Bad Bad Hats w/ Elly H.
The Mill — Thursday, April 25 at 8 p.m.; tickets $10-12
Revival Clothing Store — Saturday, April 27 at 7 p.m.
Moco Game Room and Hot Dog Bar (Cedar Rapids) — Saturday, May 4 at 7:30 p.m.
It’s an overcast Friday afternoon, and I’m on the verge of running late for my interview with Iowa City’s own singing/songwriting college senior, Elly Hofmaier. As I preemptively draft an apology text, she beats me to the punch with a reassuring “take your time!” The effort only spurs me to walk faster, because time is incredibly tight for Hofmaier. I rush in to MELK, where Hofmaier and her boyfriend Patrick sit shoulder-to-shoulder at a booth discussing and demonstrating the importance of eating breakfast cereal before it gets too soggy. Between spoonfuls they provide me with defenses for their choices of sugary breakfast fare and non-dairy milk alternatives. They sit surrounded by their peeled-back outer layers like two blooming onions prepared for the indecisive weather between seasons.
Once finished with her breakfast-for-lunch, Hofmaier runs me through the agenda for her weekend. The hectic schedule consists of band practices, gigs and a departure for SXSW with the University of Iowa’s SCOPE Productions, which she leads as general manager. On top of that and her coursework, Hofmaier is also an active contributor to the student-run FOOLS Magazine, where she writes about music and culture. Outside of school, Hofmaier lends her voice to several musical acts including (but not limited to) Elizabeth Moen, Anthony Worden and the Illiterati, the Johnson County Landmark Jazz Band and her own project: Elly H.
“My music is powerful. Definitely. Powerful and colorful. Raw and literal,” Hofmaier says. “That’s the number one thing I try to do. Loud guitar. Loud singing. Even in the quiet parts, I try to make things powerful.”
Like other diploma-seeking seniors, Hofmaier’s final semester is simultaneously a dead sprint to finish her necessary coursework and an effort to lock down jobs and internships for when she’s flung into the post-grad world.
“I’m actually terrified,” Hofmaier says, smiling through her spoon. “I don’t know what’s after graduation. It’s just in my nature that if I’m not moving and doing things constantly, I freak.”
Unlike her peers, she also has to keep up with the increasing momentum of a musical career that kicked off in late summer of 2018. Prior to booking gigs as Elly H., and occasionally performing with her backing band, the Sexy Boys, Hofmaier’s musicianship existed primarily on social media and in the form of small solo shows. It was on her personal social media accounts that she would upload the soulful covers and original songs that eventually caught the attention of her fellow Iowa artist Elizabeth Moen.
“I interviewed her for FOOLS, so that was how I talked to her for the first time,” Elly recalls. “We had a long conversation, and then we followed each other on social media.”
Soon after that initial encounter, Hofmaier and Moen began to frequently cross paths at shows in and around Iowa City.
“She was like ‘I’ve seen you sing online; do you want to do harmonies with my band sometime?’” Hofmaier says, slamming her palms excitedly on the table. “I was like ‘Yes. Obviously. Let’s go. Anytime. Anywhere.’”
Since the school year and her musical career started, Elly H. and the Sexy Boys have supported Minneapolis-based Sister Species and Iowa-grown acts like Katie Sin, LAV.ISH, and Dana T. Hofmaier is also an alum of Circular Sessions, a music series based in Des Moines that focuses on the symbiotic relationship between music and cinematography. The series features many other acts based in the Iowa City scene.
“Everyone’s really nice. In my experience everyone is very supportive of each other,” Hofmaier says of the scene. It’s not very competitive — like Elizabeth is supporting me, Anthony is supporting me. I also love the smaller community vibe of it. Sort-of-knowing everyone is nice.” She pauses. “I definitely wish there were more girls at shows. Like, playing.”
While many prominent acts from Iowa City are led by or consist entirely of non-men, there is definitely a higher percentage of men participating in the music scene here, as is the case across many communities. However, attitudes are generally shifting as representation of music by non-men increases due to curation on streaming services like Spotify and coverage by web series like NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts, Audiotree’s Live Sessions and the tapings of various radio sessions.
Hofmaier agrees that guitar-toting women in indie music such as Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail, Mitski, Michelle Zauner of Japanese Breakfast and the trio boygenius (Lucy Dacus, Phoebe Bridgers and Julien Baker) are challenging previous attitudes of the “female-fronted band.” That said, she feels that demographics within bands can still bring some discomfort when thinking about how she’s perceived by audiences and other groups.
“It’s different with the Illiterati where I’m the girl that can’t actually play anything. Who has a tambourine. I know it’s not their intention for me to be the token ‘girl’ in the band,” Hofmaier notes. “I can tell Anthony actually wants to be a mentor and teach me stuff. But sometimes it’s like, ‘I’m here to play the tambourine!’ These guys play instruments, and I think I look like a dummy. I don’t really think about the female-fronted thing with my band though.”
Another piece in the puzzle of Hofmaier’s priorities is organizing and acting as the ring leader for the Sexy Boys, the expanded form of her own project consisting of Tommy Mcllhon and Justin Dwyer.
“It’s really easy. My guys are really cool. Really chill. They respect my music and want to play my music,” Hofmaier says. “They’re great about taking direction and giving good input. The quality of the people worked out — they’re good boys, the Sexy Boys.”
Each time she utters the name Elly H. and the Sexy Boys, a smirk sneaks onto Hofmaier’s face. She talks about how exciting it is to subvert the expected roles audiences might have for the band members.
“It’s fun. Tommy was like ‘what should we be called?’ I said, ‘I kind of like the Sexy Boys.’ I was like, ‘I’m kind of objectifying you guys. I’m the band master and you are my objects. I’m objectifying you sexually!’ I think it’s silly.”
Now that Hofmaier and her band have a handful of appearances under their belt, the question of recording their material has arisen. In addition to her original music pre-Sexy Boys, the group has songs they’ve written together that they would like to commit to a collection.
“I need to record as soon as possible. I just find it really intimidating recording an EP or whatever,” Hofmaier says as she sinks into her seat. “I just don’t want to feel like I’m wasting people’s time, and I feel like it will take a lot of time, and I’ve never really recorded anything. If I’m going to put something in my own name, I want to be really involved. I want to have my whole band play it too. We need to be better. We need to be tighter before we try to record this stuff.”
Though Hofmaier can usually be seen wielding her sleek, teal Stratocaster, she primarily identifies as a vocalist.
“I just don’t think it gets respect sometimes as a practiced discipline. Because I’m a ‘girl singer,’ people fit me into a box of ‘oh the girl just sings’ or whatever. I’m finally proud of that,” she says. “I have to remind myself I’ve been singing since I’ve been in the fourth grade. I practice constantly and listen to singers constantly. Like how a guitar head would pick out little tones in a guitar, I do that with singers. Instead of trying to learn instruments, I’ll be a singer. I’ll be mediocre at guitar for my entire life but I will sing, gosh dang it.”
Between the soulful and attention-demanding vocals reflective of her idols, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin, and the instrumentation in her songs that pulls from the country, shoegaze and rock, it can be hard to label what kind of artist Hofmaier is.
“I have a really hard time describing [my music] to people because I don’t really know. It’s not like I’m a person who’s always listened to country and so I want to be a country artist. I listen to and draw from so many genres.” She shakes her head, “Country and Western, yes — but also Ty Segall is a favorite. I want to play crunchy psych-rock music, but also my favorite singers are soul singers.”
“I think the more I play, the more I come into my own style,” Hofmaier says. “Instead of trying to emulate a genre or something, I’m finding my own voice right now.”