Whether it’s alt R&B, chart climbers or neo-soul, the UK is undergoing a musical renaissance that hasn’t been seen since, well, before most of these rising stars were born.
Joy Crookes: The candid soul singer.
Rolling a cigarette as she drops (fashionably late) into the Zoom meeting, 22-year-old Joy Crookes is quintessential London cool: understated in conversation, with deadpan humour to match. Growing up in the multicultural neighbourhoods of London’s Elephant & Castle and Ladbroke Grove, the Bangladeshi-Irish neo-soul singer, like so many Londoners, has seen it all. “There is no norm, everything is the norm,” she says, summing up life in the capital. “I’ve been so privileged to be around so many different cultures and people.”
Citing her parents as among her biggest inspirations – “They’re both immigrants who never accepted the word ‘no’” – Crookes’ work comes from nourishing the spirit rather than chasing the next high. Although that’s not to say there haven’t been any highs so far – there have been plenty, including a Brit Award nomination and a spot on the BBC Sound of 2020 list. But for Crookes, these accolades pale in comparison to the joys of working on her debut album. “I keep pinching myself,” she admits. “It’s such a special experience to see my songs find long-time homes, get mortgages and stuff.”
However, being in the music industry hasn’t been plain sailing for Crookes as a young woman of colour – “Everyone is a no-man as much as they’re a yes-man.” It’s the hard work ethic instilled in her by her parents that has helped her get so far – as well as the burning need to help others of South Asian descent find their own way in. “It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” she says, candid as ever. “I don’t know many Bangladeshi-Irish people full stop, but the music industry isn’t exactly the most inviting place in the world for South Asians.”
What would she suggest to change the music industry for the better? Unsurprisingly, she’s got the answer: “More Brown people. More Black people. More accountability.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves.
GRACEY: The BEDROOM pop star.
“I listened back to some of my earlier songs and was just like, ‘Oh my God, she was so sad.’” So says GRACEY, 23, the self-proclaimed “CEO of overthinking” and patron saint of angsty teens on TikTok. She’s right, from the creeping dread of a toxic relationship on “Different Things” to the agony of unrequited love on “If You Loved Me”, her first singles aren’t exactly a serotonin boost, but being Gen Z’s answer to Imogen Heap isn’t to be sniffed at.
Nowadays, GRACEY, born Grace Barker, is more “crying in the club”, but she’s proud of the ways her music can help those currently struggling. “As long as people are connecting to music and feeling less alone, that makes me feel better,” she says, adding with a wry smile, “even if it’s a song that’s just perfectly articulating how fucking depressed they are.”
While the pandemic has, naturally, been a stumbling block, she’s used to facing adversity in her career – namely lymph nodes and temporarily losing her voice, something she describes as a “slap in the face”. But whatever comes her way, she just can’t seem to stay away from the charts – she co-penned 2016’s “By Your Side”, a platinum-selling hit performed by Jonas Blue and RAYE, and broke into the Top 10 last year with 220 Kid collab “Don’t Need Love”.
The latter event, she pinpoints as a full-circle moment that confirmed her purpose. “That was just the craziest moment in the world,” she recalls. While she wasn’t able to celebrate in style because of the pandemic, discovering the news at her folks’ house in Brighton was still special. “It’s nice that I found out in my childhood room, with the mirror that I would dance in front of, pretending I was a pop star,” she says. “A couple of years later, it’s actually happened.”
BABY QUEEN: The indie misfit.
“I don’t really know if I believe in star signs. but I’m literally a Leo to a T,” Bella Latham says during our 9am Zoom call. While she’s still blurry-eyed from a lack of sleep – “I literally just woke up and I’m ready to absolutely die,” she yawns – we can confirm that she’s every inch the kind of outspoken extrovert we’d associate with the fifth sign of the zodiac. Although, with her talent for sarcasm, she’s probably got Aquarius somewhere on her chart…
As Baby Queen, the 23-year-old South Africa-born singer-songwriter is crafting twisted indie-pop with a sardonic wink – and cultivating a rock star persona that has fans spamming her DMs. For the most part, she’s happy for the instant community that this creates, and has set up a WhatsApp group so she can regularly speak to her admirers. “The stuff I sing about is quite niche,” she admits. “People who are fans of my music are very similar to me. I’ve made a whole bunch of new friends.”
With bops about being thirsty for Jodie Comer, the narcissism of social media and the numbing effects of SSRIs – she’s giving a voice to a host of internet-savvy outcasts with whom her struggles resonate. But can we expect an upbeat track from her anytime soon? “It’s impossible for me to not be cynical,” she says dryly. “I’ve got a couple of non-cynical tracks coming out this year and then it’s back to being cynical.”
With so many of her songs mining her innermost thoughts and experiences, it’s hard to know where Latham ends and Baby Queen begins. For the artist herself, however, the distinction is clear – and necessary for her mental health. “It’s nice to joke about Baby Queen in the third person, it allows you to separate yourself from the chaos.”
JC STEWART: The Guitar Hero.
JC (short for John Callum) Stewart may well be in the midst of a quarter-life crisis. The pause that the pandemic placed on the Derry-born musician’s career, as well as the months spent with his family during lockdown, have forced him to mature. “I was 18, like, yesterday,” the 24-year-old says, only half-joking.
He might not be the freshest face in the room any more, but that’s because he’s earned his industry stripes. Having written for Lewis Capaldi and collaborated with some of his biggest inspirations, such as Niall Horan and Tom Odell, he has reached the elite tier of sadboy singer-songwriters. What he considers his biggest achievement to date is having Snow Patrol, who he supported on their European tour in 2019, dedicate a song to him at a concert in Lisbon. “Where I’m from, Snow Patrol are like gods, there are murals of them on the street,” he says.
In typically 2020 fashion, what truly took Stewart to the next level was a lockdown-themed parody of the Friends theme song. While he claims he made it in 20 seconds, the video grew arms and legs, with Jennifer Aniston herself sharing it and Stewart making an appearance on Good Morning America to talk about it. After that unexpected career highlight, Stewart is ready to switch gears. “It’s just about digging deeper now,” he says. “I want to be a lot more intentional with my lyrics and to be able to look back in 20 or 30 years and have those words still mean something to me.” For the time being, however, he’s grateful to be able to look back on what he has achieved so far with a smile. “I get to work with my heroes far too much,” he gushes.
KAMILLE: The pop alchemist.
The woman behind your favourite songs – from Mabel and AJ Tracey’s “West Ten” to Little Mix’s “Shout Out to My Ex” – KAMILLE (aka Camille Purcell), 32, is an industry titan, penning pop songs at the speed of light. But when she steps in front of the mic herself, she’s no less impressive: her powerful voice effortlessly fills any club or stage.
And while it wasn’t until she wrote for Dua Lipa that she scooped up, in 2020, music’s brightest accolade — “I’m still just living on the whole idea that I’m even part of anything that won a Grammy!” — KAMILLE has always been an overachiever. Long before she devoted herself to music, she was involved in the highly competitive world of finance as a stockbroker. This rigorous background helped develop her infamous work ethic, but she’s most proud of her decision to leave it all behind and take a chance on her passion. “I’m glad I had the bravery to switch careers because I’m so happy now,” she says. “Music is definitely where my heart is.”
Following her heart has paid off, so it’s fitting that it’s KAMILLE’s emotional intelligence that has made her such a talented lyricist. Break-ups are the clay she uses to craft irresistible songs of pain and triumph, helping music’s heaviest-hitting female artists exorcise their dead relationships. “I love helping women get their message across,” she enthuses. But it’s not just her A-list collaborators she’s lending a hand to.
“Guaranteed, all the girls listening will have also experienced some kind of trash guy that they need to overcome,” she says with a grin. Not one to stay still, she’s gearing up to release a bank of solo material – kicking off with club burner “AYO!” – to help us shake off the lethargy of the past year. So, with this “go big or go home” energy, what’s next for KAMILLE? “Do you know what, babe?” she breezes. “Just more hits.”
JVCK JAMES: The R&B crooner.
Phoning from his mum’s house in east London – with his brother, the soul singer Joey XL, pitching in the occasional riff in the background – JVCK JAMES (real name James Anderson) is filled with admirable exuberance for someone who’s been grafting for a decade already, having booked his first studio session at the age of 12. “I’ve been blessed to always know what I’ve wanted to do in life,” he says with a smile. “I’m a real music nerd – anyone who went to school with me will tell you that.”
Having spent his childhood studying what was on MTV, today JAMES, now 22, is trying to embody Nineties and Noughties R&B icons like Usher and Justin Timberlake, with his own Gen Z twist of course. Summing up his sound as “nostalgia vibes from a new perspective”, his most recent project, EP and short film, Joyride, introduces him as an all-singing, all-dancing star to watch. He admits, however, that his vocal abilities (buttery smooth and soulful, FYI) were more of a given than his ability to pick up choreo. “They said that males don’t dance no more, but I brought it back in double denim,” he laughs, slipping in a humble brag.
Yet as proud as he is of his purpose, he doesn’t let that drive for success deteriorate into anxiety or stress. “I’m deep into this but I still have a long way to go,” JAMES shrugs, with the level-headed confidence of someone who takes his work day by day. But he’s quick to explain that it’s his family who have helped him keep his head in the turbulence of the music world. “My mum’s my biggest supporter, she’s been there from day one,” he says. “It’s nice for her to watch me do what I’ve always wanted.”
Alfie Templeman: The precocious polymath.
Carlton, Bedfordshire, isn’t exactly known for being a hub of creativity, but this sleepy English village has birthed indie’s latest wunderkind, Alfie Templeman. Having taught himself guitar, drums and production from the comfort of his bedroom, he’s a DIY success story. But despite racking up millions of streams and bagging himself an MTV Push nomination for best upcoming artist, Alfie doesn’t have a big opinion of himself, insisting that, “I’m just a young kid making songs.”
Alfie’s adolescence – he’s still only a teenager – has been marked by his moves within the music industry, including signing with indie label Chess Club off the back of a Bandcamp self-release, a slot supporting Sundara Karma at Brixton Academy before his GCSEs (“It kind of threw me off ever wanting to revise”) and a stint touring with Sports Team. That’s not even mentioning the seven EPs he has churned out at an astonishingly prolific rate. With most of this taking place within the past three years, Alfie admits that he’s gained experience beyond his age. “I’m 18, but I feel like I’m an old man telling people my life story. Like, ‘Back in 2010… ’”
Does he ever feel isolated from his peers? “It is definitely weird when most people are at school and you’re just sitting at home at a piano, singing a sad song,” he laughs sheepishly. But apart from the differences in their day-to-day, Alfie remains tight with his former classmates. “I still have my close friends,” he says. “Nothing’s really changed there, mates are mates.”
As much as his age makes him something of a peculiarity in the industry, he’s grateful to be making his way as a young person in 2021, where he’s given the space to be exactly who he is, without having to put on any airs and graces. “Nowadays, people are a lot more accepting of who you are,” he muses. “Look at TikTok, people are honest about themselves and who they are. I really respect that.”
Berwyn: The sensitive soul.
Not long into our interview, after a string of false starts, it becomes evident that BERWYN isn’t one for talking about himself. He laughs when it’s pointed out – “Is it that obvious?” – but, as clichéd as it sounds, whatever you want to know about him, short of his favourite football team (Manchester United, in case you were wondering), you can hear in his heavy-hitting music. It gives an outlet to his difficult past and personal experiences of homelessness, struggles with immigration, and the devastating consequences of knife crime.
For those of you not familiar with his discography, here’s what you need to know. Born in Trinidad and Tobago as Berwyn Du Bois and raised in Romford, east London, BERWYN, 24, had his first musical encounter when he was taught to play the steel pan by his dad, “to keep me cultured”. It wasn’t until he picked music as a GCSE subject – “I wanted a lesson where I could fuck around and do nothing” – that the next piece of the puzzle fell into place. It was there that a teacher spotted his natural ability, and encouraged him to believe in it, too.
Now, this early potential has finally been unlocked and he’s gaining renown for his raw voice, meandering flow and chillingly personal lyrics. In BERWYN’s music, nothing is off limits. Setting the tone for his body of work, in breakthrough single “TRAP PHONE” he addresses a friend killed by knife violence to say he won’t be going to the funeral: “I don’t cry in front of people, I only cry on my own.” Understandably, accolades – whether that’s praise from tastemakers at Pitchfork or appearing on the BBC Sound of 2021 list – are but trinkets to BERWYN. What really matters is escaping the hardship and pain that can be heard when you make your way through his music. “Not having to worry about nada no more, that’s a nice little trophy.”
14 July 2021