JJ Mitchell and Hana Elion, who make up New York’s Overcoats, didn’t plan on releasing and promoting their second record in the midst of a global pandemic—despite, as they point out, the “apocalyptic” themes on The Fight (out now). And just over two months ago, Alaina Moore, one half of Denver duo Tennis, was kicking off a nationwide tour in support of her band’s sixth album, Swimmer. (All tour dates have since been postponed.)
Mitchell, Elion, and Moore are all feeling the effects of the current crisis. “I feel like this has peeled back the curtain of how the music industry works,” Moore says. “Our drummer, our bass player, our sound engineer…they expected salaries all year on the road.”
Still, the three artists—longtime friends who toured together in 2018—are finding ways to stay connected, take care of themselves, and do what they love while in quarantine. Mitchell and Elion, quarantined in New York and Massachusetts, respectively, are collaborating and writing songs via texts and voice memos. Moore, who is currently in Colorado with her husband and bandmate Patrick Riley, is working on new projects outside of Tennis. In conversation over Zoom, these three powerhouses discussed their songwriting processes, the relationship between music and our current political climate in America, and coping mechanisms for right now.
This interview has been condensed.
Alaina Moore: I was just listening to your record again, and I was laughing—the lyric, “the world as I know it is coming to an end.” Did you predict this?
JJ Mitchell: I know. That lyric in particular is one that we’re always like, “Okay, whoa, why were we writing such apocalyptic music?”
Hana Elion: It has felt like apocalypse is coming for a few years, I’d say. That was the feeling we were feeling when we were writing the record. Whether it was coronavirus or Trump getting elected, the stuff happening at the border, or all of the gun violence happening in America, it’s felt like the apocalypse is upon us for quite some time. We definitely didn’t predict that it would continue in the form of a virus, but I think spiritually, it’s been feeling like that for a good while.
JJ: We were texting right when the pandemic hit, and just the amount of momentum that [Tennis] had for your album—which is incredible, and [a performance on] Ellen and this amazing sold out tour—I don’t want to be negative, but how are you coping with the fact that this kind of got nipped in the bud? Especially for bands like us, touring is our livelihood. How are you coping emotionally with it?
A: Well… I am not coping, but I had a therapy session very conveniently timed before all of this happened over something not related to the apocalypse. I was stressed about something, but we had to go on tour and start playing shows. I felt like I was living in a dissociative state where I couldn’t let myself really feel my feelings, because I had to go play a show in, like, an hour. [My therapist] was like, “Well, being in a dissociative state is actually a really useful coping mechanism when you’re in a situation where you just can’t sit with your feelings. I’m giving you permission to put your feelings in a box, and put it on a shelf, and deal with it when you feel prepared.” She was like, “Don’t bury it forever and turn this into trauma, but you have permission. As long as you know that you’re using it with, you know, some sense of respect and nuance, it’s totally healthy.” So I am dissociating, because my therapist said it’s fine! (Laughs)
H: Obviously, things are really difficult, music is a way to heal. Oftentimes if I’m having a hard time with something and then I go onstage, all of my worries and things I’m upset about do melt away, because music is such an incredible outlet for being in your feelings in a way that is distant enough that you can find some release from them. How has it been for you, trying to make music in this time? Have you felt creative, have you felt like you can’t touch music, have you been listening to music?
A: That’s such a good question. At first I felt like a lot of people were saying, “What a great time to write!” And I was like, I just finished writing a record! We were writing up until November. And we did a really quick turnaround and it had it out by February. I felt like I couldn’t even think of doing anything for Tennis right now. Right when I had that feeling, a bunch of other musician friends who have lost their tours or are home reached out asking Patrick and I about producing from a distance, helping them arrange their songs.
H: Good to know – we’ll send you some stuff.
A: I would love that so much! It’s been really fun, and it’s solved that for me because I felt like…it’s still too frustrating to see what happened with our album cycle. But I have completely reconnected with the joy of music, the catharsis of music, the exploration of it. I’m gonna write a duets album with my friend Johnny who lives in Vancouver, like a Nancy and Lee style—old-timey ’60s duets. It’s really fun. So that’s how it’s working for me, but I would love to ask you the exact same question.
H: I’ve found I can sort of think of instrumental things, but lyrics have been really hard because of what you said. Dissociation is such a way to cope that then it’s hard to get in touch with your feelings and be kind of open to them. I think for the most part, I’ve spent this time feeling really creatively frustrated with the exception of some eureka spots. And those three or four songs that we’ve been able to finish have given me so much hope and light.
JJ: Same. I think that the bit about not feeling in touch with our normal lyric-writing capacities has really rung true for me. But part of that is tragic, and I’m sure, Alaina, you can relate…we start to feel like we already have to talk about our third album. It means, to me, that our second album is dead, and our second album is our best album. It came out one month ago, and I don’t think we’ll tour it. And it’s crazy to me because this album has so much on it of our lives, it’s about gun violence, it’s about losing family, it’s about being women under Trump’s America, and it’s just like nobody will hear it.
A: I could not relate more. That’s exactly how I feel. Especially with lyrics, I don’t have any words. Even when people ask me how I am, I don’t have any words. I actually had a question about your writing process: do you both have clearly defined roles as bandmates and writing partners?
JJ: We both do, I think, all of the different things. Often because Hana’s very good at playing guitar and writing to guitar, she’ll start like that. There’s often a situation where she’ll write a snippet on guitar and vocals and send that to me, or if we’re together, we can work on it together. And then other times, it’ll be kind of the opposite. One of us has an instrumental beat, and that’s where the idea comes from. Other times, we just write kind of a cappella and don’t worry about any of the instrumentals at first. But I think that it happens naturally and we don’t try to limit our roles, which is crucial.
H: I think it also creates this thing where we are constantly just getting the opportunity to be really inspired by one another, because there’s not the kind of pressure that there is in a one-person band to just finish a song. So for the one we’ve been writing, JJ basically sent me one line. But I found that line so inspiring that then I just thought of a chorus, then we finished a verse together. It’s a very collaborative, kind of magical way of doing it, I think.
JJ: Alaina, I’m curious about your process as well. Does Pat give you instrumentals that he’s working on, or is it more like you come in with an idea and then you guys work on the music?
A: It’s actually really similar to what you two just said. There’s a million different roads to a song—maybe I came up with the beat or Pat did, or he wrote all the music to a song that just needed singing, or I would write the whole thing on piano or guitar or just chords and my vocal parts, and then he would help. The one thing that we do have clearly defined is that I write all the lyrics and, almost exclusively, all the melodies. But then he’s the engineer who’s getting all the sounds the way we want.
BUST: Hana and JJ, has your process changed at all now that you’re in completely different states?
H: It’s definitely been tough to not be in the same place, but I think because we did just put out an album, we’re not feeling a ton of pressure to finish songs so we’re able to really just do it when inspiration strikes.
JJ: Also, I think that although it does feel a bit like everything has to be done from afar, we did used to write like this sometimes, anyway, which I think was a useful tool. It’s not a totally new concept to us, because we have written many songs like that—even on our first record, I remember distinctly we were in college and we didn’t live in the same dorm. I remember bouncing GarageBand files back and forth at 2 AM and we were, like, ten minutes’ walk from each other. (Laughs) So it’s always been a part of our creative process, but usually, we have the option of being together at some point.
H: I think also what it means is that we can write songs, but we are not gonna know our songs, ’cause we can’t play them together and practice them. There’s gonna definitely be a point where when we want to record these for real, we’re gonna have to learn them. But I’ve actually found that to be the case for all of our two album processes. Now I have to learn all of these terrible demos I’ve made!
A: I have an unrelated question, but I just really wanted to ask you guys this. Since it’s an election year, and we’re in the midst of total upheaval, what do you think an artist’s role is in politics? Do you think this is our version of the ’60s—what role do you think music should play in it?
H: I’m really undecided on that right now. I think part of me wants to be super political, but being super political right now feels like it means fighting for something that I’m not totally believing in. When we were gonna go on tour, we were planning on working with Headcount and having Headcount at every show, and that’s something I still feel like I can 100% get behind: registering people to vote and use their voices even if I don’t feel as sure about what I want to say with my own.
JJ: I think that’s really well-put. I don’t know about you, Alaina, but I was definitely really pro-Bernie, and I felt like it was a devastating, devastating loss when he dropped out, because I could really see a world that I wanted to be a part of and wanted to fight for, and I think a lot of artists felt that way. It’s been very difficult. We had submitted our title track, “The Fight,” to be involved somehow in Bernie’s presidential campaign because it’s just, like, so right. Originally it was about friendship and being there for somebody who’s going through something, and then it morphed into kind of an ode to our fans and touring every night, and then suddenly it was like, oh my god, this is a song about the American divide, and we wanted that to be for Bernie.
A: Isn’t it cool when songs do that?
JJ: Anyways, I haven’t answered your question at all, Alaina.
H: I felt like it was the ’60s when Bernie was out and about. I was like, revolution! Young people, you know. I thought we were doing that and [had] a really powerful movement, and now I feel like I was just in an echo chamber. What do you think, Alaina?
A: I have wondered for a long time—I’m sure you’ve noticed there’s constantly this back and forth about people with some kind of platform, how vocal or active they should be about their views. I definitely have made political posts, where it’s normally in support of causes I believe in, and I will often have some percentage of our fans jumping down my throat, like, “Why are you making this about politics?” I’m still a citizen—why don’t I get to have any thoughts because I’m also a singer? I have wondered, should I be writing protest songs, or what should I be doing? I think the role of music is to be more of archival work, where we are almost documenting cultural and ideological movements. I feel almost like a historian doing archival work instead of the person who’s like, “My song will heal the world,” or something. That’s not going to happen. But I can document what we went through.
H: I feel like especially as female artists, too, there’s a particular pressure not to share your views, because you’re not supposed to have any opinions.
A: I also feel like on the flipside, people are always underestimating the meaning of my lyrics, and they’re always thinking it’s about a relationship when it’s clearly not. It feels very belittling, I think, people just assume that the world of your concerns is just relationships because you’re a woman.
JJ: I do think our songs get pigeonholed like that, and I was really excited about our second record. Our first record, I think, that was the case, we only felt it was our jurisdiction to write about what we knew intimately, which was mainly our relationships with our parents and with our significant others. [This album is] a little more broad. We wrote about sexism in the recording studio, and then also being women and having our reproductive rights taken away from us in America, things like that. As women in this country, anything we say or do has a political—and so I think it’s important to remember that. We could say okay, I don’t feel like it’s necessarily my responsibility to write a protest song, but you probably already have written like nine of them. Because already, there’s a battle being fought just within each of us because of the world we live in.
The Fight by Overcoats and Swimmer by Tennis are now streaming.
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