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Overcoats Are Taking On Everything From Climate Change to TikTok In 2020

Overcoats
Shervin Lainez

Overcoats

It's a complicated time for musicians, one where artists are expected to maintain a casual, relatable social media profile while simultaneously weighing in on endemic social ills – not to mention staving off the existential dread nipping at the world's heels. There's no roadmap for navigating a life in music in 2020, but one thing is certain: it always helps to have a bestie on hand while you try.

Perhaps that's why when college friends Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell join their voices together as Overcoats, their camaraderie is palpable: Some musicians are invested in each other's artistic potential, but for Overcoats, it seems to run deeper – these are two people invested in each other's happiness as human beings.

That empathy radiated from the speakers when the two blended voices over a bed of folk and lithe electronica on acclaimed 2017 debut Young, and on its punchy, anthemic follow-up The Fight (out Friday, March 6 via Loma Vista Recordings), they use that solidarity to tackle everything from climate change ("Fire & Fury") to arrogant boys who act as if they invented Radiohead ("Apathetic Boys").

Even though their second album is all about The Fight, that doesn't mean it's the only thing they're interested in. When they sit down with Billboard to chat about the new album, they're as quick to break into laughter or toss out Arrested Development references as they are to talk about their insecurities in the music biz. And while they take the piss out of male-dominated band culture on the aforementioned punk bop, they're more than willing to do the same to themselves, pointing to the unlikeliness of their presence on TikTok as twentysomethings: "We are actually old farts -- people are commenting on our TikTok, 'How are these people verified?'" they laugh.

Here's what they had to say ahead of The Fight's release.

Your last album was in 2017. How did this start – were songs piling up, or did you just suddenly say, "well, it's time to start an album"?

JJ Mitchell: We definitely knew we wanted to do another album after Young, so we started writing songs and didn't try to pressure ourselves into knowing what it would look like or be called.

Hana Elion: We're writing all the time really, whether we're on or off some sort of cycle.

Mitchell: It wasn't the first song we wrote, but the title track of what is now our second album happened somewhere in the middle and the lyrics to that song are, "This is the fight / I know you're tired / night after night/ the great divide." I called Hana over and was like, "you have to come over, I've got something." I played her that one line and she was in tears. I was like, "That's the album title, The Fight." And from there other songs came from that. It just felt like it was the thesis of what we'd already been working on.

Elion: A lot of the songs we'd already been writing had the word 'fight' in there. And so it just became clear to us the album would be about fighting in many forms: fighting in relationships, the fight to survive your anxiety and depression and existential dread, and also the political fight that's happening. We were writing this album post-Trump and thinking about the ways in which the world is falling apart; those are themes we were thinking about when we were thinking about the idea of The Fight.

A number of the songs touch on fighting in a personal and political context. I'm curious what comes first – do some lyrics start out addressing a fight in your day-to-day life, and then you expand it to touch on wider themes?

Elion: The inspiration comes first. Our song "Fire & Fury" is a good example; it started out as a song about the hopelessness of party culture and social media and things feel gross and hopeless in terms of connecting with someone. And it turned into a bigger message about climate change and the hopelessness, generally, of our generation. It starts a number of different ways.

Mitchell: I think it's easier to start from a place of personal knowledge and write what you're experiencing, rather than sit down and say, "let's write a song about our generation." [Laughs] But often what you're experiencing personally is a symptom of an illness we all have. Or as Hana said, climate change snuck its way into "Fire & Fury" especially because the lyrics refer to actual weather patterns -- apocalyptic weather patterns.

Elion: One thing that was important to us in terms of relating the idea of 'the fight' to these songs was if each song is saying different ways that you need to fight, we wanted to make sure there was a hopefulness to the record. Because fighting is hard, and it's tiring, and it's something that's going to take a lot of work and energy whether you're fighting to make yourself better or the world better. So we wanted to represent the hopelessness we were seeing in the world but find a way to make it constructive and help people -- so it's not all just, "well, we're all gonna die."

And to that end, there's a buoyant pop quality on many of the songs, like the "The Fool." Speaking of, you released both the upbeat full-band album version and the non-LP acoustic take ahead of The Fight. Why was it important to show both?

Mitchell: We felt like "The Fool" and a lot of the songs on this record were a bit of a departure from our first record. Giving people a window into what the process is like -- and that at the core, it's us singing to a guitar -- was important to us, because we didn't want to lose sight of the fact that we sing everything together and in harmony. In our different iterations of song, we might add synth and disco beats, but we want to emphasize it's about the words and our voices being one voice. So that's why we did the "Undone" version. The studio version, which is more synthy with a driving beat, it feels more like an anthem. It's a good introduction to the project, because a lot of those songs on the rest of the record pull from those inspirations: LCD Soundsystem, Nirvana, so it was nice to do both and show people both.

Elion: We don't want to be one thing, but all of the things. It's a good way to show that multiplicity.

Listening to the finished album, does it seem a lot different from Young to your ears?

Elion: I feel like we'd oscillate constantly. But we did that with our first album, too. We'd be like "all of the songs sound exactly the same" and then "all of them are so different, they can't be on one album." On this album we were like, "Oh my god, it's so different from Young, are we going to have the same fans?" "Wait, is it different ENOUGH? Should we push it further." There's constant anxiety when you're doing anything creative. The subject matter of these songs was angrier and more aggressive, so we wanted to produce these songs in the way they were asking to be produced. But we tried to keep a through-line of what we do. And there's kind of no way to get rid of [the through-line that] we're singing in harmony and writing the songs together. It feels very Overcoats to us.

Mitchell: I feel like the production gets dictated by the attitude. We were much more unapologetic for these songs, and that meant a lot of the songs were gritty rock guitars versus a beautiful Rhoads (guitar) and piano. But we try not to worry – although we're such worriers – but let the stories speak for themselves.

I loved "Apathetic Boys," where you take aim at mansplaining band culture. Was that based on specific people? Are they going to listen to that and be like "it me"?

Both: Yes (laughs).

Elion: Although no, because they're apathetic boys so they're not self-aware.

Mitchell: That was a really fun one to make. We never previously let ourselves write in that manner: Word vomit about the problem with 25-year-old men we have often found ourselves around.

Elion: It felt like a fun, ironic exercise to make a really boyish, punky rock song about punky, boyish men. It was an exercise in flipping that on its head.

Mitchell: Very tongue in cheek. At the same time, it's very serious, because men have been the gatekeepers of rock n' roll. Even during our first album campaign we didn't feel wholly comfortable acting like or playing like rock stars. And there's pressure to be demure and overtly feminine, whether that's culturally inflicted or self-inflicted pressure. But this song was important to crack that open and be like, "Yes, I've heard of Radiohead. Of course I've heard of Radiohead." But all these things where boys our age try to maintain control of rock music, whether it's listening to it or playing it. We wanted to jab at that.

Elion: Even when we're naming our musical influences for this record. Just yesterday we were doing an interview and we couldn't name a single female group that was in this canon of music we were listening to. It's just because they haven't been included. It felt important to us to be a part of this culture of women making really badass rock right now -- like Mitski, Sleater-Kinney, St. Vincent.

Mitchell: I think as women we're often absorbing the pain and pressure that men of our age group are scurrying. We naturally mold ourselves around it. And basically, we're sick of that.

Elion: And how it's cool to not try. Like, "I'm wearing a ratty t-shirt but it's $300."

You cite 2004 in the song. Why?

Elion: A lot of our favorite rock albums were coming out of 2004, like Arcade Fire, Green Day, Kings of Leon, all of these albums in the rock star indie era. That style of a guy in Converse, a ratty t-shirt, a whole culture we'll never be allowed into.

Don't look at my shoes, I'm wearing Converse.

Mitchell: For a second I thought I was, too.

What's your live show looking like these days?

Mitchell: We have an all-female band now which is really fun, especially playing those kinds of songs. After playing our first record for two years and playing mostly electronics, we're ready to slam on guitars and slappa da bass. Shakira played drums at the Halftime Show; maybe Hana will do that.

Hana: I'm practicing.

Anything else?

Mitchell: Follow us on TikTok.

Elion: We are actually old farts, and it's hilarious we're pushing it because we just got it and people are commenting on our TikTok, "How are these people verified?" Also, we shaved our heads for "The Fool" video [eight months ago]. It's part of everything we've been saying about wanting to be less definable, less female, and more rock n' roll, and we wanted to include ourselves in a canon of people who have shaved their heads before. A lot of people do it for political reasons, some for health, some emotional. It was also a way to bind ourselves together as warriors because our album is The Fight.

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