Hana Elion & JJ Mitchell Overcoats
INTERVIEW Althea Simons
PHOTOGRAPHS Sasha Turrentine
"It's like Yin and Yang. Yin is not the same as Yang. They're different colors and they're opposites of each other in a sense. But together they make one whole that fits together perfectly. And I feel like that's our voices." - JJ Mitchell, Overcoats
Hana: I was always interested in playing instruments; I picked up guitar and piano at an early age and I tried a bunch of other instruments in college. I played Banjo and the harp and I've always liked the tactile experience of playing and also singing. But in terms of writing, I had never showed anyone – that was pretty private – until I met JJ. Prior to JJ, I had been in this acapella group and I had liked doing chorus and things like that, but in terms of making it an artistic pursuit, I was too shy for that. Until I met JJ.
A: You met in college; I would love to hear about the acapella group you were in together.
J: It was great for many reasons, such as learning about harmonies and having a dedicated time every couple of days when you're singing in a group of women. That's amazing on principle, but it can get kind of crazy. There were some diva vibes. But it meant that Hana and I were singing together every week for four years, which helped lock things in sonically.
A: So that's where you realized that you had basically the same voice and could blend and sing in unison and have it sound crazy?
H: It's funny because our voices when we sing individually are actually quite different. But from the get-go when we first sang together, even prior to the acapella group, we would just be singing for fun, in the dorm bathroom, just anywhere…
A: Were you on the same hall freshman year?
H: Yeah. I think from the get-go when we sang together it just felt really good. Then as we did it for longer and longer and honed in on our blend, we started to see that we have the ability to create one voice and that was really attractive to us. We were like, ‘this is way more fun than singing by yourself.’
J: It's like Yin and Yang. Yin is not the same as Yang. They're different colors and they're opposites of each other in a sense. But together they make one whole that fits together perfectly. And I feel like that's our voices.
A: I’ve also heard you describe it as peanut butter and jelly, which I think is apt. Did your acapella days get you used to performing in public?
J: I’m still not used to that.
H: I would even say it had the adverse effect of making us terrified of it, because it wasn't the most enjoyable thing to perform a capella. It's so quiet because you're not amplified; it’s really scary.
J: We actually had to do most of our getting-over-stage-fright in the years afterwards. I don't think I felt comfortable performing until we had played 150 shows.
H: We used to get hives. During acapella, I'd have to wear tall shirts because I actually would get hives every time.
J: It only ended recently. Now the rest of our lives are such a mess that the only comfortable place is on stage, like: ‘Finally! Here's something I actually know how to do!’ Unlike the rest of being an adult.
A: It's kind of amazing that you guys continued performing even though it gave you hives.
J: Pushing through that period was really difficult.
H: We had to find what worked for us. A lot of people have a beer on stage or something. We don't drink at all. We try to just face it head on and I think it's been good for us in the long run.
J: Also movement, endorphins. We used to stand there straight as an arrow singing into the microphone. Now we jump around and have fun because it's like, why not?
H: One of our mottoes that we would say to each other right before we went on stage was “remember your arms,” because we just wouldn’t use them. We'd say “good luck out there. Love you. Remember your arms.”
J: And now I need to be, like, muzzled, or in a straightjacket. But that definitely helps, movement just makes you feel better. If I'm putting myself out there anyway – in front of hundreds of people – I may as well have a good time. If they're going to think something about me then so be it.
A: They're going to think something about you no matter what.
J: Whether I have arms or not.
J: We have a few rituals but I feel like hugging is the one that we can't go without. We start the show, and we walk on the stage, and we just hug. It's a reminder that we're not alone up there. Because after that we can't really talk to each other. I can't say “my in-ears are broken...”
H: ...or “your shirt is tucked into your underwear.”
J: Once you're up there it’s like you're going it alone, but we're still up there together.
H: And the things that we say to each other during that hug definitely vary. Sometimes, when we need support, we're saying supportive things. Other times, when we’re just kind of in a funny mood, we’re saying really dirty things. It really varies.
J: Really nasty things, sometimes.
H: To try to make each other break character. I don't know why we're trying to do that, but it’s really fun.
A: How is your stage character different from who you are offstage?
J: Honestly, nothing.
H: Mine is so different. I find it hard sometimes to move through the world and take up space. And particularly in New York where you have to be so compact all the time like a sardine everywhere you go, and you can't spread out or you’ll hit someone on the street, and you have to move quickly. Performing is this very different thing. This is my space to inhabit. I can just be whoever I want to be up here. And for that reason, I feel like I own the room. Whereas I don't feel like that in any other area of my life. So it's kind of a nice place to exercise confidence.
A: It’s empowering. Is it the same for you, J?
J: I can't tell if I’m the same or the complete opposite. I now feel totally at home on stage; I'm happy. I feel different than how I feel in my every day, but I don't have the same reaction where I feel like suddenly I can take up space, like I’m free. It feels more like a fun job than anything more philosophical to me. I recognize that when I’m up there I have a duty to fulfill. These people have paid to see us and I want them to have a really unique and healing experience listening to our music. I'm in work mode.
A: You're on your game.
J: Yeah, and I love that feeling. I'm here to sing and to create and facilitate and manifest a group healing session. And I'm okay with being the leaders of that session. Maybe I have a different experience in my everyday life that means that when I get on stage it's not suddenly a freeing thing. It's more of a focus. But I love the focus. I love the flow that comes from the collective effervescence of the whole crowd and being into the music. It's just a wild feeling. I love it. I miss it. We're not going on tour for a little while.
A: I love how you describe your music and your performing as healing. That seems to be the main thing that you're going for. Is that right?
H: It definitely is. When we first started playing together, even prior to making an album or knowing that we were going to share any of the music, the primary reason that we did it was for our own healing. When we first started songwriting it was an extension of the friendship. We'd be talking about something while I was holding a guitar, and I'd say: ‘oh, I had this line’ or JJ would say ‘I feel like this,’ and I'd say, ‘oh my god, write that down.’ The songwriting was such a natural part of our healing processes and helping each other through hard times. It was only later on when we started to feel comfortable with the idea of sharing any of it that we thought: ‘this is why we do it. This is provided healing to us.’
J: We knew that the music was pretty decent, and these are meaningful songs to us. And then we played them for a couple of friends. When they said: ‘this is really helping me. I need that song, can you send it to me?” That other people were finding refuge in the music was what inspired us to release it on a broader platform. By “broader platform” I mean we had a Soundcloud, we didn’t have a manager or booking agent.
A: But that’s the internet; it’s there forever.
J: That’s where it starts. But I think [our songwriting] started off as a therapeutic process for the two of us, and it's grown but we’ve kept [healing] at our core.
J: It’s way more complicated than black and white. The bottom line is that we support each other as women and we support many other women doing creative things, whether that's collaborating with brands with female designers, or the team that we're choosing to be our business manager.
Female friendship is a challenging thing for a lot of people, myself included. And it's often hilarious when we realize our own sexism in certain instances. It's a constant practice to not hate other women because that's what we're taught to do. It's a conscious effort to not feel jealous or turn jealousy and envy into hatred rather than admiration and lifting other women up; we've been totally conditioned to [compare ourselves to other women]. We're in competition with each other. Challenging the status quo is always going to be harder than just living by it. It has its nuances because there have been instances where we want to support another female musician or artist, but they're acting unethically or not treating us with respect. So then you have to think: I know that in general I want to be supporting all women but I also need to stand up for myself. So it's been a very educational experience being in a female band because we've encountered so many ways that female friendship and female partnership interact [with the world] in a good way and in a bad way. Sifting through it and figuring out where we stand has been a really big thing this past year.
H: In college you're supposed to be meeting all these people, and we both had plenty of other friends as well. But I think in certain friendships we were feeling like we couldn't be ourselves, and not just in friendships, in certain ways with our families and in certain ways with everyone. Our friendship has always offered this solace, like a safe space. I think because the outside world can be so judgmental – all of the things that plague us as individuals and as partners in the music industry – we try to not let that be in our core. So we work hard not to judge each other and to support each other's decisions because that's what the person wants, not because one of us thinks it's right. We try to support one another in a way that feels really rare in the world. As J said, it's a constant practice but it's something that is so important to us and has been very healing to us as individuals. We hope to be able to spread that way of being through our music. But as JJ said, it's hard sometimes and there are complications and situations where it's not clear how to be your best self. It's a constant struggle being a woman, but we're just trying to do the best we can and be honest throughout the process.
H: Going back to the idea of healing, with our first album healing meant love songs, and empowering songs about sexism, or, like, singing in a strong way.
J: Sharing very heartfelt bits of commentary, and vulnerability.
H: And those were the ways that we found healing, sharing that. Once we started playing that live and feeling that energy, we realized we were missing this entire range of emotion like anger and sass, all of these tough emotions that we weren't letting ourselves embody because we were trying to be vulnerable women. So a lot of what inspired this second project is figuring out that sometimes screaming at the top of your lungs is also therapeutic, and sometimes just slamming on a guitar – even though it doesn't sound that pretty – is healing, and expanding that definition for ourselves.
J: There's also a large chunk of the second record that is less of an evolution. There are songs on the record that are more piano ballads and are there to add that vulnerable element. But as Hana was saying, another large chunk of the record is just us, scream-o.
A: I also love the idea of dancing as therapeutic and cleansing. You guys have talked about that before, and I totally vibe with that.
J: Dance is life. That’s our motto. That also came from touring the first record for a year and a half. We found ourselves on stage wanting to dance, and our music was too chill. We'd be waiting for the drop and the drop would happen, and we’d be like ‘ok...I can get down to this.’ Our biggest song from the first record – “Leave the Light On” I would say is the danciest one – it’s not even that crazy, it doesn’t allow for us to do any headbanging. So that impulse [to dance] was definitely present when we were writing this next record.
A: You mentioned that rock and roll comes a little bit into it as well; it doesn't seem like that was as much of an influence in the last one. So how did that come into being?
J: Rock and roll traditionally is a very masculine-dominated genre, and so we didn't always feel like we had access to it. It’s been only recently, in kind of being on tour making playlists to listen to on the road, where we wanted an angstier soundtrack. We started listening to way more rock and roll. A lot of Nirvana and other bands that we previously didn't really feel could be in our wheelhouse. Generally speaking people feel, and we in particular felt placed into a folk genre just because of the fact that we're women; when we go to play on the radio, they assume that we have an acoustic guitar not an electric guitar. Things like that just meant that it was harder to come to rock and roll, and it took longer. But we're there now. It was a conscious choice for us – we were loving the mixture of folk and electronic music when we made our first record – not that we were forced to do that, but rather those were the two elements that we were pulling from. And now we're loving Arcade Fire and arena rock like that, and that's definitely influencing us more. Iggy Pop. What else?
H: ...old Kings Of Leon...
J: ...a lot of The Beatles.
A: I heard little bits of that.
J: The Beatles after India.
A: That's always the best reference, right?
J: If you’re like: “I'm making music that sounds like The Beatles,” something is wrong with you, but also I want to hear it. You think you’re The Beatles? Great.
A: But you don't have to think that you're The Beatles to say you're inspired by The Beatles; like, if you're not inspired by the Beatles, there’s something wrong with you.
A: Any final words?
J: I love dogs.
H: We love Grammar.