How Big Joanie Reinvented Riot Grrrl

Header photos by Carolina Faruolo, courtesy of the artist.

Estella Adeyeri, Chardine Taylor-Stone, and Stephanie Phillips of Big Joanie
Estella Adeyeri, Chardine Taylor-Stone, and Stephanie Phillips of Big Joanie. Photo by Maia Saavedra.

Boundaries are meant to be broken. When the musical movement known as riot grrrl emerged in the early 1990s in Olympia, Washington, its fusion of fiery feminist rhetoric and determined DIY ethics made the patriarchal punk music that came before it pale in comparison. The women at its forefront successfully challenged the landscape of indie rock to prioritize inclusivity and intersectionality.

Three decades later, the genre has found its direct descendants in Big Joanie. Since forming in London after meeting at a Black feminist organization in 2013, the acclaimed trio have gone on to share stages with several of the subculture's forebears such as Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill. Although their 1960s girl group-inspired sound has progressively become bigger and louder with the release of their electrifying second album Back Home—released by seminal riot grrrl institution Kill Rock Stars—they've remained dedicated to decolonizing the underground and cultivating ample space for punks of color.

I sat down with vocalist and guitarist Stephanie Phillips, who went long on the Big Joanie origin story, organizing POC punk festivals, and writing records with larger venues in mind. She waxed poetic about her love of the work of Solange Knowles, discussed crossing paths with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore—who had a hand in the release of their 2018 debut album Sistahs—and went long on what her band has learned from touring with their heroes.

Big Joanie's sophomore album Back Home is now available on the Kill Rock Stars Bandcamp.

The official video for "In My Arms" from Big Joanie's 2022 album Back Home.

In almost every interview I've encountered with your band, you've been asked the same question: "What does the concept of punk mean to you?" Rather than regurgitating that question, I want to take it a step further. After all, one could argue that there's a difference between punk as a sound and punk as an ethic, especially when one factors in the framework of intersectionality. What is your personal relationship to that dichotomy?

My introduction to punk was getting into riot grrrl bands as a teenager—Bikini Kill, Heavens To Betsy, Bratmobile—and then going outwards from there. I then drifted towards female bands—in my mind, punk was very connected to female energy. I got into X-Ray Spex and The Slits and that kind of stuff, and only found out about men doing punk obviously later. For me, the punk scenes that I've been drawn to have never really had an overwhelming aesthetic. I guess that was a chosen thing to do in the 90s. It was as if no aesthetic was the aesthetic, and because it was laid-back, it meant you could focus on the music and the sound.

I like when things are raw. I like the anger and that being able to be distilled into a musical note. I try to veer away from any particular one aesthetic. When I started out in the punk scene, no one used to wear makeup or do anything fancy at all—now it's super different. I see it as doing what you want to do, feeling free to be able to rock up in any way and to still feel powerful and present in the moment.

Was there a particular record that pushed things forward for you and led you to start your own bands?

Yeah, definitely. There's a handful. I think I borrowed Bikini Kill's Reject All American from a friend. She had it on CD, so I had to rip it and put it on my family desktop computer and listen to it from there. That record was really important in terms of learning about politics. I didn't know about feminism, and I had access to the internet a few hours a day, so I could research what they're talking about and what those lyrics were about. The sound was also really important to me. A lot of those riot grrrl bands were wrongly derided for being simplistic, but when I think about those last two records that they did, they're actually really versatile and veered into surf punk and 60s sounding guitar tones, and the drums are always really amazing.

The first Bratmobile album Pottymouth was also super important. Again, the rules are that there are no rules and that was really mind-blowing when I was a teenager—that you don't need a bass guitarist, for example, or that you don't need to play more than one string. To me, that's really radical and that's really revolutionary, that you can just do whatever you want. Who's going to tell you no? It doesn't really matter because if it sounds good, it sounds good. The idea that this was women's music that they're making for other women, it's not to impress other people or to live up to a masculine idea of what playing guitar is like or what punk is like.

I think the last one from that era was Sleater-Kinney's Dig Me Out. They were one of my biggest influences, one of those bands that I really obsessed over. When you're a teenager, you've got all the time in the world, you can obsess over bands and they were one of the bands. To be able to listen to every single layer of the songs and listen to the guitars and the vocals and the drums and feel like everything was working at its highest strength—there was nothing that was being let down on that record. That's where I learned how to pick apart a song or layer seemingly separate lyrics.

Let's discuss the Big Joanie origin story: You formed out of a frustration at the lack of intersectionality in London's punk scene, and after posting an open call on Facebook in pursuit of assembling a Black feminist band. You played your first set at the inaugural First Timers event, which centered around new bands, new instruments, and members who come from marginalized communities. Talk to me about putting together the initial lineup, preparing for that first gig and what it was like to finally inhabit a sonic space free of code-switching.

So before that, I'd been in a feminist punk band in which I was the only person of color. It was called My Therapist Says Hot Damn! I never liked the name. I got my first guitar when I was like 16 and then I bought an electric guitar with my student loan money when I was like 19. I'd been playing on and off and working around. When I was just about to turn 25, I had songs that I liked and that I think could work in a band, but they didn't fit into the band I was in. I felt like I wanted a space where I could be as a whole—I was going to Black feminist meetings and being only half of myself there, going to punk shows and being only half of myself over there. I knew that I wasn't some sort of oddity or a weirdo. I knew that there had to be more weirdos like me.

I saw a call-out for First Timers on Facebook, and the only person that posted it actually was Ray Aggs from Shopping and Trash Kit—an amazing guitarist that's based in Glasgow at the moment. They posted it on Facebook and then I was like, "Oh, that's a cool idea." I had the name Big Joanie already, and so I just thought, "Well, if this is a space where I could make a new band, I might as well make a band that I thought would want to be in." So I posted a call-out just on Facebook, not really thinking about it.

I met our drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone at a Black feminist meeting and we noticed each other because I had a Raincoats bag on and she liked that band. We were both from opposite ends of the Midlands in the UK. She commented on my post and was like, "Oh cool, this sounds really cool. I'd like to join." I forgot about it because I didn't think she was serious, but then she DM'd me and was like, "No, I'm really serious. I want to play drums standing up like The Jesus and Mary Chain." She was really into C86 bands, The Pastels, Vaseline, that kind of stuff. We very easily gelled on music tastes, actually. We never had different music tastes at all. We met up in Brixton and we wrote little notes for what we would want the band to be.

I just searched online on social media for our first bassist, Kiera Coward-Deyell, and then we just started practicing really. We met in the summer and the First Timers gig was in November—we just planned and practiced and worked our butts off to get together enough songs to perform as a set. I think we probably did more than we actually needed to. We did three of the songs that I'd written and then three cover songs, I think.

It was just so fun to have a space that was for us and that we felt comfortable and safe in, just to chat and just to mess about and just be silly. It was just really fun to have a gang. We played the show and it went really well. From there, someone in the audience came up to us, was like, "Do you want to play this other show?" Once we played that other show, it just kept going really. We were always up for growing and learning and the scene really welcomed us.

You play a gig, another opportunity arises, and then that's another gig that leads to yet another gig...

Yeah, exactly. We were always up for growing and learning and the scene really welcomed us.

The official video for "Way Out", from Big Joanie's 2018 album Sistahs.

Eventually you played a gig supporting The Ex. After the show, you were approached by Thurston Moore, who would go on to release your debut album on his Daydream Library Series label in 2018. I know he's been based in London for a while in the aftermath of Sonic Youth. Tell me more about how you two crossed paths.

I think that Thurston and his partner Eva Prinz had been aware of what we were doing for a bit, but they were coming to see The Ex because they had toured together in the 80s. They got there early and were able to catch us, and once we got offstage, someone walked up to us from behind us. We turned around and looked up and it was Thurston. He's very tall. He was like, "We loved the show and we went to the merch table, but we couldn't find anything." We had told him that we sold all our 7-inches and we didn't have anything left to sell, but that we had a record we made but none of the labels we reached out to weren't interested. He was immediately like, "Oh, cool, we'll release it for you. Let's meet up the next morning."

We met up with Eva the next day at this very fancy hotel in King's Cross in North London—I remember she ordered iced coffees and the waiter was disgusted at the idea that you'd have to make an iced coffee for an American. We worked out the release of the album while Thurston was sleeping.

Still, that first encounter and literally getting tapped on the shoulder and then turning around—I imagine that had to be pretty trippy.

Super trippy. But it already prepared us for the massive people that we've had to meet after. Once you randomly bump into Thurston, you're prepared to bump into anyone, which we've had to prepare ourselves for.

I want to lean into that a little more. After Sistahs dropped in 2018, the three of you went on to play support slots for a few feminist punk Hall of Famers. We already mentioned Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney—who would later invite you to contribute a version of "Things You Say" for the Dig Me Out covers album a few years ago—but you also supported The Gossip and Skunk Anansie, legends in their own right. You've said that the chance to share larger stages with these acts is what set you up to explore a larger sound. When listening to Back Home, I definitely hear it from the moment that "Cactus Tree" starts. Can you speak to that sonic expansion and perhaps what you learned from each of those bands to help inform that?

First of all, the stage was a big learning curve. For the show with The Gossip, we were at Somerset House, which is an outdoor venue in London in the city center. It's a huge, huge courtyard in a very old building, so there were so many people. I don't know how big they were in the U.S., but they were massive in the UK…

Yeah, they seemed to have much more support across the pond than in the States for whatever reason.

Yeah, they were pop stars here from my memory, they were really big and had big hits. We toured with them in Europe for a bit as well, but seeing how they interacted on stage—how Beth deals with a technical issue or addresses the crowd, or how to keep their energy off-stage so they don't lose steam on tour—that was very informative. When we were playing with Skunk Anansie, we saw how much they looked after their crew and everyone's wellbeing. They were very keen to have us there and to look after us and make sure that we were okay. That was a really amazing thing, considering how huge they were in the Britpop era.

We played with Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney at Brixton Academy—that was a very pivotal venue for us as teenagers, because it's where we saw a lot of our favorite bands. Neither of them had toured in forever, so seeing how they dealt with that pressure while still saying hi and making themselves available to us was big. Sleater-Kinney had two extra musicians and created the wall they needed to replicate the sound of their albums. We learned that you had to fill out the stage and fill out that sound, that we could actually bring in an extra musician. We learned a lot from just sitting back and watching those tours, definitely. We learned what we've got to do to build things up and make the sound bigger.

You can now say that you not only shared a stage with these bands, but a stateside label. Kill Rock Stars was obviously a central institution in the development of riot grrrl in the Pacific Northwest. How did their team enter your orbit?

Yeah, that was really cute. They just emailed us and asked if we ever needed any help, they were happy to help us out. We didn't have a U.S. label, and it was very casual. It's been amazing to partner up with them, because it's so hard to get overseas as a UK band and they've been really helpful with monetary support. They really believe in us. All the bands that I loved as a teenager I loved were on that label. I used to download all the free samplers, no matter what it was. I was like, "Oh, it's on Kill Rock Stars. I'll give it a listen." I loved most of it as well. So it's just really mind-boggling, but we're on their label and they approve of what we're doing and what we're bringing out.

For a band like us, we're not really doing what is expected of Black women. The music we're making hasn't got any influence from grime or rap or R&B. It's hard for people to categorize us and we often get excluded or forgotten about. Without any support or anyone advocating on our behalf, it's easy for people to gloss over us. But the support from Kill Rock Stars has definitely helped keep people aware of us in the States.

Big Joanie performs live on KEXP in March 2023.

Both of your studio albums are recorded at North London's Hermitage Works and were produced with Margo Bloom behind the boards. By the time that you reunited with her to track Back Home, bassist Estella Adeyeri has said that you were more accustomed to the studio process and that allowed you room to be more sonically adventurous using the studios and instruments. I'd love to hear more about your collaborative partnership with Margot and the difference between the production process of those two records.

On our first record, Sistahs, we really were recording our live set and we hadn't been in the studio before. We hadn't worked with the Margo before, so we played the songs and she gave us some notes. She said that "Fall Asleep", which would become the first single from that album, needed a bridge, which it didn't have before. It was just like a straightforward two-minute punk song song. Once we went away and reworked that and tweaked it, it made it a lot more sense. The conversations that we were having with Margo allowed her to push us towards thinking about it as a dance song—it's all about movement. We added a lot more synths and thought about New Order, 24 Hour Party People, that kind of stuff.

With the second album, we tried to replicate what we were doing more with that particular track across the whole album, really. We were thinking about expanding the sound beyond just the three of us and our instruments—we worked in even more synths and drum machines, that kind of stuff. We used her modified Moog on tracks like "Confident Man". I had written on an old Jupiter synth but it was wobbling and undulating and not staying still. I got really into Omnichords. I first heard it on a Sharon Van Etten record and we ended up using one on "Count To 10" with the internal drum machine and everything. I just made a little demo at home and I thought we would re-record it, but Margo was like, "Oh no, let's just use that." My love of punk is things that are very simple and condensed—trying to make something grand out of very little ingredients—so the Omnichord was perfect for that.

That instrument has an intuitive appeal for certain musicians. I recently spoke with Meshell Ndegeocello, who put out a record earlier this year where the Omnichord was one of the central instruments. After long days in the studio working on scoring gigs and staring at screens all day, she would sit in front of the Omnichord and jam on it for hours.

Sometimes, you do need to change your environment to be able to think of new ideas. I've been playing guitar since I was 16 now, so sometimes you feel like you've used all the chords or you've used everything you can do, and everything feels a bit new on something that you don't know. I really enjoyed playing that and I want to get back to it.

Beyond that, I think we worked with different pedals to try and build more layers. Lots of doubling and lead lines. It became a bigger venture. We worked with Charlie Valentine who makes music as No Home—they played violin on "Today" and you can hear that towards the end, harmonizing with the guitar. I love string instruments. It would be amazing to have an orchestra eventually, but I like the folky element of bringing in something beautiful and contrasting it with something riotous and rackety.

While we're talking sonic exploration, I want to discuss your relationship to the work of Solange Knowles, who obviously excels at that. On top of your band's bold reinvention of "Cranes in the Sky", you also wrote a book about her artistry and activism for Faber and Faber's Music Matters series. What led you to tackle her as a subject of cultural study and how has she influenced your band at large?

I had been writing a few essays for the editor and music journalist Evelyn McDonald, who was working on the Music Matters series. She was like, "I think you'd be a good person to be a part of this project. We're looking for a book on Poly Styrene, but send us your ideas." Being from South London, I love Poly Styrene—but I also knew that her daughter was already working on a book and a film, and I knew that I couldn't do her justice. I responded to Evelyn and suggested Solange Knowles, even though it was very premature to write a book about her. A Seat at the Table had only been out for a year, but for me and for my friends, and for a lot of people I knew, I already knew it was going to be in the books.

It's an instant classic.

Yeah, it was clearly a classic, and I think it deserved to be analyzed. I think her journey deserved to be recognized because I wanted to understand how she got from seemingly over here to there. Through the book, what I learned is that she took a lot of left turns while staying consistent.

My personal favorite from her catalog has always been When I Get Home, purely on the level of experimentation and collaboration. You listen to a record like that and the nepotism factor disappears. She's almost able to disappear into the music.

Yeah, definitely. In terms of what I learned from her sonically, it's just a sense of fearlessness and belief in oneself. She's certainly an individual that has had immense privilege but also has been overlooked and not taken seriously, but she really stayed true to trying to unpick who she was, even if she didn't know it at the time, or if she wasn't reaching the right answers. Sometimes you try to understand yourself and you get to the wrong conclusion. You're like, "Okay, that was a mistake, but I can try again tomorrow." I think that her constant work on herself and striving towards finding her musical truth is something that I really took with me and took with me from the book.

Big Joanie covers Solange's "Cranes In The Sky" at Rebel Rebel Studio in London in 2020.

On top of balancing Big Joanie with your writing pursuits, you've also had a hand in organizing Decolonise Festival, the first UK festival created by and for punks of color, which was first held in 2017. In the manifesto published on the festival's website, the project is described as a means of "putting the threat back into punk again". I love this phrase of yours. Can you elaborate?

There's been about 10 of us that are in the collective organizing the festival. I guess the idea is that sometimes punk can be seen as many different things—sometimes it's a bit of a joke, sometimes it's nihilistic, sometimes it's commercialized. But I think often, the actual radical core of it can fall along the way even with people that were there in the early days. Our idea of putting the threat back into punk is that we're aiming for a radical end goal, which is decolonisation. To give people of color the tools to break down the systems that control us, to re-socialize ourselves, to understand that we need to not just take what society tells us as the truth.

I think that's something that can often be forgotten because punk's often seen as something that's nihilistic, but nihilism doesn't have any aims or any end goals. So who are you threatening? Who's scared? "Fuck it all" doesnt mean anything, but if you specifically say "fuck you"—that means something.

When you think about performances at the festivals over the years, are there any that have stuck out to you as being particularly memorable?

Yeah, there's been loads. We've been really lucky that at the moment in the UK, there's not many promoters or festivals that do what we do. We have been able to be there in the early days for a lot of bands that are taking over now.

In 2018, we had Bob Vylan play for the first time, and they were running around on stage, they were high energy. The singer climbed up the speaker, and at the end of the set, he announced that he was really happy to be here because they'd actually formed to play the festival, which is just so amazing to know that now they're doing so well. They won the first alternative music award at the MOBOs (the Music of Black Origin Awards), which has never recognized alternative music before until this year. They've supported Amyl and the Sniffers in the States and now they're touring around the world. To recognize that we were a key part in someone's push forward to the music industry is really amazing to see.

It's just great to see people be able to be in their space. Usually, we have a dance party afterwards, and it's so fun to see people of color be able to rock out to System of a Down, and then the next minute we can dance to a house track and that isn't contradictory. It's all there for us, and no one's taking over the space because it's something that we've carefully curated for people of color to feel like they can do whatever they want in there.

Not only are you able to promote these voices, but help kickstart their larger musical paths.

Yeah, definitely. It's one of those weird things—we're tiny and we don't get any funding. Spotify put us on their year roundup of things to look out for. They recognize that it's a trend, that there are more organizations for people of color. Since then, they've had more playlists that are "POC Rock" or that are supposed to be aimed towards people like us.

There's a fine line between commercial curation and then organizing an actual festival in the attempt to amplify voices of color.

Yeah. The commercial end of the music industry is definitely paying attention to the things that we do, which is gross, but still…

Before we wrap up, could you mind giving a rundown of your rig and how you have developed it over the years on tour? I think I've seen you with a Jaguar…

I played a Jaguar before and I played a Mustang before, which I really like. I think I was meant to be around up and about in the 90s, but I was just a kid. Since the end of last year, we've been working with Fender, so they've actually equipped us with some guitars that have helped get us to reach that sound.

On tour I play a green Fender Meteora. It reminds me of a Jazzmaster—really crunchy, it's easy to play. It's just been really useful on tour. It's quite hard wearing as well, and that's something I've really loved and I don't think I'm going to give up for a while. For some softer songs or for songs where I want to play acoustic or clean, I've got a Fender Jazzmaster Acoustasonic. I love The Breeders and I love that idea of playing with the clean acoustic and then also then just messing it up and putting it through a fuzz pedal or a distortion pedal and blending those sounds.

I have two Boss pedals. I have the orange distortion pedal and the Blues Driver. I'm not very fussy on my distortion sound and that works really well for me. There are certain songs where I just want a lift or a bit more drive, but not anything churning or too distorted, and that helps just to bring things up. Or if I'm just playing a solo or just one guitar string, that really is really useful.

I also have a Little Big Muff and a Nano Big Muff, and I use that for anything that's meant to be super big. I use that live at the end of "Cranes in the Sky". Really gnarly, fuzzy kind of sound. Then I have just a bit of reverb, a TC Electronic reverb pedal, which adds a bit more atmosphere to the song and it's what makes it sound a bit dreamy and sleepy.

I've been using a Fender Supersonic head, which has worked really well for me actually. And it's got the foot pedal as well. I never really like anything too complicated, but I really like a good clean sound and something that I can just rely on. It works really well and I'm not going to change it. I love the sound. I can add reverb if I need to. There's extra distortion in case I want to change up distortion as well. And the clean sound's amazing. I borrowed the cab from our manager, Simon. It's nearly as tall as me. It's about as simplified as we can get at the moment.

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