Interview: Overcoats break down their electro-folk sound

The re-emergence of a Dublin rave house scene and Celtic family band The Corrs may not seem likely bedfellows, but it's embedded in the electro-folk DNA, of New York duo Overcoats. The female songwriters Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell were freshman students at Wesleyan University when they first started bonding over a mutual love of music. It took them three and a half years before they decided they wanted to actually be in a band together. But, rather than jump straight in to the New York scene after graduation, they took some time off and went to Ireland.

After their breakout performance at 2016's SXSW, critics were keen for their debut. They released their YOUNG LP in April this year and did not disappoint, making it to Billboard's Best Albums of 2017 So Far and they garnered an invitation to perform at NPR's Tiny Desk. The duo are currently on the last leg of their first headlining tour. 

AXS caught up with Elion and Mitchell to find out why they headed to Dublin, how it informed their sound and how they achieve that balance of moody soundscapes and sweet harmonies that you can dance to.   

AXS: I am quite intrigued after you both graduated from college, why did you feel that you needed a break? And why did you guys pick Dublin of all places?

Hana Elion: We wanted to do something out of the box, we knew we wanted to work on music but we didn’t want to go straight into the New York scene. We wanted to go somewhere we could really figure out our sound, I had been to Dublin before and JJ’s parents happen to be moving to England for the summer, and we were kind of like ‘maybe we should get out of the United States.'

JJ Mitchell: Often we paint it as wanderlust but also we were a little bit terrified as to what life would be like after graduating. New York post-grad is very daunting and everybody had these corporate jobs. All of our friends were getting employed by these companies and we just weren’t at all interested in that. But the alternatives were even scarier. So I think it was actually a bit of a cop-out. Dublin did show us what live music is all about. And we’ve carried that with us back to New York.

AXS: What was the experience in Dublin like and how did it affect the record that came to be Young because there are songs that with your folk tendencies had echoes of The Corrs.

JM: That’s interesting that you picked up on The Corrs sound; we definitely were influenced by what we were hearing in Dublin. We both also came from backgrounds of loving folk music so that was always present in our writing. What happened in Dublin is we got these two polar opposite influences—of traditional folk storytelling and lyricism we were seeing from at open mic nights and every bar in town, but we were also met with this crazy house music that exists in the city that every young person is now apart of. After playing open-mic nights we’d go drop our stuff then find the next dance party.  It was the first time I was exposed to a really pure form of house music and dubstep. I never played that in college or really listened to it. The release you get from dancing your head off to a really sub-by kick that’s happening very fast, that is what we wanted to try and achieve in our music, along with the storytelling. The album was shaped sonically by achieving a balance of those two opposing things.

AXS: To play folk music, all you need is your voice and a guitar but electronica requires more, did you teach yourselves how to do this?

HE: I think we were dabbling but in a pretty lame way. It’s funny I describe it as lame but it’s still a huge part of our process, being in the most rudimentary programs like Garage Band and just putting on this horrendous loop of some silly drum sounds, or we'll play with those crass loops that were so different from that kind of  subtle folk music: it really awakened something in us. It felt like what was being created with this tension felt new and fresh. A lot of those early loops did end up in our songs. Now we do more of the beat making from scratch. We’re not gear technology heads by any means but we taught ourselves; it was pretty intuitive.

JM: The more I’m learning about programming beats in a program like Ableton, I fear, I’m getting less creative or unique because as I’m accessing all these sample packs and sounds, it's become less about envisioning a beat in my head and trying to put it down on paper. Where previously I would either beat-box it out or fashion the exact vibe that I wanted, I now have this endless library of beats. For a while, we were also intent on learning more about the technology that was being used in the later stages of the writing, when we were getting into the studio and making more polished sounds. But now, I have less of desire to know all the technology aspects and more to just be respected as a musician. And for the way we’re writing we don’t need to learn that, ‘oh that 808 clap is not quite wrong.’ It’s been quite freeing and we’ve just been writing again. Getting caught up in all that jargon can sometimes hinder creativity.

AXS: Your songwriting is very affecting and you've talked about having 'to leave egos at door.' You know each other so intimately now so perhaps you can go back and share one key moment when you felt unsure about sharing something vulnerable with each other, much rather the rest of the world?

HE: Pretty much every time. (laughs) Before we start writing a song, I’m usually thinking ‘oh god I’m going to have to talk about this.’ It’s scary to reveal constantly. That’s the hardest part. But that’s what also keeps it so powerful. Our latest single “If You Leave” is about the difficulty of touring and how vulnerable you can feel. I started a verse on it, I wanted to show it to JJ but I was like 'omg I’m scared because it was saying a lot of negative things about touring,' Then when I shared it with her, she said ‘well actually I’m having a similar feeling and I wrote this chorus.’ We keep having new experiences and new feelings so we just have to continue to show up.

JM: It’s also a welcome release when we do come together for a writing session and see we’ve been through the same emotional journeys. It’s most rewarding – when we’re writing our little snippets and then realize that we have very similar ideas – and I think ‘oh my god, this is my partner in crime.’ We are living very different lives from most people I know. No one in my family is a musician and I don’t have this connection with any of our other friends. That makes songwriting a job that I enjoy, but also kind of something that I have no choice but to do.

Overcoats will be opening for Tennis next year, get your tickets right here at AXS