Black feminist punks Big Joanie are finding their way back home
“Sorry, I'm running late. My new boots have just arrived, so I was trying them on,” drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone says as her video comes into focus. “Are you distracted by boots?” guitarist/vocalist Steph Phillips retorts in the top right of the screen. “No, I was trying them on and didn't notice the time because I was in a different room!” Taylor-Stone insists with a flourish of her fresh laced, knee-high numbers to camera. It’s not surprising feminist punk trio Big Joanie, completed by bassist Estella Adeyeri, feel a little in flux. The summer has been jet-set for the group who supported St. Vincent on a few of the Grammy-winning musician’s U.K. dates and also performed as part of a sold-out show at Grace Jones’ curated Meltdown Festival at London’s Royal Festival Hall.
Those high-caliber slots mark quite the ascent for a band who admit that, less than a decade ago, they had never even picked up an instrument. Phillips and Taylor-Stone came together through the DIY space First Timers Fest in London, which aims to demystify and diversify the makeup of the music community. For the budding new friends back in 2013, these values felt intrinsic to the wider goals of forming a group. It’s a shared mission that Phillips believes sets the band apart from their punk peers. “A lot of DIY bands were a bit laissez-faire about everything. It falls apart or they form two different splinter bands, whereas we got into the idea of building something with Big Joanie.”
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Much like the godmothers of post-punk the Raincoats' before them, the self-taught musicians have gone on to add their own imprint to the timeless notion that punk is what you want it to be — an act of raw expression rather than one definitive sound. And Phillips wasn’t the only one seeing their wider potential, inspiring another powerful pair in the music industry to forge forward with something new. On a balmy evening in the summer of 2018, Dutch underground band the Ex returned to England’s capital to play Electrowerkz’ sweaty boxroom, and a fellow underground figurehead, Thurston Moore, arrived early to that show for a reason.
“He said he’d intentionally made sure to get there in time to see us!” Adeyeri begins. “I remember we were playing the show, and Eva [Prinz] and Abby Banks [photographer and author of Punk House: Interiors In Anarchy] were dancing down the front. After the set, Thurston tapped Chardine on the shoulder and was asking about merch.” With the rest of their material sold out on the stand, the band began discussing their first-full length, which they were struggling to place with a label. “We sent it to a few places and got either a lukewarm response or no response,” Phillips admits. The next day Moore and partner Prinz began their house label Daydream Library Series to release Big Joanie’s debut record, Sistahs, six months later. “It was very odd from meeting Thurston in a club one night to arranging a record deal the next morning. [But the experience] shows what can happen for a lot of Black and brown artists when you give them the chance,” Phillips says.
She’s not wrong. The band were heralded for tackling themes of injustice and a sense of resilience and resolve grounded in growing up as children of the diaspora. It’s this concept of forging roots that runs like a golden thread through all of Big Joanie’s work to date. On the cover for their debut album, Phillips' aunt and mother appear as sepia-toned teenagers on holiday in England. In a limited-edition zine that accompanied the record, Phillips described the racism her mother, Joan, experienced on that vacation. Of how she was almost conned out of accommodations she’d paid for and had to stand up for herself and demand them.
Four years on and the band are still brushing shoulders with '90s giants, finding a new home on Kill Rock Stars in the U.S., who released their sophomore record, Back Home. It’s an indie institution that Phillips was all too familiar with, as she recollects. “I was a massive fan of Kill Rock Stars growing up. It was a label that meant a lot to me and introduced me to feminism. I learned about Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy and Sleater-Kinney.”
Speaking of the latter, Big Joanie will also feature as part of the Portland powerhouses’ covers album and 25th-anniversary edition of Dig Me Out by interpreting the angular, toppling track "Things You Say." But luckily for Phillips, it was tapping into a longstanding love affair. “Dig Me Out is one of my favorite albums and the reason I started to play guitar,” she beams. Even with such enthusiasm, it was a group effort to translate the original composition, though, recognizing their own strengths as the new generation of feminist forerunners. “We knew we couldn’t do it as fast as Sleater-Kinney did, and it's quite high in Corin's vocal range, so we slowed it down, making it a bit more haunted and muted."
Much like the breadth of their shows (you might’ve also seen them appear alongside riot grrrl originals Bikini Kill and British-Irish rockers IDLES), Big Joanie’s sound has continued to flourish with this latest record. The synth-driven "Confident Man" harbors a rallying feminist cry through warm keys as the band question an archaic focus on women’s bodies in the media: "Am I pretty enough for you yet? Existing to be pretty on the internet." Meanwhile, lean guitar tones fuel "Insecure" as the three-pronged vocals reflect on the disparate nature of evolving relationships. Phillips laments: "All my friends have all settled down/All my friends live far out of town." But as she muses from her own setting in the Midlands (Adeyeri dialed in from London, and Taylor-Stone is at home in Manchester), perhaps finding home is more about connecting with ourselves than others. “Sometimes it's a home we've never even seen," Phillips says. "I've never seen my parents' home in Jamaica, and it probably wouldn't be the home that I think it is. It's about what that means for people of our generation in the U.K. today.”
Another striking family portrait fronts their returning release. Taylor-Stone’s 10-year-old nephew’s trip to the barbers is immortalized in hand-stitched embroidery, a common fixture in many Caribbean homes post-Windrush. So how does he feel about the starring role? “Apparently, he’s really into it,” she says with a laugh. “But then these Gen Z babies are so sassy! I was like ‘You’re in our video!’ and he was like [deadpan], ‘Yeah, that’s exciting.'” The imagery feels poignant for the group, though, tapping into a pillar of a lot of Black communities like the Black barbershop. Another home from home, if you will. These are places to congregate, connect and embrace a community. As Taylor-Stone reflects, “We’re a very women-centered band, but we still politically care about what's going on with the rest of our community.”
Even with a new record in tow, all three members of the band continue to build essential bonds across the indie scene too. Taylor-Stone chairs the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee at the Musician’s Union. She also remains a prominent voice in the LGBTQ community. Phillips is a freelance music writer and published the essential tome Why Solange Matters last year alongside her continued founding role as part of Decolonise Fest — an annual event that aims to shake up a predominantly white genre and give a platform to musicians of color. Adeyeri is also part of the same collective and an integral member of the Girls Rock London collective. It feels only natural, then, when she mentions the program is a valued place to meet like-minded creatives. “One of the camera people for our recent video shoot is someone I met through Girls Rock London!”
The video in question, their single "Sainted," continues to pay homage to a corner of African-American culture, Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust. Telling the story of three generations of Gullah (also known as Geechee) women, the film follows the migration from the American South to the North. It was the first feature film directed by an African-American woman distributed in the United States. The production saw a renaissance following the release of Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade in 2016, which made several references to the original. Again, for Big Joanie, though, the project was about honoring the deep roots of their family tree. “It's quite traditional for a lot of the syncretic religions in the Caribbean to wear white during rituals. Then there are some still lifes based on old portraiture. It's bringing in lots of elements of ancestral worship and connection,” Taylor-Stone explains.
Even a band as progressive as Big Joanie can appreciate the importance of a stone-hard pop banger, though, particularly when it’s pop royalty as Taylor-Stone happily confirms. “I'm sure people will say, 'Oh, they're trying to do their own version of Lemonade,' which is also an influence, I'm not gonna lie!” They’re big footsteps to follow, but then Big Joanie have got the box-fresh boots and bigger picture in mind to get it all into formation.