If you’ve seen Michael and Tanya Trotter — better known as The War and Treaty —live in concert, you’ve witnessed the magical chemistry of this rising duo. The Trotters have found a welcoming home in the Americana community, known for embracing multiple musical genres and for having a particular fondness for male/female duos in the vein of Johnny and June, Emmylou and Gram, or Shovels & Rope’s Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst.
But they didn’t start out as a duo. While Tanya was pursuing a career as a recording and musical theater artist, Michael joined the U.S. Army and was stationed in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Iraq. By chance, his commanding officer found a piano underneath the rubble in the basement. After discovering that Michael could sing, the officer encouraged Michael to pursue music. When his commanding officer was killed after his vehicle hit an IED, Michael was inspired to write a song in tribute to him, which he sang for hundreds of troops at the memorial service. Officers noticed the tribute, pulled Michael from the front lines and gave him a new responsibility: to write and perform songs for the fallen. And so he did, penning and performing songs whenever a brother or sister in arms died, a heavy task that provided comfort. After completing his tour, he came home to the U.S. where he felt compelled to return to the service. So, he went on a second tour abroad continuing to sing about his fellow fallen soldiers. After completing that tour, Michael returned to the U.S. for good, where he struggled with PTSD and homelessness. A few years later, in an almost cinematic twist, he and Tanya connected at a “Love Festival.”
Today, the married couple and their seven-year-old son reside in Nashville (with a home base of Albion, Michigan) and recently released their debut LP, the Buddy Miller-produced Healing Tide. BMI caught up with them after they performed at BMI’s Rooftop on the Row series this past summer. In conversation, Michael and Tanya are as delightful and forthcoming as they are onstage — and the reverence and affection they feel for each other is palpable. In music and in life, they are truly a match made in heaven.
When did you first realize that you wanted to be a musician? Tanya, I read that you knew from a pretty young age.
Tanya: I knew one Sunday morning — my brother is four years older than I am, and I think I was six — and he was performing, and the church just erupted. People were crying, standing and clapping, and hugging each other, and I remember sitting in the pew, my little feet hanging, and I said to myself, ‘This is what I want to do. I want people to feel like that.’ I didn’t know I could even sing at that time.
Michael: I don’t know, I guess I was born into it. My mom, her sisters, my grandmother, my uncles — everybody sings and performs. I just came into the world wanting to do something to be noticed, and if singing was going to be it, then that was going to be it. I remember imitating Dr. King’s speeches, trying to imitate the preacher, or having singing competitions with my mom. It was just one of those things that stayed with me.
What artists influenced you throughout the years? Tanya: I was influenced by everything from fashion to music. I wanted to do theater and music and dancing — back in the day they called that a “triple threat.” It was always just a part of expressing myself; it’s just an extension of music. I listened to Aretha Franklin, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Liza Minnelli, Leontyne Price … I remember at 17, moving to New York, and going to Broadway and Off-Broadway, and doing Off-Broadway in my teens. I was influenced by everything, it wasn’t just one genre of music. Of course, I started in Gospel, and then theater, and I got a scholarship to go to school for classical music. So all of it just worked together and pushed me to where I am now, and to Michael and I meeting. It’s a great marriage of our love, and what I love to do, naturally.
Michael: Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Mahalia Jackson — I was shaped by those people. James Cleveland, Thomas Whitfield, Thomas Dorsey, and Sandi Patty … I hope to meet her one day just to tell her how influential her song “We Shall Behold Him” was in my life, especially being in Iraq and feeling hopeless. I remember showing some Iraqis that song, and they were like, wow!
The most influential moment for me in music — which helped me get over one of the first tough humps in my life — my mother and I were living in a homeless shelter. We were trying to find some peace, and there was this movie we used to love watching in ‘96: Sister Act 2, which Tanya was in when she was 19 years old. She sang, with Lauryn Hill, “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” So me and my mom, that was the first song we ever sung together.
And then it quickly turned into a competition, we would compete to see who could sing each part better. My mom was the first person I ever sang with. So now, later on, I’m able to sing with a woman who influenced me, to sing with someone who influenced unity in my household when we were struggling.
You met at a festival, after Tanya saw Michael perform — I read that you exchanged numbers, and that Tanya reached out first. Tanya, what was it that drew you to Michael?
Tanya: Well, yes, I called him. I’ve always been open to what’s fresh and new. Not just talent, but the heart attached to the talent. There’s a lot of talented people out there, but if they’re not good people, I always overlook the talent. I just watched him, and I was blown away by the honesty in his music. I immediately ran up to him after and bought five CDs. I said, ‘Did you write these songs?’ Because the lyrics just smacked me right in my face. I remember the lyrics to those songs, even now.
We exchanged numbers and we became friends, and I realized that the person who was on that CD was the person that he really is. We started to unfold each other — as he was unfolding, I was unfolding. His music, his songs, and his understanding of who I was as an artist really brought some more depth to me — not just as an artist, but as a person. It made me dig deep. For the first time, I had someone as a songwriter and a friend to say, ‘OK, let’s start peeling these layers off and find out what’s beyond that surface.’
And the festival was called the Love Festival — so, it’s cheesy, but we met at a “Love Festival” [Laughs]. And things started to unwrap from there.
Michael: I remember being honest with her. I had just come out of a very terrible divorce, my military career had ended three years prior to that, my homeless career began two years prior to that — I say “career” because people look at it like this now, a “homeless vet,” who is a homeless person who just happens to be a veteran. So I was really having a difficult period, and I remember saying these words as a warning: ‘Don’t fall for me, I’m a bum, I don’t have nothing. I’m big, I’ve gained over 200 pounds, I’m just very, very unhappy with me.’
But I’m able to share that unhappiness with the hope. It’s interesting what can burst through when you’re honest, and you’re honest with your hope. It’s not just telling some random person, ‘Hey, guess what! I went to war, I’m wounded, and I’m broken, and I’m broke. How about that combination for a husband?’ You know? [Laughs.]
Did you start collaborating from that point on?
Tanya: Well, I was a songwriter, but there was something special about Michael that I knew right away. When you have that kind of insight — when you can look at a person and can pinpoint a song — that’s when you know, as an artist, to step back. There are artists that you collaborate with where you say, ‘I want to add a line here, or change this part of the story,’ and then there are writers who just totally get it, like a Diane Warren, or a Michael Trotter Jr. When you let them into your space in conversation, and then you leave them alone, they can come up with the most brilliant song.
Michael, you mentioned your time serving in Iraq. Being a veteran, you’ve talked a lot about how music has been an essential part of your healing process. What is the significance of the name, The War and Treaty?
Michael: To me, it’s the natural pull of life. Every moment can’t be as peaceful as you like, but as long as there’s a treaty at the end, it’s OK. I feel it’s very important — especially as a band with a war veteran in it — to acknowledge that part of life happened. The responsibility we have is to move through it, not from it. That’s the treaty you give yourself. I’ll never be over it, and I realize that, so stop trying — just get through it.
How did the legendary Buddy Miller end up producing Healing Tide?
Michael: We were scheduled to work with Don Was first, and his intention was to co-produce with Buddy Miller. But Don realized that Buddy could accomplish more with us with the timeframe. Buddy Miller had taken us under his massive wing, so we decided that it was best that we do the project with Buddy and he agreed. Our schedules linked up and we began on March 15th, and five days later we were done.
Michael, you wrote every song on Healing Tide alone.
Michael: I wrote, like, 50 songs for this project.
Tanya: Yes, 50 … or more!
Michael: I feel it’s important to note that Buddy can tell you within 20 seconds whether a song is going to work or not. It might even be 10 seconds … he’s that good. Often times we would end up choosing songs that Buddy and Tanya had thought would work, and that I thought would not work. [Laughs.]
Do the two of you ever write together?
Tanya: I write differently — I like to write books and productions, stuff like that. I was a songwriter for a long time, but the vision for The War and Treaty, Michael gets that from beginning to end. It’s like being an author; when you start this book, you know how it’s going to end, and everything in between. I approach it being the interpreter of the music. He gives me a song and I have to find my way and learn how to interpret it. Throughout the process of being The War and Treaty, I’ve learned how to interpret songs as The War and Treaty. Even if it’s a cover song, we approach it as The War and Treaty.
Michael: All that she’s saying is nice, but Tanya is probably the better writer.
Michael: If we were dealing with strictly selling a record, it would be smart to let Tanya write all the songs. Tanya gets what this industry needs, and what it’s about. She’s a wonderful writer, whether it’s books, songs, or just a nice little note to her dad, or to her fans. Tanya could easily leave this band and become major. She’s just that graceful. She can do it all. She has style and class, and I think her writing is misunderstood by me most of the time, and that might make her fear away from sharing songs. And that’s a flaw we have. If I get in a zone, I can steamroll her a little bit. I’m learning more now than ever; I look for her input, I look for her partnership.
I never understood co-writing — I didn’t get it. Nashville is all about it. I can acknowledge the fact that when you don’t understand the art, one voice gets lost. I feel that Tanya, there’s more to say from her. And I feel that I can’t wait to explore more of her writing that way, as a partner.
What is the balance, with both of you being artists and also a married couple with a seven-year-old son?
Michael: I don’t have a balance. I’m working all the time on music, on art, all the time. I usually have to be forced to pause. I think our son teaches the perfect balance. People ask us, do you sing at home? And we don’t — we do it on the stage, which makes it unique and weird at the same time, that the connection is so strong. But Tanya, she gets home and she’s like, over it.
Tanya: I like being a wife, I like being a mom. I like cooking and getting home and seeing my house organized — to me, to make it normal. Because, he’s [Michael] not normal; he’s not supposed to be. He’s a prolific songwriter who writes 10 songs a day. There’s nothing normal about that. I think that’s the balance: knowing your partner. When he does something, he does it to perfection. Our balance is me understanding that this is what he does, not just as writer, but also for therapy, for PTSD. It’s his rhythm that he has, writing all those songs and healing people on a daily basis. I can’t even fathom writing songs at that pace.
Love is a theme that appears a lot on Healing Tide. Why is it so important to write and sing about love?
Michael: I love writing songs, and I love writing personal songs — songs that I feel will mean something. I’ve always wanted to do this; I’ve always wanted to write. Being in the military, you start learning about writing about other things. It becomes obsessive, because you don’t just want people to feel what you’re feeling — that pain, that void, that emptiness — you write that part out, and you write in joy, fullness, happiness. I love writing songs, and I love writing personal songs, songs that I feel will mean something.
It’s OK to fall in love with humanity, even at the risk of looking foolish. I see people walking around, so guarded, afraid to give a little love. This is where my writing comes from, from my love for the human race — us. People get so complacent with that message sometimes. People feel like it’s unrealistic to feel like this all day. But when you are wide open to love, it is not unrealistic. Ask a little child how they feel all day, and they will tell you.
How did you start working with BMI, and how has it impacted your career so far?
Tanya: BMI helped us in a really good way. We had just started as The War and Treaty last year, and they came on board and said, “We’re behind you.” And not just with words, but with finances. And they supported us, and they stand behind that.
Michael: That’s what I connected with, their services. And that’s the power of an organization like BMI — it’s willing to accept art. We’re grateful and humbled by the boost they gave us. They’ve been taking care of us, and we love them.