One afternoon not so long ago, neo-soul singer-songwriter Joe Worricker was getting off the tube. He checked his phone, then immediately burst into tears. His life had seen more downs than ups in recent months, but a few weeks earlier during one of his pluckier moments he’d tracked down Nina Simone’s daughter on social media, and he’d sent over his song Nina. For two weeks there’d been no reply, but after an agonising wait Joe got his response on the steps of Tottenham Court Road station: “I absolutely love it. Mum is smiling wide and so am I.”
If such kind words were shocking to Joe that day in central London, they would have been entirely inconceivable to the eight-year-old Joe in Chelmsford, Essex who more than two decades earlier had been so transfixed by a chance Saturday afternoon viewing of Singin’ In The Rain that he spent the next few days recreating music from the film in a jazz style, setting in motion an obsession that saw him performing through childhood then signed as an artist in his own right while still in his teens.
It’s a journey that continues in 2021 with the release of this talented diva’s subtly subversive Window Shopping. Inspired by Amsterdam’s notorious shop windows and something of a live favourite, Window Shopping is a heartbreaking take on dating in the app era and, by Joe’s estimation, it sounds like a combination of Mr Sandman, Amy Winehouse, and Willy Wonka. (Mind you, with vocals this distinctive, to the rest of us it sounds like nobody other than Joe Worricker.) “It’s a song about window shopping for a future partner, the qualities they exude and the qualities you think you’re looking for while you’re searching for The One,” he adds. And then he sighs. “I still haven’t found The One.”
What Joe has found, however, is renewed passion for putting out his own music, a number of years after songs like We Hug In Bed and Finger-Waggers first established Worricker as a buzz artist. During 2020 he released his first music in some years — a duet with Boy George, on George’s This Is What I Dub collection — which got him to thinking. “Specifically,” he says, “I was thinking: Why am I not releasing new stuff?”
It was a good question. As a kid his passion for performance — along with his rare, distinctively smoky vocal style — led to singing in school assemblies, then with amateur drama groups, then to Saturday classes at Sylvia Young’s legendary drama school. “All the other people in the class were ridiculously talented and I was still rubbish, so that was a massive learning curve,” he remembers. By 16, and no longer ‘rubbish’, Worricker was accepted at the Brit School in Croydon. (A promising student by the name of Adele Adkins was in the year above.) As the power of Joe’s songwriting grew to match the power of his voice, Worricker started touring the kind of trashy Soho dives where cans of beer would be bought for 80p from the supermarket over the road and immediately sold to customers for £3, and buzz began to build.
Turning down multi-album deals from the majors he opted for the artistic freedom offered by legendary indie label Rough Trade, home to everyone from The Smiths to Antony and the Johnsons, and worked on a string of punchy releases dealing with topics like rejection and self belief. The nonchalant versatility of his voice shone through in early songs like Finger-Waggers, the bluesily intimate Wrap Me Up, and husky and yearning Fairytale; songs that saw Joe collaborating with Scritti Politti legend Green Gartside and Lauryn Hill collaborator Jaz Rogers. He set off on acoustic tours, recorded an album and performed the biggest show of his career supporting Culture Club. A diverse selection of plaudits ensued, with Joe variously described as a new-soul wunderkind (The Guardian) and Britain’s next great voice (Mojo), with vocals that were immense and nuanced (Attitude) and ringing with soulful androgyny (The Sun).
In the years since Joe’s spell with Rough Trade his beloved Soho, where he now lives, has changed beyond recognition, and he mourns the loss of old haunts like Madame Jo Jo’s, Ghetto and The Black Gardenia. But the strangeness of Soho is still there if you know where to look, and Joe knows exactly where to look. One venue that remains — pandemics permitting — is iconic dive bar Trisha’s, the scene of so many of Joe’s messier teenage nights out and, fittingly, the location he chose for his new set of publicity shots.
Another fortunate Soho holdout is Ronnie Scott’s where, for the last four years, Joe’s found a low-key musical outlet via a monthly residency at a neo-soul night in the upstairs bar: a welcome constant during a turbulent period. “It’s been a blessing and totally magical having the rhythm of those shows,” he says. “They’ve given me focus and something to work towards — ‘I’ve got a gig in four weeks, I need to finish my songs before then.’ It’s been amazing to test out new material and hone my craft in front of an audience that knows what it’s talking about.”
Since his first brush with success Joe’s also seen the music landscape change, offering free spirits like himself the opportunity to release their music without the need for labels. The release of last year’s Boy George collaboration set in motion a chain of events that has led to Window Shopping and planned releases for Nina and further songs like the hauntingly sad Sparrow, “a song about every time nobody fancies you, when you’re dumped and he just flies away”. These are coming out through Joe’s own label Blu Genie Records— Genie being the title of one of Joe’s early singles. Joe laughs that the ‘Blu’ part is spelt that way “in an attempt to make it look cool”, but dropped vowels aside this remarkable performer’s talents stand out as being cool largely due to their effortlessness.
Colliding intensely autobiographical writing with a gift for fantastical, sometimes surreal wordplay, Joe’s hit on a unique spin on pop storytelling, and over a decade into his career seems like he’s just getting started. “If nothing else the singing keeps me sane,” he smiles. “If I’m happy or sad, I can always just sing to myself.”