Overcoats Rode Through Rifts to Come Out with ‘Winner’

Just weeks before New York City shut down around the pandemic, Overcoats released their second album The Fight. Lost without a tour and nowhere to go, and in the midst of their own personal and professional upheavals, the indie pop duo of Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell began piecing together a collection of songs for their third album Winner.

Co-produced by Daniel Tashian, who worked on Kacey Musgraves’ 2018 album Golden Hour and Star-Crossed in 2021, Winner chronicles the interpersonal fractures within Elion and Mitchell’s lives. The album touches on breakups to leaving their former label, and how they managed to come out as winners.

“Rejection was a big inspiration for us on this album,” said Mitchell in a previous statement about the album. “Because when you fall off the horse, you can either admit defeat or declare yourself a winner and get back up again.”

Working through their rifts, Winner seesaws between cutting ties with something or someone, circling back to them, and the euphoria of adventure. From the electric opening of “Want You Back” to giving into temptation with an ex on the soulful “Say My Name” and wanting something (or someone) you can’t have on the subtly solemn “Never Let You Go,” the LP covers all the emotions.

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Showcasing more Americana tones, Overcoats drift into their coming-of-age rendering of “New Suede Shoes” singing It won’t be long ‘til I make a move / I’ve been in the same place / Gotta find my own way. “‘New Suede Shoes’ made us realize that we don’t always have to try to write some poetic ballad,” said Mitchell of the track, “which led us to something that feels more like a time capsule of our lives in this moment.”

Throughout Winner, Overcoats reveal their most honest stories on the fragments and faults in relationships, and the reparations, and into the thrill of the wanderlust on “Don’t You Wanna,” the closing pulse of “Vagabond,” and “Horsegirl.” The latter track captures a prairie-pop moment for the duo, accompanied by a music video filmed on Amy Grant’s Tennessee farm with full-on vintage outfits.

Now several years removed from their 2017 debut, Young, Overcoats are in a transitional state of mind, musically and personally, one Winner

Elion and Mitchell spoke to American Songwriter about “giving birth” to the new album, writing together now, and how they “won” this new beginning.

American Songwriter: When did Winner start piecing together for you from The Fight (2020)?

JJ Mitchell: Winner was a group of songs that we started working on during the pandemic after attempting to tour our previous album, The Fight, and having almost every show canceled. The album took form, because we were writing a lot about feeling a little lost, isolated, and rejected — both in our personal lives, and, at the time, within the music industry. Winner was a way to process a lot of what was happening and commiserate with one another and write about getting back on the horse after falling off.

AS: In the past five years, has there been a shift in the way you both write together?

Hana Elion: It’s shifted and stayed the same. When we first started, we would not let anyone touch anything. So it would be us in a room, finishing a song from start to finish. We were so angry to have to give away writing credit on our first album to the producers. We wrote these songs. Nobody else touches them.

By the second album, we were a little bit more open to collaboration. We are obviously a collaboration, a co-writing situation, so if this can work, we can find the people that we really connect with that we think could add something to the process. On The Fight, there were too many cooks in the kitchen. For our third record, we went Goldilocks style. We wanted to have a small team, a couple of people we trust to be involved in some of the songwriting. Primarily, it’s JJ and I writing all of the lyrics and having a private conversation about our personal lives, even in a writing session, but there are a number of different ways we try to let it evolve.

AS: Sometimes, there are certain elements that need to be in place for a song. And sometimes there is no set process. Do you tend to write separately, then bring the songs together?

JJM: That happened a lot during the pandemic since we were both in different places. We would have these little nuggets, little ideas, melodies, guitar parts — whatever — and we would send them back and forth, then build onto them. That kind of thing also happens when we’re in the same room. Hana will be like, “I have this idea. It’s just a verse, but this is it.” Then I’ll be like, “I have a chorus.” So we do sometimes create these building blocks that we each bring in. Once we were able to be together, in person, and do writing sessions with other people, it began to become more organic from the beginning, because it was so exciting to be back in the room.

AS: Were there any songs in particular that transformed more than others from the time they were written to when they were in the studio with Daniel Tashian?

JJM: They all stayed pretty true to their demo form. We try to really respect the demo because there’s no overthinking when you’re making a demo. You have to get a song in a day, and those first instincts can often be the best ones. The song “Green Eyes” became much more musical. Daniel was obsessed with that one, and we really ended up letting that one get complicated and jazzy with some interesting chord movements. Usually, we opt for simple progressions and things that make things easily digestible, so that was a fun experiment.

AS: As far as collaborations go, and working with Tashian, what did he contribute to Winner?

HE: He doesn’t take himself too seriously. I feel like he’s extremely brilliant, but he doesn’t need to act like your classic producer — totally off their rocker. That was extremely refreshing and made for a much more comfortable recording experience. There was a lot of joking around. There was a lot of experimentation. There was just an openness that I think he as a person allowed for in the room. I think he helps a lot of people access their most unfettered selves. He asks you to tap into what you actually want to write and sound like rather than what might be cool at the time, or what’s expected of your genre. Kacey Musgraves is a really good example of that. She’s managed to change her genre by existing straddling a few different ones.

JJM: She has actually pulled country music towards her instead, so that’s incredible. I’m not saying that the only reason she was able to do that was because of Daniel Tashian, but I think he brings some of that energy to everyone that he works with, and that was something we felt in a tangible way. We wanted to let our inspirations be The Chicks and bands that we grew up listening to that aren’t doing cool electronic music, so we were allowed to be who we wanted whether who we wanted was cool or not. 

AS: Sonically, Winner has a different motion from The Fight. Was there a specific sound you wanted to capture on this album?

HE: We definitely wanted to go a little bit more Americana with it. We wanted to let the influence of Nashville, where we had been working a lot over the past couple of years, infiltrate. I think it was also just about creating something that felt like we were removing a lot of the adornment on the music. We love electronics and programming and stuff like that, but we wanted to have an album where the songs were really speaking for themselves, an album you could create from just a few instruments — something that would be simple. That desire also came from us missing being on the road and just wanting to have stuff that you could just pick up a guitar and play. 

AS: Why did you land on Winner as the title? 

JJM: In the three experiences that we’ve had making full-length records, the titles have always sort of come to us when we were two-thirds done. I think we know what’s taking shape then we sort of group things together. After that instinctual grouping, we’re like “What is this album about?” and try to distill that information. These songs that we were putting together all felt pretty cohesive about feeling a little bit dejected, a little bit jaded in the industry, going through breakups, and these huge transformations that I think everybody experienced in the pandemic in one way or another. How do you process those things? And I think what ended up happening was a lot of the songs had a revenge element to them. Clearly, we were quite angry (laughs).

What we distilled from the different songs was that you have the power to determine whether you win or not. Other people, they can reject you, they can leave you, they can do whatever, but if you declare yourself a winner, and you choose the path, no matter what life throws at you, you can still be a winner instead of a loser.

AS: Even though Young was only five years ago, and three years since The Fight, both were still set in a different time and space for the two of you. Do you still feel connected to that album, and those songs?

JJM: Absolutely. I think it never goes away. And a lot of the songs we’re going to be playing on our tour. We absolutely feel a connection to them. And with some of them, it evolves. 

The Fight was dealing with apocalypse themes and climate change, so those songs continue to feel very relevant, if not more, now.

AS: Now that you’ve had some time with the songs on Winner, have you found yourselves gravitating somewhere else now?

JJM: Putting out an album is like giving birth to a baby that you’ve been carrying for nine months to a year, maybe longer. It can be so weird to put it out into the world. It’s not like “Oh, there it is. I don’t have to think about it anymore.” Actually, now everything begins.

“I feel like I’m still living in that kind of moment of, “How is the world going to receive me? How am I perceived? Am I a failure? Am I successful?” All of those questions that I think this whole album is about are still kind of swirling in my brain, because this is the real-life scenario of everything we’ve been talking about: being independent, leaving our label. Those things are all coming to fruition, so this album is about to get really poignant for us because it’s like we’re living the reality now.

Photos: Alex S.K. Brown / Courtesy of BTPR

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