Once in a blue moon, you’ll hear an artist for the first time who presents a debut solo album with moving music and stirring lyrics that immediately touch the heart and soul.
In 2016, Nashville singer-songwriter Becky Warren is that artist, and the potent, poignant War Surplus is that album.
Now you can hear the entire record for the first time anywhere as War Surplus streams exclusively at The VIP Post for three days before its October 14 release.
I must admit I wasn’t familiar with the award-winning Warren or her previous work with the Great Unknowns. Shame on me for that, but I’m pleased to introduce Warren to fellow first-time listeners who hopefully will get to know and appreciate her songs as much as I do now.
With Warren writing most of the material, the Boston-based alt-country band released two albums eight years apart. Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls declared 2004’s Presenting the Great Unknowns “one of the best things I have heard this year” while signing them to her indie label, Daemon Records.
Their career was interrupted after Warren married a GI in 2005 who was quickly deployed to Iraq then eventually returned to the States suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Warren’s music career was put on hold as she worked to keep her marriage together before they amicably split, then got divorced.
As some of the best singer-songwriters do, Warren drew from life’s experiences and was motivated by her involvement with the Johnny Mercer Foundation writing program in 2012.
Serving up a brave, unbiased look at an issue that can potentially tear this country apart, this all-Americana woman spent four years putting together a powerful 12-song concept album that deals with “War in Iraq is Hell” themes using a couple of fictional characters, Scott and June.
The songs, all of which were written entirely by Warren except for “Stay Calm, Get Low,” which included a shared music credit with Brad Hammer, bring a first-person authenticity to the semi-autobiographical material.
With her debut solo album, Nashville singer-songwriter Becky Warren
puts a personal touch on war.
With an emotional range and plaintive voice that bring to mind the best of Lucinda Williams and Neko Case, Warren makes you feel for both characters going through the rigors of their lives, just like the most gripping dramatic films do.
Told from the viewpoint of the soldier Scott (on seven songs) and his steady girlfriend/eventual wife June (five), the album takes you on an emotional roller-coaster ride.
Equally effective are teary-eyed ballads (“San Antonio,” “I Miss You”) and some of the best honky-tonk rockers (“Dive Bar Sweetheart,” “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” a personal favorite) that could get a full house at the Ryman on their toe-tapping feet. Warren isn’t playing the Mother Church of Country Music (yet), but after a couple of tour dates next week in Knoxville and at the 5 Spot in Nashville, she’ll open several shows for the Indigo Girls beginning October 27 in Baltimore.
Also deserving praise are stellar Nashville musicians such as Paul Niehaus (guitars, pedal steel), Adam Wakefield (organ, accordion), Dillon Napier (drums) and military veteran Jeremy Middleton, who played bass while also handling production chores for this superlative presentation.
So spend some time with War Surplus, which is now available for preorder, then read exclusive comments from Warren about the album that were provided by her publicist.
BECKY WARREN DISCUSSES WAR SURPLUS:
1. This new record is very personal and, even though it deals with characters, in a lot of ways it’s autobiographical. What would you like listeners to take away from the story this record tells?
Becky Warren: “I really wanted to create characters that listeners would care about, even if they don’t know any Iraq or Afghanistan veterans themselves. Post-9/11, our wars have been fought by such a small portion of the population — less than one-half of 1 percent. I hope that this record helps bridge that civilian-military divide for people just a little bit.”
2. What were you listening to throughout the process of writing this record?
Becky Warren: “I listened over and over to great songs about veterans, especially songs that address vets from a human angle rather than a political one. Some of my favorites are Steve Earle’s ‘Home to Houston,’ Hayes Carll’s ‘KMAG YOYO’ and John Prine’s ‘Sam Stone.’ The concept album I listened to the most often was Springsteen’s The Rising, which I think of as a 9/11 concept album. It takes a potentially political topic and makes it human, which is what I was aiming to do with War Surplus. It also has a great range of songs that work really well both together and separately.”
3. What made you realize that this was going to be a concept piece? Was there a specific turning point?
Becky Warren: “Definitely. I went to a songwriting program that’s funded by the Johnny Mercer Foundation, so half the writers there were from a musical theater background. Learning about their process was really inspiring — they focused so much more on characters than I was used to. I had written ‘She’s Always There’ — one of the songs that ended up on War Surplus — before the Mercer program, and I wrote a second one while I was there, ‘Anything That Lasts,’ so I just decided to keep going.”
4. What are some memorable moments from writing/recording the album?
Becky Warren: “Getting in touch with the writer Colby Buzzell, who inspired my song ‘Stay Calm, Get Low.’ I was reading his first book, My War: Killing Time in Iraq. I loved it and felt so inspired that I tweeted at him and asked if he would mind if I wrote a song about it. I really didn’t expect to hear back from him, but he tweeted back and said that would be cool. So then I was under a ton of pressure to actually write a song I wasn’t embarrassed to share with him in a reasonable amount of time. I was so glad when he liked the song, and later, the whole album — that’s been one of the most satisfying parts of the whole project for me.
“A big factor in my writing of the album was the length of time it took me to do it. I spent four years working on the songs, and I wrote around 40 songs for the project. A lot of them were no good, but probably 20 of them were contenders for the album. Then there were some tough decisions choosing which songs would make the strongest album, in terms of telling the story well and flowing well from one to another in sequence.”
Publicity photos by Kyle Dean Reinford.