360°Sound had the pleasure of speaking with Overcoats, JJ Mitchell and Hana Elion, ahead of their appearance at SXSW 2023. Friends since meeting in 2011, the duo have released recordings starting with 2015’s Overcoats EP. This time around, they’ve enlisted their new friend, producer, songwriter, multi-instumentalist and Grammy-award winner Daniel Tashian, to produce their soon-to-be released full-length album Winner. Multi-instrumentalists themselves, JJ and Hana collaborated with Daniel to create all the music on the album at Nashville studio The Study. Great lovers of collaboration, they co-wrote the new songs with a variety of talented friends.
Their new music is informed by their experiences living in New York City, but reflects the way their individual lives are evolving beyond that place. Winner drew me in immediately and has swept me up in its currents. I’m a sucker for good grooves, and this album is groovy as hell. It’s always tempting as a journalist to conjure a clever phrase to describe new sounds I’m experiencing. I’ve heard Overcoats described as “tightly-woven moody pop elevated by gorgeous harmonizing.” Indeed, but JJ and Hana created the sounds, so I’ll let them tell you about it.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
360°Sound: I just want to clarify, it’s ‘Overcoats,’ right? No definite article, like Talking Heads?
JJ: Yes, that’s right.
Critics have waxed poetic in an attempt to describe your sound. How would you describe it?
JJ: Harmony driven ranch pop.
Awesome. That encapsulates the scope of this new record. Your music combines pop, country and electronic. But where would you say your roots are? Where do you start from?
Hana: Roots is a tough question. In terms of where we started, we were definitely making more electronic stuff. The only real organic instrument would have been a guitar. I think that’s just what we were listening to when we started making music together. We were really inspired by artists like Sylvan Esso and Marika Hackman. But both of us grew up, prior to making music, listening to The Chicks, Simon & Garfunkel, Adele even. Both of us, from a young age, really loved and appreciated great harmonies and great songwriting.
How are the mysterious bits of your souls coming through in your music?
JJ: We like to not leave a ton mysterious. And hopefully with all of our songwriting, we’re talking about things that are really challenging and honest, and kind of hard to share with other people. That being said, I think with this record, there are some cryptic messages and lyricism to a lot of the songs. “Horsegirl” could be one of those, where it’s very emotive and evocative, but you’re not quite sure if the story is true, or if we are horse girls. Or if we are horses. That’s definitely something we’ve been trying to explore songwriting-wise. What’s the story we can tell that has a little bit of mystery, but still gets across a feeling? There’s actually a funny story about “Horsegirl.” Maybe Hana can tell it.
Hana: I would say that’s actually part of our mystery that we should keep a mystery.
You mentioned in your bio the supportive relationship that you have in your collaboration. How did you guys find each other?
Hana: We actually met at Wesleyan on the first day of our freshman year. In fact, we were in a class together and also lived in the same dorm. We connected on music – immediately. We used to sing together in the bathrooms at our dorm because they had great acoustics. College is a time that you’re exploring yourself and meeting people and wanting to get to know other people. Music was a huge part of the way that we got to know each other and connected.
I’m fascinated by the choreography that you guys do. Tell me about your hand choreography.
JJ: Hand choreography has been a really big thing for this album. We found that it was too difficult to do an entire body choreography while singing. So we narrowed in on the hands. I also think that the hands are super expressive. I feel like that was partly why we were drawn to having the hand motions tell a certain story – whether they were very disjointed movements, or aggressive, versus soft and almost sensual. So in “Horsegirl,” a lot of the movements are very slow and resolved. Whereas in the video for “Never Let You Go,” it’s much more aggressive, tense movement.
We love collaborating with other, usually female, artists. The choreographer that helped us with the hand dances is a movement artist from Hudson, New York – Charlotte Stickles. She was instrumental in helping us to figure out how to speak in a language of movement, which we weren’t necessarily well versed in. Charlotte’s a super talented dancer and choreographer.
In our interview with Daniel Tashian [Winner producer], he told us that Brian Eno talks about creating a musical room for people to come in and out of as they wish. What does your musical room look like? What are some of its characteristics?
Hana: Daniel’s so brilliant. I love that quote; it feels really accurate of what he does. What’s in our musical room? Definitely a fake horse. And maybe some shag carpeting. Definitely a lot of records. And probably some fabulous coats hanging on a coat rack.
JJ: Specifically in the room with Daniel Tashian, for the first time we were able to record our vocals, sometimes at the same time, but at the very least, in the same room where everything was happening. We didn’t have to disappear, one at a time, into a vocal booth that was padded like an asylum. He created a space that physically embodies what the music is supposed to be doing – one microphone here, one microphone there, and we look at each other. What else? Banjo. A lot of tambourine. A lot of little egg shakers. Loads of percussion. Daniel likes to lie flat on the ground on his back, so a bit of floor space for him to do that. That’s our musical room, for this album.
You mentioned shakers and tambourines and banjo. What other sorts of instruments do you guys like to play?
Hana: We like to play a bunch of different things in the studio: guitar, a little bass, synths. We like to have everything on so we can mess around.
Did you have other people come in and contribute to the collaboration?
JJ: Actually, almost no one. Daniel is an incredible musician; he was the main hands in the studio. We were the architects of the record, the three of us. He plays drums, he plays bass, he plays guitar, he can play any type of piano, Mellotron. You name it, he can do it. We actually had a friend come in and play banjo; that was the one contributing outsider to the mix. That made for a much more cohesive sound on the record, because we dialed in all of these pieces over the course of the two weeks that we were there. We wanted really tight, dry drums, and we would get that sound going. And then Daniel could just play whatever beat we wanted.
Daniel’s very much a jack of all trades… master of all. He has such a love for it; he’s so committed to getting things right. Not necessarily musically right, but the way the artist wants it to be. He puts that pressure on himself. He loves it. He wanted to pick up every instrument with us in the studio. He was an amazing person to have there.
You made reference in your bio to making a Thelma and Louise-style getaway. Can you share where that feeling comes from?
Hana: Yes, that’s a feeling that we have always had, and have related to each other on. We both have a sense of wanderlust and adventure. The pandemic brought a lot of that out. We both escaped the city – I went to LA; JJ went to Hudson, New York in the Hudson Valley. Meeting in Nashville to make the record felt especially poetic. We’ve always operated in this ‘us against the world’ mentality. We tried to really bring that into the music, and into the aesthetics of this record.
Is this your first time at SXSW?
JJ: It’s not. Actually, it’s our third time. It’s utter mayhem. I find it completely overwhelming. Hana loves it more than life itself. She’s like, ‘Get me in there.’ I’m like, ‘Get me out of here.’ We’re really excited to be going back after all these years, because this album is definitely an evolution from our previous albums. It feels like a reintroduction to who we are, and it feels like we want to connect to those roots that Hana was talking about. Guitars and harmonies, and not trying to cover anything up with electronics. So we’re excited to reintroduce ourselves as something that looks and sounds like our previous projects, but is also very new and exciting.
What can we expect from your live show this time around?
Hana: Definitely hearing some new songs.
JJ: And some hand choreography.
Overcoats will be playing two sets at SXSW 2023:
Tuesday 14 March, 11:30pm – 12:10 @ Cheer Up Charlie’s Indoor
Thursday 16 March, midnight – 12:40 @ Seven Grand
Keep up with Overcoats on their website overcoatsmusic.com