The War and Treaty

Where the Loving Is At:
The War and Treaty Speak to the Soul

If you were moved by Mavis Staples’ masterful performance at this year’s CMA Awards, check out The War and Treaty. The duo of Michael Jr. and Tanya Trotter pay homage to Staples, Aretha Franklin, and other singers with church-grown soul; preserving classic American sounds while sharing a message of love and acceptance that’s pertinent in these troubled times.

Both came to the project with very different musical backstories. The former Tanya Blount’s time in the public eye began as one of the singing teenagers in Sister Act 2. That’s her singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” with Lauryn Hill during one of the film’s better musical moments. A big-label R&B album, a stint with Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment and musical theater experience fine-tuned a vocal powerhouse. Michael unknowingly prepared for his future career while serving in the military. A superior overheard him singing and playing a piano that’d survived destruction in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces. Soon after, Michael took on the challenging yet cathartic task of writing and performing songs about fallen soldiers.

As for the rest of the story: first came love, then came marriage, and a chance to combine forces for roots music’s newest family singing sensation. Momentum from a breakout performance at the 2017 Americana Music Festival & Conference snowballed into a chance to work on an album with the great Buddy Miller in the producer’s chair, bluegrass pioneer Sam Bush on fiddle, and the incomparable Emmylou Harris as a guest vocalist. The result, Healing Tide, deserves consideration as one of the best Americana albums of the year.

Full disclosure: this Q&A strings together two different conversations. An initial chat with Tanya only lasted about six minutes before she lost cell phone service. Michael answered the phone later, turning the prior chat about the power of gospel music into a discussion about his songwriting process and the rightful definition of Americana. The seamless flow of a piecemeal conversation proves songs like “Love Like There’s No Tomorrow” and “If It’s in Your Heart” come from partners reading off the same page beyond the stage and studio.

S&S: I like gospel music a lot, and I like to discover things more on the secular end by artists with connections to gospel music – like a Johnny Cash or a Sam Cooke or even Randy Travis. I feel like you guys also connect with the power of gospel music. Is that a fair assessment?

Tanya: I would definitely say that. I know that we both grew up in churches where gospel music was the foundation of the service. (We grew up on) James Franklin, Clara Ward, the Clara Ward Singers, and Mahalia Jackson. It’s interesting that this publication is called Stomp, because that’s what we did. We stomped and sang to this music. We didn’t have drums and all of that, so the voice was very instrumental in the sound.

A lot of rootsier popular music, like what Aretha Franklin did, is rooted in gospel. Now you can probably get a second-hand gospel sound without learning it as directly as you and Michael did because it’s part of the culture, really.

Tanya: It has been for generations, although the culture is shifting now with everything being more contemporary. But it definitely is the fabric of our culture.

With the new album, there’s a constant message of love. That’s partly from your own marriage, but how do you feel that theme suits the times?

Tanya: You know, I think it’s very important throughout time always that we remember who we are and why we were created. Most of us were born from mothers and fathers who loved each other. That’s how we got here: through love. It’s a reminder of who we are and what we come from, and we can’t get distracted by the things going on in the world because at the core of all of us we want to be accepted and we want to be loved.

Maybe this is a reach, but with the name The War and Treaty, it’s not War and Peace. There’s a realistic undercurrent of the give-and-take that comes with relationships.

Tanya: We got our name out of an argument, actually. We were arguing about changing the name of the band. I just stopped and said, “We’re not going to argue about this anymore. If this is a war, there’s got to be a treaty. We’ve got to come to an agreement.” Michael said, “That’s going to be the name of the band.”

Michael, your bio tells a lot about you being in the service and picking up piano playing in Iraq. What’s it like to go from such a dark place to writing these uplifting songs about love?

Michael: It was a transition I learned in the military because I got my songwriting start writing songs about the fallen. Most of these situations were very difficult to gather myself in. When I started thinking about the healing it could bring my battle buddies and myself, it made it so worth it. Now here I am out of the military but still serving my country and seeing what my country is currently engaged in and going through. Not just my country but our world. It’s a privilege to write songs that unify instead of songs that are more selfish.

Did writing those songs as tributes to fallen soldiers make it easier to tackle serious subjects and write meaningful material because right out the gate you were doing something so important to the people around you?

Michael: It doesn’t add more meaning, I’ll say that much. It helped me understand how to connect, you know, and how to feel. You go through so many situations in the military where the death toll is so rapid that you lose your feeling. Writing songs gave me the opportunity to slow it down and feel the loss, feel the absence. It’s all about feeling. Here we are out here, and I’m able to feel the issues of police brutality or segregation or social injustices. Or I’m able to feel the police officers who are innocent and taking some of the brunt from some of those painful situations.

It talks in the bio about you playing piano near where Saddam Hussein was captured. I’ve always heard that if you play piano, it’s easier to write music for other instruments. Does it help you at all?

Michael: I didn’t know how to play. It was just there. Whatever I heard, I just tried to find it on the piano, and the piano helped me connect. The piano is a unique and complex instrument. You can get a lot out of it if you take your time. It can make it extremely easy to write.

Working with Buddy Miller as your producer, has he impacted your songwriting? Do you find that your songs are pliable when it comes to working around his expectations, or was he pretty on board with what you’re doing to the point that you’re going in and recording your vision?

Michael: I’ll tell you the truth. Buddy Miller came in with one expectation, and that was for us to not hold back. He wanted to follow us. We were the bosses. He heard the songs and immediately fell in love with my style of songwriting, which made it easier for him.

When I think of Buddy’s body of work, our songwriting style in the vein of Americana is similar. Buddy has a worldview on things with a spiritual undertone, which makes it very religious. The same thing happens when you get a War and Treaty song. It’s written with a world standpoint with religious undertones that really speak to the soul. That’s what made our partnership so vital.

You mention the term Americana. I think a lot of people think that means country music that’s too smart for commercial radio. It can also mean the blues, gospel, soul, and a lot of things you bring on board. With Americana being as strong as it is now, it provides a lot of ears seeking your family’s style of music.

Michael: It’s interesting because when I think of Americana, I don’t think of any of that. I think of the preservation of music. It’s something our world has created to preserve what made music so powerful. When you think of eras like the Ellington era, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, or the big band era, where the songs were very uplifting. Think of someone as prolific as Gershwin, or the era of musicals where you had Rodgers and Hammerstein. Then think of the ’60s when a lot of artists used their music to support causes, like Nina Simone and Harry Belafonte and James Brown. All of this is Americana, when you think of what made American music such a staple in our world.

When you limit Americana to what’s playing on the radio or what’s selling, then you’re talking about the business of music and not so much the creative side of music. What I’m proud to be a part of is the preservation of art in the form of music. There are several artists who are about that. I’m in the music industry. I’m not certain if I’m part of the music business yet. The War and Treaty are definitely creatives in the industry of music healing and changing lives.

What was it like working with Emmylou Harris? Were you able to spend some time with her and pick her brain about her creative process?

Michael: I’ll be completely honest with you. Anytime you’re in the presence of Emmylou Harris in particular, you’re smitten. All kind of professionalism goes out the window. All kinds of professional aspirations are dismissed. The only thing you want to do is breathe in her air. She is perfect! There is no other way for me to say that. It’s not the kind of perfection someone is working at. It’s that innocent perfection, like with my wife.

She can cook. She made me some brownies for my birthday, and they tasted like they came from God Himself. It was just amazing. She got that recipe from her mother.

Her smile and her laughter and her cadence and the way she speaks are infectious. Every time she says “these are my babies,” we get the warm and fuzzies.

Photo by David McClister.