A certain kind of magic

The sacred friendship and scintillating harmonies behind Overcoats’ sound

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Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell of Overcoats
Shervin Lainez

Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell, of the Brooklyn-based duo Overcoats, stare at each other across a split screen, both wearing oversized white T-shirts, their long hair (Elion’s blonde, Mitchell’s dark) wet and unruly. They begin to harmonize over synthesized tones and drum beats while someone off-screen wields cutting shears, chopping off their long locks. Eventually the razors come out, and the two women shave their heads. 

This dream is oppressive/ Who’s the one you’re trying to save?/ Some days I’m a warrior, some days I’m out of my mind/ I don’t wanna be the fool/ Bending over backwards for you

As a song, “The Fool” was born in a day, the result of pulling The Fool card — a jester carrying a knapsack on a stick over his shoulder, wandering near a cliff’s edge — out of a tarot deck. “The card is about an unknown future and taking a leap of faith,” Elion says. “It felt like the perfect metaphor to describe the restlessness we were feeling.”

Likewise, shaving their heads symbolizes the launch of a new chapter for Overcoats. 

“We were searching for some form of action that we do to take control and shaving your head is exactly that,” Mitchell says. “The moment of deciding was much scarier and more powerful than when it actually came down to the video shoot where we had to do it.”

“There’s something obviously difficult about being in the world and people not really knowing how to place you or how to define you, but there’s also a freedom in that of feeling like you’re kind of outside of other people’s category,” Elion adds. 

With the video — and new EP The Fool — Mitchell and Elion break out of any preconceived expectations about what they would do next and where they would take their sound. The duo made waves with the release of their first LP, Young, in 2017, landing on NPR’s All Things Considered Top 10 albums that year, curated by Bob Boilen. While their first project is very much a retrospective — exploring childhood, relationships and femininity by straddling the folk and electronic divide with whimsical harmonies set to dance beats — their latest work is a collection of genre-bending songs expressing anger and frustration at the world, with a little hope mixed in. 

Politics isn’t the only factor that inspired the new songs, not all of which have been released. Other tragedies the two have experienced in the last few years, related to systemic issues like gun violence and mental health, also contributed to the harsher sound. Mitchell says the newest Overcoats work is “somewhere in the pop-rock-folk-electronic-punk scene,” although still anchored in the rich harmonies that first garnered them attention. 

“We try to let the experience and the message that we’re trying to portray dictate what instrumentation we use, and whatever genre we fall into, that’s fine by us,” she says. “It’s always just been the two of us and our sound evolves, as we do, but, simultaneously, what’s at the core is always our two vocals creating one voice.”

Songwriting is really just an extension of the friendship the two formed in college, bonding over their shared vulnerability in deep conversation and singing together. But it wasn’t until their last year at school that they began to write their own music. 

“It made the process of sharing with each other and our friendship that much more profound for both of us because we could take our suffering, our angst, and turn it into something beautiful,” Elion says. 

Watching them write together would be like “a musical of Broad City,” Mitchell adds. 

There’s a palpable tension in all that the duo portrays — a certain vulnerability in subject matter and verse while also keeping the listener at an arm’s length. They perform for the audience, but often face each other while on stage. Theirs is a sacred friendship, Elion says, one that enables the music and not the other way around. 

“It’s a push and pull, I think,” Mitchell adds, “of letting people take what they can, what would be helpful for them, from our music. But at the same time, I don’t think we’d be doing music in other capacities.”   

As Elion puts it: “There’s always been kind of a magic to it for us and we just keep following that.”    

ON THE BILL: Overcoats — opening for The Cold War Kids. 8 p.m. Wednesday, Jan 22. Ogden Theatre, 935 E. Colfax, Ave., Denver.