'I'm isolated': Joel Corry on bodybuilding, reality TV and his sacrifices to reach No 1

After years of slogging through DJ sets and obsessional exercise, the London producer had one of 2020’s biggest and best pop hits. But his brutal work ethic is ‘a gift and a curse’

Amid the draining gloom of pandemic life, Joel Corry has been a soothing constant: if you have turned on the radio at any time in the past year, there is a huge chance that one of the British pop-house producer’s three big singles will have been playing. Sorry, Lonely and Head & Heart (the latter a six-week chart topper) have collectively earned more than a billion streams and made Corry into one of the UK’s biggest new pop stars, a Calvin Harris type who has guest vocalists out front while he prods equipment and points gunfingers skyward. Sorry got a boost from being used on Love Island in 2018, and his music is rather like the Love Island of pop: buoyant, cheesy, suffused with romantic drama and sparkling sunlight. But when talking to him in his hotel room, clouds gather.

Corry could actually be a Love Island contestant: he has the good looks and earnest kindly nature of a 90s boyband heartthrob, as well as the abdominals, which look not so much chiselled as 3D-printed following a successful earlier career as a bodybuilder. In fact, he has reality TV pedigree as a rare southern interloper amid the cast of MTV’s lairy Geordie Shore; he was the boyfriend of the show’s charismatic bad-influencer Sophie Kasaei, with whom he had a six-year relationship until 2017.

His TV-ready teeth beam out of his webcam in Dubai, where he spent the early weeks of the year following a presumably lucrative New Year’s Eve DJ set, at – he stresses – a socially distanced, masked and seated venue in the city. Kasaei and her peers were criticised for travelling to Dubai mid-pandemic to pose in swimwear on their socials, but Corry says he has kept his head down: “Looking like you’re living it up … while everyone back at home is just having such a horrible time of it – that doesn’t sit right with me.”

He has since returned to the UK, and while his reasoning for going out in the first place hardly seems essential business – he wanted to, after the pandemic cancelled a year of DJing – he says that aside from some rooftop exercise classes he filmed, he stayed put in his hotel room, recorded his weekly Kiss FM show and tinkered with new tracks.

This workaholism has been with him his whole life, says Corry: “It’s a gift and a curse. I’m pretty isolated. I know it looks like I’ve got a lot going on, but the truth is, I have one really good friend, my mum, my sister and my brother. And there’s no one else in that circle.”

Inspired by his DJ older brother, he started out as a teenage UK garage fan in Barnet, north London, originally calling himself DJ Jenga. He cringes, his face creasing at the memory: “My brother had this line about me: all the DJs are falling down but Jenga’s still rising! I thought I was so cool. Garage, and grime: it’s my roots. I grew up in a period where I felt I was part of something.”

He and a friend started a DJ business, playing discos and birthday parties in north London, and Corry graduated to residencies at the capital’s clubs. “It was a hustle, turning up and asking the DJ if you could do their warmup set,” he says. He studied music production at college, then the music business at university; while his fellow freshers were out strawpedoing alcopops, he was providing the soundtrack.

“I’ve DJed to commercial dancefloors – sometimes six or seven nights a week – since I was 16, and I’m 32 now. DJing is the love of my life; it’s electricity, adrenaline, joy. And when it comes to production and creating my music, I now know the moments the crowd need to have: the drops, the singalong moments, the hooks.”

Sophie Kasaei and Joel Corry in 2013.
Sophie Kasaei and Joel Corry in 2013. Photograph: WENN Rights Ltd/Alamy

A side hustle was working as a runner at MTV while DJing at the weekends in Mayfair, where he could get the Geordie Shore cast on to guestlists. Soon he was dating Kasaei and became a TV star in his own right. “Twitter and Instagram had just exploded; it was brutal at points,” he says. “I was able to get a bit of a thick skin to the bad comments and nasty stuff, but it was difficult to see [Kasaei] going through that. It made us closer as well; we were a team, getting through.”

He says he has generally good memories of the show, though, and his raised profile took his DJing nationwide and to European party resorts such as Malia and Zante each summer. I can almost hear him shouting out the drinks promos on the mic between tracks. “Maybe they weren’t the most credible gigs,” he admits. “I was playing a lot of crap venues. I’ve played in every town in the UK, and I played to so many empty clubs. But my name was still on the flyer, you know? I just felt like, whatever I do, get my name out there. The TV thing was another platform for me to push myself.”

So too was the bodybuilding: he won competitions, earned sponsorship deals and got the bodybuilding equivalent of a No 1 single: the cover of Muscle & Fitness magazine, his torso straining like a mixed grill through a fishing net. He first hit the gym back in his school days, idolising Arnie and Sly and in search of a six pack to impress girls, “then the competitive side of me wanted to see how far I could push it”.

Getting the ultra-lean physique to be best in show in his bodybuilding career was also difficult, and required some damaging behaviour. “Definitely at points it was unbalanced. There were no darker nights than the ones when I was in bed starving, wanting to have food but I didn’t because I was on the diet plan.

‘Exercise was a way of channelling whatever was going on in my head’ ... Joel Corry.
‘Exercise was a way of channelling whatever was going on in my head’ ... Joel Corry. Photograph: Benjamin Hennig/PR

“I wouldn’t say doing those competitions is healthy,” he continues. “I wouldn’t recommend them. That’s got to come from a burning desire in the individual, wanting to push themselves to another level.” His physique has settled from hypertrophied to merely very jacked. “Every morning when I go on the treadmill or do weights, everything in my brain is firing for my to-do list that day; that’s what I get out of it now.”

Buffeted by body image expectations on one side and his own drive on the other, Corry seems to have walked a tightrope towards a healthier state of fitness, to the point where he is now satirising the quests for bodily perfection and social media clout in his Black Mirror-ish music videos. But he still seems prone to the same obsessive behaviour that once spurred him to compete. As a teenager, “I felt like I had to make myself look like that to, kind of like ...” He grasps: “Be me. Exercise, even to an obsessional level, was a way of channelling whatever was going on in my head, controlling anxieties. As I’ve got older, I’m able to channel the obsessive stuff into my music career.”

He says this brutal single-mindedness pushed him to break up with Kasaei. “My ambitions of what I wanted to do, and things I wanted to achieve, I had to be on my own. And I still feel like that’s the way now. It’s almost selfish, but I can’t have any distractions, man. My mum is like: ‘Joel, one day you need to get married!’ But right now, I can’t see it. I focused 100% of my time and my love into making it in the music industry, and it eventually happened.”

Beginning in 2015, he released 12 singles in a row that didn’t reach the Top 100, but after putting his focus entirely on music, he forged industry connections and partnerships to the point he is now constantly courted by songwriters keen for him to add his production. He says he prefers working in person with them in his studio space in King’s Cross, London, creating tracks “organically made from the ground up, from having a loop on or some chords. Early demos of some of these tracks are someone just humming.”

His subsequent back-to-back hits are now joined by new single Bed, a collaboration with the pop singer Raye and dance titan David Guetta that is currently rising through the charts. Where Head & Heart was addictively catchy, vocalist MNEK evoking a fluttering heart in the phonetic chorus, Bed is no less of an earworm, but softer, with gorgeous cosmic-disco detailing and what is becoming Corry’s signature flourish: a climactic drop that lands with devastating sweetness on the offbeat.

He will next try to add a hit album to his singles; if he achieves that, will he finally be happy? “I’m never satisfied,” he says, his voice a blend of athletic will and wry, exasperated guilt. “It’s not a money thing; it’s more a validation thing. Even after I had Head & Heart [at No 1], I was saying: what’s next? I almost find it hard to enjoy the moments. Whatever this is inside me, I’m so happy I’ve got it because it drives me, but it means I will never stop. I’m always in my own head, and the thoughts of what I’m going to do next – it’s constant.”

No pain, no gain, as he has no doubt frequently scolded himself.

• Bed is out now on Perfect Havoc / Asylum


Ben Beaumont-Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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