The War and Treaty Look for Healing on Their New Album

CUL_The War and Treaty
Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount of The War and Treaty perform onstage during the 2019 Americana Honors & Awards at Ryman Auditorium on September 11, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. Jason Kempin/Americana Music Association/Getty

A lot of The War and Treaty's music is about trying to turn suffering into hope. In 2019, for instance, the Nashville-based duo of Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Blount-Trotter were among the marchers with late Congressman John Lewis over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The event was to commemorate the 54th anniversary of the day Lewis and other peaceful civil rights protestors were beaten savagely on the bridge by police.

The couple were asked for an impromptu song. They froze for a moment, stuck for something that would fit the occasion. A fellow musician suggested the gospel standard "This Little Light of Mine."

"We got unstuck quickly," Trotter recalls with a laugh. "You can't script those moments, and we were so proud to honor [Lewis],to talk with him."

Beginning with their 2017 EP Down to the River and their album Healing Tide a year later, The War and Treaty have developed a following for their mix of Americana, gospel, rhythm and blues and pop as well as the duo's powerful singing. That eclectic blend continues on their new record Hearts Town (due out on September 25 on Rounder Records) and so does their message of healing amidst despair.

"When we put out Healing Tide," Trotter told Newsweek, "we were all asking ourselves: who's the next great healer? Who's the next Mother Teresa, Gandhi or Dr. King? And we said: 'What if it's us?' Not meaning The War and Treaty, but what if it's everybody? What if we are all now responsible for each other's healing? But when Hearts Town came around, it moved the conversation to: 'Do you believe in that healing? Or are we seeing more cynics lately, more people who are apt to believe that we'll never heal or change?'" The new album's title refers to an ideal place where the sense of community and acceptance the duo see in their diverse fan base is a way of life.

The themes of pain and healing are addressed in such tracks as the reflective title song and the anthemic "Take Me In." The lush and bluesy "Lonely in My Grief" ("I don't hate your skin, but you hate mine") particularly resonates following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. "If we look at what's happening in the world right now, it's a cry that you're hearing from the minority community," says Blount-Trotter. "Now you have people that's seeing what's happening and they're like, 'You know what? We're not going to stand for this.'"

Blount-Trotter, who originally hails from Maryland, started a career in R&B in the 1990s. She was influenced by singers such as Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson and Anita Baker growing up, but it was a church performance by her singer brother that convinced her to pursue music. "I said, 'I want to make people feel like that.'" She recorded an album for Polydor Records and was featured in the Whoopi Goldberg movie Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit with future star Lauryn Hill.

Trotter grew up in Cleveland and Washington, D.C., spending time as a child in homeless shelters. He found refuge in the music of Ray Charles, Johnny Cash and Harry Belafonte, but it wasn't until he served in the Army during the Iraq War that he discovered his calling. After his commanding officer was killed by an IED, Trotter was asked to write and perform songs to honor his unit's fallen.

"There was death around me," he recalls. "And the soldiers—no matter how tough we are—their thought of 'I'm next' is always there. And my thing was: 'What can I do that will say that you're not next?' So I would write hope. I took what I was doing serious enough to say, 'There's a mission here,' and I was challenged and charged by my battle buddies to keep it going."

After returning from his service and launching a career in music, Trotter met Tanya Blount at a festival where both were performing. She says after seeing him play "I ran across the field in four-inch heels. I was like: 'Who is this guy? I have to know who he is.' We exchanged numbers. He lost my phone number, but I found his number and called him." Trotter says, "I saw the most beautiful woman in the entire universe I had ever seen. I initially and immediately thought, 'There's no way she belongs in my life.' I felt she was out of my league."

She later invited Trotter to collaborate on a project with her and her brother. As it turned out, her brother missed some rehearsals. "I was so glad he could not make these rehearsals," Trotter says, "because it gave me an opportunity to work some things out with Tanya vocally together. There was a chemistry." And it wasn't just music. "There was something happening that we both were trying to deny, and it was creating this kind of tug of war, this friction."

The couple married in 2011, and formed The War and Treaty three years later. (The band's name comes from an argument about what to call themselves.) Since then they have toured steadily and shared stages with artists such as Jason Isbell, who guests on Hearts Town, Al Green and Brandi Carlile. Earlier this year, the couple performed at the Grammys.

The new album's lead-off single, "Five More Minutes," is a joyous number that recalls classic 1970s Al Green."Five More Minutes," though, was actually born out of a dark time in 2017, when Trotter was contemplating suicide—an incident that involved the intervention of his wife and the police in Michigan, where the couple were living at the time.

"Tanya got down right between my legs on her knees and grabbed me by my face," Trotter remembers, "and said: 'I know you have a time frame to end your life today. I can see it all over your face. But if you would just give me five more minutes to love you, I promise I'll give you a reason to change your mind.' The pleading and the begging was replacing that sorrow and anxiety. I could tell you now, I'm still living in those five minutes. I was being reminded that 'In the midst of your pain, hurt and sorrow, you still got five more minutes left, and I'm gonna love the hell out of you.'"

Not that the time since then has all been easy. The couple were set to tour with John Legend this year but that has now been moved to 2021 due to the pandemic.

They've also been very deeply affected by the Black Lives Matter movement and the ensuing civil unrest and backlash. Trotter says, "There are many days where we are not hopeful—we are surrounded and engulfed in hopelessness. But we're never hopeless at the same time. It is a perfect design by the universe. If I'm feeling down and weak, Tanya is feeling up and strong. And when she's feeling down and weak, I'm up and strong."

With its impending release, Hearts Town seems poised to be the duo's breakout album, but more importantly, it's meant to be a salve for those who are feeling brokenhearted right now. Blount-Trotter says, "I hope that they hear every song and they find themselves in these songs and they can go back and say, 'I could see myself in this, and they learn something from it.'"

"My hope is that the question we all have gets answered," adds Trotter. "'Is there anybody out there that feels the way I feel?' I hope that people when they hear our album, they hear the question answered: 'Yes, there's a band who believes in this. We believe in the human race, we believe our Hearts Town and we believe in you.'"