Becky Warren, the Nashville-based singer-songwriter returns to the music scene with a 12-track concept record called War Surplus. Although she had been playing music for 25 years, War Surplus – an independent record which has just released – is Becky’s first solo album. To promote her album, Becky is getting ready to hit the road, starting in Baltimore and then traveling to New England, as an opener for the Indigo Girls a second time. During my telephone chat with Becky, the artist recalls the moment in 2004 when she learned that Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls wanted to release an album Becky recorded with her band from college.
“I had a band called The Great Unknowns, and we recorded an album in the basement of this college dorm. Then, I left Boston, and we [agreed to] only give copies of [the record] to our families. But, a friend of ours gave it to Amy Ray from the Indigo Girls, who called us and said she wanted to put it out on her label. That was exciting. So, big surprise. We were all living in different places at that point, but she put the record out. We got to open for them and got some good press. But then,” continued Becky, fast-forwarding to eight years in the future, “I did not do music several years – which we will probably also talk about. Then, I did another album with the Great Unknowns in 2012. Then, this record which I had done, is my first solo album.”
Becky also plans to tour separately to promote War Surplus, beginning in Atlanta and continuing west to New Orleans, Dallas, and Austin. While she feels excited to return to performance, Becky re-enters the real world of music with a greater objective, raising awareness about veterans’ issues. How does Becky, plan to accomplish this? By joining the storytelling style of country with Americana in front of a backdrop – a fictional story inspired by the real events within Becky’s life; her marriage to a veteran who served in the war in Iraq and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder.
War Surplus tells the story of two Americans, June, and Scott, who fall in love and have their relationship rattled by this war across 12 heart-wrenching songs that will quickly hook the listener to Becky’s sound. What I am most curious to learn is what steps the artist took to transform a fictional story into a record, how the music reflected events and character development, and how this story would end. More importantly, I wanted to understand how War Surplus could help make listeners more aware of the issues that veterans are facing in the United States. It is my pleasure to turn my interview with Becky Warren into an article and share it with you right here on Music Historian.
The creation of War Surplus started in 2012 when Becky had decided to attend the Johnny Mercer Foundation writing program. Here, she met several artists involved in musical theater, and shortly after she released a second album with The Great Unknowns titled Homefront. By this time, Becky was coming out of her five-year stint away from songwriting.
“For all five years that I was married, I was not writing. I just really wanted to get another The Great Unknowns record out. Many of the songs on that album were my personal view on what that time had been like for me: about how much I missed playing music; and what it was like for me to be married to someone with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is also another song on there; it is a little fictional, but it comes from the perspective of a soldier coming home and then having his marriage fall apart.
“That was me looking at my personal view of what had happened. Now that I have more distance I just really became interested in how others had gone through the same thing. That’s what had brought me to writing War Surplus. I had never considered doing a concept album, or a series of songs around one story before that [the Johnny Mercer] program.
“Before I started writing this album, I was only writing about myself, and I had not thought about writing from another character’s point of view. That was eye-opening, and it turns out I love that. I can’t believe I had spent so much of my life writing only from the view of women. Now, I write from the view of men a lot. I feel glad that I have allowed myself to open that door… it’s a new and fun challenge for me to write from somebody else’s point of view, someone different from me.
“One thing I learned, when people write a musical, they usually write twice as many songs as they need and toss half of them. That was on my mind when I worked on this album… I should just write and write, and not worry about which songs were going to be “The songs” until I was sure I had enough to cover the whole story well. They are [also] very focused on the characters in the songs, their wants, what changes in the songs, and why the character sings the song on stage. All of these [things] I picked up from the Johnny Mercer program.
“Before that program, I had written the next to last song “She’s Always There,” and during the program, I wrote the last song, “Anything That Lasts.” I realized both songs were the same guy [Scott]. Being around musical theater people gave me the idea to keep writing about him and his story. It was fascinating to hear how they thought about the songs.”
“She’s Always There” and “Anything That Lasts” are both included as the final tracks on War Surplus. The track that opens the entire album is a song from June’s perception, “Call Me Sometime.” As a first song, “Call Me Sometimes” works well as an opener for War Surplus. The driving harmonic rhythm in the guitar and the beat of drums, and length of the measures in each bar resonate very closely with the genre of Americana. The modulation from a minor key to a major and then resolving back to the tonic in the minor key also helped create a very complete and concise song. Then, there are the lyrics in the chorus that are undeniably aggressive and alluring, But if you wanna drown your heart in gasoline and make-believe/ if you think a good lost cause is exactly what you need/ if you got a taste for poison with your wine, well yeah/ I guess you can call me sometime.”
I wondered why Becky put this song at the top of her track list and what was happening to June and Scott in the story at this time. The songwriter explains, “I knew I needed to write a song where she was introduced and then falls in love with Scott, but I had a hard time with her. I had never written love songs before this album. It’s hard for me to write something that is 100 percent “I love you,” and 0 percent anything else… even when I am in love, there is a part of me that thinks “something is about to go wrong” or “somehow this is not going to last.”
Although Becky modestly laughed while she talked about the lyrics within “Call me Sometime,” I could tell that she seriously thought about June’s character. She continues, “It was when I realized that if I could write her like that, it will make things so much easier for me. Therefore, I pictured her as a person who was living in San Antonio, a town with a lot of military personnel, and military tradition. June is deeply skeptical of love and even more skeptical of dating men within the army. She forms opinions about how ‘good’ they would be as boyfriends, and she does not believe that someone she meets at a bar will be worth her time.
“I wanted to start with that, to give you a picture of that person. Then, when she and Scott fall in love, there must be something pretty special between them; the strong feeling June had – that love would not happen to someone like her – had been overcome. That’s why the album starts [with that song].”
So the story begins. The second track on the album “San Antonio” helps prepare the setting. According to Becky, she wanted this song to have a sense of place, and San Antonio has a connection to the military, it is also a city where one can easily live separate of that community. Therefore, she purposefully decided that June would not live on base; instead, while Scott gets deployed, June would continue living the life she had known.
The lyrics within this slower-paced serve as a narrative by someone who describes this well-known Texas city with a significant amount of familiarity, and the long hard trucker barrels down in his state town, miles left to cross/ but the late night DJ on KMBT always knows what to play for the lost/ The great state of Texas sings something secret for each of its souls tonight/ And you’re the song that’s been stuck in my head my whole life. Becky talks a little more about this song.
“For me, I wanted [to create] a story that people could see themselves in some way… I wanted to wrap up that place, and what June is feeling about suddenly meeting this person; it feels like the song that has been stuck in her head her entire life, after thinking for so long that she would never find that.”
Naturally, one can guess that “San Antonio” is another song that comes from June’s perspective. So far, I learned that the two opening songs on War Surplus express June’s point of view, while the concluding two tracks reveal Scott’s perspective and his story of serving in the war in Iraq. However; some of the songs in the first half of the album also represent Scott’s point of view. Listeners start to hear more of Scott and his experience as a soldier in “Stay Calm Get Low.”
When it came to writing from Scott’s perspective, Becky looked to many external resources, including literature. The artist at the time read many books and poems that took place in Iraq. One book that stood out to Becky was My War: Killing Time in Iraq by Colby Buzzell.
“He started writing about his deployment; he went over [to Iraq] with the first wave in 2003. Colby was one of the first milbloggers in the war, kind of before people were calling it milblogging,” said Becky as he gently laughed. “They turned his blog into a book… and that one just really spoke to me because it is so immediate, he is writing it as it [the war] happens.”
Becky felt that the narrative of Buzzell’s book and the character of Scott shared a lot of commonalities, including Buzzell’s “sense of humor and slightly countercultural slant on things.” The singer-songwriter also says that everything that happens in “Stay Calm, Get Low” also happens in Colby’s book. After writing the song, Becky let Colby hear it; an experience that, for the artist, was one of the most exciting parts of writing this album.
While the artist expresses feelings of creative gratification writing through the perspective of a character very different from her and using real-life examples from accounts written by ex-soldiers who served in Iraq; Becky makes sure that the listener receives a healthy dosage of disillusionment about the war in “Stay Calm, Get Low.” In the verse, half-way through the song, Becky sings I am an m240 machine gun, a black and white Hollywood rerun, a ten second mention on the evening news and then follows up with the following lyrics in the chorus stay calm, get low/ this ain’t no picture show/ stay calm, get low/ just tell yourself you know/ we’re all gonna make it home.
Becky explains, “I have never been in combat… everything you know about it comes from movies, books, and television. I believe the reality is that half of the time, it gets very boring, and then it is punctuated by moments of terror and unimaginable horror. That [combat] is a very bizarre circumstance, but you have to adjust to it very quickly.
“I think that’s what is happening in that song (“Stay Calm, Get Low”) – you get to this place, and you [start to] have a very different mindset. That is what I think is happening to [Scott]. I wanted that song to be the anthem that people could sing along with, sort of like “Born in the U.S.A.”
The chorus in “Stay Calm, Get Low,” is very easy to remember and sing along to, especially as there is a distinct downbeat that listeners hear in the pause between “stay calm” and “get low.” However, in my opinion, comparing “Stay Calm, Get Low” to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” proves to be more challenging than I initially thought. Aside from the fact that Springsteen’s famous song relates to a war different from the one that Becky sings about; “Born in the U.S.A.” seems to be mislabeled continuously as a patriotic song.
According to what Becky writes about “Born in the U.S.A.” on her website, “while it is a serious song about Vietnam vets, people still have a great time shouting along to it at stadiums” (www.beckywarren.com Retrieved October 2016). Becky elaborates on her opinion of a song we both happen to appreciate.
“The interesting thing about “Born in the U.S.A.” is that for many people, it does sound patriotic because of the chorus. When a patriotic song is about war, it is not about the person; it is more about that person as a symbol for why we are proud to be American. It’s not usually about that individual’s life, their thoughts or feelings, or the details.
“But [Born in the U.S.A.] … tells a very human story about a veteran and his brother. You can’t take a story about one person, as a human, and then turn it into a symbol for a country; those are complicated. It is not something you can build a patriotic theme around. So, I think it is a very different class of song.”
Returning to Becky’s songs on War Surplus and the story of Scott and June, another song in which Scott seems to experience disillusionment about the war is appropriately titled “Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time.” This song is the catchiest and also has the most straightforward storytelling as the singer delivers a narrative describing what led young men to sign up and serve in the army in the first place – a promise for a better future or a more rewarding career. The song that follows this is “I Miss You,” which, told from June’s perspective. The phrase, God I miss you like you wouldn’t believe, solidly concludes a few verses throughout that song, and beautifully ties up a narrative from the perspective of a woman whose husband or loved one has been absent from her life for a prolonged period.
After listening to the first half of War Surplus, I started to wonder which songs were from Scott’s point of view, and which ones were from June’s point of view. Becky clearly identified which of the songs were told through Scott’s or June’s perspective. However, one component that I found missing from the album was a song that could have easily expressed both Scott’s and June’s experience of how the war in Iraq affected their relationship on the same caliber. There seems to be a lack of unity between Scott and June, and perhaps this is primarily caused by the distance that the war places on these two individuals. I asked Becky whether she saw these two characters coming together on a song in the future.
“I see June leaving in the song “Grenade,”” expressed Becky. “I picture her gone during “She’s Always There” and “Anything That Lasts.” I think [when] Scott ends the album with “Anything That Lasts,” [he’s] in a very dark place. I hope he ends up okay and that they end up together again. But I am not sure. I believe I wanted to finish it in a place where they were both in a precarious situation.”
I then followed this up with another question – did Becky feel that this precariousness is part of the unpredictability of the war which affected both Scott and June? She replies, “I wrote it,” “Anything That Lasts,” “as Scott contemplating suicide, which happens way too frequently for vets. And, I don’t know whether he will… that is a great “if” to leave the album on, that it was not resolved.”
As I come to understand how June and Scott’s story ends, I also inquire Becky about another objective she has with War Surplus, to spread awareness about veterans’ issues. In an interview that Becky did with the magazine, Elmore a few months ago, she said “I want to do everything I can to make them feel like they’re not invisible. And maybe at the same time, the record will lead some people to learn more about veterans’ issues, and take some positive action (www.elmoremagazine.com Aug 2016).”
While I have heard about the problems veterans experience in the United States, I wanted to hear from Becky what she felt people misunderstand the most about veterans returning from Iraq. She kindly explains:
“We have such a divide right now between veterans and their families, and everyone else. The people who fought the most recent war, were a very small portion of the population; I think it is one-tenth of one percent. Therefore, many of us don’t know anyone who served at all, and we don’t know anybody who has been in combat. That was the case for me too before I met the person who became my husband.
“I don’t think we are doing anything wrong; I just believe that it is strictly in the numbers. Many of us do not know that life at all. I think we form pictures of who veterans are… and maybe tend to think of them as different from ourselves. I think that’s part of the reason why there is perhaps not more pressure on Congress to improve things for the better because many of us think of veterans as somebody else.
“That’s why it was important for me to make Scott and June sound like people who you might know and like. Hopefully, you can hear their story and think ‘okay, I do have some things in common with these individuals, they’re not that distant from me.’ I believe that veterans come in all different personalities just like the rest of us. But, especially because of the kinds of patriotic songs we mentioned, we think of them as one particular caricature or couple, and I think that’s not incredibly helpful in getting people interested in veterans’ issues.”
As I incorporated Becky’s interview into a full-length article, I had a memory of a term paper for an undergrad class I wrote many years ago in my pursuit of a degree in Music History. In my report, I had written about how while a lot of musicians wrote songs focused on particular wars, very few artists wrote songs that directly protested the Iraq war. I now wished that I interviewed a musician like Becky Warren at the time. She helps present a new view of how music can contribute to telling a story about the realities of war and its affects soldiers both in combat and at home, away from the battle. Although the story Becky tells in War Surplus is fictional, real life inspires it. Most importantly, Becky Warren brings War Surplus to massive audiences at a time when people are starting to talk about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the additional effects that the most recent war has left on American veterans.
1-2 Milblogging refers to Military Blogging (Becky Warren, personal communication, October 11, 2016)
EXCLUSIVE: Americana Artist Becky Warren Makes Heartache Sound Beautiful on Her Ballad, “I Miss You.” (2016, August 5). Retrieved from http://www.elmoremagazine.com/2016/08/music-news/solo-artist-becky-warren-premieres-a-gorgeous-and-heart-aching-ballad-i-miss-you
Warren, B. (Retrieved, 2016, October 1). About. Retrieved from http://www.beckywarren.com/about/