- Words Alexia Radkiewicz
- Photography Mark Surridge
Joy Anonymous are redefining the way music is heard, felt, and created by growing a community of collective freedom in a decentralized movement to empower human expression.
It’s dusk in London and a pair of silhouettes are nestled in camping chairs on Thames beach. The sun sinks behind Blackfriars, St Paul’s Cathedral towers over the water, and the Millenium Bridge frames the looming skyscrapers of the city, mirroring golden hour back onto the ecstatic faces of sunset revellers. But the pair of beachgoers aren’t here for the view: they face towards the bank as an intimate crowd gathers. This is a Joy Anonymous Meeting. The mic is on and the music starts: “Welcome to Joy Anonymous, we’re here for a long time”.
Joy Anonymous are the rawest and most honest embodiment of artistry. Throughout their spontaneous meetings, they have created a magical, visceral atmosphere of sonic transportation where strangers become friends. Wanderers are lured in by the Joy Anonymous “beacon”, illuminating smiles in a cathartic space filled with expressive freedom where shadows dance with each other as the tempo escalates with the darkness.
Henry Counsell and Louis Curran are the pair of musical masterminds nestled in those camping chairs but it is the community that forms around their meetings that embody Joy Anonymous – “everyone who has seen Joy Anonymous is part of Joy Anonymous”. They have concocted a perfect alchemy of music, space, and energy where carousers are able to connect and forge a common sense of identity, belonging and connection that transcends all social and political boundaries. Lou’s unrivalled beatsmithery fuses with Hen’s rapturous vocals to form sounds that introduce and circulate moods, feelings, and intensities, which are felt by everybody but, at the same time, belong to nobody in particular — a feeling-space, a healing soundscape.
Their debut album, ‘Human Again’, is a time capsule of the Southbank, documenting the wild remedial journey of Joy Anonymous through a genreless Fluxus of sound informed and moulded by the growth of their community. Trouser-flapping anthemic beats and hopeful rhythms are injected with infectious hooks to lift spirits and cleanse consciences. The project is heavily sampled with moments from the meetings; the live cheers, laughter and tears honour the raw honesty of this record and are a testament to Joy Anonymous’ affective capacity to reach and move so many souls.
On the last day of summer, I met Hen and Lou at their favourite pub in Wapping, The Prospect of Whitby. With jars of Guinness in hand, we unearthed the roots of Joy Anonymous, the potency of healing through “being in feelings”, and deep-dived into the irrefutable force of their shared alchemy.
How was the idea of Joy Anonymous born?
Hen: The idea of Joy Anonymous came about 3 years ago. I was supporting people in AA and NA and we really loved the feeling of what it’s like to share stories and listen to what people are going through at different stages of their healing process. You see these people start getting confidence after hearing other people’s stories and that confidence grows to be able to express themselves.
Lou: The power of sharing.
Hen: Then we started thinking about the idea of putting joy in the corner of these meetings because people struggle to find joy and people appreciate the little things.
Lou: We love the idea of people meeting up and sharing the small things, for example, I called my mum and it was great or I helped a woman with her shopping. Imagine that, just people sitting around sharing moments of joy.
Hen: When you start sharing the little joys you realise that there are actually quite a few of them. In AA and NA they have this thing called “checking in” when you have to say how you’re feeling and it doesn’t have to be deep, it just has to be in that moment. We just thought that was a good starting point. Then we were gonna go to theatres and do these immersive live shows in the round, we were also planning to actually do a retirement home tour and bring some joy to old people. But lockdown happened and Lou and I were sitting working from home, we were chatting for a while about playing down on the Southbank, and one day we just decided to go and do it. Now we’ve gone and done about 170 hours over the year since May 2020, it’s crazy.
Lou: It’s a long time, that.
Hen: This was in serious lockdown so we started just thinking like oh let’s just go play some music for whoever’s passing, so we went out and three people came to dance with us. So we went out each day and by Friday we had about three hundred! So we kept going and we had people come up and tell us their stories, tell us what they’re going through. People came and sang, people would get on the mic who’d never done anything like that before. We were like fuck this is real, almost what we set out to do but with no intention. It was mad. A real mad time.
Describe Joy Anonymous in a sentence.
Lou: Manj does a pretty good job in his sales pitch…
Hen: I think it’s just the feeling of a bunch of people trying to express themselves. It’s not about Lou and I, it’s about the people there, we’re just the little catalyst to help them start. It’s seeing people coming out again for the first time.
Lou: Yeah, reconnecting people again through music. What was so great is that we’re sitting hidden behind the crowd so that people are interacting with each other, no one’s looking at us on a stage. It almost takes them a while to realise that we were playing. It’s for the people.
Over the last year Joy Anonymous meetings have become a very special space for catharsis and expressive freedom. How does it feel to have the capacity to reach and move so many souls? You’ve got the same people coming back each week, it must be pretty mad to watch this community grow right around you (literally). How does it feel?
Lou: Pretty touching to be honest. So emotional, it’s crazy. It’s something that you can never be prepared for.
Lou: You can do all the gigs in the world at big venues and we’ve done our fair share of that but it’s just not the same.
Hen: And those are all great, we still have that moment of “fuck people are in the room!” but on the Southbank, it’s a whole different thing. I guess you’re right because there was no expectation, there was nothing. Suddenly we see all these people are coming back again and again…
Lou: The fact that we loved it when there were just five people there and the fact that we felt compelled to go and do it the next day. Literally, if you’d seen us at the start we didn’t have chairs, we were just standing up vibing with those three people, I and Hen got back to the flat that night – being like that was fucking awesome! The whole thing is so surreal, it’s still sinking in, to be honest. Like the one on Friday for the album release…
Hen: That was mad.
Lou: I still haven’t addressed that yet. I’m not ready to deal with it.
Hen: There’s a blue plaque down there now. It’s fucking nuts!
Yeah! And you’ve done it all on your own, you’re not promoting or selling tickets for your gigs. Over the last year, these people have come for you and the atmosphere that you have created for them. That’s why I’m asking this question because it’s so mad, not many people have the confidence and agency to start something like this and see it through and in turn have the opportunity to experience such extraordinary emotional energy.
Hen: Yeah exactly! The meeting that happened on Friday was the first one that we actually announced. The others were completely spontaneous, we might do a very vague Instagram story on the day but most of those meetings we just rocked up with no intention.
Lou: We wanted to keep it quiet. Also, we were a bit worried about the police and stuff so we didn’t wanna shout about it, we wanted to keep it under wraps and didn’t tell any of our mates. Those people that did come, we really wanted them to have discovered it for themselves.
Hen: Yeah that was a big thing, we never told our friends.
Lou: Some of my best mates only came to the last couple and we’ve been doing them for a year. But another point that I found really fascinating to observe was all the different kinds of people who attend — if you put all those people in a club or a venue, a structured room, they’re probably going to start clashing with each other considering the diversity of backgrounds. But because of the setting that it’s in — a free and open space – there’s never any trouble.
Hen: We’ve had grandparents, kids, everyone.
Lou: Even on a political level, if you put those constraints on a crowd they’ll wanna fight against them but because there aren’t constraints everything is good — that was a really interesting observation. Also, no one’s asked for requests.
Hen: Yeah even on that level Lou’s probably played, let’s call it 180 hours, and maybe once someone’s asked for a song, if that.
Lou: Yeah once we had a couple of rappers wanting to plug in and we were like nah this isn’t an awkward situation…
Hen: We play for so long and it is mad there’s not been one scuffle or fight or anything.
Lou: Nothing at all.
That’s inordinately reflective of what you’re doing and what you’ve made, you should be very proud. So you call yourselves a movement, what is the mission of your movement?
Hen: I think it’s something that’s obviously developing and the more we do the meetings it will constantly evolve. Lou and I, anything we do, has never had a mad intention or end goal, it’s just been in the moment. At the core we want people to be able to feel like they can express themselves, we want to show people there’s another way. We’ve been reflecting a lot recently on how rigid things can be, especially within music, club culture, and what it means to be an artist. We feel like we found a little keyhole and jumped right through it. We’ve been doing this a long time and we did the traditional route first, putting on nights and shows, of course doing everything in our own weird and wonderful way but this has been well… if nothing else happens for the rest of our lives we have this… and it’s mad. We were walking down the Southbank the other day realising that we’ll have this for the rest of our days.
Lou: We’ll be walking down there with our grandkids… I guess to answer your question if we can make people feel slightly more empowered to back their own vision or their own way of doing things and not pertain to the normal structures that we’re fed, then great.
Hen: And all with a little bit of joy. Also what’s important is we try to tell people that it’s not happiness or positive, it’s Joy Anonymous because we want people to know that joy comes from feeling all emotions and that you can find joy in both the sad or happy moments and all the emotions in between — it’s that feeling which causes joy. It’s the idea that we’ve all been through a hell of a lot in general, let alone the last year, every human goes through their trials, their tribulations and there’s so much stuff that we desensitize or cut off those feelings. Last year Lou and I had so many moments at the meetings feeling all these emotions from all these people, I think that’s the core of it — it’s to be in your own feelings.
Lou: The absence of all other emotions, you know, being present. Whether it’s sadness or happiness it’s acknowledging that and being in that feeling.
That is a beautiful message to blazon, it’s how we should all be. I guess that’s the substance and essence of life isn’t it.
Lou: It’s the same foundations as meditation or sport, it’s that presence in experiencing the now.
In terms of the evolution of the movement, how do you see it progressing? What are your dreams for the movement, are you thinking worldwide?
Lou: We were talking the other day about how we’ve done it in London, notoriously it’s a hard city to crack but what if we went to Lithuania and turned up and did it there. But we’re gonna take it around the country first then go worldwide for sure, we wanna go to those niche places.
Hen: Those places that people don’t think of. Lou’s a massive fan of Sleaford Mods and they did this tour where they went to all these niche towns.
Lou: They still do. They’ll play in working men’s clubs in places like Grimsby for example. Also, the music industry is too London-centric, there’s that chat of if you’re not in London you’re not hot — we wanna go to Northern cities along with Scotland and Ireland too, we wanna bring it to everyone.
Hen: We don’t wanna be seen as that thing that happens in London, we’re gonna take it everywhere. We were meant to be travelling last year, going to places like Chini and Egypt with a different project. It was gonna be amazing but this year has actually been way more on our terms and how we wanted to do it.
Lou: What a blessing in disguise! We were about to set off on that then lockdown happened. We were gutted but in reality, we probably weren’t ready, we hadn’t sharpened our tools in that regard yet. We’ve done it now, get us on that plane and we’ll be alright. So that’s the vague plan I guess… not that we’ve really had any plan. Ask us in a year and we’ll be doing something completely different, we’ll be working in the Whitby!
You’d probably enjoy that Lou.
Lou: I wouldn’t mind that at all!
Community is embedded into your artistry. What does community mean to you and why is it important?
Hen: It’s the crux of why this whole thing works. From everything that goes on behind the scenes to the South Bank shows — I’ll never be able to stress enough how the family that we’ve built around this music has made everything. It goes deep, at least five if not ten years in the making…
Lou: The same people are still here.
Hen: Literally the guy who made the artwork for our album was the guy who made the prints for the first record we put out when we were nineteen, twenty. And Arune, she came and filmed on the second day and has still been filming all the shows since, it’s crazy. We pride ourselves in staying in touch with ourselves, one of the hardest things anyone has to deal with is their ego and how that controls so much of your life, obviously there are times when you need it but we’ve worked hard to stay grounded. We’d do hours of practice of looping the same thing, Lou and I would lug this stuff down and play for six hours night after night, it’s about taming the ego. It means that the people feel they are important, anything that’s ever been built is based on community let alone the actual vision of it afterward being a bunch of people coming together.
Lou: Yeah and there’s a couple that had their first date on the South Bank when we were playing and they’ve got engaged recently and we’re gonna play at their wedding. Community is literally everything, it’s what it’s all about. Without community none of this would exist.
Hen: None of it! We talk a lot about how tough it must be as a solo artist or DJ doing this journey alone, we’re constantly trying to get more of our team to come on the road with us like we did with our last show in Brighton, we had Nadia and Lil with us who trekked around Barcelona and Lisbon with us back on our last project, it’s family. Even when more opportunities start coming in and they wanna get some “proper” people involved, we’re like no no, we’ve been building this whole thing for fucking time, we’d be doing everyone including ourselves a disservice if we turned that off now, you know.
Lou: It’s also our values and the way we’ve been raised, it’s a credit to our families. We’ve both got those values of leaving your ego at the door, it’s all about helping people out. It’s alchemy we have, it’s something we both agree on and both share. It’s important to us.
Why did you choose Southbank as the Joy Anonymous locus?
Lou: We could go for a glossy answer but the fact that it’s just close to Hen’s house – nah but it’s also just the most amazing thoroughfare of London with all sorts of people passing through.
A culture hub.
Hen: Yeah literally everyone comes through there, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, whether you’re a tourist or a Londoner. Particularly over lockdown, people were going there for that escape to the water.
Lou: It’s just a beautiful place.
That exact spot you’ve chosen to park your camping chairs is a monumental collision of exceptional energies, I can’t think of anywhere else in London where that happens.
Hen & Lou: Yeah exactly!
Hen: Nothing like that, nothing. It’s stunning.
Where would your dream meeting spots be?
Hen: Lithuania has always been on our map for a while, we’ve chatted a lot about this idea of Lithuania.
Lou: Alemania, Romania obviously.
A mania tour.
Hen: Yeah basically any country we can add mania to. But I think we’re going to Turkey soon, we work with a Turkish artist and there are some beautiful places out there. I think where we go will be quite reactive to the artists we work with but also we just wanna go to some random places, touch down there and see what happens.
Let’s talk about the sonic evolution, how have you found your sound? Is there a story behind it?
Hen: The evolution is a long time in the making. Lou’s world and my world have a kinda weird level of overlap in terms of how deep we go into an alchemy, in terms of lifestyle but musically as well — enough that we hear things that we know will excite each other all the time.
Lou: I guess in the instance of these meetings, I’ve DJ’d for a long time now and just trying to essentially play beats that Hen can sing over but will get him really gassed. I never know what I’m gonna play on the night
Hen: Literally in those 180 hours I’ve never known what he’s gonna play!
Lou: Yeah, I’ll spend my week harvesting the tunes and formatting them, downloading everything.
Hen: I have not known one song, literally never known what Lou’s gonna play for the whole thing.
Lou: And I’ll get a new set of songs for every meeting we do. If I’m being deadly honest, it’s basically just my way to show off to Hen…
Lou: It’s just my way of tryna get him gassed and that’s why we get such good stuff, I’ll play a beat and Hen’s looking at me like fuck I’ve never heard this before and he starts doing some mad shit that he wouldn’t normally do, and I’m like right here we fucking go! And I guess we’re just both into such diverse music anyway.
Hen: Like SO into it, we speak all day every day about it. It’s weird the level of it.
Lou: Yeah and in terms of the sound, I get a real kick out of referencing stuff that I just fucking love. If I can shout out on any sort of platform, albeit tiny on our little camping chairs, but if I have any sort of platform to reference and shout out the people that inspire me so much, I’m gonna do it. So people like Burial and all these artists like Paul Kalkbrenner, a garage guy called El-B. I want it to sound like London. I put a lot more thought into it than what maybe meets the eye, I’m not just putting beats on, if I’m able to present stuff to people that they might not normally hear then great, it feels fucking amazing. My role is double faceted, I wanna get Hen gassed and also reference the shit that I just love.
Hen: And developing from that onto the production of the record side of things, the formation of that was a massive evolution. We’d come up with these songs down on the Southbank then go away and recreate certain beats and hooks.
That’s such a fascinating way to find your sound because when an artist makes a record they’re usually contained in a studio bringing in specific musicians, producers or engineers but this is earnest live production informed and moulded by an external atmosphere. Mad!
Hen: Yeah we don’t have a studio, the Southbank is our studio!
Lou: We had this amazing feedback from the people on the South Bank, you know we’d wake up the next morning to Instagram posts of people sharing those moments with us, but it was also a record of all the sounds we’d made the night before. With “JOY (Meet Me In My Dreams)” we were singing “I miss my baby” over a completely different beat and were like shit that’s a good hook, so we sampled it, got it on the computer and created it in reverse. There was no preconception to these tracks, we just did them, the whole album was like that. We didn’t even realise, I remember there was that one day when we both were like “oh shit this is an album”.
How did that happen?
Hen: Well initially at the end of last year we did these journals, Lou came up with this idea of wanting to show people the journey of why we were doing it with retrospective voice notes and sketches.
Lou: A sort of stream of consciousness.
Hen: Yeah showing the process. So we released two journals already and we were kinda like ok this can be our third journal and it will be like cool we had a nice time let’s leave it there. Then we kinda just looked at what we’ve done and realised hang on, this could actually be something we should document more seriously. We can still do the journals as we go but maybe we need heavier bodies of work. Then we decided to give this some real time and we went away to Iceland.
Tell us about Iceland.
Hen: We went last February, so it was still lockdown. Our friend was like you should come out here, it’s all green, you can come work here, the bars are open… We were like fuck yeah. It was the best decision we made. We went out there for three weeks.
Lou: In our little cabin in the snowy mountains with a wood fire. It was so productive as well, we didn’t get distracted with making new beats, it was just true dedication to what we had already made.
Hen: It was decision after decision, so much clarity.
Lou: In that setting as well — we were going for long hikes, climbing a mountain then coming back to work around the fire. That’s when it felt like we were really polishing and finishing something, a body of work.
The air alone gives you clarity!
Lou: Have a broth then get back to the drums…
Hen: It was awesome, a really good feeling — better than anything I’ve worked on before in terms of we had this real sense of peace with it. Even up until the final weeks of putting it to mix we were taking songs out, putting some in, making big changes. Our friends like Emmanuel and Fred and a few others, those people whose ears you care about, got involved and did their last minute things. It came together as a real body. If nothing else, the whole process of this album has been one of the most healing things in my life.
That’s very special for you both to have, it can take years of a person’s life to reach such healing and what an intense, beautiful creative process. You’ll treasure that forever.
Hen: It’s insane. For the rest of our days.
Lou: We really will. It is beautiful. I just love how on the sound of the record it’s very different to the sounds we play on Southbank. A lot of people were anticipating a rave record but actually there’s a lot of sensibilities in there with different sonic influences, it’s a story and I love that.
This feels like a weird question to ask due to the collaborative nature of Joy Anonymous but do you have any dream collabs?
Hen: In fact all the features on the album were all people who had jumped on our open mic throughout the meetings. So SBK has been skating down to the meetings from the very beginning. Ellauro jumped on the mic, she’s an incredible artist and Lou and I have actually just produced her album. I feel like that’s how we wanna keep going forward with our collabs, we’ll have some notable artists in the future but we wanna keep it in the family. But in terms of dream stuff, we used to have a load of artists we wanted to meet, like we’re massive fans of Alex Turner, Kendrick Lamar is phenomenal, James Blake, Burial. But yeah in terms of the collaborative nature of what we do it’s different.
Lou: It has to be real. Because we’ve set the precedent if we now went the other way and got a feature with James Blake people would be like ok guys you’ve gone industry now. But there’s loads of people we’d both love to work with.
Hen: Just maybe not on a Joy Anonymous track, we love producing stuff for other people. It’s always amazing to see and hear other people’s processes.
Finally, let’s talk about the alchemy between you two.
Lou: Get the tissues out… The alchemy applies to so much of our lives in terms of values and family, obviously musically as well.
Hen: The other day we had this little celebration and we were chatting about this. We’re so matched on so many levels. We see it as a real blessing, and I don’t know how or why or what happened. We love getting each other gassed about stuff. That’s also part of going back round to the foundations of Joy Anonymous — we love this so much, we get so much joy from it and we’d still do it if it was just the two of us.
Lou: I’ve had a lot of my friends pick up on the way Hen and I treat each other and react to each other. They say it’s inspiring but really we’re just hanging out.
Hen: Well, we are married.
Lou: And we just fucking love Guinness as well.