Photo by Ellie Smith
Words by Jasmine Bourgeois
Big Joanie’s been making some big moves the last few years. The London-based trio has spent the last few years touring with punks like Downtown Boys, playing huge festivals like Afropunk UK, and gigging all over Europe. The most recent addition to their rapidly growing list of accomplishments is the release of their debut LP Sistahs. It’s their most refined work yet, but their sound has an unshakable grit to it that ties with their DIY punk roots.
The three started playing together at First Timers, a DIY festival that spotlights new bands and marginalized identities. Their origins seep through every part of their presence. This band drips with the DIY punk ethos — they’re in your face and have a clear voice, but are unafraid to be playful and interesting. Sistahs is an impressive testament to that. This release is good — like, play on loop for the entire day and tell everyone you know that they have to listen to it immediately-good. It’s polished, but their sound has a grit to it that keeps it grounded in the same place they built themselves from.
Tom Tom got the chance to chat with the trio about their start, DIY in London and other bands they’d love to play with.
TTM: Big Joanie came together at a First Timers competition, yeah? Can you talk more about what it was like starting a band that way? Did your style come together easily, or did it take a lot of trial and error?
BJ: Starting at First Timers made it easier for us to get going, as there was a set deadline by when we needed to be ready for our first gig, and it also gave us a community straight away. As every other band was playing for the first time too it made it feel like a really comfortable and supportive gig space – everyone was putting themselves out there and there was no pressure to be perfect.
Our style came together quite easily and naturally – it wasn’t really something we had any predisposed ideas about when we started. Steph had already written a few songs, and Chardine had an idea of how she wanted to play drums, so our style evolved from that.
TTM: From everything I’ve heard about you, you seem like a pretty politically vocal band. Do you think that’s true of your ethos?
Our approach to the band was always about creating space for ourselves as black women in the punk scene, and through that we also created space for other black people or punks of colour to see themselves represented on stage. We’re a DIY band and that’s in our ethos – we see ourselves as existing within the DIY punk community and that involves giving back and getting involved, for example by playing fundraisers for DIY venues, being a part of the volunteer team behind Decolonise Fest, running workshops at First Timers and for Girls Rock London, etc.
TTM: What are your thoughts on the DIY scene in London? How do you think Big Joanie’s embedded itself in the scene?
We feel like we’re a part of London’s DIY scene and have been playing in it for years. As much as the DIY scene has an impact on us and our lives, we hope that we’ve had an impact on it as well. We hope that more punks will start to have conversations around race and look at ways to get more people from poc communities involved and to help them feel welcome. This is part of the reason Decolonise Fest started – to highlight the fact that punks of colour exist in abundance and not as an anomaly.
TTM: You’ve described yourself as “similar to The Ronettes filtered through ’80s DIY and Riot Grrrl with a sprinkling of dashikis.” Can you talk more about how those sounds and styles influence you?
Steph was always influenced by 60s girl groups, and our sound references a lot of late 70s/80s/early 90s bands like X-Ray Spex, The Raincoats, Jesus and Mary Chain, Velvet Underground etc. The Riot Grrrl part of the description references our political attitude, and the dashikis is a reference to our heritage.
TTM: Sistahs is a KILLER album. Seriously. It has the same energy of your earlier stuff but refined into a really tight, complex style that still stays true to the edgy punky fuzz of your first few releases. Could you tell me more about the writing process? Did songs kind of come together over time on their own, or did you have a specific vision in mind?
Thanks! The songs came together over time (e.g. ‘Eyes’ has been in the works for a decade as one of the first songs Steph ever wrote), and we refined them all within the last couple of years. Working with the producer Margo Broom on these tracks really helped us to flesh them out, and she encouraged us to expand upon our ideas of what the songs could sound like. We’d never had a studio experience like that before with the opportunity to include other instruments that we didn’t own ourselves – for example there’s Wurlitzer on ‘Cut Your Hair’, and the synth parts that feature throughout the album came together at the studio. We wanted the album to sound different to our live experience, more like a full body of work, and working with Margo was really integral to making that happen.
TTM: Can you tell me more about the significance of featuring a photo of Steph’s mom on the cover?
The band is named after Steph’s mum Joan, and the name is meant to mean ‘strong woman’, using the term “big” in the sense that Caribbean people use it to mean that you’re “acting big” or “acting grown.” The photo is of Steph’s mum and aunt when they were teenagers on holiday in Wales. It’s a beautiful depiction of sisterhood and friendship, and a snapshot of Black British life from the past.
TTM: You’ve played at UK Afropunk, toured with Downtown Boys, and played with bands like Shopping and The Ex. That’s a pretty sick list! What are some other bands/festivals/venues you want to be involved with in the future?
We’d love to play Primavera because the line-up is always packed full of great artists that we’d love to see, and also it’d be a really good holiday. ESG are coming to the UK next year so if they’d like to squeeze us onto their bill that’d be great! If Sleater-Kinney or The Breeders asked us to play Steph would die. We also love Mitski, The Julie Ruin and Stevie Nicks. Any band with Rachel Aggs in (Shopping, Sacred Paws, Trash Kit) is always on our wishlist.
We’d love to be able to play in the States, as well as visiting more parts of Europe and the rest of the world, as we’d like to reach more punks of colour beyond the UK. We really enjoyed some of the venues we played in recently with Parquet Courts, like The Roundhouse in London, Paradiso in Amsterdam and Elysee Montmartre in Paris. It’d be amazing for us to play The Brixton Academy in London, as that’s a venue we grew up going to see punk bands at.
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