Overcoats isn’t the first act to happen on the idea of fusing forward-thinking folk with chill-city electronic music, the New York City duo part of a lineage that includes the much-respected likes of Beth Orton, Four Tet, and Caribou.
But what sets band cofounders, singers, and confirmed besties Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell apart from those builders is a determination to be something more than (admittedly beautiful) aural wallpaper.
“A lot of our songs are about relationships and a lot of our songs are about our mothers and fathers,” Elion offers, on the cell with Mitchell as they make they way to a Buffalo tour stop. “That inherently leads to songs about gender and gender roles. So even though the songs are about love or loss, they are kind of infused with our thoughts about things that are bigger.”
On their debut album, YOUNG, the two musicians leave you wondering whether they are more obsessed with paying tribute to the past or roaring headfirst into the future. Layered with downtempo-soul vocal loops and ghostly washes of sax and synth, “Smaller Than My Mother” has one foot planted in the golden era of Ninja Tune and the other in ’80s-edition Motown. “Leave the Light On” starts out as a beautifully harmony-drenched folk tune before veering someplace darker and digitally enhanced, while “Kai’s Song” offsets the duo’s gorgeously soaring vocals with glitched-out percussion.
In some ways, songwriting has been a way for Overcoats to work through issues that might normally require an afternoon on the therapist’s coach or a night with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and a good friend. But empowering each other as well as their audience is just as important. What fans get out of things can depend entirely on what they might be bringing to the record. Consider the different interpretations of “The Fog”, lyrics from which include “He yanks me like he can move me/Don’t he think I have my own needs?” and “Talks me down till I’m sitting silent/Wants me to ask before I speak.”
“A song like ‘The Fog’ is, for a lot of listeners, something that they use to reflect on a romantic relationship,” Mitchell says. “We appreciate that the song can be a kind of anthem for people for whatever they are going through. But we actually wrote the song after experiencing sexism in the recording studio very early on, before we sort of had any real footing. People were trying to tell us what we wanted to do with our music. We were pretty sure that we, as the writers of the music, knew what we wanted to be doing.”
Right from the point they first formed Overcoats at Wesleyan University, a liberal arts college in Connecticut, Mitchell and Elion have been clear what they want out of the project. and not just in the studio. Forget being satisfied with hometown-hero status or a Discover Weekly placement on Spotify, the duo has big, lofty goals having talked in the past about touring with Coldplay or landing the musical-guest slot on Saturday Night Live.
“AJ and I are really ambitious and driven, and part of what keeps us that way is the intention behind that drive,” Elion says. “Despite us saying things like ‘Let’s open for Coldplay,’ the primary goal is not to be big. The primary goal is to heal as many people’s hearts as possible. What we are doing comes from a really emotional and human place, one of us trying to provide the world with a human connection. So that drive comes from a loving place that really aligns who we want to be as people.”
One of the best ways to connect with people, of course, is to give them something to relate to. The ultimate brilliance of YOUNG, then, is that Mitchell and Elion aren’t afraid to put themselves out there emotionally. The album starts out powerfully with “Father” and its opening lyrics “My father understands the demons I wrestle with in my daydream/And knows what to say when they are winning.” But it ends on what seems very much a hopeful note with the bright-eyed hymnal “Mother”. That’s not, apparently, by accident.
“I think you’re spot-on by noting the resolve that you get towards the end of the record with ‘Mother’,” Mitchell says. “That’s very different from the sort of angsty, dark and confused, cacophonous intro to the album. I think that sort of mirrors the way that we are growing up as part of an ongoing journey. Hana and I have talked to each other about entering the real world and becoming women in our society. On the record, ‘Mother’ is sort of the end of this chapter of growing up, which was the past two years for us, and reflecting on all different kinds of feelings. You’ve got to grab onto whatever you can to sort of fix you as a person.”
Overcoats play the Cobalt on Wednesday (June 14).