This spring marks the first time Big Joanie, who bill themselves as a Black feminist punk band, have toured America, and singer/guitarist Stephanie Phillips is ready for the adventure. Big Joanie is playing at The Hideout on Wednesday, March 22 for Treefort 11.
“We’ve never been to any of the cities on this tour, like Salt Lake City, we’ve never been to, or Seattle,” she said in an early March video interview, noting she wasn’t even sure until recently how to pronounce Boise, where Big Joanie will play at the Treefort Music Fest. “We’re just really looking forward to it, to seeing what that side of America is like.”
It seems like a live, in-person introduction to Big Joanie is overdue, considering the British female trio has been together since 2013 and has two full-length albums, three EPs and several singles under their belt. The issue was simple economics.
“Obviously for British bands coming to America, it’s very, very expensive,” Phillips said. “We just haven’t had the money before, but now we have management and some people helping us to get here.”
Those people also include Kill Rock Stars, the record label that has released Big Joanie’s excellent current album, “Back Home.” In the United Kingdom, the buzz for the band has been building for some time, and Phillips thinks there’s been a bump in awareness for Big Joanie in the states as well.
“I think we kind of grew in popularity during the pandemic. I’m not really sure how. We released ‘Cranes in the Sky’ single, so maybe that helped reach new people,” she said, mentioning the cover of the Solange song that was released as a stand-alone single in 2020. “And Kill Rock Stars has helped massively in terms of our reach. And then there’s all just that weird kind of cross-cultural exchange of Black musicians where Black British artists seem to do better in America and African artists seem to do better in the UK, oddly, sometimes, and I think that might be it. We are British, we are kind of a novelty and are quite explicit in what we are and what we stand for. And I think there is a bigger audience in the states for kind of our version of blackness.”
Big Joanie’s version of blackness — not to mention their approach to punk — is unique, so much so that Phillips felt she needed to create a community of like-minded musicians in London to avoid feeling isolated.
She started out in a punk band called My Therapist Says Hot Damn but found the existing punk scene in London to be less than inclusive. In 2013, she posted a message on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to play in a Black punk rock band. Drummer Chardine Taylor-Stone was the first to respond, followed by bassist Kiera Coward-Deyell, to complete the original lineup of Big Joanie. Coward-Deyell, however, moved to Scotland in 2017. Estella Adeyeri joined on bass in time to record the band’s 2018 debut full-length album, “Sistahs.”
In tandem with getting the band established, Phillips, Adeyeri and Taylor-Stone have also been active in other efforts to bring together Black female artists and bands. Phillips and Adeyeri are closely involved in staging London’s annual Decolonise Fest, which hosts performances from an array of female punk-rooted acts of color, while Adeyri also works with a music program called Girls Rock London. Taylor-Stone is involved in the LGBTQ community, is writing a book on Black feminism and in 2021 served as vice chair of the Musician Union’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
Phillips said she’s seen considerable progress with these and other efforts in giving Black musicians a sense of community and recognition.
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“I think the amazing thing about what’s happened in the last couple of years is that there has been a community, both as a result of Decolonise and our collective and how we’ve been putting on these festivals and different events and just giving people a place to come to and see that music and to recognize that we exist also,” she said. “Also, there are things that are kind of starting outside of what we’re doing, different kind of punk nights. There are different kinds of nights that celebrate Black emo, all these different things that are saying look (we’re here).”
On a career level, Big Joanie have made strides as well. The “Sistahs” album marked a big step forward. Before making the album, the band signed to Daydream Library Series, a UK record label run by Thurston Moore (of Sonic Youth fame) and Eva Prinz, a noted visual book editor, after Moore had seen Big Joanie at a club gig and introduced himself to the band.
“Sistahs” received positive reviews from a number of media outlets in the UK, as well as Rolling Stone and Pitchfork. Next came the deal with Kill Rock Stars, which set the stage for the writing and recording of “Back Home” and the full-on introduction of Big Joanie to U.S. audiences.
“Back Home” marks a leap forward musically, as Big Joanie considerably expanded their stylistic and sonic palate.
“When we recorded ‘Sistahs’ we had never worked with a producer before. So it was all very new to us,” Phillips said. “We kind of approached it playing our parts that we played live. And we kind of added, did a few overdubs, but it mostly sounded like a live album. For this album, ‘Back Home,’ we were a lot more aware of like how we could move in the studio and what we could add and make us of, so we allowed ourselves to not just think of ourselves as a three-piece band.”
The result is a compelling album that goes well beyond the fast-loud sound many associate with punk, as the songs touch on a wide range of intensities, textures and styles. Rockers like “Taut,” “Happier Still,” “What Are You Waiting For” and “In My Arms” have ingredients of punk, as they generate tension and addictive hooks in equal measure. But then there’s “Confident Man” a perky tune that could just as easily be called synth-pop, and “Count To 10,” which takes synth-pop in more of a retro direction with its vintage Casio-like sound. “Your Words” and “Insecure” also traffic heavily in synthetic tones, only with more of an epic sound.
To singer/guitarist Phillips, describing Big Joanie’s music as punk makes perfect sense when put in a broader context.
“I think we definitely come from an idea of punk that is rooted in the DIY and kind of liberating yourself, that anything can be punk. I think that is because of the origins of punk where we center it around bands like the Raincoats, Slits and even X-Ray Specs, all bands that really challenged that definition of what punk could be,” Phillips said. “That’s the approach we were coming from. I never write a song and think ‘Oh, this doesn’t sound like a punk song’ because every song that we write, to me, is coming from that punk frame of mind. Whatever we do is rebellious and is about countering those norms.”
Fans can expect Big Joanie to feature many of the songs from “Back Home” in their shows this spring. The trio is bringing along a guitarist/keyboardist to help replicate the expanded instrumentation of the latest album.
“We’re playing a lot of our new album ‘Back Home.’ We’ve been playing ‘Sistahs’ for longer than ‘Sistahs’ has been released. When it came out it was our set list, basically,” Phillips said. “So we’ve been playing some of those songs since the beginning of the band. Yeah, when we started this tour, we were ready to play the new songs, really. We’re playing a lot of the album.”