SPOTLIGHT: The War and Treaty and a Rising Tide
People who have seen the way Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter look at each other, onstage as The War and Treaty and off, could be forgiven for refusing to believe this, but it’s true: Sometimes, like any married couple, they fight.
And one particular argument about their band name a few years ago is what gave them, well, their band name.
“We’d had probably about seven or eight names, and I had gotten to the point, Michael was ready to change the name again, for the ninth time, and I was like ‘NO, we’re not changing the name,’” Tanya recalls. “We ended up going back and forth — and you know how arguments can be. I said ‘OK, that’s it.’ I said, ‘Michael, this cannot be the war. … We have to have a treaty, we have to have some peace here while we’re trying to get this name together.’ And Michael said, ‘What did you just say?’”
It was just one of many fateful decisions, made in tandem, that has shaped The War and Treaty since the day Tanya first laid eyes (and ears) on Michael as he performed solo at a festival she helped organize in 2010.
“I went crazy, so much so I ended up buying like six CDs of his,” Tanya says. “ … I ran across that field, bought those CDs, we exchanged numbers, and I gave a CD to everybody who walked up to me. … I wanted people to hear him.”
That was August 28, 2010 — a date she recites with no hesitation when asked about when they met. Not long afterward, Michael came to her house as she rehearsed a solo project she was working on, and when they sang together, everyone in the room heard the magic right away. The spark was both musical and personal, Tanya says: “We just fell in love, and spent every day together after, I would say, September 30, October 1 — from then ’til now we’ve never separated.”
Saddam Hussein’s Piano
Michael and Tanya, who live in Albion, Michigan, now, came to music from very different directions.
After a childhood marked by stints of homelessness, Michael joined the Army. It was in Iraq, with his unit camped in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces that happened to have a piano, that Michael found his songwriting voice.
“In the war, I looked at the troops and how we were feeling about the death of battle buddies and I decided to write uplifting songs reminding us of the sacrifice, and of their smiles,” he recalls — and he emphasizes that putting the person in the song was a priority. “I just wanted the memory of the sacrifice to not be robbed by the violence of the sacrifice.”
A captain in his unit saw his talent, and how the songs boosted morale, and encouraged Michael to keep going. Though not every song or sound was a gem, at first. Michael remembers playing a song, while still just learning piano, for the captain, who laughed and quipped, “Don’t quit your day job, brother!” Unfortunately, that captain was later killed in action. But his encouragement has a lasting legacy.
“I want him to know I quit my day job, man,” Michael says. “That’s when I dug deep and really connected with the purpose.”
Tanya, on the other hand, found her musical purpose early in life. Raised in a household with calypso and country music on the radio and exposed to gospel music in church and musical theater in school, she started singing when she was 8, and at age 16 appeared on a TV talent show called Big Break, hosted by Natalie Cole. She didn’t win, but she scored a record deal anyway and recorded songs in an R&B and pop style. She found a measure of success that way, but she wasn’t happy.
“As I got older,” she says, “I started to search myself and say, ‘What kind of music do I want to do now?’” She signed with Bad Boy records, helmed by Sean Combs, and told him she wanted to do something different. He paired her with different writers, including Diane Warren and Heavy D, but nothing felt quite right to her. Soon, she says, she stopped doing music “on the corporate level,” performing only locally instead.
Then she met Michael Trotter Jr., and they got to work putting their sound together, listening to artists they liked and not worrying much about genre.
“I felt like I was born again,” Tanya says. “The War and Treaty gave new life to me.”
‘I Wanted People to Hear Them’
As a duo, their big break came at last year’s AmericanaFest, when Buddy Miller asked them to fill in on his set when he fell ill.
At that point, he was already a big fan. Producer Don Was (The Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, Kris Kristofferson) had mentioned The War and Treaty to him in passing, and soon after, Miller was falling down the “YouTube rabbit hole” watching their videos. He invited them to San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival and on the Cayamo music cruise because, he says, “Everything I was doing, I wanted people to hear them.”
At AmericanaFest, after an introduction from Emmylou Harris, they “nearly leveled the Cannery Ballroom,” according to Rolling Stone, in a set nestled between the Drive-by Truckers and The Lumineers. Miller, even though he wasn’t feeling well, attended and sat in on a song. “I couldn’t not,” he says. From there, they’ve rocketed through the festival circuit and toured as an opener for The Indigo Girls, generating a giant buzz and a loyal fanbase they call the War Treaties.
In addition to their powerful songs, which are impossible to listen to sitting down and nearly demand audience hoots and handclaps, it’s hard to take your eyes off the Trotters in live performance because they’re just so real.
“It’s not show business as usual. We’re brutally honest. We’re overweight. We’re the overweight cousin that you have that likes to eat everything and doesn’t always eat well,” Tanya says with a laugh. “We sweat. We come undone up there. Michael gets out of his jacket if it gets too hot, and if I feel like my hair’s gonna drop down, sweaty and makeup’s running, then it happens. We give it our all. We’re not worried about the cosmetics of it all.”
“It’s not show business as usual. We’re brutally honest. We’re overweight. We sweat. We come undone up there. Michael gets out of his jacket if it gets too hot, and if I feel like my hair’s gonna drop down, sweaty and makeup’s running, then it happens. We give it our all. We’re not worried about the cosmetics of it all.”
If you should run into Michael and Tanya offstage, that realness isn’t switched off.
“Everything you see on stage is who we are in our home,” Tanya says. “It starts there. The honesty that we have with one another, the love that we have with one another and our children and our friends. And now [it’s] like the audience is an extended family…. our circle of people. Our circle has just gotten a little bit bigger.”
Buddy Miller has remained close to the center of that circle — the Trotters call him “our musical godfather” — so it was natural that he’d produce The War and Treaty’s debut full-length album, Healing Tide.
Recorded in Miller’s home studio, it’s a powerful statement that The War and Treaty have arrived, and they’re carrying with them a bright light to ward off the darkness of these times. It’s not that the songs steer clear of today’s headlines or ignore the divisions straining the seams of this country. Indeed, right from the first track, “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow,” The War and Treaty, from the top of their lungs and the bottom of their hearts, issue a call for “Love for my brother / Love for my sister / Love past a color / Love for the Nation / Love for every occasion.”
That track serves as a thesis statement for the whole album. The track, which features only Michael and Tanya’s voices, a tambourine, and their own footstomps, was recorded in a vacant house across the street from Miller’s studio, giving the listener the feeling they’ve slid into a country church pew just in time for a fiery, soul-stirring sermon. But by the second track, “Healing Tide,” the full power of The War and Treaty kicks in, with a red hot band backing Michael and Tanya as they ask the listener if they’re ready to be part of the solution, letting them know they’ve got what that takes.
From there, the album shares stories of love, remembering, and so much more, and the span of sounds is just as broad. There’s funk and soul in there, rock and R&B, country twang and rock-star sass. There’s a guest vocal from Emmylou Harris, and backing musicians on drums, fiddle, pedal steel, organs, and more. “While we were recording,” Miller notes, “every musician’s face while [Michael and Tanya] were singing these songs live, everybody was staggered. I’ve never been on a session like that before.”
It’s a hard sound to categorize, and that’s on purpose.
“It’s not a retro thing. It’s not an anything,” says Miller. “They just have love for music, from country music to opera to soul music to anything, but we wanted to make a record that you couldn’t put your finger on.”
A ‘We’ Thing
The message of the album, however, isn’t hard to pin down. Hope, empowerment, and optimism pour from every note, and you’ll find yourself, by the end of the album, wanting to rush out and do something good.
“We’re not oblivious to what’s happening in the world,” says Tanya. “But what people need right now is hope. They need to know that through all of this that it’s gonna be OK, and it’s gonna take a certain level of healing for us all to get on the same plane. … Do you want to be a part of it?”
“We’re not oblivious to what’s happening in the world, but what people need right now is hope. They need to know that through all of this that it’s gonna be OK, and it’s gonna take a certain level of healing for us all to get on the same plane. … Do you want to be a part of it?”
Michael often wonders, she says, what Martin Luther King Jr. would do if he were alive today. “Everyone’s always looking for the next Martin,” she says, “but what I think he was trying to say is we all play a part in this. We all have the opportunity to heal right where we are, our little space. And it’s a tide that happens. If I heal my neighbor, then my neighbor heals someone else, then he heals someone else. … So the tide happens one person at a time. If I touch this person they get healed, then that person that’s healed will touch another person, and it just becomes this wave of love, this wave of healing and positivity that takes place.”
Another common thread in the songs of Healing Tide is bringing the great big world down to a personal level. Because that, Tanya and Michael believe, is where change can happen.
“I think the biggest thing that we want the audience and the listener to get is that we are all in this pool together,” Michael says. “We’re humans. And because we’re humans we have this uncanny knack to compartmentalize everything, and generalize everything or genre-lize everything. You’re not white American and I’m not black American. We’re human beings. And we named this part of the earth America. This is a ‘we’ thing. It’s us. We’re all in this together. And I think we need to come together and remember and keep each other together. And I hope that when people are listening to this record they’re reminded of what makes our country and our race, the human race, wonderful, and that’s togetherness, inclusion, unity.”
Just as Healing Tide’s opening track is a statement of what’s to come, the final song, “Little New Bern,” delivers a promise as well. After a lovely, soaring duet that looks back on Tanya’s childhood days on her grandparents’ farm, everything comes in for a landing that’s gentle but packed with meaning: “There is so much more to say.”