Elizabeth Moen w/ Penny Peach Jr., Dana T and special guests
The Englert Theatre — Saturday, Sept. 21 at 8 p.m.
There’s a touch of destiny (or perhaps buddy comedy) about Elizabeth Moen and Penny Peach Jr.’s artistic partnership.
Originally from Norwalk, Iowa, Peach — her real name Elly Hofmaier, previously known by the stage name Elly h. — was about to start her freshman year at the University of Iowa when a friend played her some of Moen’s music.
“I was like, ‘She doesn’t live in Iowa City,’” Peach said of Moen. “‘There’s no way.’”
Before long, she was watching Moen perform live at an open mic night at Short’s in downtown Iowa City. “I was pretty freaking blown away, to say the least,” Peach said. “I was like, goddamn.”
Peach fell hard for Moen’s strong vocals and genre-crossing sound — a devotion that was taken to the next level when Peach’s life flashed before her eyes on a flight.
“I swear to God this happened,” she said. “I thought my plane was going down, I could have sworn I was going to die. I literally had to have the conversation in my head, ‘What song am I going to die to?’ I was holding my mom’s hand, and I literally put ‘Mars’ on and replayed it over and over. Because if I was going to die to a song, it would be a pretty good one to die to.”
About a year ago, Peach was assigned to write an article about Moen for the student-run arts and culture magazine Fools. “I had to interview you and pretend I wasn’t a fangirl but I was nervous as shit,” Peach told Moen, as the pair sat for a dual interview at the Little Village office.
But Peach made a good impression on Moen that day in Prairie Lights Cafe.
“I was like, ‘Whoa, this gal’s funny,’” Moen said. “I followed you on Instagram and you followed me back. She had videos of her singing and playing guitar and I was like, ‘What the hell?’ You didn’t even say you were good, like, really, really good at this.”
In addition to writing for Fools, planning concerts for the UI’s SCOPE Productions and providing photography and graphic design services to local bands, Peach is the lead vocalist for the band Elly h. and the Sexi Bois.
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“Her band is this perfect combination of jazz, maybe even hints of old country, but it’s indie, intense, loud, kind of indie-punk vibes. But there’s this beautiful voice on top of it,” Moen said.
She invited Peach to sing back-up vocals for Moen’s A Million Miles Away album release show at the Englert Theatre last year. Peach enthusiastically agreed.
“That happened and everyone was like, ‘Elly has to be in every show now. You realize you just made it from here to here’” — Moen raised her hand from the table up over her head — “‘and now if Elly doesn’t sing it’s back to here,’” she lowered her hand back to the table. “I was like, ‘That is true.’”
Since then, Moen and Peach have sung together on multiple stages, from a small bar in Norman, Oklahoma — “We made $5, but at least this elderly couple liked it enough to get up and dance,” Moen recalled — to both artists’ biggest show yet: the 2019 Hinterland Music Festival in St. Charles, Iowa, on Aug. 4.
Touring the U.S. practically nonstop, Moen only plays two shows a year in her home court of Iowa City. One of these shows will happen Saturday, Sept. 21 at the Englert, and feature Penny Peach Jr. (who graduated from UI in May), Dana T and a number of other local musicians.
“Everyone who’s a part of this show are each other’s biggest fans and that’s a really important part of having a good art community, supporting each other,” Moen said. “That was probably one of my favorite takeaways from Hinterland was just the support I felt both on and off the stage. Sometimes receiving all that support from the bandmates and the audience helps you find that support within yourself.”
As the first act on the Sunday schedule — which included the likes of the Nude Party, the War & Treaty, Dawes, Maggie Rogers and Brandi Carlile — Moen, her band and Peach performed a roughly 30-minute set at Hinterland. The setlist included “Red,” a popular track off Moen’s sophomore album, and “Headgear,” released as a single about a week later. The track was recorded in Dublin and mixed in Iowa with help from Dana T and Luke Tweedy at Flat Black Studios. “It was a collab between my Irish band and my Iowa music buddies,” she said.
But Moen and company also played new, unrecorded songs at Hinterland, which will make their Iowa City debut at Saturday’s Englert show.
One of these songs isn’t officially named yet, but was introduced at Hinterland as “My Ex Invited Me To His House Party and I Thought I Was Super Chill But He Was Dating Somebody Else So I Freaked Out And Left.” Brandi Carlile’s cellist Sam Rae, an Iowan, joined Moen’s band onstage for the song.
Another of Moen’s new songs — “Where Is My Bike?” — seeks to capture the post-grad experience in a series of specific, sober scenes, accented by country-style harmonies from Peach. (“A little shout-out to those of us who live with our parents,” Moen said before performing the song at Hinterland.)
“Lots of relatable lines in that one,” Peach said. “When you first sang that one, every line you said I got super excited. ‘I left my phone in the car and it overheated.’ I’m like, I do that. ‘I’m at a cafe reading a book I’m too tired to be reading.’ I did that earlier today!”
“It’s the thought process of someone having anxiety one afternoon and eventually being like, OK, panic attack over, let’s get off this tire swing,” Moen explained. “That’s my favorite song to sing because every other line in the verse [Peach is] singing on it and it makes it like Kurt Cobain and Patsy Cline were in a band together or something.”
The two get “sultry and saucy” on the R&B-tinged song “Emotionally Available,” which builds to a powerful chorus, shared by Moen and Peach: “Have the decency to say / I am not emotionally available.”
“We both aren’t trying to make it sound flattering, because it’s not a flattering line to be singing,” Moen said. “You’re angry at someone and frustrated, and that’s really fun — to not try and sound pretty, and let it be aggressive.”
“They’re all songs that will be on the next record once we — once I get my shit together,” Moen said. (Both she and Peach, who has a voucher for a free recording session at Flat Black Studios after winning the Grey Area Battle of the Bands in July, say they’re mustering the confidence to get back into the studio.)
Moen’s new tunes were developed collaboratively with her current bandmates, including Peach on back-up vocals, Dan Padley on guitar, Eric Martin on bass and David Hurlin on drums.
Moen said Peach supplies more than musical ideas.
“Elly intentionally keeps everyone chill in the band van. She’s always positivity,” Moen said. “We got done with our show at Hinterland and were cooling down and Dan was just like, ‘Man, I think Elly’s the coolest person I know.’ We all went, ‘Yeah’ and cheers-ed.”
Peach said the appreciation goes both ways.
“The mentorship — I don’t know if it happens like this everywhere, but for me it’s been super sweet,” said the artist, who has also contributed vocals to the Iowa City group Anthony Worden and the Illiterati. “I’ve been seeing how people do their shows and show trades and seeing how it all works, and not having the pressure of it being my show has been super clutch for me. I try to do whatever I can to support other people, whether it’s taking pictures or carrying guitar cases or whatever. I just try to be super on the team.”
As Moen continues to reach milestones — securing an agent and manager, going on tour, being verified on Instagram, playing Hinterland, opening for St. Paul and the Broken Bones in Madison, Wisconsin on Sept. 2, overselling-out Schubas Tavern in Chicago on Sept. 10 — she said she wants to be the resource for local artists that others were for her, from Dan Padley joining her band to Brian Johannsen helping her get gigs in Nashville a few years ago.
She referenced a quote from Toni Morrison: “If you have some power, then your job is to empower somebody else.”
“People did that for me so I want to do that for other people,” she said. “I think pretty much everyone else in this music community feels the same way. We’re all just taking turns helping out.”
Tickets for Saturday’s show at the Englert are $15 for general admission and $10 for students, and may be purchased at the Englert’s website or box office. Performances begin at 8 p.m.