Name: Big Joanie
Members: Stephanie Phillips (guitar), Estella Adeyeri (bass), Chardine Taylor-Stone (drums)
Interviewee: Estella Adeyeri

Nationality: American
Occupation: Instrumentalists, singers, songwriters
Current Release: Big Joanie's Back Home is out November 4th 2022 via Daydream Library Series (UK) and Kill Rock Stars (US).
Recommendations: M(h)aol, Gender Studies EP; Nekra, Royal Disruptor EP

If you enjoyed this interview with Big Joanie and would like to stay up to date with the band, visit their official website. The trio is also on Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.

When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?

I first started playing music at 4 years old, playing the piano. I think I was drawn to music at first thanks to my parents, as my Dad would always be playing cassettes in the car or records at home (he was a big fan of Sam Cooke). Then I was drawn to alternative music around 10 or 11 years old, when my sister Vicky introduced me to the radio station XFM and therefore guitar music.

I started playing music with school friends pretty much immediately after getting my first electric guitar around 13, but I didn’t play my first “proper gig” until I was about 23 in my first band JUNK. I think I started writing music as soon as I could, making up stuff on the piano and then eventually on guitar, and spent my teen years writing some truly terrible lyrics.

I think I was drawn to music as it was something I found that I was really able to lose myself in, and probably also soothe myself with too. I was drawn to the way music could evoke certain emotions, or certain memories. And playing music was something that I could sit and do on my own, which I think other family members appreciated as I was the youngest sibling.

I grew up experiencing the eras of noughties British indie, the “The” bands phase, and the US pop punk and emo explosion. So I was hearing and seeing bands like Bloc Party, Interpol, Funeral for a Friend, Paramore, My Chemical Romance and Taking Back Sunday. This eventually led me towards listening to the bands who influenced the bands I was seeing, artists like Far, Nirvana, At The Drive-In, Fugazi, and listening to other adjacent genres.

I was drawn to music that was emotive and melodic across genres, and the music magazines I was reading covered indie (NME), rock (Kerrang!) and metal (Metal Hammer) and I soaked up as much as I could about those scenes.

When I listen to music, I see shapes, objects and colours. What happens in your body when you're listening and how does it influence your approach to creativity?

Listening to music can create or ease tension in my body. It can change a mood or scene; I often listen to more ambient or abstract music when I want to concentrate but don’t want silence, I like post-hardcore when I want to feel like a badass, I like a poppy melody when I want to dance or want a pick me up, I listen to punk when I want to feel motivated.

Creatively I don’t feel like I necessarily have control over the music that comes out when I’m making my own material. I’ll have a sense of a certain mood but not necessarily how that’ll end up being expressed. Though when writing with other people they usually describe what they want the song to evoke or refer to rather than speaking in overly theoretical terms, so I’ll usually try to interpret that and fold my parts around that feeling.

How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?

I’ve always been interested in learning to play more and more instruments, that’s why I was happy to move from guitar to bass when a friend’s band was looking for a bassist, and to teach myself drums when some other friends wanted to start a riot grrrl band. I usually tend to write parts that I can’t immediately play, so I suppose I like to challenge myself in that way.

I was pushed to try and find my own voice during lockdown, when I was learning to use an analog synth (a Moog Sub Phatty), as well as learning to use Ableton, and learning how to record and produce my own solo music. I hadn’t written any solo music prior to the pandemic, and whilst I had experience doing live sound, recording myself was new to me.

I found that working with MIDI instruments opened up a lot of new possibilities in terms of the styles and sounds I could play with. Creating my own music also forced me to try and like my own vocals a bit more.

Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.

I guess the most obvious aspects of my identity would be the visible ones, me being a Black woman, whilst layered within that is a Black British person who grew up in London in the nineties and noughties, of Dominican (not the Republic) and Nigerian descent, a music fan in a fairly broad sense (watching it live, listening, creating, performing, recording, writing about it), a Black feminist, a youngest sister, a lapsed Arsenal fan.

I suppose I do make more of an active effort in recent years to seek out artists who share certain aspects of my identity, whether its similar feminist principles, shared diasporic history or life experiences, although my listening tastes aren’t solely defined by that.

Creatively I enjoy being able to understand as much of the process as possible, in the sense that if I’m making music with a band I’ll want to fully understand what’s happening with each part or instrument, not just my own, or what’s happening in the studio to translate that sound from its live setting. I think this comes from being involved in DIY communities where being able to do everything has either been encouraged, a necessity or both.

What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?

I like harmony, including melodies that on the surface may seem disharmonious. I like knowing musical rules with the aim to bend and break them in interesting ways, as I don’t think there’s truly a “wrong” way to make music, and I hate the way that the idea that they might be can often prevent someone from taking the steps to make their own.

Channelling and reworking influences will always be more interesting than just replication. Perfectionism can often stall progress.

How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?

I think there’s room for both. There will always be styles that mean a lot to certain communities, subcultures, and so on, things that will always feel warm to revisit.

I would hesitate to discard tradition solely for the sake of wanting to appear innovative, as surely what’s new will always have traceable origins in what has gone before. But I’m interested to see how people draw from and combine different traditions to create something new, rather than a straight rehash of what’s already been.

Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?

Probably more a state of mind rather than anything physical – the conviction to create what feels right to you rather than following trends, knowing that fuck-ups will happen on stage and that it won’t be the end of the world when they do, knowing that a lot of people might not connect with your music and that that’s okay, and that beautiful things can come from the people who do connect with it.

Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please.

Making music is not my full time job so most recently my routine has been waking up, giving myself an hour to shower, put together a black and yellow outfit, and do my hair and makeup, this somehow not being enough time, dashing to the tube to Oxford Circus, using this brief commute to read or listen to a podcast, opening up the record store I work in (Third Man Records), choosing which records to play throughout the day;

Wandering through Soho at lunchtime specifically to other record stores and my favourite vintage shop (Reign Vintage), speaking to fans of the label and fans of our boss, explaining to curious visitors why there’s so much yellow and so much White Stripes merch in the store, shutting up shop, probably going to see a band play, probably staying out too late with friends, going to bed.

Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece, live performance or album that's particularly dear to you, please?

The creative process for Big Joanie’s new album Back Home was interesting as we went to the studio armed with the knowledge of what was possible to do in there, whereas with Sistahs we weren’t thinking as big, as it was our first album and we didn’t know that we could.

For Back Home we were able to think about soundscapes, textures, different backdrops for our songs and imagine instruments that we didn’t own or know how to play weaving their way into our songs. The process was also disjointed and delayed, with some of the songs written and making their stage debut just before the global pandemic took over, with others springing to life about a year later when vaccinations finally allowed us to be in a room together again.

I think the comfort of being able to commune through music once more is present on the album, along with Steph’s musings on home and displacement.

Listening can be both a solitary and a communal activity. Likewise, creating music can be private or collaborative. Can you talk about your preferences in this regard and how these constellations influence creative results?

I prefer to create music collaboratively, and enjoy the challenge being in a room with a group of people who all interpret music slightly differently. I feel more motivated when working collaboratively, probably because there are people to hold me to account if I don’t practice.

I definitely prefer performing collaboratively, as it’s never predictable, and there’s something slightly magical about that exchange of energy between musicians playing live. Though creating music alone allows for a flow of thought and introspection that I rarely leave myself enough time for.

There is something joyful about listening to music with people, especially soaking in a new record, seeing each other’s responses, dissecting the nuances of every note. Listening to records all day for work (aware this sounds like a brag) I get to see the moment where someone gets hooked onto something they’ve not heard before and seeks to find out what it is, or the smile of realising they’re hearing something familiar, or a forgotten favourite, or reminiscent of another artist.

Listening alone can feel so natural that I forget it’s an activity in and of itself, but I do consider it a cherished one.

How do your work and your creativity relate to the world and what is the role of music in society?

I do think music can bring people together, as cheesy as it sounds. But creating music often helps me to make sense of the world, just as listening to the music of others does, or helps me to make sense of what I’m feeling, or can help me to see what is possible, or imagine things that are impossible.

I don’t know if I’ve figured out music’s core role in society, but I know that we need it, and that it deserves to be valued more highly than it currently is, not just in terms of financial remuneration (though I’m begging – please that too), but also in the sense of its intangible qualities, the things it makes us feel, that can’t be quantified.

Art can be a way of dealing with the big topics in life: Life, loss, death, love, pain, and many more. In which way and on which occasions has music – both your own or that of others - contributed to your understanding of these questions?

I think that hearing someone else’s lyrics about grief can definitely help with unlocking your own feelings, or understanding that you’re not the only person feeling that way, even though it can seem very isolating and overwhelming, and we all come to it through specifically personal ways.

Creating music during times such as that can be cathartic, or it can be difficult to find the will to create at all. I think over time I have used writing music to process certain events and emotions, even if it’s not always been apparent at the time.

How do you see the connection between music and science and what can these two fields reveal about each other?  

I might see some of the patterns we have in music having some basis in science and mathematics, but otherwise I don’t know if I have enough scientific knowledge to draw any profound links.

I do think that both fields are creative, and that theory alone doesn’t dispel the sense that there is a little magic sprinkled in there.

Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you feel as though writing or performing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?

I suppose that what’s mundane to one person may not be to another. I’m sure there’s lots of people out there making coffee with creativity and flair, though my time as a barista was brief and my skills mediocre, so I am not one of those people.

For me personally I probably come to life more through music than when I’m doing anything else – expressing myself comes easier, it’s almost as though I can breathe easier and be more of my authentic self.

Music is vibration in the air, captured by our ear drums. From your perspective as a creator and listener, do you have an explanation how it able to transmit such diverse and potentially deep messages?

Honestly? No.

I’m grateful for it but I can’t claim to understand how it can affect us in so many ways.