Camp Cope: “We want to empower anyone to tell their truth and make a difference”

Known and admired for their fiery activism, the rock trio capture the zeitgeist differently and evolve their sound on new album ‘Running With The Hurricane’

Camp Cope seem exhausted. It’s a sweaty January day in Melbourne when NME meets the band at an inner-northern pub. It’s just gone midday and the three musicians – singer, songwriter and guitarist Georgia Maq, bassist Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich, and drummer and band manager Sarah ‘Thomo’ Thompson – are all visibly tired. Hellmrich paces the room with a phone to her ear, on hold with an airline; Thompson picks at a sandwich; Maq, on a day off from working as a nurse, sits quietly in a corner, catching a moment of respite. Their publicist, Genna, sits at another table, tapping away at her laptop.

The weary, even sombre scene befits the mood in the city that unwillingly went from most livable to most locked down over two long years. Melbourne’s usually buzzing atmosphere has been tense for weeks thanks to the Omicron variant: gigs have been cancelled, people have entered self-imposed lockdown, and everyone is looking for rapid antigen tests.

NME Australia Cover 2022 Camp Cope
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

But sitting alongside the fatigue is an undeniable sense of pride. NME is meeting Camp Cope to talk about ‘Running With The Hurricane’, their first album in four years. It marks a change of pace for a band who made their name with self-described ‘power emo’ songs that often addressed pressing issues head-on, especially on their last record, 2018’s ‘How To Socialise & Make Friends’.

But ‘Hurricane’ captures the zeitgeist in a different way. The record is more relaxed, both sonically and lyrically – it’s the work of a band slowed down, at peace with the madness of the world and themselves.

“It’s just a change in perspective because of what the world has experienced the last few years,” Maq says. “In Australia, we had the bushfires and I was like, ‘how can anything be worse than this? This is terrible.’ And then COVID happened.

“The hurricane really felt like a metaphor for chaos and loss of control, and just going with that.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Camp Cope
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

Indeed, the 10 songs on ‘Hurricane’ find the band in a state of grace. Lyrically, there’s more focus on positive emotions – love, hope, faith – than anger or shame, which heavily marked their earlier work. Even when Camp Cope approach feelings of anxiety or uncertainty, they do so with the assuredness that comes with growing older and surviving.

For instance, the contentious, utterly millennial subject of double texting – sending a message, then another before the first gets a response – is broached on both ‘Blue’ and ‘Jealous’. All three members laugh when asked about it, but Maq’s response typifies the calm confidence that is evident on the album: “I don’t care – I have nothing to lose. If you don’t like me, you don’t like me, I don’t want to be with someone who doesn’t fully embrace all my insanity… Double texting is fine. Double text your heart out.” Thompson jokes, “The original title of ‘Sing Your Heart Out’ is ‘Double Text Your Heart Out’.”

Musically, the key elements of Camp Cope’s trademark sound are still there: Maq’s powerful yet carefully controlled vocals, Hellmrich’s unique, creative bass lines, Thompson’s steady drumming. But they teeter on the edge of alt-country territory, with luscious group vocals, gentle instruments such as piano, and richer textures. There’s an ease to the record that feels like letting out a long breath.

NME Australia Cover 2022 Camp Cope
Camp Cope on the cover of NME Australia #27

It may seem ironic considering the state of the world, but this newfound peace may not have been possible were it not for the last two years. Camp Cope’s initial plans to record in Philadelphia in March 2020 were scuppered when borders slammed shut around the world, forcing the trio to take an extended break after a relentless schedule of recording and touring since 2016.

“I remember being so excited on the last tour that we did in Japan – we were so exhausted and it was such a nice tour to end four years on, and now we get to have a break, record the record, and take a bit of time and chill for a bit. And then I remember in April, I was like: ‘God, this is absolutely not what I meant!’” Thompson laughs.

In this limbo, the members of Camp Cope took the opportunity to decompress and rediscover themselves outside of the band. “I’d never relaxed in 30 years,” Thompson jokes, recalling the “phases of the pandemic”: Tiger King, sourdough, TikTok oven pasta, jigsaw puzzles.

“I like knowing what I want, and being able to say it and know that it’s going to work”

Hellmrich relocated to her hometown in Western Sydney last year, reconnecting with a past self in the process. “Moving back home has been really important to me – it’s helped me find who I was before moving to Melbourne and playing music, and I think it’ll probably bring a new perspective to the way that I make music,” she says.

Maq, who is a qualified nurse, rejoined the workforce as a COVID-19 vaccinator. She had previously sung about feeling detached from the job in the 2016 Camp Cope song ‘Flesh and Electricity’ (“Walk around, check vital signs, and pretend to be useful / Sometimes, though, I really don’t know what I’m doing here”), but has since become reinvigorated by the profession. Maq often shares dispatches from work online, amplifying information about vaccines on her Instagram account.

“I used to place a lot of importance on music – I was like, ‘this is the most important thing in the world’. And then the pandemic happened, and my focus completely shifted,” Maq says.

“It’s a full-on job – you have to be on the ball the entire time. Everything is on you, but it’s good because it means you learn and you become sure of yourself, and get more confidence in certain situations. There’s nothing else I’d rather do right now. I feel like I have to – for me and for the world.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Camp Cope
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

The singer took this confidence to the making of Camp Cope’s new album, providing additional production alongside producer Anna Laverty. “I like knowing what I want, and being able to say it and know that it’s going to work,” says Maq, who also co-produced her 2019 debut solo album, ‘Pleaser’.

“I was working out what I wanted in certain parts and how I wanted things to sound. I recorded the trumpet that’s in the third song and some backup vocals in my house, and sent the stems to Anna, and she mixed it… It was very much back and forth, me tweaking things that no one else would ever hear but me – just little notes, things being turned up a little bit more.”

Georgia Maq has evolved as a songwriter, but she’s never stopped being a keen observer of the world both around and inside her. From earnest acoustic teenage songs to the fury of Camp Cope’s 2016 debut; to biting political lyrics (“there’s blood on Scott Morrison’s hands,” she sang on 2017’s ‘Footscray Station’) to the raw pain of the harrowing #MeToo ballad ‘The Face Of God’; and finally to the relaxed wisdom of ‘Hurricane’, Maq’s songwriting has moved through stages, just like she has.

NME Australia Cover 2022 Camp Cope
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

Through it all, honesty has been the singer’s emotional currency: “let me show you how vulnerable I am,” she sings on ‘The Mountain’. But ‘Hurricane’’s songs, mostly written in late 2020 and early 2021, are less straightforward, relying on abstract imagery like chains, running and fire, all repeated motifs on the album.

“I’m in a less literal place at the moment, and a bit more detached from reality,” Maq shares on a phone call, weeks after our initial meeting. “I think I’ve gotten a bit more in my own head and a bit more imaginative over the last two years. It feels more metaphorical.”

Maq’s songs are still personal, often profoundly so. But they only allude to situations, people or identities, with the singer staying private about the particulars of her life. Instead of specifics, the songs zero in on the emotions each scenario awakens – say, the vulnerability of letting a new person in (‘Jealous’), or the freedom that comes with letting go (‘Say The Line’).

“We deserve respect and a safe workplace, and that’s what we’ll always ask for and strive towards”

Maq expresses an admiration for Taylor Swift, and while she says she’s not a storyteller, both songwriters have gone from intensely personal confessionals to broader narratives that have one foot in reality and one in the imagination. “I make up stories from all these very real things that happen to me,” Maq says. “They might be different people or different situations, but somehow, it just ends up in one song and it ends up making sense because it’s about the feeling rather than the person.”

The album features contributions from Courtney Barnett and Cable Ties’ Shauna Boyle, as well as another special collaborator of sorts – Maq’s late father, Hugh McDonald. McDonald was a prolific musician; among his many projects was the folk-rock band Redgum.

Camp Cope’s new album takes its title from a Redgum song – on Instagram, Maq wrote that while she didn’t like the song itself, “the title buried its way into my soul and it felt like my life had been boiled down and summarised by those four words”. Talking about her father, Maq’s voice is steady but full of love. “Right now in my apartment, I can see six pictures of my dad looking at me,” she says. “He’s very much present.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Camp Cope
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

While Maq sang about the passing of her stepfather and father on the final songs of Camp Cope’s first two albums, the new album has no such closing track. She’s now in a place of acceptance, having used songwriting to process her emotions. “Those were the biggest two losses of my life,” she says. “I feel like I’ve had my catharsis and I didn’t need it forever.”

There’s a newfound maturity in ‘Hurricane’ that feels palpable, too, in talking to Maq. She remains opinionated and passionate as ever, but there’s a sense of humility and groundedness in the way she discusses her work and life, whether looking back or forward. Reflecting on her early writing, Maq admits that some of it makes her cringe, “but that’s just growth and learning more and the human experience. We need to give people the opportunity to explore and change.”

On that note, NME asks Maq about one eye-catching lyric on ‘One Wink At A Time’: “I thought God was a man – I was so wrong about that”.

“I like the idea of God being non-binary, or not even a person,” Maq says. “And I like admitting that I’m wrong.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Camp Cope
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

The women of Camp Cope have become champions for feminist activism throughout the band’s career. In 2016, they spearheaded the #ItTakesOne campaign against sexual assault in live music spaces. In 2018, they made headlines for decrying the lack of gender diversity on line-ups, doubling down with the furious single ‘The Opener’ (“Just get a female opener, that’ll fill the quota,” Maq snarls). One line from that song – an encouraging “show ’em, Kelly!” yelled from Maq to Hellmrich – has become a slogan of sorts for the band, emblazoned on merchandise and shouted passionately by fans at shows.

While ‘Hurricane’ is less overtly political, it retains the same fearless Camp Cope spirit. “I’m not sure if we’ll ever move away from it, because us being an all-female band is political in itself,” Maq says. “People have always made us political, just by existing as what we are, which I love – I think it’s one of our great strengths.”

“We deserve respect and a safe workplace, and that’s what we’ll always ask for and strive towards,” Hellmrich says of the band’s commitment to activism. It’s not easy, she acknowledges: “It’s definitely fatiguing, and you go through so many different emotions. But we do that together and we’ve become stronger. I think you can hear that now – that strength is there… You can hear our anger and confusion in the first two albums.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Camp Cope
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

In the last few years, many others have stepped forward to speak out about issues within the Australian music industry: Jaguar Jonze exposed a predatory music photographer in 2020, prompting a wave of women to come forward with accounts of mistreatment by the same man. A major label and its leadership was upended by investigations that uncovered allegations of toxic behaviour, bullying and gender discrimination. Earlier this year, a national review of sexual harassment and systemic discrimination within Australian music commenced, and is expected to provide recommendations for reform.

It’s progress, and Camp Cope have noted a shift in the public consciousness – and the way the media covers these subjects – since they began their advocacy. “When we were questioning things or explaining our own experiences, that was often made into a headline with a question after it – so it was like, ‘is this what everyone thinks? What do we think about this?’ Why was our truth or experience ever questioned in a public way? It was hard to deal with that,” Hellmrich says.

“It’s always been good to have two other people who know exactly what you feel like… I can’t imagine having to do it alone”

“Now they don’t have that question mark after it, so it’s a bit more validated… The more that people hear it, and the more that people see it and experience it, they start to believe it. It’s sad that it takes that, but we’re really happy that we played a part in changing the conversation.”

Camp Cope know that they can’t, and shouldn’t, speak for everyone – though they do want to reach as many people as possible. “We want to empower anyone to tell their truth and make a difference,” Hellmrich says. “It’s not just women [who are subject to discrimination] – it’s a variety of people, and the audience and listeners are not reflected in what is seen on stage or what’s on high rotation on the radio. That needs to change.”

NME Australia Cover 2022 Camp Cope
Credit: Maclay Heriot for NME

The group’s respect for one another is clear – Camp Cope often defer to each other when discussing these topics in particular and listen intently, nodding in agreement. They have, after all, experienced all of this together, learning and growing as a team, and speaking out with a powerful collective voice.

Camp Cope’s formation in 2015 is now a part of Melbourne punk mythology: Maq met Hellmrich in a Footscray sharehouse over home-job tattoos and invited her to start a band with Thompson, a friend from the local scene. That bond, forged in fire, has been the foundation of everything.

“We’ve basically lived on top of each other for four years,” Thompson laughs. “It becomes like a family – we’ll snap, and then it’s fine two minutes later. It’s like having a brother or sister – you love each other, you go through all the same shit together. It’s always been good to have two other people who know exactly what you feel like… I can’t imagine having to do it alone.”

In the weeks following our interview, Camp Cope will announce their new album to rapturous excitement. They will announce their slot on the Meadow Music Festival line-up, no doubt the first of many live engagements after a long drought. They will make their global television debut on CBS Saturday Morning, performing three songs and introducing their music to new listeners around the world.

But for now, the band members are heading home – Hellmrich back to Sydney that evening, and Thompson and Maq to their corners of Melbourne. The pub door opens and sunlight streams in as they say their goodbyes.

The hurricane rages on, but a quiet serenity radiates from these three women who are going through it all together, whatever the weather. Maq sums it up best on ‘Hurricane’’s title track: “There’s no other way to go – the only way out is up.”

Camp Cope’s ‘Running With The Hurricane’ is out March 25 via Poison City Records. Get your copy of NME Australia with Camp Cope on the cover here

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