Melbourne punk trio Camp Cope bring a hard-won sense of perspective to their new album. By Brodie Lancaster.

Band Camp Cope

Georgia “Maq” McDonald, Sarah Thompson and Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich of Camp Cope.
Georgia “Maq” McDonald, Sarah Thompson and Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich of Camp Cope.
Credit: Nick Mckk

Camp Cope understand chaos. The Melbourne trio has faced it head-on, channelled it into song and emerged somewhere new, somewhere calmer. Their new record Running with the Hurricane is evidence of what you find on the other side of darkness.

“If this is the bottom I can show you around / There’s no other way to go,” sings songwriter, guitarist and vocalist Georgia “Maq” McDonald on the title track. She’s a tour guide from the abyss, directing newcomers with advice she knows well: “The only way out is up.”     

It’s a gift that McDonald and her bandmates bassist Kelly-Dawn Hellmrich and drummer Sarah Thompson endured: Running with the Hurricane is something rare. A genre-shifting exercise away from their trusty three-part folk-punk into dynamic, expansive country-influenced pop, Running with the Hurricane is a deeply hopeful and romantic record. “Let me show you how vulnerable I am,” McDonald sings on “The Mountain”. A testament to the struggle to lay yourself bare and the reward that follows, it’s a standout on an album full of them.

“It’s hard not to write introspective songs with such an introspective year,” Hellmrich explains. “What else do you have?”

When we meet in the beer garden of Fitzroy’s Commercial Club Hotel in early January, the trio is together for the first time since April 2021, when Hellmrich moved back to Western Sydney, where she grew up. “We were going to play a show in May,” Thompson reminds them, and her bandmates nod in recognition. The months and years have all blurred together now. “That didn’t happen.”

Direct and pragmatic, Thompson is not only the band’s drummer and manager but also the label manager at Melbourne’s stalwart punk shop Poison City Records, to which Camp Cope signed in 2015. New to the industry’s shady mechanisms, McDonald was gigging her solo songs steadily around Melbourne as a teenager when she began forwarding emails – often dodgy invitations to play gigs free – to Thompson, and asking her advice.

“I was like, ‘No, that’s not happening. I’ll reply and copy you in: Fuck off,’  ” Thompson remembers. McDonald was a 20-year-old getting a home-job tattoo in the kitchen of a Footscray share house when she first met 21-year-old Hellmrich. Thompson was 31 when the band formed and she fell into the role of protective den mother. All the years she had spent working in the music industry would only be worth it if she could prevent younger artists like McDonald from “being fucked over”. “This is what I do for my job, and it’s horrible. I deal with horrible people and I don’t want you to see this.”

From the very beginning Camp Cope made waves that rippled far beyond the walls of Melbourne’s insular punk scene. Andy Hayden, the founder of Poison City, watched it happen. “It was clear fairly instantly that there was something really good happening. I’ve worked with a lot of bands over the years and it’s often hard to explain the chemistry between certain people … but I saw that in them straight away.”

Camp Cope recorded their 2016 debut self-titled album in one day, and it went on to be nominated for Australian Album of the Year at the J Awards. In 2018, they invested two days in recording their follow-up, the prickly and dark How to Socialise & Make Friends. Wrenched from some of their most difficult personal and professional experiences, it is difficult for them to listen to now.

“[Making] it was a necessity, really,” McDonald explains later, over Zoom. It’s early March and she’s flitting around her apartment kitchen, batch-cooking meals for her nursing shifts. “It was an album with lots of pain,” Hellmrich adds from a bedroom in her home in Sydney. “Like, we had the loss of loved ones, and Georgia was losing her voice.”

McDonald was just 22 when she got vocal nodules that required surgery and two years of therapy. Her vocals on Running with the Hurricane and her 2019 solo record Pleaser, an experiment in electronic beat-making and pop vocals, are a world away from the guttural scream-singing that defined early Camp Cope songs. When they were making How to Socialise, there was no future guarantee. “We weren’t even sure if we could continue as a band because it was tentative whether she was going to have lifelong damage or not,” Hellmrich says. “And we were just, I think, really beaten down by the industry. We didn’t feel like people really wanted us to be there. So, we didn’t really like that album.”

By September 2016, the riotous energy that fuelled Camp Cope’s music had been co-opted by men displaying aggressive behaviour in their mosh pits. Hellmrich came up with a response to ensure crowd safety at their shows. “It Takes One” was a grassroots campaign designed to encourage male artists and audience members to call out bad behaviour when they saw it. By 2018, they were campaigning against sexual assault and challenging male artists to join them. While touring on the national Laneway Festival, they also initiated a text hotline for punters to anonymously report assaults or antisocial behaviour.

Even before they began advocating inclusion and safety, Camp Cope were in the crosshairs. They were told they rode coattails to get to where they were, that their success was due to an absence of other female bands – two insults they wrote, almost verbatim, into the lyrics of their searing anthem “The Opener”.

“[‘The Opener’ was] about our experience of the music industry,” McDonald says. “You just get so reduced down that it’s not even about the music: it’s just like, ‘Let’s try to like embarrass and humiliate every woman in the music industry so they stay out.’ That’s how it felt for a while.”

They copped comments about how they couldn’t play their instruments or that the very existence of their platform meant they had no right to complain. Some accused them of using the abuse they experienced at gigs, online and in their personal lives for self-promotion. The cumulative effect of years of nasty criticism and targeted harassment was a heavy load to bear.

“We work in an industry where there’s heaps of diversity and heaps of different types of people that play music in our social group. So, when that’s not reflected in mainstream Australian music, it felt really natural to be like, ‘Maybe we should talk about this,’ ” Hellmrich says. Hearing this articulated so simply makes it more disheartening to recall the vitriol they received.

The grim reality is that the reaction to Camp Cope’s music and message were nothing new. From the sexist abuse levelled at Australian sportswomen to the ire directed at Grace Tame for not smiling, the rules for women in the public eye dictate that their trauma be delivered with sweetness. Camp Cope never signed up to play that game.

As progressive as the punk scene and wider music industry claim to be, neither appreciates having a mirror held up to their failings. That was made evident after Camp Cope took to the stage at Falls Festival in early 2018 and McDonald amended the lyrics to “The Opener” to hold the event’s organisers to account: “It’s another man telling us we can’t fill up a tent / It’s another fucking festival booking only nine women.” When media outlets picked up this story – or any other story about them – the band knew to brace for another wave of abuse. The difference between amplifying Camp Cope’s message and inciting a heavier pile-on became infinitesimal.

“What we always wanted was just to feel safe and respected and secure in our workplace – which is to us so obvious and what everyone wants,” Hellmrich says. “And then when that was questioned or posed to the public with a question mark after it. That was really hurtful.”

Voices came out in support, but the silence of some industry peers was as loud as their detractors. Fellow musicians told them they should be lucky just to be written about at all. “It was very isolating, that time,” Thompson says. “We had a lot of support privately … not so much publicly, which was really quite disappointing. But I suppose we had each other.”

“That was like the best thing to come out of it, was us. Together,” says McDonald.

After the 2019 bushfires and then the pandemic, the impact of the abuse has lessened. “It was a huge deal to me two years ago, but our priorities have shifted,” Thompson says. “We’re calmer about music because it’s not the be-all, end-all of the world.” Hellmrich adds: “Back then, I didn’t feel strong enough to bring myself out of the hole, but I am now. I’m different now.”

During Camp Cope’s time away from the Australian music industry it finally began to weed out some of its most toxic figures and new voices began speaking up. The band that had become a kind of Trojan Horse for debate around women, representation, safety and fairness was allowed the space to just be musicians, partners, friends, daughters and caregivers.

After years of making and touring music, McDonald reregistered as a nurse in 2021, to “meet the moment”, she says. “I have the skills, I have the qualification, I need to do it now because everyone’s burnt out. They need more nurses and I need to do it. What else was I going to do?”

A source of inspiration for Running with the Hurricane was country band The Chicks, who returned in 2020 with Gaslighter, their first record in 14 years. “I love that people expected [their album] to be really political but then it’s just about a divorce. I love it. Obsessed,” says McDonald. The parallels between The Chicks – who were blacklisted after they protested against the invasion of Iraq in 2003 – and Camp Cope are clear. McDonald seems tickled at the thought of pulling a similar bait and switch on listeners who assume they know what “a Camp Cope record” can be. “The second album was me singing for other people and to other people. And this one is me being obsessed with myself.”

Running with the Hurricane ends on “Sing Your Heart Out”, a song that carries a message of grace and forgiveness. “People change, give them time / If you can change then so can I … You are not your past, not your mistakes / not your money, not your pain.” It opens with McDonald’s crystalline voice, stark and alone against a piano. By its close, “Sing Your Heart Out” builds to a group of voices, layered on top of each other, over Thompson’s drums and Hellmrich’s supportive bass. The voices grow louder as they repeat the hopeful mantra, “You can change and so can I”.

If their past two records bottled up the intense pressure of being misunderstood, ground down or wrongly perceived, this is where they release the valve and let it go. “I like the idea that it’s never too late to change,” McDonald says of the song, which she describes as “like standing on a hill at sunset”.

“No matter what you’ve done, there’s always room for forgiveness, there’s always room for growth. If I wasn’t given the opportunity to change and be better and be forgiven for things, then I don’t know where I’d be.”

She wonders aloud if listeners might assume this forgiveness is directed at the music industry. The day before we Zoom, she was approached by a journalist at an industry event. They wanted to apologise for writing one of the articles that added to the onslaught Camp Cope experienced in the past few years. McDonald says she felt bad the writer had been carrying that around, but she forgave easily. There are more important things to care about now. The wounds have closed over.

“I don’t have the energy to be angry at shit anymore. I don’t want to hold on to grudges because that only destroys you. I think forgiveness and getting past things, that’s where real strength is.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "After the storm".

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