show a lot of empathy. And it’s written from a very vulnerable place. In the video for it, you take the private space of the bedroom, and you put it into a public space to show that vulnerability out into the real world. How did it feel creating such a raw video for that song?
Real answer: it was the most draining piece of work I’ve ever done. And the director made a joke and said, “you’re gonna have to write off the next two days.” And he was completely right. I physically and mentally was absolutely absolved of any form of energy I had. And I was a bit broken. It was very dark. And to do that video, I mean, it was incredible. And it was a healing process, but I think you have to be wounded in order for the wound to heal. I was a little bit wounded after making that video.
My partner in the video, we’re not together and we weren’t together when we shot it either, so it was a lot to ask for as well. No matter how many times I sang that song that day, it was difficult.
You can see it in the video. You can see how honest it is. What did you feel was the most healing moment from the experience?
I guess just making it. I knew in the long run, what art can do is immortalize. I think that it was really beautiful, to be able to immortalize a time with Ezra in that song, then make a piece of visual art to go with it and know that we have that forever. That’s probably the most human part of it.
The album is also called Skin, and you’ve said, “the word skin massively resonates with me as biologically it is one of the strongest parts of our bodies. However, socially and externally it is often used against us.” What are some of the other ways that you explore this concept throughout the album?
I think through identity. I think the fact that it’s such an autobiographical album, and everything, even to the smallest detail, is true. I think that is me baring my skin. It’s a really honest piece of work.
I think being that honest through your work can be so difficult. Do you have any sort of aftercare practices you do after working on something that takes an emotional toll on you?
I like boring things, like I really enjoy swimming. And I think exercise has helped me, since I was a teenager, with my mental health and broader things like therapy help. But also just being surrounded by my mates, and like, going out and dancing is really useful. And small things, like eating my grandma’s rice, things like that are very grounding.
What is one sentence that you would use to describe the upcoming album?
Just really fucking honest.
It’s not just sad. I think it’s just overall honest.
Skin is out today. Listen here.