Becky Warren: The Daily Vault Interview

by Jason Warburg


Becky Warren the singer-songwriter is a whip-smart, take-no-prisoners, reflexively charismatic performer with a novelist’s eye and a rock and roller’s heart. Her music, whether you cast it as Americana or alt-country or “catchy, guitar-driven rock” (her words), is filled with memorable characters and addictive hooks, penetrating lyrics and self-deprecating humor.

Becky Warren the person is both very much the same and completely different. Genuinely modest about her prodigious talents, she is also speaking publicly for the first time this year about a personal struggle with depression that has now lasted more than half her life. After a pair of albums fronting her college band The Great Unknowns, the first of which attracted the attention and support of Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, Warren more recently struck out solo with a pair of concept albums.
War Surplus (2016) won rave reviews for its fictionalized depiction of Warren’s brief, tumultuous marriage to an Iraq war veteran with PTSD. Her 2018 follow-up Undesirable won equally abundant praise for a set of songs bringing to life the stories of Nashville’s homeless.

Just as Undesirable was attracting attention, though, the depression that Warren had been wrestling with off and on since her teens descended again and refused to leave. After 16 months of being nearly housebound, late last fall the cloud finally lifted, leaving Warren with an album’s worth of songs about the most daunting subject of all: herself. Mostly recorded in January, a few weeks before the coronavirus put the whole world into lockdown, The Sick Season is an album about depression that’s anything but depressing, a sharp, sweet, rocking, brutally honest and frequently moving song cycle about doing battle with your own mind day after day.

Like the album itself, our recent conversation was intense but fun, full of both piercing insights and mischievous laughter. Becky Warren is the real deal, and if I wasn’t already a fan, I would have become one after spending the better part of an hour in conversation about music, writing, and her favorite Springsteen album.

Daily Vault: Your songs often feel like they uncover layers of meaning and emotion underneath everyday situations. I’d like to start with a question that used to feel routine, but doesn’t right now. Becky Warren, how are you?

Becky Warren: I feel a bit guilty because I’m actually doing really well. The story of the new album is that I had a pretty long period where I was very depressed. Luckily that lifted in November, so I had a couple of months before the lockdown started. In some ways the world right now does echo what my life was like then, because I was stuck at home—back then it was because I was feeling terrible, and now it’s for other reasons. But just to feel healthy and happy and able to cope with life makes everything so much better. It’s a daily lesson in gratitude, and I’m grateful that I’m in a much better place than I was a year ago.

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The Sick Season
comes out this Friday, October 23. Tell us more about the genesis of the album.

I had actually planned to do another concept album about other people, because that’s what I like to do, but I started to feel really depressed. I’ve struggled with depression since I was a teenager, and it’s been pretty well controlled for the last 15 years, but this time it just wouldn’t go away. My doctor and I were trying all kinds of different things, but it just stayed. I couldn’t really work on the project I had planned, which involves going around interviewing people, because I didn’t want to leave my house.

At the same time, I was contacted by a literary agent who asked if I was interested in writing a book. I had never really thought about it, but it’s hard to say no when someone contacts you out of the blue and asks you that. So I said maybe and started thinking about my depression and how I’ve dealt with it for so long; for example, for many years now I’ve been what I call “aggressively single” as a way of protecting my mental health. I went back to them and said “I think I could write a book about depression, and come at it from the angle of being aggressively single, which is a little quirky and funny, so hopefully it wouldn’t be a sad book to read. What do you think of that?”

They loved the idea. And then while I was talking with them, I started to think I should do an album along with the book, because I had plenty of songs about being depressed already written! [laughter] Plus I was also writing new songs during that period. I got excited about that idea and then, after talking with them for a while, they looked at my Twitter followers and decided I wasn’t really famous enough to do a book. [laughter]

Seriously? Boooo…

Yeah, I thought that was really funny—I mean, why didn’t you look at my Twitter followers before you contacted me? But the good thing was that it inspired me to think about talking about my experiences with depression, which I’ve always been very resistant to doing. That opened my mind to discussing that publicly, so in that way it was a positive thing.

In the end I went ahead with the album, and my depression became the theme for the first album I’ve done about myself, which is a little uncomfortable, but I’ve had really good response from people, which has been very nice.

I think making an album of really honest songs about that experience will resonate with a lot of people and mean a lot to them.

I appreciate that. It does feel good to feel seen and to know that you’re not alone.

Plus the subject matter—anxiety, isolation, loneliness—feels very on-the-nose for the times we’re in.

I’m glad it feels on-the-nose and not just like a really terrible idea! [laughter]

In hindsight, what do you think brought the new songs out? Was it frustration or boredom or a way to process what you were experiencing?

I think it was a way to process it and also to make sure I had some moments when I didn’t take it too seriously, where I could think about it without spiraling into a darker place. My normal coping mechanism when I’m struggling is just to do as many mindless tasks as I can at once. I’ll watch a really mindless television show at the same time I’m playing a game on my phone and looking at Twitter, just so that I can’t possibly think about how I feel.

And there’s no time when I think more about how I’m feeling than when I’m writing a song. So forcing myself to write while I was depressed was really hard, but I think it also gave me a structure for thinking about how I was feeling, and a time limit, like “Okay I’m going sit down and think about it until I finish this song.” I had to go through the pain of thinking about how I was feeling, but then at the end I would get this gift of pride and joy at actually having done something constructive with it. For me it’s always satisfying to create a song; it’s what I love to do most.

Was it actually comforting to find that you could still write songs even when you were feeling that way?

Yeah, because in general I don’t write much when I feel terrible. I know some people who are the opposite, who write best when they feel terrible, but I write best when I’m happy, because then I’m not afraid of myself. You’re just so not yourself when you’re depressed; it feels like this darkness takes over your brain and you have all sorts of thoughts that are not normal or healthy. To be able to sit down and do something I loved even when I felt like that, yeah, that was comforting.

Which songs on the new album had the biggest impact on you when you wrote them, and which have the biggest impact for you now, after some time has passed?

The one that had the biggest impact on me after time had passed was “Tired Of Sick.” I wrote it quickly; I was just being honest about how I was feeling in the moment and it came out really fast. I actually wasn’t planning to revisit it again—as I was writing it I was thinking “This is overly simple and raw, and that’s not the kind of song I really like to write. So I’ll finish it, but I’m never going to listen to it again.”

And then a few months later I was going through things I had written, and I heard it and it made me cry, because in that moment I was so honest about how I was feeling. Normally I’m trying to be a little more intentional about crafting an experience, but I wasn’t thinking about craft at all in that song; it was almost like a letter to my mom. When I heard it again, I found it really moving, and thought maybe I could record it. It felt like there was something in it that’s really new to me. I stressed for a long time about how I was going to tell my mom about the song and how she would react; it’s definitely the most personal song on the album.

The one that meant the most to me at the time I wrote it was probably “Dickerson Pike,” because it’s about a really profound experience that I had, that I went home and immediately wrote about, which doesn’t happen much. It was during a time when I wasn’t leaving my house often. I’m a mentor for an organization called Girls Write where girls who want to be songwriters are paired with a mentor who’s a female songwriter and we spend six months mentoring them. At the end of the program, there’s a big concert where all the girls perform their song with a great band of female Nashville musicians. It’s a really cool event and normally I would love it, but I just felt terrible, so I didn’t really want to go, but I had to, because I didn’t want to let down my mentee.

I got there and ran into someone I hadn’t seen in a while and asked her how she was, and she said “Actually, I’ve been really depressed and I’ve been in and out of the hospital.” I had no idea that was going on for her. She only stayed for a little while before she left.

And I felt like I really understood how she felt in that moment, and also felt that she had been really brave to tell me what was going on with her. That stuck with me and I went home and right away I wanted to write a song about what it’s like to go to a show that you don’t want to go to, when you just feel terrible, and you walk in and there’s so much joy around you. A song about what it’s like to be in a moment that would normally be one of the best parts of your year and still just feel awful. That moment meant a lot to me and I was glad I was able to capture it in a song.

What’s the difference between writing other peoples’ stories, which you did on Undesirable, and writing your own story, which you kind of did on War Surplus, but much more so on the new album?

War Surplus
was like a safe house, because it was based on my experience, but the fictional characters I created gave me some distance. I don’t like writing about myself, both because I find it hard, and because I don’t like to sit down and think about how I’m feeling, given my history. I worry that if I focus too much on how I feel, I may discover I don’t feel good, and what if that sends me into another horrible period of depression?

So I would much rather sit down and think about someone else, and maybe use my own experiences and feelings as a way of imagining how that other person feels, without having the story be strictly about me. Something about that slight distance always makes it easier. When I’m writing I also think about the fact that when an album comes out, for the next couple of years I’m going to be talking about the songs on stage or with people like you. I ask myself “What would I like to be talking about at those moments?” and the answer is never me.

It’s definitely different writing about myself, and very, very different talking about myself. In a way I’m glad people aren’t touring right now, because I haven’t had to do it as much as I would have had to otherwise. [laughter]

Sorry to put you through it.

No, it’s okay, I’m grateful that you want to hear it and I’m learning to be better at it.

Okay, new subject. Please tell us a little bit about where and when The Sick Season was recorded, and the band you put together for it.

I would love to talk about that! [laughter]

We recorded in January, not long after I started feeling better. In fact, when we scheduled the studio time, I didn’t know I would be better by then, so the timing turned out really lucky. We recorded it at a studio called MOXE in Nashville that was built by Jordan Brooke Hamlin, who produced the album and also plays on several tracks.

Jordan created a really amazing space by thinking about how she wanted people to feel in all different parts of the studio. It’s set way back on a multi-acre lot, far enough from the road that you feel like you’re in the woods. The tracking room where everybody played but me—because I had to do the vocals—has this huge, ceiling-high window that looks out into the forest. It just feels really cozy and comfortable and relaxing, and that’s what I wanted.

Jordan has worked a lot with the Indigo Girls, including producing one of their albums, so I knew her through those connections. I also decided that I wanted to surround myself with players and people I was really comfortable with not just musically, but personally. Avril Smith was in The Great Unknowns and doesn’t live in Nashville; she flew in specially to play guitar on the album. Avril and I have been friends for a long time and I really wanted her there, because she’s a great player, but also because she knows me so well.

The same with Jeremy Middleton, who’s been my bass player and leader of my band for a long time. I knew both Avril and Jeremy from Washington D.C, where I lived before I moved to Nashville. Jeremy and his family ended up moving to Nashville a couple of years after I did, so he’s here now as well. On drums we had Megan Jane, who I’m also very good friends with—in fact, I went to Africa with Megan and her wife in December, only a month before we recorded. So I’m very close with all three of them, and it was very special to have them in the studio with me to record this album.

Your website describes your music as “catchy, guitar-driven rock,” but I’ve seen it classified as Americana, alt-country, and roots-rock. It feels like the lines between those genres are blurry, maybe even more so because you’re based in Nashville. But how would you describe your music?

I agree with you—I don’t know where any one of those genres starts and the next one stops. The Americana scene, that radio format and that professional organization, have been where I’ve been the most at home. Those stations have been the biggest supporters of mine, so I definitely feel like I’m part of Americana. But it’s such a huge tent that I feel like it’s hard to know what someone means when they say they play Americana music—it could be almost anything.

I also feel really strongly that I play rock music. I want a guitar hook, and drums, and I’m very influenced by Bruce Springsteen—who nobody calls Americana! He gets to be “rock.” If I was a man playing what I play, I think people would probably call me rock. When I really have to pin it down I always say “I’m on the rock and roll side of Americana.” I think that’s a Venn diagram that overlaps, and I’m in both circles.

Sounds right to me. You mentioned Springsteen—who do you consider to be your main influences as a songwriter?

Springsteen is definitely a big influence because he’s a great writer, including of rock and roll songs, but also because he writes as other people a lot and he’s done concept albums. I think about the album Born In The USA all the time, and especially that title track, an incredible song about Vietnam veterans that he played in stadiums. People joke about how no one’s listening to the lyrics at stadium shows, but a lot of people know that song, and even if only five percent of them know anything about Vietnam veterans, that’s a lot of people. I really admire how he was able to talk about something so important in a very thoughtful and well-crafted way, but also a way that made a lot of people want to listen to it. I think about Springsteen’s music a lot when I write.

John Prine is one of my all-time favorite songwriters. He was a master at juxtaposing the tragic and the comic and I admire that so much. I’ve definitely tried to do that in places, especially on War Surplus. He was also phenomenal in the way he would surprise you and give you rhymes that you’ve heard before, but in a totally new way.

My other favorite writer is Brian Wilson, who’s almost the opposite. John Prine writes great lyrics and uses simple chords, and Brian Wilson’s lyrics sometimes aren’t that special, but his melodies and chords are amazing. I’m nowhere near as talented at composing music as Brian Wilson is, but I definitely admire his ability to surprise you with a chord change and I’m always trying to do that. Mine is usually the same surprise chord every time, but at least it’s a little bit of a surprise…!

I love Paul Simon, too; he can give you a song-length metaphor. But I don’t think I’d be doing what I’m doing today without Lucinda Williams. Presenting The Great Unknowns is almost a Lucinda Williams tribute album. I was writing songs before I heard her, but it always felt like wearing someone else’s clothes. When I heard Car Wheels On A Gravel Road it really changed the way that I thought about songwriting. I was floored by how she could just come out and tell you how she felt in the most simple way. That really changed the way I wrote.

Car Wheels
is an amazing album. I wanted to mention a few other names that feel like they could be influences. Tom Petty?

Thank you! I love to be mentioned with Tom Petty.

And then in that Americana family, Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires?

Thank you, I’ll take that one too! I love them.

You’ve made three concept albums in a row, each with a different narrative approach to addressing a theme. What are your favorite concept albums?

I don’t know if everyone agrees it’s a concept album, but my favorite Springsteen album is The Rising. To me it feels like a concept album about 9/11, and I love that record, in part because it was such an audacious thing to do, to say “I’m going to make an album about 9/11,” especially so soon after it happened. But he just really nailed it. I don’t think anyone else could have done that, and it’s not political at all, it’s just so human. I think it’s an amazing concept album.

I’m also a fan of The Who’s Tommy. The first time I heard it was because my grandmother told me she liked it! [laughter] She had seen the show on Broadway and I was going to New York so she told me to go see it. She’s a very hip woman, so I went, and loved it, and got into all the other variations like the original Who album and the movie soundtrack. I love that it’s a very different kind of concept album; it’s a great example of using different characters and singing from different points of view, and having the main character of Tommy be fleshed out by the characters around him.

Shifting gears again, I collected a few favorite quotes from your songs and I’d like to run them by you and see what they spark—maybe a memory of writing them, of what inspired them, or what felt most important to you about them.

This is every writer’s dream, to have someone read their work closely and come at them with quotes. I love it!

From “Anything That Lasts” on War Surplus, I love the line “I went away and came back gone.”

A lot of people like that line—I like it, too. I honestly don’t know where it came from. I wrote that song in such a weird circumstance.

I was at a songwriting program that ended up having a huge impact on me—it was a lot of musical theater writers, so it got me interested in concept albums. But we were supposed to come in with a new song every day, and we were at this workshop all day long. I kept trying to write something and everyone else kept coming in with these genius ideas. And the first day I came in with nothing, and the second day I came in with something the class hated. I spent that whole next night thinking “I have to come in with something good tomorrow.”

I stayed up late, got nowhere, and then set the alarm for 6:00 a.m. I thought I was going to end up coming in empty-handed again, because the workshop started at 9:00 a.m. And then somehow, that song just came to me, almost fully formed. In fact, when I was done writing it, after I’d saved it I hit “Undo” and went back to the beginning and screen-captured the process of writing it, just so I could keep it for myself and remember how fully formed it came out.

I literally have no idea where it came from. It’s still hard for me to believe I didn’t steal it from somebody—if I did, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to! [laughter] It was just one of those magical moments where a song arrives in your brain from nowhere.

From “We’re All We’ve Got” on Undesirable: “My bones are tired, but my heart’s an unpinned hand grenade.”

I think I had tried to put that line in another song before and it hadn’t really worked. There were a lot of grenades on War Surplus, so they were still in my head. And so many people I met while writing Undesirable were in situations that were not good. The particular guy in that song was living on the street and riding the bus two hours every day to get to where he sold the paper [The Contributor, a newspaper published by homeless people in Nashville]. He was older, in his 60s, but he and everyone I talked with had such hope and faith that they were going to turn things around and get into housing and get a car and all of those things.

I just found that stunning, because I’m so fortunate and my life in most ways is so easy by comparison, and yet I sometimes struggle to feel like I’m going to be okay one day to the next. So many people I interviewed for that album were in really difficult circumstances, but were still so optimistic. That line felt like it captured that feeling.

From “Me And These Jeans” on The Sick Season: “Regret’s a hell of a jailer.”

It is, isn’t it? Especially when you’re not in a good headspace. I can get so paralyzed by all the things I feel I did wrong and all the ways I’ve failed. And then I can even pre-regret things that I’m sure I will fail at in the future. And then before you know it, I can’t do anything.

Please tell us more about your collaboration with Mary Bragg, The Reckless Electric. What led to that? Does it feel like that was a one-shot, or is it something you guys might do again some time?

I don’t typically do a lot of co-writing, but at that time Mary and I were writing together almost every week and enjoying it. A couple of songs we co-wrote ended up on Mary’s album, but then we wrote some goofier songs that weren’t really right for either of our albums. After we’d done a few of those, we thought “What if we just did a whole album of these kind of goofy songs?”

I call them goofy, but I’m still really proud of them—some are really hilarious! Usually the most hilarious parts are the parts Mary wrote, but they were just really fun to work on together. I would say “Couldn’t we write a song about ice cream and liquor?” And Mary would say “It’s hard to rhyme liquor…” and I’d say “I don’t care, let’s try it!” It was a ridiculous idea, but we did it and it worked. I don’t know that we’ll ever do it again, but it was a really fun record to make.

Now I have to go back and refresh my memory about what you rhymed with liquor…

There’s a few lines! “The first taste’s slow, and the second one’s quicker”—which doesn’t mean anything. Mary said “What does that mean?” and I said “I don’t know, but it sounds cool.” [laughter] “Thought we’d clash, but we hardly ever bicker” – I was proud of that one! [laughter] Quicker, bicker, liquor.

Before going solo, you fronted a group called The Great Unknowns. What was the genesis of that group, and what were the highlights of that experience?

It feels like a theme of all my musical projects is that I don’t think much about it and then accidentally stumble into things. [laughter] In college I had been writing other stuff, and then, like I said, I heard Car Wheels On A Gravel Road and that really changed how I was writing. I’d been playing with a few musicians at school, and the four of us that kept playing together became The Great Unknowns.

We were all living in Boston, but I had decided I couldn’t stay in Boston anymore. It was expensive, and dark in the winter, and I wasn’t being medicated for depression yet, so I was depressed a lot of the time. Sometimes when you’re depressed you look for things to blame it on, other than the fact that you’re depressed, and I think I had decided to blame it on Boston.

By the way, it’s so much easier to talk about these things now that I can admit I was depressed! [laughter] I used to talk around it.

But I wanted to leave Boston, and we recorded an album [Presenting The Great Unknowns] as kind of a last thing to do together. I wasn’t sure I would ever play music again. We liked the songs and we thought “We’ll make this record as a memory for ourselves, and make a few copies so our parents and our grandparents can have them.” And then I moved away.

And then, it was the kind of thing that only happens in the movies—someone gave that album to Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, and she signed us to her label, Daemon Records, and that completely changed my life. I don’t know what would have happened to that album, or that band, or my music, if Amy hadn’t heard it and believed in it.

Now I have to ask: what were you planning to do instead of music?

When we were recording that album, I was in a master’s program to become a teacher. In fact, I was in my first year of classroom teaching while we were recording which, looking back, is insane. I don’t know when we slept, but that’s what we did! [laughter] I was only 22, so maybe that explains it.

Then I left Boston and drove to my mom’s house in Florida. It’s a very long drive and along the way I thought “I don’t want to be a classroom teacher. What I really like is museums, so I think I’ll be a museum educator.” I got to Florida and it was really late and I’d been driving a long time and my mom waited up for me. She wanted me to apply to teach at schools near there so I would be near her and I said “Nope, I’m going into museum education!” [laughter]

She thought I was crazy, but I applied for every museum education job that was open in the US, and I ended up getting one in Statesburg, Georgia. That’s where I was living when Amy heard our album.

And that eventually led you to D.C. and then Nashville?

D.C. was because I ended up getting married to a guy who was in the Army, and when he got out that was the best place for him to be because of his background in the military. After we split up I was in D.C. for a while more, and then it occurred to me one day, I’ve worked all these jobs from all these places, why don’t I just work from Nashville, so I can be around more musicians? And that’s why I moved here.

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Here’s a question I think not just musicians, but everyone is asking themselves right now: how do you plan for the future at a time like this?

Maybe it’s fortunate for me that I’ve never followed the traditional path—to my detriment, most of the time. I don’t tour a lot, I have a day job that I really like, I like being at home, and I’m not good at social media. I just really like to write songs and record them with my friends! And then I kind of do the best I can after that.

The good thing for me is that this situation doesn’t affect my ability to write songs. I can’t tour, and that’s a bummer, but that’s not why I’m in it; I’m in it because I love writing songs, and I can still do that. I have no idea what will happen to the rest of the industry, but that scares me more for my friends than for myself, because I’m in the lucky position of having a day job that I like. The main thing is that the part that’s really important to me, writing songs, is always there. I can write no matter what’s going on.

Finally, during this period of time when live music is out of the picture, what are the best ways fans can support the artists whose work inspires us?

Keep listening to music, especially if you can buy it on Bandcamp on the first Friday of every month when they pass a little bit more money along to musicians. If you can buy an album or a t-shirt or anything, that is helping a lot of people get through this. Also, I haven’t been doing many livestreams, but a lot of my friends are getting through that way, so if musicians that you like are doing livestreams, tune in and tip them, even if it’s only what you would have spent on a beer at their shows. If everybody gives a little bit of a tip, it can add up.

And if you can’t do that—I know times are hard for everyone—just sharing the music that you love with other people and turning other people on to the music you like is really helpful for artists at my level. Word of mouth is big because we’re obviously not on The Today Show or anything like that. We just rely on enthusiastic fans telling other people, who hopefully also become enthusiastic fans. That’s a great service to the musicians that you love, just to tell other people to check them out.

[Many thanks to Becky Warren. Learn more at www.beckywarren.com.]

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