MFestival organizers may panic upon discovering that their headlines have Covid. But if the news that Rachel Aggs now can’t close the second night of the Decolonise Fest shakes Steve Phillips’ confidence, it doesn’t show as she quietly multitasks, looks for a replacement and welcomes volunteers working for the event into this East London sitting room later. tonight. Phillips founded the DIY Festival in 2017 to “promote a community of like-minded people” and a center for “color manipulation experiments.” show must go on. “Festival is essential, it is essential in the landscape,” she says, with a distinctly quiet design.
The Decolonise Fest is just one series of the Phillips Arch. A journalist and author, she is also a singer and guitarist for Big Joanie, the punk group she formed nearly a decade ago with drummer Chardin Taylor Stone. The couple first met at Imkaan, a black feminist organization. Taylor Stone later says at Signature Brew in Haggerston: “Young women were getting involved in feminism again, but the mainstream was very white. I wanted to find black female spaces, discussing writers like Audrey Lord and Bell Hawks.” At Imkaan, she took her shoulders with author Reni Eddo-Lodge and journalist Lola Okolosie. But it was Phillips, the Wolverhampton-raised woman carrying a tote that celebrates raincoats after the baddies, who made the deepest impression.
“We met later in Brixton to discuss creating a band,” Phillips says. A die-hard Destiny’s Child fan in her youth, as a Phillips teen she was seduced by the Bloc Party, My Chemical Romance, and the riot movement. It was her first band, an anarchist outfit called My Therapist Says Hot Damn! , frustrating experience. In her excellent 2021 book, Why Solange Matters—a celebration of Knowles’ other sister who brilliantly doubles as Phillips’ private memoir—she wrote of the feeling of the words within her “rushing out—but I didn’t know how to release them.”
In Big Joanie, Phillips found her voice. Accompanied by Taylor Stone—who played stand-up drums in honor of her beloved Jesus and Mary Chain—and founding guitarist Kira Coward Diehl (later replaced by Estella Addiere), Phillips’ new songs eschewed polemical slogans in favor of malevolent intelligence (symbol) and healing confessions (used to be friends). . Stylizing themselves as “riot grrrl meets Ronettes, sprinkled with dashikis,” they were black, feminists and proud. “It wasn’t an overtly political act,” Taylor Stone says. But making music with black women felt cool. No longer being the only black musicians in the group meaning there was no need for code-switching at all – we could be completely ourselves.”
They debuted at the London Show for bands’ first-ever gigs, and were pitching for more gigs as soon as they walked off the stage. At an early show, they met Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, who signed them to his Daydream Library Series label, and released their debut album of 2018, systahs. Meanwhile, backing slots with champions like Sleater-Kinney, Skunk Anansie, and Gossip spawned a taste for bigger theaters, helping shape Back Home, the Sistahs’ follow-up. “We’re a DIY band, but this is an ambitious album,” Taylor Stone says. “Those teams started in scenes like ours and built themselves to fill spaces like Brixton Academy. We want to lead those stages ourselves, so we made a record that works on that scale.”
In fact, Back Home is just as emotionally complex and personal as its predecessor, but more akin to the group’s love of hooks, a playful fusion of wear and melody. Phillips cites the Throwing Muses’ “strange stumbling path” toward pop music as a primary influence, while Buzzcocks’ Taylor-Stone verifies, because “they have tunes, and they tell stories.” But Back Home’s broken pop confidence contrasts with the messy, scattered nature of her creativity. Rents in London have seen Taylor Stone move to Manchester and Phillips to Birmingham, leaving only Adairy in the capital. Taylor Stone jokes, “It just means we have to catch more trains,” but that reality has complicated Big Joanie’s operations. “It wasn’t like in the ’70s, when groups could sit or log in,” she adds. “It’s very difficult to be an artist now.”
The struggle is real. But Big Joanie are believers, committed and sustained by the community they built. “I love the opportunity to make your own culture,” Phillips says, referring to the Decolonise Fest, to Big Joanie’s thriving fan base. She adds, “I don’t always have a specific audience in mind when I write songs, but I hope that everything we do is always relevant to the black community, and specifically, black women – who feel seen and heard in our songs and what we do.”
“People call us a lot of things, but we’re still punks,” she adds, “because the word ‘punk’ means freedom to me. It’s open and ever-growing. When I was a teenager, I wanted to sing along with the music, but I was too shy. …but now I sing all the time. To be able to bring that noise and worry and energy out into the world—that’s the version I’ve always needed.”
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