We talk being friends and making music with Hana Elion and J.J. Mitchell of The Overcoats
There’s a magic that happens when Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell are together. It’s electric and intimate - like you’re experiencing a friendship with deep roots. But Hana (the blonde) and JJ, who both grew up bouncing from country to country abroad, didn’t meet until their freshman year at Wesleyan College. They connected over a love of music and found their voices enmeshed naturally, like one had been waiting patiently for the other. The duo formed electro-folk band The Overcoats and released their debut, YOUNG in spring 2017. With the follow up due in 2019, we caught up with the rising NYC-based act to talk firsts, figuring things out, and what’s next. - Current's Executive Editor, Megan Baldwin
Separately, how did you come to choose music?
Hana: I think for both of us singing came really naturally. It’s something we both grew up doing, whether in groups or our bedrooms. Neither of us has formal training, but it’s something we’ve both always loved. Instrument-wise, I grew up playing guitar.
JJ: To echo Hana, we definitely are self-taught, and still learning, honestly. I don’t play any instruments so I kind of tinker with a little bit of everything, but I’ve been trying to improve on my piano skills.
Do you remember the first time you got together to work on music?
JJ: We could tell that when we harmonized it created something greater than the sum of its part, but we didn’t try writing music together until four years into our friendship. I remember the first time we were like, “Should we try to write a song?” We sat in my dorm room and we wrote “Little Memory” (which is on our debut album) just sitting there in bed, start to finish. Hana had her guitar, and I remember bouncing ideas back and forth, and then when we came up with the harmonies, and we were like, “Whoa. That’s good.” From there we were addicted, and all we wanted to do was write together and it’s been like that ever since.
Hana: I have a memory of when found out we have the same favorite song, which is “You Know I’m No Good” by Amy Winehouse. We were singing it, and I was like, “Wait, stay on your part, I’m going to try a harmony.” It just totally made sense in a time of a lot of confusion about who you are, and loneliness—everything that comes with our age and being in college—to find somebody’s voice that so perfectly matches with yours, it makes you feel not alone. It was something that was comforting and special to us. When we realized we could write songs and go for even more, it was like a cherry on top.
How has your diverse upbringings influenced your music? Hana, you were born in New York and grew up outside of D.C., and have lived in Jamaica, Uganda, and Belize. And JJ, you were born in London and grew up in New York, England, and Egypt.
JJ: The way we were brought up, moving around a lot, and being open to uprooting one’s life and adapting to new places—that was an influence more than the music itself. It has helped a lot in terms of the nomadic lifestyle we’ve had to adopt as a result of being touring musicians, never quite having a home base, or living in one place for too long. Although we’ve struggled with it, I think we’ve been better able to cope with that transient lifestyle because of how we grew up. So it influenced us in that sense.
Hana: I think we both developed an idea of ourselves as wanderers and travelers, and also curiosity about the world and a desire to effect change. JJ’s parents are involved in history and anthropology and politics. My dad is a doctor. We watched our parents helping people who were different from us, and I think it inspired something in us where we wanted to learn and see the world.
How did you come up with the name Overcoats?
JJ: We wanted a name that acted like a coat of armor; a protective layer that was sort of androgynous or genderless even, and then behind that layer we could sing very vulnerably and express ourselves freely. We were very inspired by this Egon Schiele print where one person has this large overcoat on, and the other person is under the wing, and the two figures are very close to each other and very protected under this coat. And I remember us looking at this print and being very inspired by it.
On the theme of Overcoats, clothing, and style: I’ve noticed that you two complement each other in what you wear when you perform.
JJ: Fashion and how we present ourselves onstage has always been important to us.
Hana: Fashion really is a coat of armor in the same way. It’s something you put on that makes you feel powerful, it aligns you with someone else.We present as a team, or even two people that are actually one person.
JJ: Two peas, one pod.
JJ: At the beginning of making music together, we used to wear all white, and we still do sometimes. We wanted it to act as a blank slate and let the music speak for itself, rather than wearing something really flashy and have the attention be on that; we wanted to let people just listen to the lyrics. So that was the inspiration for wearing all white and we still tend to stick with monochrome for that reason. More recently, we’ve been into suits and menswear inspired by David Byrne and David Bowie. All the Davids.
Is there anything you can share about your second album?
JJ: We are currently working on it—we’ve just about finished writing it. We’re headed to LA at the end of the summer to record. If we talk about it conceptually, YOUNG, our first album, was this coming-of-age project where we were figuring out who we wanted to be as women in society and looking to our mothers and our parents’ relationships as we analyzed our own. That encapsulated that whole project. Now we’re in the teenage angst phase, so the second album is feeling a lot grittier, the songs are still honest, but they’re lyrically more metaphorical. It’s rock and roll, baby. [laughs] Hana’s basically shredding for the whole album.
Wesleyan has a tendency to produce interesting bands and music. Did you feel that while you were there as students?
JJ: There’s definitely a legacy of MGMT and Santigold and all these artists who inspire us, but I felt like we didn’t fit in with the music community. I remember us playing a battle of the bands, and everybody else had drummers, guitars, and bass, and we were just two girls—
Hana: —with a laptop!
JJ: Somehow we persevered.
Hana: And we won it. And all of the boy bands were like, “Who did they sleep with to get to win?”
JJ: And we were like, “Great. Awesome.”
Hana: We were the only all-female act in the battle of the bands. Because it was small and so male-dominated, it made it hard to make music there. It was like a club that we weren’t allowed to try to be part of. We only played two shows there. Most of our musical career was definitely post-Wesleyan [when we graduated in 2015].
My very last question: what’s something in each other that you admire, and what have you learned from each other?
JJ: That’s a really good question. I think I learned from Hana that feminism takes many forms, and to accept and support those different forms. I had a very clear cut idea of what it means to be a strong woman and Hana taught me, and what I admire in her, is that she’s exactly who she is, and a strong woman.
JJ: Bing bang boom!
Hana: Bing bang boom. JJ’s literally tough as nails. Like, she’s soft, sweet, kind, and generous to her friends, but she’s also the toughest person I know - just so strong. She’s taught me that even when I feel like I’m going to die, I can be strong. I really admire that in her; how she perseveres, and how much she taught me about owning my own strength, even when I feel weak.
JJ: Wow, I’ll be weeping over here. [laughs]