New band of the week: Big Joanie
Introducing the sweet, riot grrrl-influenced sounds of London punks Big Joanie
Gather around, new music fans, for this week we celebrate the glorious sounds of London punks Big Joanie. Spurred by a desire to increase the visibility of women of colour within the punk scene, the three-piece make music which combines the best of 80s indie, 90s riot grrrl and chart-toppling R&B girl bands to delightfully noisy effect.
On the cusp of the release of their debut album, we catch up with the band to find out more about their music, what they've been up to and what they have lined up for next.
Can you introduce yourselves – where are you from, who does what and what are your roles in the band?
Steph: "I’m the guitarist and singer in Big Joanie. I’m originally from Wolverhampton but live in South London now."
Estella: "I’m from London, and I play bass and do some backing vocals."
Chardine: "I play drums, from Walthamstow grew up in the East Midlands and now based in Brixton."
How did you guys meet and start making music together?
Steph: "Back in 2013, I was already in a feminist punk band called My Therapist Says Hot Damn, but I felt I wanted more from the punk scene. There were loads of conversations about intersectionality and black feminism in wider society, but the punk scene kinda remained the same. I saw a callout for bands for a new event called First Timers where all the bands had to be new, most of the member had to be playing a new instrument and they had to include someone from a marginalised group. I thought it was the perfect time to start a black punk band so I put a message on Facebook asking for people to join. Chardine replied immediately and then we found our first bassist, Kiera, through Facebook as well. When Kiera moved to Glasgow Estella joined the band. She plays in loads of bands in the DIY scene so we knew she’d add a lot to the band."
Estella: "I lived in York for a few years and whilst there I came across a music blog that Steph used to run, and heard about Big Joanie through that. When I moved back to London in 2015 I was really keen to see this black feminist punk band I’d been hearing so much about. I saw they were playing in Camden so I asked the promoter if my band JUNK. could join the bill, and they said yes. After that we played together quite a few other times and crossed paths a lot in London. I filled in once for Chardine on drums at Leeds Queerfest in 2016, I think she couldn’t make it because of work. Then when Kiera moved to Glasgow I joined the band full time, and I’ve been playing bass for them since January 2017."
Chardine: "I saw Steph at a Black Feminist meeting and added her on Facebook as I saw she played guitar and I remember she had a Sleater-Kinney bag. There weren’t that many black girls I knew who were into that sort of thing. I then saw her post on Facebook about starting an all black girl punk band. I didn't know how to play anything – I had a few guitar lessons when I was 16 and that was it! But I just thought if I was gonna learn how to play anything, this felt like the perfect environment to do so. I’m not sure why I decided on drums, other than I could keep time."
What were your key influences/inspirations in getting the band together?
Steph: "My influences were riot grrrl, The Breeders, Throwing Muses and lots of 60s girl groups. I wanted the band to help start a conversation about black people’s contribution to punk and other genres beyond the usual places we’re expected to be. I think that’s definitely happening more now, whether we’ve influenced conversation or not."
Chardine: "Mine were The Jesus And Mary Chain, The Shop Assistants, Beat Happening and bands that I grew up loving like The Misfits, The Vaselines. A lot of 80s DIY stuff. Like Steph said, it was about starting a conversation but also just having fun whilst playing the music that you love."
How would you describe your sound in three words for people who’ve never heard you?
Steph: "Poppy, direct, emotive."
Estella: "Angular, catchy, sincere."
Chardine: "What they said."
What makes you special/different to other bands out there?
Steph: "I think we sound different to other bands in the DIY scene at the moment. I don’t know what makes us special. Maybe that’s for other people to decide. We definitely have a message to spread the word about black feminist struggles and heroines. Our gigs certainly aren’t lectures, but we definitely bring people into our world when we play."
Estella: "I’ve always thought Steph’s guitar lines and melodies are really great – they can flick between being super melodic and poppy to a carefully constructed discordance. I’m not sure if there’s something that makes us tangibly unique, but we’re definitely comfortable experimenting with our sound and not following any set musical rules."
Chardine: "Not sure about being ‘special’ as I feel that all the bands on the scene are unique in some way, and just as sincere in what they stand for as we are. Also there is a constant comparison between bands especially those that are led by women. We are who we are and we are sincere in what we do and I think that’s enough."
What’s the story behind your last single Crooked Room – what’s it about and how did it come together?
Steph: "Crooked Room was inspired by a Melissa Harris-Perry quote where she compares black women having to navigate this sexist, racist, patriarchal world as trying to find your vertical in a room where everything is crooked. It’s about how the society distorts the way we see the world around us to try and make us fail or stumble. The song is about recognising those boundaries so we can break out of that room and create rooms of our own."
You’re recording a new album. What’s your favourite story/anecdote from recording?
Steph: "We’ve nearly finished recording our debut album with a producer Margo Broom at Hermitage Works Studio. We spent loads of time huddled on the sofa under a snuggie watching Margo edit the tracks. We really enjoyed adding extra textures and structures to our songs. It’s the first time we’ve ever properly worked on harmonising our vocals and perfecting them. We spent a lot of time going over them and making sure they were just right."
Estella: "It’s the first time recording an album for all of us, so it was really great to share that experience together. We’ve never had the opportunity to spend days just immersed in making music – as opposed to squeezing in a band practice one night after work or something. I really enjoyed having different guitars, pedals, synthesizers and other instruments on hand, to add layers to the tracks we might never have thought of. Working with Margo gave me a lot of insight into things to consider when songwriting and recording, and how there’s no need to be restrictive or limit your ideas. I’m also really glad that Margo introduced us to the joys of a slanket."
Chardine: "Margo is a genius! I met her as she randomly offered to fix my laptop for me. I really felt she pushed us to be the best we could be and being in the studio is one of the most creatively fulfilling experiences I have had. Best memories include realising that I could sing in tune, learning new terms and studio techniques and playing a vintage stylophone."
What do you hope people will take away from the album and your music in general?
Steph: "I hope it’s a good introduction to who we are as a band. Ultimately I hope people just find it fun and will want to listen to it for whatever reason and read their own interpretations into our songs. I’m just really excited to see it actually become part of the real world."
Estella: "Hopefully people see it as the culmination of a few years’ work and growth. Having been a First Timers band I think there’s been a lot of learning as we go along, which aligns with my experience of playing in bands before Big Joanie too. I think we feel much more confident and able to articulate ourselves through our music and through what we talk about at shows – whether it’s things like navigating interpersonal relationships, or navigating the oppressive structure of a patriarchal society at large. We’re really happy with the way the recordings sound and I think they’ve managed to capture the various aspects of what we’re about. Hopefully that’ll come through to others when they hear it!"
Chardine: "I hope people will see how we have grown musically and have really tried to make the album a listening experience rather than just a reflection of us playing live. Just like my favourite albums, I hope people will be able to connect to it on an emotional level as much as a political/intellectual one. Our songs are about our lives, and I think there are themes in the album that are universal: love, hate, heartbreak. Anyone, regardless of their background, can connect to those."
What do you think is the standout track you’ve recorded so far?
Steph: "I really enjoyed working on Fall Asleep. We’ve really reworked it and added synths and extra beats. It’s kinda become a dance track which is really different for us."
Estella: "I think Eyes sounds really great, and I love that it’s the first song Steph ever wrote for Big Joanie. It’s morphed over time and I think it’s become bigger and more ambitious, and has now captured some of the influences that Chardine always had in regards to that song."
Chardine: "Fall Asleep always has a Joy Division type sound to it when we play it live, so we added some synths and percussion and now it feels like it could easily have been blasting out the speakers in the Hacienda circa late 80s. Cut Your Hair I think is such a beautiful song, I get emotional when hearing it."
What's been the highlight of your time in the band so far?
Steph: "I felt proud playing Afropunk London in 2016 as that was a really big gig. Last year we toured three times and met so many amazing people so the whole of last year was amazing to me."
Estella: "It’s hard to choose, as we’ve had loads of great moment, so I’m just gonna list a few: I loved my first gig with Big Joanie – it was for the London Short Film Festival, so there was a screening of a Bad Brains documentary and Chardine chaired a panel discussion with other women of colour in punk/alternative music. It was such a fun and overall fantastic night, and I got a permanent place in the band at the end of it! Other highlights were definitely touring with Downtown Boys and Sad13, as they’re all such talented musicians with important messages as well as just wonderful people. And also playing Supersonic Fest in Birmingham – there’s such a great atmosphere there, it’s a really diverse and exciting festival with a mix of music and panel discussions, plus Chardine absolutely killed it at the Black Sabbath Karaoke they hosted on the Saturday night."
Chardine: "I love touring! All have been great but the highlight for me has been touring with Downtown Boys. It was amazing to travel with another POC punk band and they were inspiring to watch and learn from. Black Sabbath Karaoke in Brum was also a highlight!"
What can people expect if they come to see you live?
Steph: "They’ll have fun, they’ll dance a lot and they might be reminded about their favourite 90s girl groups."
Estella: "Having fun and dancing is definitely encouraged, people can also expect us to be honest about explaining the influences behind our songs."
Chardine: "Good tunes, good banter."
What are you most looking forward to about the future – what’s coming next?
Steph: "We’re really looking forward to finishing the album and getting it out to the world. We’d love to tour Europe and hopefully America at some point as well. We want to reach more black women and girls who might not think that punk is a place for them."
Estella: "I agree with Steph, having an album out there is something we’re all so excited about, plus it’s the perfect excuse to get back out on tour! We can’t wait to reach new people and revisit those who’ve been so welcoming towards us on previous tours."
Chardine: "Super excited about releasing the album and having our friends and families hear it. Touring the album in the UK and Europe and a music video!"