F ormed in London in 2013 but now spread between the capital and Birmingham, Black feminist three-piece Big Joanie have spent almost a decade pushing at the limits of what a punk band can be. There’s the music, which has taken the minimalist three-minute template and woven in everything from girl-group harmonies to post-punk violin work; there’s the razor-sharp cultural analysis which saw singer and guitarist Stephanie Phillips publish the critically-acclaimed book Why Solange Matters; there’s the social activism via groups like Girls Rock London and Decolonise Fest; and a glorious visual dimension which has seen them work with artist Angelica Ellis, film maker Lydia Garrett and photographer Ajamu X.
They’ve toured with Bikini Kill, Idles and Sleater Kinney, released records on Jack White’s Third Man label and were part of Grace Jones’ Meltdown festival. With their second album Back Home due for release in November, we spoke with Phillips, Chardine Taylor-Stone and Estella Adeyeri about their work, process and the relevance of the original punk movement today.
How did you first come together as a band?
Stephanie Phillips: I met Chardine once at a black feminist meeting, and we connected because we're both from the Midlands and I had a Raincoats bag. And then a few months later, I saw a post for an event called First Timers, which is about getting more marginalised people into making music. It just seemed like a really cool idea, so I asked around if anyone want to start a band, and a black punk band specifically, and Chardine got in touch
You released your first album, Sistahs, in 2018. How has your sound evolved for the new record?
Chardine Taylor-Stone: It was just a process of learning more about how to use a studio and generally growing as a band – thinking of how we can make a sound bigger. Having played with bigger bands, we picked up from them.
What’s your process in terms of actually creating music together?
SP: I always feel a lot of pressure writing on the spot so I find it's easier to write at home and then bring it to the band. And then we figure out if the structure needs to change or if we need to add elements. A few times for this album we had a bit of a jam. And that's how Confident Man started – I was messing around with the synth and Chardine was playing a big drum machine. We're trying to get out of our comfort zones a bit.
What were the main themes you were thinking of while making the album?
SP: There was this overwhelming feeling of home, or feeling disconnected from a home, or worrying about where you're going to be. I was writing most of those songs, living in South London in a converted attic, a weird situation. The idea of London living, then [when punk began] and now is so precarious. And I think that precarity was creating different anxieties in me that came out in the record.
'I was liking the fact that there were political statements in that music but also, frankly, it was very easy to play…'
What was your first experience with punk?
SP: I think we all came to different parts of the scene. I was first into Riot Grrrl and then through that I got into the Slits and Raincoats and X-Ray Spex.
CTS: I really got introduced to punk through Nirvana. But that was the music. In terms of an actual scene, I initially started on the hardcore, crusty punk Camden scene.
Estella Adeyeri: I remember buying Never Mind The Bollocks on CD because I was first getting into alternative music, getting my first guitar at 13 and being told ‘this is where it all started.’ And liking the fact that there were political statements in that music but also, frankly, it was very easy to play…
Do you think there’s similarities between the current climate and that founding period of punk?
CTS: I think the reality of living in the late 1970s and early 1980s is very similar to now. Although in some ways, there were more opportunities for artists back then. More squats. Things haven't always changed in the direction that they should have changed.
The visual aspect of your work is a huge part of it. How did the collaboration with Angelica Ellis come about?
CTS: We had this idea for a front cover referencing a Caribbean and West Africa diaspora, their embroideries, traditional women's quilting. But also there's maps that are a bit kitsch, where people have an embroidered Barbados or Jamaica in their home. We were coming from that kind of West Indian living room idea. We were supporting Idles and one of their tech’s girlfriends was there and she said, 'Oh, you should contact my friend Angelica'.
How did the process work between you?
CTS: We sent her some pictures of family and things like that. We tried a few collage ideas, then when we settled on this. It’s actually a picture I took of my nephew at the barbers, and the flowers on it are Steph’s tattoo, there's little references within the embroidery. The single covers again are taken from family photographs. So there's my great granddad from Trinidad for Confident Man and the next single is my Holy Communion photo.
What’s your criteria for working with other creatives like that?
CTS: We really try to work with black artists when and where we can. I tried to think of the album as a whole (including) the pictures that were taken of us by an artist called Ajamu X. He photographed us at 198 Gallery in Brixton, which is one of the few black-owned and run galleries. That was very much looking at the aesthetic of formal family pictures: it’s all quite thought out as a complete piece of work.
Finally, we’re nearly 50 years out from that first wave of punk, but it’s still resonant today. Why do you think it still has a relevance now?
CTS: I think Malcolm McLaren was brilliant at marketing the idea of it as a year zero, so it's become the key reference… in terms of where we are now, where everything's played out in the media, in a visual way, it comes from that first generation that really understood how to manipulate and how to work with those things. Rather than ‘just’ the music, it's about everything else.