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STORY: Music is a matter of life, death, redemption for The War and Treaty’s lead singers, Tanya and Michael Trotter

San Diego Union-Tribune

George Varga

October 26, 2022

 

As the ebullient husband-and-wife singing team who head the Nashville-based band The War and Treaty, Michael Trotter Jr. and Tanya Trotter are happy to discuss the joy their wonderfully soulful music brings them and their audience.

But the couple is also acutely aware of how music can capture and convey life-and-death moments, including the one in 2017, when a deeply despondent Michael was contemplating suicide.

Tanya’s pleas and declaration of her abiding love brought him back from the abyss — followed by immediate assistance from the police in Albion, the Michigan town where the Trotters were then living.

That transformative moment for the musical spouses was later captured in “Five More Minutes,” their heartfelt 2020 ballad about the healing powers of love.

The title is a literal reference to the 2017 plea Tanya made to her then-suicidal husband. He had developed post-traumatic stress disorder while serving in Iraq, starting in 2001, as a soldier in the U.S. Army’s 6th Infantry Regiment. The end of the line felt imminent to him in 2017, when he sat down on a staircase in his family’s home and contemplated ending it all.

“I felt at the time I had no other way of expressing my disappointment in myself,” said Michael, who performs with his wife and their four-piece band Friday night at the Baker-Baum Concert Hall at La Jolla Music Society’s Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center.

“I had failed enough. I had let my family down enough — my wife and my children — and my intention was to end it all that particular day,” he explained.

“And then love snitched on me, snitched on my plans, and my wife came to me, got down on her hands and knees, and asked me to give her five more minutes to love on me.”

 

Redemption song

For Tanya, the vital lifeline she provided her husband was a simple, complex and intensely dramatic manifestation of her love for him — and of her refusal to even consider the possibility of his death as an option. The five minutes she convinced him to give her ultimately saved him. It may have saved her as well.

“Every single day I see the joy and fire in Michael, and that’s the joy and fire I need,” Tanya said.

“I’m so appreciative to have Michael as my role model to remind me, the two of us, our band — and everybody that listens to our music — that he made it out of a wrenching situation and that his passion for music, people and love is still there.”

Speaking by phone together with Tanya from a tour stop last week in New Orleans, Michael reflected on how his life-saving five minutes with Tanya continues to resonate.

“I tell our concert audiences today that, as in 2017, I’m still living in those five minutes,” he said. “And now, I’m able to put it in an art form, a song, so people can hear and feel what I was going through.

“The uniqueness about this song is that the music is not written from the forlorn circumstances of the subject, of suicide. The music is written from the urgency of my wife saying: ‘I know this as a bad situation, but I am always going to love you. Just give me five more minutes.’

“This story is about not giving up — it’s about triumphing over suicide — and we do that a lot with our music … You see pain, but you hold on because you hope a change is gonna come.”

To underscore that ethos, Michael broke into a sweet falsetto as he sang a verse of Sam Cooke’s timeless 1964 civil rights anthem, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

The tone of Cooke’s classic is felt in a number of The War and Treaty’s songs, notably “One and the Same” (from the group’s aptly named 2018 debut album, “Healing Tide”) and “Take Me In” (from 2020’s award-winning “Hearts Town”).

 

Nina Simone and Johnny Cash

Tanya and Michael’s emotionally compelling lead vocals elevate The War and Treaty’s music, which is steeped in gospel, country, soul and rock traditions. Their songs boast proudly vintage roots, but sound fresh and in the moment.

‘When we create music, we create with Sam Cooke in mind,” Michael said. “And with Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone, Johnny Cash and other people who have come before us and whose legacies we have in mind. And when you do that, you’re never far from the intention of music, which is to heal and encourage, to have a good time and raise awareness.”

Tanya agreed, adding: “The unique position we have today is that we can use our music like they did, but in a more real-time way, as far as how fast it can reach the world.”

Michael chuckled.

“Can you imagine,” he said, “if Sam Cooke had the Internet at his fingertips when he was creating music? We create our music and then look for avenues that have impact, like Instagram, Facebook and all these other modes we now have. But it all springs from the desire to use our music as a bridge to reach people and to heal.”

Just how well the couple connect with listeners is partly illustrated by their illustrious fan base. It includes Emmylou Harris and mandolin great Sam Bush, who were so impressed by The War and Treaty that they happily performed on the then-virtually-unknown duo’s 2018 debut album.

It was produced by longtime Harris band guitarist Buddy Miller, who brought in Jason Isbell and dobro master Jerry Douglas to guest on The War and Treaty’s 2020 sophomore album. The couple’s expertly crafted music and crowd-pleasing performances did not go unnoticed by music industry honchos.

Accordingly, The War and Treaty’s next album will be its first for a major label, Mercury Records, after two independent releases. That represents a significant step forward for Tanya and Michael, who met in 2010 at the Spirit of Love festival in Maryland.

Both were then solo singers working to make a broader impact. At the time Tanya was a worship leader at her church, a job she took primarily so she could provide for her young son. But while her voice was strong, Tanya’s heart wasn’t in her day job.

“One of the things I noticed when I met Michael was his joy for music. Because I was a worship leader, but there was no fire there,” she recalled.

“At that time I was doing a duo record with my brother, but there was no passion there for me. A friend heard Michael and I singing (informally) together, and she said: ‘Did you hear that?’ You’ve got to keep your voices together and do something!’

“I was feeding off his fire. After I met Michael, the joy I used to get from music came back. I listened to records by (jazz vocal giant) Sarah Vaughan every day and that was inspiring. But to have a person living with you — your husband — who you make music with and is the first person you see every single day, that’s the joy I need.

“Because you need a lot of joy and passion to get up every day, if you are a professional musician, and to go from city to city, audience to audience, person to person,” Tanya said.

As their public profile grows, Tanya and Michael may well find The War and Treaty performing in more and more cities. They are eager to do so.

“I don’t think we’ve changed any of our goals, to be honest,” Michael said. “The goal is to have an impact on people and make as many converts as we can, in whatever amount of time
we have.”

The War and Treaty

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Baker-Baum Concert Hall, Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Avenue, La Jolla.

Tickets: $31-$75

Phone: (858) 459-3728

Online: theconrad.org