One of the best pop albums of the year, bar none, is called YOUNG. Though the title may be a fitting descriptor for the artists who made it in a literal sense, it also belies their Zen-like wisdom, songwriting acumen, and the performing talents they brought to bear at DC’s Rock & Roll Hotel this November. On the coldest night in pre-winter DC so far, Overcoats brought warmth and a wealth of electro-R&B anthems to help a sold-out crowd shake off the layers. We caught up with the duo of Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell a few days after the show to talk about harmony, innovative tour merch, and lessons learned as women in the music industry.
Hana, you grew up in the DC area. Did coming of age here influence your musical trajectory?
I did Bach to Rock as a kid! We’ve actually gone back to rehearse when we need to rehearse in DC, and it’s so funny because we’re the oldest people there [laughs]. I had this great guitar teacher named Terry. I went to shows at the 930 Club, I used to sneak into Rock & Roll and Black Cat, I went to Merriweather with my high school friends. Going to concerts and music was a part of my life in DC for sure. And DC is a great city for that, with so many venues. Having all that stuff so accessible was really wonderful.
You met each other at Wesleyan University, can you talk about your favorite musical experiences at Wesleyan?
JJ: We saw this band Busty and the Bass play at one of the program houses which was dedicated as an art house. They are like, this 10 piece funk band. I think it was the first instance where I saw a band and said to myself, “touring as a band looks really fun.” Until that point I feel like my experience of watching bands coming through Wesleyan was that they looked really miserable! But Busty and the Bass, they treated it like a party, and they looked like they were having the time of their lives every night.
Hana: One of our very first shows was opening for Nick Hakim at the same house, and he later became one of our favorite artists. That was a crazy opportunity. This band Goodnight Texas came and played at Earth House. Porches played at Eclectic. So many great concerts.
I want to ask about YOUNG which is such a stunning album. “Folk songwriting against electronic backdrops” is how I heard you describe it in one interview. What are some elements of folk songwriting that you’re drawn to?
Hana:I think the storytelling aspect is what we’re most attracted to. I’ll listen to other artists who I love very much, and I’ll notice the difference between my songwriting and theirs. But JJ and I are always interested in telling a story. I think of classic songs like “Jolene” by Dolly Parton. How that kind of music is played in a big concert hall, the interactive aspect of it. We like it when each verse is adding a different part to the story.
JJ: Now that I’m thinking about it, every time we sit down to write, we’re like, “what happens in the second verse?” And I always think that’s how everyone writes a song, but it’s not. It’s very folky.
I love that you incorporate vocal harmony in so many songs. How early in the songwriting process does the vocal harmony part emerge?
Hana: It’s usually immediately, and when it’s not immediately, I feel very uneasy. I don’t usually feel like it’s an Overcoats song until the harmony is there. There are some new songs we’re working on, and we don’t have harmonies in place yet. And I’m like, “oh my God, is this going to turn out okay?” I think its integral to our sound. The most important thing, even before we were writing songs, was harmony. Harmony is the thing that brought us into music.
One of our favorite ATG artists is Autre Ne Veut, who worked on your album. How was that experience?
Hana: Making the album with Arthur was eye opening. He was able to push us to change songs that we had already written, that we were attached to. We had put out “The Fog” already, just the two of us, and it was a more rudimentary version of “The Fog.” We were so stubborn and refused to change it, and it was Arthur who changed some of the instruments in the chorus.
We had to push ourselves to listen to it. And then we were like, “okay it is better.” Objectively he’s done something that’s helped this. He’s good at taking what we have, understanding our project, and pushing us to try new melodic things in the background. I think we were hesitant to fill things and make things too crowded. Arthur is a genius at keeping things minimal while giving them a lot of depth, and adding just the right tiny melodic element.
I also learned a lot about what it’s like to work with a male producer in the studio. It was our first experience working with professional producers, we didn’t know if what we were experiencing was normal. It was a really steep learning curve, learning when to stand up for yourself and when to accept changes. Any woman that you talk to in the music world will have an experience like this.
JJ: To add on to that, I think that in working together and creating something as women in music, there’s just inherently a gender dynamic in everything you do. We are always the odd ones out. You have to fight against the idea that someone is necessarily better at their job than you or has more knowledge than you. It’s a constant fight to find your own voice and be an equal. I think we definitely learned how to do that. It’s something that takes place in all aspects of the music industry.
At Rock & Roll your connection with the audience was palpable, you’re very conversational. Is making a connection with the audience something that’s easier now, or has it always come naturally?
Hana: It has not always come naturally. We’re at a total crossroads with our current set. We came from a place of extreme stage fright. We used to write everything down that we would say beforehand. But these days we say literally whatever we want. We’re trying to figure out where to go from here, whether to pull back or let it out harder.
JJ: It’s nice to feel comfortable enough to say whatever you want. However, maybe we’re saying too much [laughs].
Your drummer’s rig is a mix of electronic drums and live snares and cymbals which I thought added a really interesting new dimension to some of the songs. Is that a dynamic that you like in particular?
Hana: We love our drummer and his set up. There aren’t a lot of live drums on the album. We’ve found that for our live shows, having those organic sounds helps to fill the room and makes for a more fun and dynamic show.
JJ: Our drummer is just the best. I think in general, because a lot of the album is electronic, we’ve been working on having more live components. It’s just so fun to watch people play stuff. So we’re trying to add more instruments to our live set.
You have such incredible merch. You don’t often see merch that’s so intentional and unique. Where did the idea to sell actual overcoats and bracelets come from?
Hana: We love fashion. Eventually we’d love to have a brand. We’d love to have a brand of coats. We love jewelry, we love all of that stuff. We have this joke, it’s like, “are we even a band?” We literally never talk about music on social media, etc. So yes Overcoats is a band. But it’s also a lifestyle [laughs]. If we can bring people into it, that’s what we want to do. Coats and bracelets are fun, interacting with people on Instagram is fun. We want the merch to be an element that’s really inclusive, a way to learn more about us.
My favorite song on the album is “Kai’s Song.” I have to ask, who is Kai?
Hana: Kai is our dog. No I’m kidding [laughs]! Kai is a dear friend of ours who is very strong. We wrote the song in her honor, and it’s kind of about her life and her strength. It’s become more of a self-reflective thing but we wanted her to know how special she is by having this song we wrote about her on the album.
JJ: Kai is a very unique and wonderful individual. And she deserves a million songs.