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Overcoats talk about making music at the intersection of Chet Faker and Joni Mitchell

Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell of Overcoats at the Triple Rock Social Club in 2017. (all photos by Maia Jacobson)

New-York-based electro-folk duo Overcoats are on the come-up on the national music scene after the release of their debut LP, Young, in 2017. JJ Mitchell and Hana Elion met during their first week at Wesleyan College and grew to become best friends before turning seriously to music after their graduation. The duo moved to Ireland for some time before coming back to New York and recording their first album.

Ahead of their show at Fine Line Music Cafe in support of Tennis’s North American tour tonight, I spoke by phone with Mitchell and Elion about the intentions that drove Young, their unique sound and performance style, and things they’ve learned in the two years they’ve been doing this.

Maia Jacobson: When I was thinking about questions I wanted to ask, I kept coming back to “Nighttime Hunger” because it’s the first of your songs I ever heard. I was living out of state, and it was a very formative song during that time in my life. Was there a reason for choosing that song as one of the first singles from Young?

JJ Mitchell: So that song…probably when you first heard it, we had released our debut EP, which was four songs, and “Nighttime Hunger” was released shortly after that. It was the first thing we had written after college. In a similar way to how it resonated with you in a formative time of experiencing a new place and a new transitional period, that’s what it was for us as well. Kind of coming to terms with leaving one place and becoming new people and figuring out who we wanted to be in life and in the world, and how scary it was. That was the time it came to us. We re-did some of the production when it was released for Young. It came out about a year and a half afterwards and we wanted to release it partly because it was one of our older songs and one that had played a big role in our journey to get to releasing our debut album. It has this mix of electronic and folk music that we are trying to do.

Listening to Young, a lot of the lyrics seem to deal with the self and sort of this vulnerable reflection on relationships, maybe relationships that aren’t the best thing at the time. I’m thinking specifically about “The Fog” and the lines, “Freedom is when I’m without you.” Was this idea of relying on yourself and learning to love yourself a conscious theme in putting Young together?

Hana Elion: I would say it’s become more conscious of a theme as of late. Words and phrases like “self-care,” for me at least, are only recently known and popular. We were talking about those themes in our songwriting, how to take care of our anxiety and depression and how to sleep better…but I think it wasn’t so conscious. For both of us, it was more that that’s what being an adult looked like, and that’s what being happy and successful and a woman, and that was our goal, I guess. So we didn’t think about it too much that way, but certainly, in “The Fog” in particular, that theme of self-reliance we do think is extremely important.

JJ Mitchell: These songs, like that one and “Leave the Light On” — also one that comes to mind for self-reliance — they’re just kind of born out of a necessity to express this feeling of being mistreated or put in a box. “The Fog” came from working with some particularly troublesome male producers, and so it was less like, “let’s talk about self-care” and just the fact that we didn’t want to work with these men. As Hana was saying, it was less of a conscious, “Let’s make this anthem for all the women.” It was just our own experience.

Hana Elion: I think in our writing now, you’ve got to start with yourself, and just having the experience of performing live and meeting all these other women — and men as well, and communities of people that have bound together on the scene — I think it does really make you think of that greater message and certainly we’re thinking of that kind of thing as we’re working on our next record. I think it all started just really very personal, and now has grown into the project it’s become.

You were on tour last year with Tennis. I remember seeing you and being struck by how ethereal your performance seemed to be. Maybe it was the blue lights and white outfits and the choreography, but something was very magical about it. You were singing about these deeply personal issues, but issues that a lot of people can relate to. I could almost put myself in that situation and feel that.

Hana Elion: I think what you’re describing is exactly what we go for. We used to talk about how we loved to wear all-white because it provided this blank slate and there’s no other frills or distractions, so it’s really about the music and letting the themes speak for themselves. Part of what we go for in our writing is something very personal, but also very universal and relatable, and it’s certainly a goal of ours that people can see themselves in what we’re singing about. I think the live performance has always been very intentional. From day one really we were, like, choreographing who was going to walk where it what time in the song and really planning it and controlling it. Getting to use our creativity for the performance aspect as well has been a really great outlet and a huge part of what we do.

You have a unique blend of electro-pop and this sort of folk storytelling. Can you tell me about the development of that sound, or what led you to it?

JJ Mitchell: I think it was kind of a natural coming together, in a sense. We both gravitate towards the lyrical storytelling of folk music, we are both inspired by the likes of Joni Mitchell and Simon and Garfunkel and really appreciated that kind of simplicity in music. In time, in college, we developed this more electronic sound.

Hana Elion: It was what we would party to.

JJ Mitchell: Stuff like Chet Faker. So, I don’t know how much of it was a conscious thing— like, “Here’s what we’re gonna do, by mixing these two.” It wasn’t so much a science experiment, but more a natural coming together of two genres that we both really appreciated. I think for us, for a song to feel finished it kind of needs the genres to pull at each other. We love when a dance beat has a really vulnerable lyric over it. It just naturally happened.

Your new single is “I Don’t Believe in Us.” How has the intentional pairing of the vulnerable lyrics and the dance sounds changed since putting together Young?

Hana Elion: We’ve been on the road. I think that playing live affects your writing because it makes you want to write stuff that you want to play live, and that goes both ways. We’re doing this new song live that’s only guitar and vocals, and it is pretty wholly folk right now, although we’re planning on how to jazz it up. It makes you think about what you want to be on stage doing. So we wrote those lyrics, and obviously, we’re always playing the game: how much more vulnerable can we get? That’s where the lyrics are from. With the production, we wanted something fun; something that felt satisfying and obviously danceable, and I think that’s where that came from.

What role do you think your personal friendship plays in the creation of your music? Is this something you could see yourselves having pursued in separate solo careers?

Hana Elion: It’s an interesting question, because JJ and I were always involved in music and always sang and wrote, but I really don’t think it would have happened without each other. We were the reason for each other. It was very much an extension of our friendship: music became another way we talked through what we were feeling and expressed those feelings and had fun. It was a much better thing than getting like sloppily drunk and falling all over the place. It just came together, the writing was fun, and it was a great way to deal with what we were going through together after college. I can’t imagine it happening any other way.

What are some of our favorite things that you’ve learned about either yourselves, each other, the music industry, the world, whatever, in your time making music together?

Hana Elion: I think something that’s been really cool to see in each other is how much we’ve grown and how much the project has grown. When we started we didn’t know how to move our arms, and we would never talk about it because we were embarrassed. Now, we’ll be on stage and we have this giant lighting fixture now, and I’ll look over at JJ and she’s belting her ass off and I’m just like, “This is so cool!” You can grow and change and learn. How it’s developed has been really satisfying to watch.

JJ Mitchell: It’s also fun because we have each other. In a solo project there is obviously going to be a lot of self-reflection, but it’s hard to see in yourself how you’re changing in the course of a couple years. Because I have a mirror image of myself in Hana, I’m like, “Oh damn! Two years later!” I’m trying to think about what I’ve learned about the music industry: we’ve learned a lot but I’m not sure what. It’s an ever-evolving relationship with the music industry whether you need it or you don’t need it, whether people are good or bad. It’s just so complicated and ever-evolving.

Hana Elion: Another thing we talk about it that if you work really hard and believe in yourself, people do eventually pay attention. For some people it doesn’t take any work and they go viral and it’s a different story, but for people who don’t have that happen, if you really believe in your work and you work hard, it really does create things. When we were in college, most of our friends were like, “What are you doing? This is stupid. You should apply for an office job like us.”

JJ Mitchell: None of them actually said this out loud!

Hana Elion: Yeah, and our parents were like, “What are you doing?” We moved to Dublin, and were like, “I don’t know!” But we work hard every day and believe in what we’re doing, and there has been some great luck and opportunities, but I think that’s been the main thing.

JJ Mitchell: Perseverance and hard work.