Camp Cope: What a difference a year makes

For some, having your song misinterpreted by fans might be demoralising or depressing. For Georgia Maq, guitarist and singer of Melbourne’s Camp Cope, it was revelatory. A show in Brisbane where a group of men began pushing girls around while singing along to ‘Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams’ – a song in which Maq describes how unsafe the world can be for women – turned out to be a uniquely enlightening experience for the musician. “I understood irony for the first time! My head exploded!” she tells me enthusiastically, visibly thrilled to finally grasp the concept.

“’Jet Fuel’ was never really intended to be anything,” says Maq of the song that’s now become the band’s calling card. “I think it’s a really stupid song. It’s just me trying to tell everyone that 9/11 was an inside job.” The song, of course, is not stupid at all. In fact, it may be one of the smartest songs of the year – a scorched earth anthem that brutalises the idea that authority helps anyone other than those in power. It describes being catcalled and feeling in danger, but it does so without pitying, without asking for pity. Instead, Maq, bassist Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich and drummer Sarah Thompson portray the depressing realities of womanhood with power, but without fanfare. It’s thrilling to hear an often under-represented reality put so plainly. Thompson articulates it best: “Everyone’s heard songs about people crying over girls, drinking whiskey. No one needs to hear that anymore.”

I meet with Camp Cope at Fitzroy’s Poison City Records, the band’s record label and a stalwart of Melbourne’s punk scene. Maq, Hellmrich and Thompson are perfectly at home in the label’s office at the back of the store, perching themselves on shelves and desks, making room amongst huge boxes of vinyl – quite a few of which contain copies of the band’s debut LP.

The self-titled album has been out since April, and in its eight months of release it’s done about as well as one could hope for a debut: Camp Cope has garnered a respectable placing on the ARIA charts, received glowing reviews from prestigious international publications, and has led to sold-out shows wherever the band tours. But most notable is the reaction from listeners – Camp Cope has inspired devotion and obsession worldwide. “It was no surprise to me,” says Hellmrich. “I felt it, when she wrote the songs. She’s clever. She’s honest.”

It is, ostensibly, this honesty that has helped Camp Cope connect with such a wide audience. In her lyrics, Maq is unafraid to bare herself, unafraid to show the world what people are so often taught to hide: anger, shame, fear. “I’ve always been very honest,” she says, “I don’t hide behind anything in the way that I write because it’s not like I wrote a song for the sake of writing a song. I write a song because I need to.” It comes through – Camp Cope sees Maq working through her most pained moments and finding catharsis in feelings of loss or fear or adoration. Lyrics that seem dejected on paper become anthemic in the hands of Camp Cope. The entirety of the record is a masterful exercise in wringing power from pain; there are few musical moments this year that come close to the sheer might present in Maq’s delivery of lines like “We still have to light the stove with a lighter” on ‘Stove Lighter’.

“I like that I’m a very emotional wreck, I like it because it’s who I am.”

While Camp Cope might imbue pained lines with power, ‘Keep Growing’ – the band’s latest single – revels wholly in positivity and strength. “Musically, it feels like the whole year in a song,” says Hellmrich, “There’s a year of growth there. That song’s special.” The entire band remembers connecting to ‘Keep Growing’ as soon as they heard it. “In the [tour] van with Jeff [Rosenstock] I was at the very very back and [Georgia] was up the very very front, and I remember listening to it on my phone and being like ‘This is cool, this song’s good. There’s a bit in the middle that sounds like Fleetwood Mac,’” says Thompson, reminiscing about the tour with punk legend Jeff Rosenstock that was the impetus for the song’s creation. ‘Keep Growing’ was born out of shared trauma – Hellmrich and Maq both experienced breakups on that tour, on the same day.

“Both our relationships ended on a ten-hour drive to Wollongong,” Hellmrich tells me, her voice tinged with a mix of incredulity and hilarity, “That was the song after that. It was nice.” Maq recognises the healing power present in ‘Keep Growing’s bones. “It’s good to re-feel those emotions,” she says pensively. “The song feels like moving on to bigger and better things.” It seems that every Camp Cope song works in this way for Maq – as a vehicle for personal growth.

“I come to terms with who I am and [I become] more accepting of who I am every time I write a song.” The self-assurance on show in ‘Keep Growing’ is evident in Maq as she describes her relationship with her own emotions; where on Camp Cope she was “hiding behind closed eyes”, she’s now lucid, confident in her own skin: “I like that I’m a very emotional wreck, I like it because it’s who I am. It’s very important to talk about emotions and if you don’t, the results can be quite catastrophic. All the songs are very emotional and very personal and it’s fine.”

Despite the accolades, despite the fans, despite the praise, Camp Cope are still dogged with the same old industry sexism that’s always hung around non-male musicians. Camp Cope just want to be treated like any other band. “Friends will talk down to you, or treat you like they’re proud of you,” says Thompson with exasperation, “Don’t be proud of me! I’m not proud of you.” Hellmrich finds that the best approach to dealing with industry sexism is to just prove to detractors that Camp Cope are as serious and legitimate as any all-male band. “If you want more women in music you’ve gotta show people that you’re capable, and that you know what you’re doing, and that you believe in what you’re doing,” she says, with a firmness in her tone that she’s no doubt developed in her day job as a kindergarten teacher.

“That’s our ultimate revenge on people who think and act that way – let us show you that we can do this, let us show you that we can take care of our own instruments, and let us show you that we’re just the same as you. Not better, not worse, just the same.” But, true to their music, Camp Cope will always fight against sexism and misogyny. “It drives you so much,” says Maq, “It’s like, well, fuck you. We’re gonna do so much better than you.”

Even though Camp Cope have seen considerable support from powerful institutions run by white men, they’re not letting that get in the way of their politics. “Anyone who gets some sort of support from anything like that – whatever their stance is – they automatically back down a bit, because they don’t wanna lose support,” says Thompson. “It’s like, I don’t give a shit. If you don’t wanna play us on triple j, I don’t give a shit. If you don’t like us saying what we say, then we don’t want you to play us anyway. Whatever. People are scared, but what are they gonna do without any bands?”

In moments like this it becomes clear that Camp Cope believe deeply in the power of their music, just as much as their listeners do. While all three members currently have or have had day jobs, it’s the music that they’re most passionate about. Maq, who had been pursuing a solo musical practice prior to the creation of Camp Cope, has seen a change in the way her family sees her music. “I was the real loser emo black sheep of my family, and [now] they’re all very proud of me. I feel like I’ve kinda proven that music is what I’m gonna do, and what I want to do.” When I ask the three whether they’re going to pursue music for the foreseeable future, Thompson laughs – there’s no question of it. “What else are we gonna do?”

Camp Cope is out now through Poison City Records. Camp Cope perform with special guests Harmony and Two Steps On The Water at Northcote Social Club on Saturday December 17. Ticket details here. Camp Cope also perform at next year’s Laneway Festival, details here

Lead image by Sian Sandilands.