Tom Hodgkinson meets Stephanie Phillips of Big Joanie and hears why, for her, punk means freedom
Tom Hodgkinson What I really liked about American punk in my era was the sense that – I suppose for me it’d be something like Dischord Records – the sense that there are these shaven-headed guys in hoodies sitting in an office packing up boxes of records and sending them around the world and answering fan letters, and also being serious about their everyday politics. It’s a little bit different from the pop star who just wants to make a load of money.
Stephanie Phillips Yeah, it’s a completely different ethos – it’s the idea that you can just do it yourself. That’s revolutionary to a teenager, because you’re generally just shown ways to conform. Even the rebellion that’s sold to you is very conformist. There’s the idea of teenage life where you have your friends, and you maybe go out drinking in the park, but you’re still situated within a certain boundary, you’re still meant to think about yourself in a particular way, and move within society in a particular way. Especially for teenage girls – it’s about being quiet, not expressing yourself. So to find a way to break that way of thinking, for me, was essential – or at least to see someone else doing it. And punk was also an early introduction to feminism.
TH Was there a gang of you? Did you have a little group who were the misfits and weirdos?
SP No, no. I was doing this on my own. There were people that liked indie, and people that kind of liked some of the stuff that I liked, but not all of it, not the riot grrrl stuff. I was ordering old PJ Harvey albums and getting really into my music as a hobby, and there wasn’t really anyone else doing that that I knew of.
TH What about your own guitar playing?
SP I got a guitar for my 16th birthday. My mum bought it for me, an acoustic guitar, it’s a Yamaha. I was playing Bikini Kill songs on my acoustic guitar. I played on my own. I didn’t take lessons because I found the idea a bit too scary, also a bit too strict. I tried lessons later on, in my early 20s, and it was so boring. I would never have stuck to it as a teenager.
TH That’s pretty punk as well.
SP I don’t really want anyone telling me what to do. That’s why I’m listening to this music! So I don’t want anybody telling me how to play, either.
TH When did you first form a band?
SP It took a while. As much as I loved punk and indie, the reality was that there were barely any women in it, and there weren’t any visible black women. It’s only Poly Styrene that I remember finding as a teenager. As soon as I saw her I was like, “Oh, that’s a black girl, that’s really cool.” I was very shy as a kid and in my early 20s. But I was still really interested in music. When I went to university, Kingston in Surrey, studying journalism, I started a music blog, because it was connected to my course, but it also gave me a chance to keep up with music.
TH Did you meet more like-minded people at Kingston?
TH Because you’re quite unusual, I suppose.
SP Yeah, there aren’t many people who are into what I’m into. Then I saw an advert for Ladyfest, a women-focused music festival. They wanted female-fronted bands and were looking for people to help. I got involved in organising that. And that’s when I found more people who were into the same things. I found a message board looking for people to start bands, and I found a person called Ray who was playing guitar and wanted to start a riot grrrl-influenced band. I started my first band. It was called My Therapist Says Hot Damn. It’s a silly name and I always hated it, but that’s how I found my first band. So now I had a little gang, and played shows and went to gigs, and met other people in the London punk scene, in the DIY scene. It was my first gang, which was really, really cool.
TH And you’ve stayed punk. It’s not just a phase.
SP Having experienced that sort of freedom, I didn’t see how I could give it up or go backwards. I won’t just give in and accept whatever other people want to sell you. No. I want to create my own things.
This is a short extract from a longer interview with Big Joanie in Idler #82, Jan/Feb 2022.
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