The origin story of Mississippi duo The War & Treaty takes some time, so bear with us. The roots of the band begin in 2004, with a soldier named Michael Trotter Jr., who was serving in Iraq. Trotter's unit was encamped in one of Saddam Hussein's private palaces, and pushed in the corner of the basement of that castle was an old upright piano. Encouraged by a captain who had made it his personal mission to make sure that Trotter survived, the young soldier, who already loved to sing, learned to play that piano. And when his captain was killed, Trotter was moved to write his first song, which he performed at the fallen man's memorial service.
Trotter's performance was so powerful that he ended up spending the next three years singing not just for his unit, but for other soldiers' memorial services. He even came in first in a military talent competition called Military Idol, and, after his discharge, appeared on a Hope Channel special called My Story, My Song.
This was all before Trotter met his wife, a singer named Tanya Blount, who was just as moved by the pure country trill of Dolly Parton as she was the fiery gospel-soul of Aretha Franklin. Collaboration, both personal and professional, was in the air, and the lovebirds married and created the War & Treaty to share their music.
And what powerful music it is. On their debut EP, last year's Down to the River, Trotter's gritty, soulful growl moves around and underneath Blount's soaring, old-school, gospel-style wail, their voices meshing in harmony and then spiraling off into their individual gymnastics. It's hard not to get caught up in the seven songs' rush of passionate soul-saving (the title track), roadhouse stomp ("Florida"), slow, bluesy grind ("Hit Dawg Will Holla"), wide-screen late-'60s-style R&B balladry ("Til the Morning"), and more. And there aren't any musical frills or production tricks here. Down to the River isn't a live album, but it sure as hell sounds like one.
Trotter says that that visceral, raw sound comes from researching the artists he and Blount have always looked up to.
"We studied some of our heroes like Ray Charles, James Brown, and Aretha Franklin," he says. "And one of the things we took from that was to give it all you got, because you don't know if or when you'll be able to give it again. Whether that's on a record, or whether it's in front of people, we just give it our all; we give it how we feel it. And that's what happened with the EP in the studio. We gave it all we had. We thought that if this doesn't move us and the band, it isn't going to move anyone who listens. And so our intention was to move one another, impact each other — not just me and Tonya, but the bass player, our drummer, our guitarist. That was the main intention."
As for the sometimes-tricky decision to combine their personal and professional lives in the War & Treaty, Trotter says there wasn't any hesitation at all.
"It was kind of easy for us, because we don't do anything separately, anyway," he says with a laugh. "We're seven years into our marriage, and we're still in the honeymoon phase. We love working side by side, being in each other's company, and it makes it easier when you realize that you're doing something unique and something special."
That "something special" is the duo's mix of gospel, soul, country, and rock, forms of music that all have roots in common but are often separated by those anxious to pigeonhole a band into one genre or another, something Trotter says is a fundamental mistake.
"We start thinking somewhere along the course of living as human beings that it has to be one or the other," he says. "And what we're doing is giving it exactly how we feel it. It may come out bluesy, it may come out country, it may come out R&B, it may come out gospel, or it might come out all of it at once. But what you can see is the beauty of how it all can work together, versus it being its own separate genres. When you see it all work together fluidly, you realize how related the music is."
Working together is a vital concept for the War & Treaty, who will release their first full-length album (produced by acclaimed singer/songwriter/guitarist Buddy Miller) in August. Their lyrical themes often call upon both the spirit and the flesh to move past their differences and be unified.
"Our goal is to say, 'Let's cut out all the divisive behavior and realize that we're all the same,'" Trotter says. "Let's unify our race for the good of the Earth. It's about losing our differences in order to heal our nation and heal our world. We're simply asking if you'll be a part of that."