Fast rising electronic-folk duo Overcoats, comprised of best friends Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell, feted the release of their debut LP YOUNG, out via Arts & Crafts, one week ago today (Apr. 21).
Co-produced by Nicolas Vernhes (The War On Drugs, Dirty Projectors), and Autre Ne Veut, the set delivers a poetic punch, sonically spanning everything from folk and country to pop and even dance, as showcased in their recent choreography-heavy live performance at Billboard’s office. (“We fancy ourselves to be dancers,” cracks JJ. “So it’s actually really embarrassing but we try to whip it out whenever possible.”)
The New York-based pair met while students at Wesleyan College, with their unique connection described as a “four-year friendship with singing always part of it,” evidenced in their magnetic harmonies. But it was the leap of faith of opening up with each other that bonded them for life. “It takes courage to leave your ego behind and write with another person, to say embarrassing stuff and ugly truths, if you’re going to write really honest lyrics,” Hana tells Billboard. “It maybe required us to be friends for that long to have a bedrock of love and unconditional support in order to write the kind of things that we ended up writing.”
That emotional connection has led to a fast-growing Overcoats movement, with early cuts “Hold Me Close” and “Leave the Light On” earning praise across the hype machine, and leading to tour dates supporting fellow breakthrough artists Maggie Rogers and Joseph, as well as their own proper headlining tour in support of their debut.
Today, they return with two acoustic performances of album cuts “Hold Me Close” and “Mother,” shot and directed by their friend Hannah Baker in Malibu, Calif., and premiering below. In advance of the record’s release, Billboard spoke with Overcoats about their emotional connection, the “spiritual” recording process, and what comes next for them
Take me back to the beginning. When did you first know that you had to create music together?
JJ: The band and the music that we make feels very natural to our friendship. It’s kind of just an extension of it, the reasons that we write music and the way that we empathize with each other and try to heal from what we’re going through — it’s really a process that started in our friendship and has continued from there. We started two years ago, and after we graduated from college, we moved to Dublin briefly just to kind of get away and have some time to play live and figure out what we wanted to sound like. We came back to New York and recorded the album.
Are these tracks the first that you ever wrote together?
JJ: The first song we ever wrote together is on the album and it’s called “Little Memory.” “Walk On” and “Fog” and “Smaller Than My Mother” were all on our debut EP and those were actually the first four songs that we wrote. It felt wrong not to include them in this first real body of work that we’re putting out, because they’re part of the story that we’re telling. It’s about growing up and there was kind of an evolution towards a slightly more electronic and darker sound in “Nighttime Hunger” and “Siren” and “Kai’s Song” and a further evolution into dance with “Leave The Light On.” I think we wanted to include all of those moments that we’ve experienced together and created this transformation.
Your lyrics are layered in imagery. Are you both big poetry fans?
Hana: We want our lyrics to sound like a diary entry that you weren’t supposed to see. It’s lovely that they’re coming across poetic, but what we go for anyway is just the most honest thing you could say, which is also a hard thing to say when you’re writing with someone else — like, “I’m about to bear my deepest darkest thoughts to this person.”
JJ: There’s actually a joke among me and Hana and our friends that I actually don’t read. I haven’t read a book or anything in like three years [Laughs.] So if there’s any [poetic] influence, it’s that I’ve always kept journals my whole life at different points on and off, and that as a practice is now what we draw from, saying the s–t that nobody wants to say.
I’m definitely somebody that writes something down as a way to heal from them, and this is just the next iteration of that, sharing those fears and those anxieties rather than leaving them in a journal. It’s just accessing that shit that you really don’t actually want to talk about and forcing yourself to share it, because in the end that’s what’s going to help you get over it.
What’s your typical songwriting process?
JJ: I think we do a number of different things, we do what each song necessitates, but some require more of a workshopping. “Nighttime Hunger,” for example — we were so stuck on the second verse. It actually took months to get what we wanted out of that song, and in the end we each sat in a different corner of a room with a notebook and gave ourselves twenty minutes, and the structure of the verse and the basic melody, and we were like, ‘Go away and write what you think the second verse should be and I’ll do the same.’ We came back and had essentially written the same thing word for word.
So most of your songs are written collaboratively?
Hana: Most of them are collaborative, but “Father” was started by JJ and “Mother” was started by me.
“Father” and “Mother” serve as the album’s bookends. Is that something you both felt thematically was essential?
Hana: One of the things we’ve always connect on is our relationship to our parents and our upbringing. We both traveled a lot as children and we talk about how that really led up to us being super adaptable and helped us become strong as adults.
But we also both always butt heads with our mothers — more growing up, when our brains were taking over and dealing with depression and anxiety. We both turned to our fathers for that harder advice, like the “get over it, you’re good” kind of advice. And as we grew up we started to see sexism in the world, and started to understand more about what it means to be a woman, we both had these drastic new understandings of our mothers and what they go through. Those two songs put every song into a new perspective.
You worked with producer Nicolas Vernhes (Dirty Projectors, The War On Drugs). How did you link up with him?
Hana: I remember we went to his studio in New York called Rare Book Room, and there’s just shit everywhere, like all of these weird instruments and pieces of art and books and you could tell it was a just like a mad genius’ laboratory basically. When we spoke to him about how he approaches music and everything, we were just like, ‘This guy is brilliant.’ He just approaches it really holistically, and he talks a lot about the moment you know that something is done or right. It was quite spiritual and we really related to that.
Your sound is a mix of folk, pop and electronic elements, a little bit of country/soul as well. What inspired such an eclectic mix of influences?
Hana: We feel trapped in one genre and we feel like it’s not universal enough, or it doesn’t tell a whole truth – for us at least. I listen to a lot of singer-songwriters and that is very great for the soul, but for our project, we love it when things have tension. To put “Smaller Than My Mother,” which used to be a bluegrass-folk song, with a really crass electronic beat under it felt really dangerous — but also so right, because it needed something to move your body while you’re listening to those lyrics.
It’s something we both naturally do when we’re writing, and now consciously have identified as something that we like. Now we are aware of that and we aim for that, but originally that’s what we felt was the magic, so we followed that path.
Was it a natural evolution for you to take these songs to a live setting?
JJ: I think it’s now my favorite part of this job. It used to cause a lot of anxiety to get up there, and I always had a lot of stage fright, and now it’s the comfort zone. Now when we get up there it feels like it’s where we’re meant to be, and this is who I’m meant to be doing this with. And when the crowd reacts and you see them hearing the lyrics either for the first time or singing along, it makes it all worth it, all the travel and touring and grueling 5 a.m. Megabus rides, it makes it all worth it.
Looking ahead, what’s your biggest dream bucket-list goal?
JJ: Our biggest dream is to go on tour with Coldplay, so definitely working towards that. Hopefully word gets back to them through this interview [laughs].
JJ: I wanna do a comedy skit on SNL, I don’t even want to sing on it.
Hana: I’d just like to host it.
JJ: Definitely some festivals, we’d love to play all of our dream festivals like Bonnaroo and Glastonbury and things like that, so definitely striving towards that. Our biggest dream though is just to have a really wide reach and meet and play for as many people as we can, and just connect with people. That’s why were making the music. As much as I want all of those little things that you can tick on a box, we just want to go everywhere.
Catch Overcoats on tour now and stream their debut LP YOUNG below.
OVERCOATS TOUR DATES
Apr 26 – Washington, DC – DC9 *Sold out
Apr 27 – Philadelphia, PA – Johnny Brenda’s
Apr 28 – Boston, MA – Cafe 939 *Sold out
Apr 29 – Burlington, VT – Higher Ground
Apr 30 – Montreal, QC – Divan Orange
May 2 – Pontiac, MI – The Pike Room at The Crofoot
May 3 – Grand Rapids, MI – Calvin College
May 4 – Chicago, IL – Schubas
May 5 – Minneapolis, MN – 7th St Entry
May 6 – Kansas City, MO – Middle of the Map Festival
May 8 – Milwaukee, WI – Colectivo
May 9 – Indianapolis, IN – White Rabbit Cabaret
May 10 – Louisville, KY – Zanzabar
May 12 – Cleveland, OH – Beachland Tavern
May 13 – Pittsburgh, PA – Club Café
May 16 – Dublin, IR – Whelan’s
May 18-20 – Brighton, UK – Great Escape
May 22 – Berlin, DE – Maze
May 23 – Paris, FR – Le Carmen
May 24 – London, UK – St. Pancras Old Church
May 26 – Manchester, UK – Dot to Dot Festival
May 27 – Bristol, UK – Dot to Dot Festival
May 28 – Nottingham, UK – Dot to Dot Festival
June 1 – Hamden, CT – The Outer Space ^
June 2 – Buffalo, NY – Town Ballroom ^
June 3-4 – Toronto, Canada – Field Trip
June 7 – Columbus, OH – Newport Music Hall ^
June 8 – San Diego, CA – The Casbah
June 9 – Los Angeles, CA – The Echo
June 10 – San Francisco, CA – Swedish American Hall
June 12 – Portland, OR – Doug Fir Lounge
June 13 – Seattle, WA – Barboza
June 14 – Vancouver, BC – The Cobalt
July 17 – Chicago, IL – Millennium Park
^ Opening for Joseph