They say there’s no such thing as an overnight sensation, that the mere suggestion of that axiom is, in fact, merely some show biz fantasy. In truth, few if any individuals manage to find themselves plucked from obscurity and anonymity to instant success and stardom.
Nevertheless, denial of the possibility flies in the face of the instant accolades reaped on the duo that refer to themselves as The War and Treaty. When their initial album, Healing Tide, was released a scant two years ago, it took the Americana world by storm, bringing near-unanimous accolades, propulsion to the top of the charts and appearances at a succession of prestigious festivals — Bonnaroo, Newport, Telluride, Pickathon, and Americana, among them — as well as multiple citations as the year’s most potent up and coming act.
Those are heady accomplishments of course, especially for a group that met not that long before. years ago. Not that they weren’t accomplished already — Michael Trotter sang in church and served in Iraq before meeting his future wife Tanya Blount Trotter, an artist whose musical credits included a duet with with Lauryn Hill on the song “His Eye Is On the Sparrow” in the 1993 film Sister Act 2, a well received 1994 debut solo album Natural Thing, a series of chart-topping singles and a nomination as Best New Artist at the Soul Train Awards.
Still, it would seem somewhat auspicious to offer a full-length follow-up — one that finds Michael Trotter taking over the production reigns from Healing Tide helmsman Buddy Miller no less —that had to meet the expectations of those who sang their praises the first time around. Fortunately then, the duo rose to the occasion with the confident and commanding Hearts Town, an album that finds Michael’s self-composed songs navigating between richly textured, soul-infused songs and a sheer brash assault on the senses. It’s a formidable, emphatic follow-up and one that should appease anyone who hoped the pair’s ascent would continue unabated.
Of course, now that the novelty has worn off and the pair have become fully entrenched in their spiritual and soulful style, critics may tend to look at the new album from what may be a more jaundiced point of view. Fortunately, that doesn’t seem to worry the duo, who say that instant acclaim was never their concern in the first place. Indeed, the spiritual stance that pervades their music — in the form of such unabashed love songs as the soulful duet “Hey Pretty Moon,” the sweeping and celebratory title track and the determined “Little Boy Blue” (“I always knew that days like this would come around/And the happiness that I once lost could soon be found…”) — seems establish a vibe all its own.
They also insist that they never allowed themselves to get caught up in the onslaught of attention that greeted them initially. “We didn’t pay attention, and we probably should have,” Michael recalls. “It felt like we were continuing working for it, having to explain who were were and what we do. We were so indulged in that that we missed the moment. But I feel like we’re not missing it now. We’re just appreciative and we’re wide open to it now. Before we were too involved in making it clear who and what we were about.”
One thing that’s also changed is that Michael himself took the reins on the new album. He insists that Miller himself encouraged him to do exactly that. “Buddy said, ‘You can do it,’” he recalls. “And Tanya told me she wouldn’t sing unless I did.”
For her part, she says she was able to keep his ego in check the entire time. “If he got overbearing, I’d tell him to kiss my ass,” she laughs.
Indeed, while it can sometimes be tricky for a couple when it comes to navigating issues that threaten to cross from the personal to the professional, The War and Treaty make it a point not to intertwine the two. “We made a vow to ourselves and to our fans that we would never bring any personal issues into out music,” Tanya maintains. “We settle our disagreements before we take the stage or enter the studio so that the negative energy doesn’t transfer over. We’re honest with ourselves and with our marriage. Otherwise it would be a deal-breaker. It’s all about the honesty.”
Despite the fact that both of them had been involved with other musical pursuits prior to meeting one another, the couple opted to leave their previous efforts behind them and start from scratch as a duo.
“We laid out our boundaries and came to the table empty-handed because we didn’t want to do anything that reflected what we had done earlier,” Michael remembers, citing the group the Civil Wars as one of their prime influences. “That’s how we found out sound, out niche, our thing.”
Here again, he credits Buddy Miller with helping them to steer their sound. “He was the perfect producer,” Michael says. “He knew when to get involved and when to get out of the way.”
Not surprisingly then, when it came to the new album, the two knew they needed to continue to advance further down their own creative path and not simply repeat what they had done before.
“We wanted to evolve,” Tanya explains. “We wanted to take everything we loved —rock, gospel, soul, blues — and figure out how to make it all mesh. That’s the beautiful thing about Americana. It’s a combination of all those elements and it allowed us to explore any kind of sound we wanted. Ultimately, we do what we feel and everything we feel. The most important thing is to be honest and to not necessarily be concerned about having hit records. We want to evolve as artists and simply be who we are.”
She also mentions that their audiences had a great influence on the songs that were eventually selected for the new album, given that many had previously been performed live in concert. “We let out fans tell us which songs they liked,” she continues. “So we based the song selection on their response. We got feedback from them and we respected their wishes.
Of course, making the transition from stage to studio can be tricky at times, a fact that Michael is quick to acknowledge. “There is a difference between what makes a good album and what makes a good performance,” he suggests. “The studio requires you to show patience and restraint in order to tell a story. That’s what makes a great record. However live shows are the opposite. You need to be unchained and unleashed.”
Ultimately,’ Hearts Town emerged as a reflective and revealing series of songs, one that allowed them to bare their emotions, experiences and thoughts about the turbulence of today’s times.
“It’s an extremely personal album,” Michael concurs. “It’s a record of revelation and realization, our attempt to unify people, something that’s so needed today. You have to give it in order to get it. It’s the sound of our love and our attempt to spread a message about the need to unify the human race. We as people are so far apart these days. But we decided to come off the soapbox and get on a song box. It’s not preachy. We’re not the black Brady Bunch. But as a couple with a family, it is extremely personal to us.”
Ultimately, the pair feel fortunate to have arrived at a point where they are now able to set their own standards. “We’re available,” Michael concludes. “This is what we have to offer. This album is our new baby, and we’re sending it into the world to seek a goodness of its own.”