If you’ve any interest in feminist punk-rock whatsoever, odds on Big Joanie are already your favourite band’s new favourite band. Consider the evidence: in the past couple of years alone, the London-based trio have been personally selected to open for Bikini Kill, Sleater-Kinney, The Raincoats and Gossip, not to mention the fact they released their 2018 debut ‘Sistahs’ through Thurston Moore’s imprint, Daydream Library, recently recorded a live session for Jack White’s Third Man Records, and are booked to support IDLES next year. Now, they’re following in the footsteps of many of their heroes by signing a US deal with legendary Portland indie Kill Rock Stars, with their second album currently due sometime in 2021.
If it all feels like too much of a dream trajectory, it’s worth remembering that Big Joanie have more than paid their dues. “People act like we’re some sort of new band that’s sprung out of nowhere,” lead singer and guitarist Steph Phillips chuckles today, sat with her bandmates outside a pub in North London. “But actually we’ve been playing and writing and releasing music for seven years.”
“It’s been an old school trajectory, really, where you’re just playing and playing and playing,” percussionist Chardine Taylor-Stone agrees, before Steph takes over again. “But then, I don’t think we would have ever been one of those hyped bands that came from nowhere because we’re not the kind of band that the industry would necessarily want to hype. When we formed there wasn’t that much conversation about race in music, or even much talk about politics and things like Black Lives Matter. So [the fact we did] wouldn’t have been a selling quality.”
“[These days], people are more able to question things that are going on in the punk scene and demand better.”
— Steph Phillips
Big Joanie’s Biggest Fans
The band’s Chardine Taylor-Stone talks us through some of their more famous followers.
“He definitely plays a mentor-like role to us, because he’s been in the industry for a very long time, so he can spot bullshit. And having been in Sonic Youth, he understands the punk culture we come from.”
“We were in our dressing room and we could hear her doing her vocal warm ups. And it’s like, OK, it’s not just an accident she’s where she is: she’s an amazing performer with a big voice.”
“I think the recent IDLES backlash isn’t really about IDLES. It’s projection. You say you want political bands and that everyone should recognise their privilege, and then when they do, you’re going to have a go at them and say that they’re not doing enough? I think people just need to get a grip, really.”
Big Joanie have existed since 2013, when Steph put out a call on social media for female-identifying punks of colour to join her in forming a band. Chardine was the first to get in touch, having met Steph previously at a Black, feminist, consciousness-raising group, with the line-up completed by original bassist Kiera Coward-Deyell. Kiera then left in 2017 to move to Scotland and was replaced by Estella Adeyeri, also of Charmpit. Their debut show was at a squat in Hackney as part of First-Timers Fest, an initiative providing a platform for bands featuring novice musicians and people from marginalised identities to perform live for the first time.
Since then, the trio have established themselves as an indispensable force on London’s DIY scene, not just by making deliciously lo-fi post-punk that’s as influenced by The Jesus and Mary Chain as it is The Ronettes, but through their activism too. Steph and Estella both help run Decolonise Fest - an annual, volunteer-run, non-profit event organised by and for punks of colour. With COVID restrictions still in place, this year’s instalment took place online, an experience that Steph describes as “a big learning curve” but “really positive.”
“Because it was all online it meant that we could invite more bands from other countries to participate,” she continues. “It felt quite comforting to hear from other people who have grown up in a different country but still have had quite similar experiences to you. And at a time where people feel quite isolated in lockdown, it was nice to still be able to have the connection that we’d usually have with Decolonise Fest.”
To what extent do they feel the DIY scene has diversified during their tenure, if at all? “I think the formation of Big Joanie coincided with a wider understanding of what blackness could be, because it was around that time that there were more conversations about race and intersectionality,” Steph says. “As we’ve gone on, things have naturally changed, and people are more able to question things that are going on in the punk scene and demand better. It definitely seems now like it’s changing quite steadily, which is really, really good because before it was really frustrating for a long time.”
Chardine continues: “I don’t ever think of us creating a scene around us, but then I sometimes forget we do represent that for a lot of people. When we play shows, we see older Black women in the audience who’ve been into punk for years and it’s almost like, by coming to see us, they’re coming home. It’s like, finally these worlds of theirs are merging.
“And in general there’s a broader acceptance, not just in terms of being Black in a predominantly white scene, but also within our own community around liking the music that we like. When I was younger it was very much like, ‘Oh Chardine likes white music,’ even though I would literally be listening to Bad Brains. Now people are a lot more open about how diverse their tastes are.”
That diversity is further displayed in the band’s choice of covers, which have included a brilliantly combative live version of ‘No Scrubs’ and a powerfully-sparse take on Solange’s ‘Cranes In The Sky’, which they had the rare honour of releasing via Third Man in August. There’s plenty more new music in the pipeline too. In November, they’ll be making their debut for Kill Rock Stars with a split 7” with Charmpit, before retreating to the studio to continue work on LP2, which was started during their recent artist residencies in Gateshead and Margate. So, what can we expect from the record?
“We love artists like Kate Bush and PJ Harvey,” Chardine smiles. “Artists who think of an album as a complete piece of work, rather than a series of songs that they play live. We always want to make sure that we’re growing musically, and not just thought of as being a ‘one-two-three-go!’ band.” We can safely say there’s no chance of that.
‘Kluster Room Sessions’ split 7” is out 27th November via Kill Rock Stars.
As featured in the November 2020 issue of DIY, out now.