AUSTIN, Texas—”We are calling it the ‘new era’ where we don’t take shit from men,” Overcoats tell me when I meet up with them at Emo’s in Austin. It’s a couple of hours before their last performance as openers for Tennis and they are in between setting up their merchandise table and doing a sound check.
“We have this experience frequently when men come up to us after a show and they say, ‘I wasn’t expecting to like that, but I actually did’ or ‘I don’t usually like such vulnerable stuff, but you girls were actually all right,’ thinking that is a compliment to us. And we are supposed just to stand there and smile and say, ‘Thank you’?” JJ Mitchell says.
In the old era, Overcoats, a New-York based electronic folk duo, would do just that.
“But in the new era, we decided that if another person came up to us and said that—man or woman—we would flip our merchandise table and everything would crash to the floor,” continues Mitchell.
Hana Elion and JJ Mitchell started writing their music together about three years ago at Wesleyan College. Both had written music prior but were secretive about their work. “We weren’t stars at school, doing super public stuff,” Elion said. “For both of us, it was a private way to process what was going on.”
Their velvet sound, which utilizes synth-pop vibes, throaty voices, and ethereal beats, is reminiscent of Lorde mixed with Daughter and is teeming with compassion, drama, and doubt.
“We decided that if another person came up to us and said that—man or woman—we would flip our merchandise table and everything would crash to the floor.”
One night, while the duo were both going through a lot of turmoil in their respective relationships, they decided to “just write about it.” Their first song, “Little Memory,” was the result and speaks to the ending of a relationship and a reflection on when things used to be different:
“Saw you in my dream, it was late afternoon / I was just wandering through past lives lived with you / And I’ve been thinkin’ bout / If I’ll see you again.”
Throughout our conversation, the animated women refer to the importance of their connection and the fact that, first and foremost, their project stems from being friends.
“We just loved what we were making together, and it became the only thing we wanted to do. So, we thought we would go with it. We found that song was the most powerful way to heal”, Mitchell said.
“My father understands the demons I wrestle with in my daydream / And knows what to say when they are winning / And I go spinning all night.” they sing on the minimalist in sound, but overflowing in thought, “Father.”
“It is all about our own journeys growing up, becoming women and looking to our parents for what it means to be a woman in this world,” Mitchell said. “We were getting ready to leave school and started thinking about and really seeing the way our mothers go through the world and how they deal with sexism in their workplaces.”
Tracks “Walk On” and “Smaller Than My Mother” explore the idea of respecting their mothers’ steadfastness while recognizing that they had to succumb to a traditional gender dynamic—“even within our own families.”
The fourth song the pair put out, “The Fog,” is all about their first experience in the studio with a male producer. “It was just carnage,” Mitchell said. “One guy tried to steal our music.”
“Another guy made us leave the room because he said he couldn’t focus when we were telling him what to do. And we were like, ‘This is our song!’” Elion adds.
They threatened legal action, but quickly came to believe that his behavior is simply the norm in the industry. “When you walk into a venue, when you walk into a recording studio, when you walk into an office, you have to be wearing a coat of armor because you are going to be stung automatically,” Mitchell said.
When they walk into a venue, the sound engineer will automatically saunter up to their male drummer, who was hired for the tour, and ask what the band needs onstage. “They just don’t assume that the women are in control,” Elion said.
“It was just carnage,” Mitchell said. “One guy tried to steal our music.”
Overcoats say the turning point was the “collective momentum that we see happening all over social media, especially in the entertainment industry.” And, while it hasn’t quite hit the music industry with the same vigor, the recent suspension of Republic Records President Charlie Walk after sexual misconduct allegations and the developing allegations against music mogul Russell Simmons indicates the music industry reckoning has begun.
“They are going to crumble,” Mitchell said.
Elion hopes that the current conversations will turn the tide generally and that it will no longer be culturally appropriate for a sound engineer to talk down to them or treat them like they don’t exist.
“Before this current cultural momentum, it wasn’t evident to us that it was sexism. Your immediate reaction is to blame yourself or be really confused why this is happening and why you are being treated this way. After our first experience with this male producer, we were so confused why we weren’t enjoying it. We were feeling so shitty because it wasn’t a fun experience,” she said.
For Overcoats, recognizing this a pattern in the music industry has allowed them to build their coat of armor.
“We are going to go into a venue and act tough, even if we don’t feel tough because we are getting spoken to in a way that is hurtful. But you have to put on the tough skin, just to get through it,” Elion says.
The night before their Austin show, when Elion asked a sound engineer for assistance with some equipment, he countered, “It’s yours. Don’t you know how to use it?”
“My first reaction was to internalize it; I was instantly saying to myself, “Oh my god, I am so embarrassed. Why don’t I know how these things work?’ Then I had to think ‘new era’.
Mitchell continues, “He would never say that to a headliner; he would never say that to a male artist. He is a paid sound engineer whose job it is to have that knowledge to make these parts of equipment work with his system.”
While Overcoats are still learning to call out those kinds of sexist interactions, they feel fortunate to be doing so in this new era and be an example of females standing strong together.
“The silver lining is that we have grown into really embodying that mentality and appreciating the role we have. We have sweatshirts that say ‘WOMEN RULE,’ and we are happy to talk to any men who don’t understand what that means,” Elion says.
Mitchell agrees, “If there is any confusion, send them our way.”
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