Stephanie Phillips is the lead singer and musician in the UK band Big Joanie. She was heavily influenced by riot grrrl. “Starting a Riot” producer Julie Sabatier got to talk to her just after Big Joanie toured through the Pacific Northwest in 2023.
Special thanks to JT Griffith
FULL EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
Julie Sabatier: Hey there, this is producer Julie Sabatier and I’m here with another extra interview for you. Stephanie Phillips is the lead singer and musician in the UK band, Big Joanie. She was heavily influenced by riot grrrl and I got to talk to her just after Big Joanie toured through the Pacific Northwest. I asked her about that influence.
Stephanie Phillips: You know, the concept of riot grrrl is something that I found when I was about 15 or 16. And I was like a teenage music nerd and would go through the NME and Kerrang magazines and those kind of weekly music magazines and look up all the bands and I think it must have been around the time when Le Tigre had their previous last album out, that lots of reviews started mentioning Bikini Kill and riot grrrl. And I was like, “oh, what’s that?” And then because I could have had access to the family computer and could spend all evening just on that, yeah, I just kind of researched and looked up a Bikini Kill and looked up what riot grrrl meant and spent hours downloading those free downloads from the Kill Rock Stars and label website. And it was really informative of what I understood as both feminism at that time, because I don’t think I had much of an understanding of what feminism was, but also really liberating in terms of how I approach culture in that really powerful idea that you can create, not just consume culture. It’s something that’s there for you to take part in, was really effective for me as a teenager and it’s still something that I lead with today. So, yeah, I think riot grrrl was really informative for us as, as a band in different ways.
Sabatier: And how do you think about your relationship to riot grrrl, to the movement, now?
Phillips: My relationship to riot grrrl is that it was something that was really important to me as a teenager and that was really informative. I don’t think it’s all of my music taste. I don’t think any riot grrrl fan would say that it encompasses all of their music taste. But it was a building block. It showed me the door that led to other things and all these other amazing things that you could do with music and with feminism and politics and kind of combining those. So, it’s something that I still really appreciate and getting to see so many of those bands from that era that I didn’t think I’d see and seeing, playing with Bikini Kill was amazing and it’s just so amazing to see them still kind of getting that recognition and getting that love because I don’t know if they got that at the time when they were around, but I hope they realize how many other generations they’ve inspired, and all of those, that era of bands recognize how many generations of young people they’ve inspired with their work. But yeah, I think it’s something that’s definitely a part of me. It’s not something I kind of think about every day, but every now and again, when it plays a Heavens to Betsy song that comes on or I think about the Bratmobile album, I’m just like, “oh, yeah, that was, that was really special.”
Sabatier: Yeah. And you — Big Joanie — you refer to yourselves loudly and often as a Black feminist punk band. And I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about what that means to you and why it’s important to say it loud and proud.
Phillips: Well, we kind of came up with it because it was, it was accurate because, you know, it’s a very literal definition of who we were, who we are. We’re Black women. We like being women, we’re feminists. We’re kind of proud of being Black and being women as well. So it was kind of like a literal definition, but also, at the time when we started in 2013, there weren’t loads of Black punk bands and there definitely weren’t loads of Black female-led punk bands. So, it did feel like a statement of fact, a statement of intent I should say, but to label ourselves and make sure people can’t push it to the side or pretend we’re not there. It’s like, no, we are Black, we’re women, we’re feminists and this is how we’re going to be on this stage and you have to kind of take notice of that and acknowledge that and acknowledge all of us rather than just trying to take our music or trying to take different aspects of us and putting our identity to the side. You know, identity, our identity was meant to be kind of at the forefront along with our music at that time. We still use that because I think that’s still accurate and I think it’s still needed to kind of, I don’t know, push our way through in that way. And, and it’s, I mean, it’s still as hard as it ever was for Black women to make a way through the music industry, especially in alternative music where it is just seen that you’re not really meant to be there, someone else is, you’re not meant to be on that stage, you’re not meant to be taking up any space in those kind of alternative music settings. So, saying that we’re Black women, we’re feminists and that we’re proud of it, I think is still, still that statement of intent. It’s still almost a controversial statement.
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Sabatier: And I understand that your song “Crooked Room” was inspired by a quote from journalist Melissa Harris-Perry. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Phillips: Sure. So, I was just, I wrote this ages ago. I was watching a video of her online and she’s talking about the crooked room theory that she wrote in her book, I think it was “Sister Citizen,” where she describes the kind of multitude of oppressions that a lot of women of color, specifically Black women, have to face, and how those oppressions that society impacts on you creates this distorted reality where you’re kind of told that you’re ugly, you’re not smart, you can’t do this, you can’t do that and [it] effectively builds this crooked room where you can’t figure out how to stand up straight and the song’s about kind of recognizing that, acknowledging that theory, which is such a good way of describing that kind of gaslighting that society does. And you know, once you acknowledge that the room is crooked, then hopefully, you can learn how to stand up straight and you can break out of that crooked room.
Sabatier: Yeah. And when you look back at, you know, riot grrrl or punk in the nineties, do you feel like the movement missed opportunities to be more inclusive of people of color and Black people specifically?
Phillips: So I think a lot of people have tried to unpick the whole riot grrrl, why was it so white? And to be honest, when, when we went through Portland and Seattle, it kind of made sense because those areas don’t have a lot of Black people, and I could imagine, especially in the nineties, there would have been even less. I think it was, it was a movement of its time and a movement of its context. It was set up by teenage girls that didn’t know loads about feminism and didn’t know loads about intersectionality and reaching out and it was set up by teenage white girls who were in a very specific area and an area that wasn’t very multicultural. So the limitations were there already. And I think I’ve definitely heard [Bikini Kill lead singer] Kathleen Hanna speak about this. I’ve heard [Bikini Kill drummer] Tobi Vail speak about it. [Musician] Corin Tucker spoke about this as well. They’ve all kind of acknowledged that the obvious issues were there at the start and there are obvious issues that are part of every aspect of our society. Now did it, did they need to change the way it [was] set up? I don’t know if they could have done. I don’t think you would have that movement in that way if they were as developed enough in their activist consciousness to be able to kind of recognize those faults. I think it would have been completely different. I do think from all the faults and all the issues that riot grrrl had also that it seemed like a very difficult movement for a lot of the bands of women involved at the time. Now, that’s kind of, with the passage of time, that’s kind of gone away. And, and I think that for me and generations later when we’re looking at that music and picking up those zines, that we don’t really see what happened at that time, we just see the words that are on the page or we listen to those lyrics or see those videos of those bands and just think, “oh, wow, that’s really amazing. That’s really empowering,” and we take it at that value. And so if you take out that value, you can then add whatever else you want to add on to that. And I think a lot of young, younger generations, definitely now, definitely a lot of Gen Zs have done that and they’ve kind of taken that and added their own modern intersectional perspective on things. So riot grrrl now has been heavily influenced by a lot of young people. So, it is far more diverse than it ever could have been and ever would be.
Sabatier: Yeah. That makes a lot of sense. And I heard that you learned to play guitar by listening to Sleater-Kinney’s album “Dig Me Out.” And, last year, Big Joanie played one of the songs on “Dig Me In,” the “Dig Me Out” covers record. How did that feel?
Phillips: It was very surreal. It was very, very surreal and it’s still very surreal. I can’t believe we did it. But yeah, that was, it was such an important album for me. I would play, yeah, I played along with “Dig Me Out.” I think I played along with Bikini Kill records as well. It was like those two bands I played along with in the early days to learn guitar, and Bratmobile as well actually I should say. But yeah, “Dig Me Out” was a really important record. It was just, it’s just so powerful and has such developed and emotional lyrics that as a teenager, you can read one thing into when you’re fully grown, you realize, “oh, they, they meant this,” and it has so much, so many different layers as you’re growing older and you, and the song grows with you. So, yeah, it’s, it was so amazing to be part of that record. It was so amazing to play with them. We played with and just before the pandemic, it was like the last one of the last big shows we did actually before lockdown happened in 2020. So, yeah, I mean, I think we’ve been very lucky that hopefully what we’re doing is reaching a lot of our, the people that inspired us and they can see that we were kind of following in their path and that we were kind of definitely heavily inspired by, Sleater-Kinney, Bikini Kill all these other, all these other bands and they want to help us and help acknowledge what we’re doing as well, which is really amazing and really generous.
Sabatier: And you said that you had recently, you just did this tour around the Pacific Northwest when you were in the U.S. and it was your first time coming to this part of the country. Is that right?
Phillips: Yeah. Yeah. It’s our first time ever.
Sabatier: And what did you think? I mean, what was it like for you to be here and to just kind of be in this place where some of the bands that you most admire started?
Phillips: It was amazing. It was really important. I mean, it made a lot of sense why so much good music came from there because it was so cold. It was so rainy, it was like England. So, I get why people want to stay inside and make really amazing songs. But yeah, it just, it just, it was important to see the context and important to see kind of where that came from, I think for us. And we really felt a really good connection with the Pacific Northwest, definitely Seattle. We kind of drove in and drove straight out of Portland, unfortunately, just due to like touring, timing and stuff like that. So we didn’t get to see a lot of Portland. But hopefully next time we’re there, we will do. But yeah, it was just, it was just really amazing to be there. We just, it’s very hard for English bands to get over to the States. So we just feel really lucky that we are able to get the visas and they haven’t kicked us out yet.
Sabatier: That’s great. Well, I’m glad you were here. Thank you so much for talking with me.
Phillips: Thanks. Yeah, thanks for having me.
Sabatier: Again, Stephanie Phillips is a singer and musician for Big Joanie. She’s also a music journalist and author, head over to BigJoanie.com to listen to the band’s new album. The Big Joanie song you heard in this episode is “Taut.” Our theme music is composed by Ray Aggs. Listen to their solo project and their bands — Trash Kit, Shopping and Sacred Paws.
Starting a Riot is brought to you by Oregon Public Broadcasting and She Shreds Media. Thanks to all the members who make podcasts possible at OPB. Our editor for this project is Sage Van Wing. Our sound engineers are Nalin Silva and Steven Kray, all mixing and mastering by Steven Kray.
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