“I think that’s a healthy part of being an artist — to have those butterflies in your stomach, almost like you’re meeting a date for the first time,” singer Tanya Trotter of The War And Treaty shares about getting a little nervous before a performance.
Founded in 2014, The War And Treaty beautifully blends soul, gospel, country, folk, and more with confessional lyrics and soaring melodies. Known for their intense revival-like performances, the duo has released two acclaimed albums, “Healing Tide” (2018) and “Hearts Town” (2020) and an EP “Down to the River” (2017). They have performed and toured with musical artists such as Dierks Bentley, Brandi Carlile, Gary Clark Jr., Common, Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Al Green, Jason Isbell, Cyndi Lauper, John Legend, John Mark McMillan, Mumford and Sons, and more.
But there may be more cause for butterflies when The War And Treaty take the stage at the Filene Center at Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts on Thursday, July 29. This will be a self-described “bittersweet” and “overwhelming” homecoming for band members, Tanya and her husband, pianist and singer-songwriter, Michael Trotter, Jr. Both of the Trotters — who now live in Nashville, Tennessee — have deep roots in the greater Washington, D.C. area, where their musical talents were nurtured even as they struggled in their own familial and personal affairs. Now, they are returning home as bona fide superstars.
Tanya was born in Washington, D.C., before her family moved to Hillcrest Heights, Maryland when she was in the fourth grade. In high school, her musical talents led her to Duke Ellington School of the Arts, which she fondly credits as formative in her musical journey and a place where she was surrounded by “other creatives who were just as weird as I was.”
Formerly and widely known by her maiden name, Tanya Blount received national recognition for her rousing duet of the gospel song “His Eye is on the Sparrow” with a young Lauryn Hill in the Whoopi Goldberg-led film “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit.” A budding R&B artist, her debut album “Natural Thing” peaked at #58 on Billboard’s R&B charts and was followed by a nomination for Best New Artist at the Soul Train Awards. An unfruitful record contract that required a protracted release and other complications kept the singer, who once showed such promise, from reaching her musical aspirations and hindered even meeting basic financial stability.
She admits that even when she was still widely known to D.C. audiences for her midday self-titled program on Blog Talk Radio, her public persona — confident, hardworking, spiritual, and guiding others through their crises — masked her own financial and marital problems. Tanya recalls “rattling around in the turtle top van, being homeless, while I was living in D.C. with the name ‘Tanya Blount,’ with that kind of success that was attached to that name, and not having the success financially.”
Michael moved to the District from Cleveland as a teenager, temporarily living with his mother at House of Ruth, which provides shelter for struggling families and victims of familial abuse. During this period, he found community and stability by joining the Shaw Jr. High School marching band playing baritone, and immersing himself in D.C.’s marching band culture, which he notes “isn’t talked about nearly as much as it should be.”
After his father became sober, the family left D.C., but by this time, Michael had already found his voice as a singer, winning D.C.’s 1996 Futurefest Singing Competition hosted by former mayor Marion Barry. He joined the Army and served in Iraq, and again found hope in singing, even winning “Military Idol.” As a combat veteran, Michael returned with PTSD, a heaviness of soul that manifested in his body, including struggles with his weight, but he also discovered his talent in writing soul-baring songs.
Before finding each other, they overcame abuse, unhappy marriages, depression, and poverty. Still, it was always the promise of singing, expressing themselves, and making meaningful connections to others through song that kept both artists working hard and making do in the District.
In 2010, when Diane Gray, with the assistance of Tanya, was planning the Love Festival in Laurel, Maryland, an event to raise funds to buy back-to-school items for students in need, they reached out to Michael to perform. Michael sent an inspirational song, “Change,” to Blog Talk Radio, where it captured the attention of Tanya, who played it on her midday show. Finally, the two performers and mutual admirers of each other’s talents met.
Michael recalls his teenage years residing at House of Ruth, where he and his mother, also a singer, would watch Tanya’s performance in “Sister Act 2” on the television at the shelter and harmonize together just like Blount and Hill.
“I knew at an early age that Tanya was my wife, which is a weird thing,” Michael shares. “I feel that I’ve been prepped, prodded, and prepared to sing next to that missing piece of my life, Tanya.”
The music came first, though. After Love Festival, Michael was asked to compose songs for Tanya and her brother Willie Blount for their gospel project while Michael worked on his own contemporary Christian music. Then love took over. Tanya paused being a professional musician after they married, staying home with their first child together (they have a blended family with children from their previous marriages) and supporting Michael’s career. Three years into their marriage, a friend heard them harmonizing and suggested they sing together for a church event in Maryland. This became their epiphany that they could be lovebirds and songbirds at the same time.
Their music sings of darkness and light, bitter disappointments and sweet rewards — and always love. Michael explains the critical difference between his pre- and post-Tanya-influenced musical compositions.
“I wrote literally from an abysmal place, suspended in darkness. Just there and trying to write my way out. And when Tanya came into my life, I stopped trying to write my way out of the darkness and started writing my way into the light. There is a difference: just because you’re trying to get out of that darkness doesn’t mean you’re trying to get into light. When you have the most beautiful woman in the entire world loving you, her light is the reason why I write now.”
For Michael, his melodies are an invitation to play in God’s music room, a cosmic space where Johnny Cash and Ray Charles and others who overcame hardships inspire and perform together — melding country, gospel, and sonic declarations of love and light.
The last several years were a whirlwind of successes, from the critical acclaim for their records to the famous names they’ve graced the stage with, to winning both the 2019 Emerging Artist of the Year from Americana Music Honor & Awards and the 2020 Folk Alliance Award’s Artist of the Year.
The War And Treaty still have grand ambitions of keeping true to their roots and sound while reaching even wider audiences, making country and folk music more inclusive and diverse. While Michael hopes to team up with Garth Brooks, who “is intentional and authentic in everything he does,” Tanya wants to pair with Dolly Parton: “Her heart is as big as her image. She puts her heart everywhere.”
Wolf Trap is so meaningful for the Trotters because it is a symbolic marker of who they are now with where they’ve come from. While only spending a short time back home on this cross-country tour, they plan to visit family before the show and have dinner at their favorite Thai restaurant, Bangkok Golden in Fort Washington. The Trotters admit that as much as they loved the region, they needed to keep their roots deep but spread their wings to new heights to find happiness and success.
The last show The War And Treaty played in the District sold only fifteen tickets bought exclusively by supportive family members, including Tanya’s mother, who has since passed away.
“We walked away from what we didn’t want to do, and we are returning together on our own terms,” Tanya shares about this upcoming show. “There will be people who bought hundreds of tickets to see my husband and I perform in our authentic selves. This is a chance to share our message of love, inclusion, the capacity to give.”
This is a cause for butterflies, indeed.
The War And Treaty play the Filene Center at Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts on Thursday, July 29 at 8 p.m. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Conor & The Wild Hunt opens. Tickets are $27 and may be purchased here. To learn more about The War And treaty, check out their website here or follow them on Instagram @thewarandtreaty:
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