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Joy Crookes’s Introspective Soul Digs Deep Beneath Her ‘Skin’

LONDON — Joy Crookes knew she was making a statement by naming her debut album “Skin.” “It’s one of the strongest parts of our bodies,” the 22 …

Joy Crookes’s Introspective Soul Digs Deep Beneath Her ‘Skin’

LONDON — Joy Crookes knew she was making a statement by naming her debut album “Skin.”

“It’s one of the strongest parts of our bodies,” the 22-year-old singer-songwriter said. But “in every other sense, socially and externally, it is used against us,” she added in a recent interview at her London apartment, nestled on the sofa with the Kama Sutra and a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri visible on a sparsely filled nearby shelf.

“Skin,” due Oct. 15, makes an impassioned statement about her British-Irish-Bangladeshi heritage. “The thing about being mixed race is there’s so much projection,” she said. “My identity is solely my responsibility, and my choice, and I don’t need anyone’s permission.”

In her music, Crookes offers listeners a nuanced and candid exploration of her multiracial identity. At a time when many conversations about race in the arts and calls for change have only recently begun, Crookes’s commitment to vulnerability in her storytelling has helped her connect with a growing — and loyal — fan base.

Listening to Crookes’s soulful, intimate music can feel like intruding on a private conversation or cracking open a diary, placing her alongside introspective British artists like Arlo Parks and Cleo Sol. “Don’t you know the skin that you’re given is made to be lived in?” she sings, with a plea in her voice on the album’s bare-bones title track, quoting words she spoke to a suicidal friend over simple piano and strings. Other songs explore her experiences with sexual assault, and speak directly to Britain’s Conservative government: “No such thing as a kingdom when tomorrow’s done for the children,” she sings on the sharp-tongued, retro-tinged “Kingdom.”

Crookes said she uses her music to learn about herself, as well as for catharsis.  “I think it’s a building block into me as a human being, and learning about myself.”Credit…Charlotte Hadden for The New York Times

Growing up, Crookes — who turns 23 on Oct. 9 — bought CDs by Marvin Gaye and Kate Nash, and taught herself to play the guitar and piano, and later, to produce. She was first contacted at 15 by a music manager who saw a YouTube video of her and a friend covering “Hit The Road Jack.” At 19 she signed with an imprint of Sony Music.

In the last four years, she has released three EPs and several singles, featured in a Beats campaign and landed on the 2020 shortlist for the BRIT Rising Star Award, which is given to the British act tipped to make it big in the coming year.

“Every now and then you get someone who’s phenomenally talented, incredibly grounded in their emotions and how they process the world around them,” said Blue May, a producer who worked on “Skin” and believes Crookes has the potential to be “a voice for her generation.”

The process of writing “Skin” excavated powerful feelings about her family’s history. Crookes’s Irish father and Bangladeshi mother split, turbulently, when she was two. Navigating their different cultures, she felt she couldn’t “be a byproduct of one or the other” given “how much war that would have caused,” she said.

Some traumas left even deeper generational wounds. “All the men in my family were killed in front of my great-grandmother,” Crookes said, referring to Bangladesh’s bloody fight for independence from what was then West Pakistan. “The ramifications of that war live on today.”

On the album, Crookes leans into her Bangladeshi roots, singing the colloquial Bangla phrase “Theek Ache” — translated as “it’s OK” — to brush off nightly escapades of drinking and hookups. She also carefully probes her family’s experiences as immigrants living in London. “I’ve seen the things you’ve seen/you don’t speak, you leave the traces,” she sings to her Bangladeshi relatives on the dramatic, soulful “19th floor,” named for her grandmother’s apartment in public housing building in south London, where Crookes spent much of her childhood.

The process of writing “Skin” excavated powerful feelings about Crookes’s family’s history. Credit…Charlotte Hadden for The New York Times

In her music videos, Crookes also immortalizes her family’s history. The clip for “Since I Left You” is based on a photograph taken in her family’s village in Bangladesh, and features the musician singing tearfully in front of a corrugated metal shelter with clotheslines blowing in the breeze.

For the cinematographer Deepa Keshvala, working with Crookes on the video was the first time in her then seven years in the music industry she had seen someone proudly putting their South Asian heritage on display.

“She was 19 when we did that,” she said in a phone interview. At that age, “to have a strong sense of who you are is pretty amazing.”

Crookes said her music is therapy that keeps paying dividends. “It’s the way that I let things out, and it just so happens to be my job,” she said. “I think it’s a building block into me as a human being, and learning about myself.”

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