There was a moment during The War and Treaty‘s performance of “Jubilee,” toward the end of their January 2021 Austin City Limits set, where singers and husband-and-wife team Tanya Blount and Michael Trotter, Jr. gazed playfully at one another. They weren’t merely singing the lyrics “You’re the kind of joy that I need,” they were completely embodying them.
Watching them break into giggles, you would think that the road to this moment was an easy one for the couple—as if the Lesley Gore song “Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows” took human form.
But their musical and personal journeys are as eclectic as the material they created for their 2020 sophomore album Hearts Town. They involve early big breaks that ended with broken hearts, homelessness, and, remarkably, Saddam Hussein‘s piano.
For Blount, being a singer was predetermined at a very young age. “From age 8, this is what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “I wanted to be that triple threat—theater, movies, music.”
Born and raised in the District, Blount immersed herself in the local arts scene, attending the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and performing with the all-female go-go band Young Jungle Boogie.
During her childhood, Blount immersed herself in all D.C. had to offer. “We would go to Carnival near Dupont Circle,” she says. “There was a Hispanic community that my mom and her friends, who eventually would come over from Panama, would introduce us to. You had Jamaican restaurants, the Indian restaurants. You could go to embassies. So I really just fell in love with everything about Washington and being able to go to the free museums. I always say there’s no place like Washington, D.C.”
In the early ’90s, the universe seemed to align for Blount and her career. Her brother, Willie, was traveling with D.C. R&B singer Stacy Lattisaw, whose manager heard Tanya sing and submitted a tape to the syndicated TV talent show Big Break hosted by Natalie Cole.
Blount didn’t win, but her performance caught the attention of Hush Productions, managers of singers including Freddie Jackson and Melba Moore, who signed Blount and submitted her video demo to Polydor Records, where it landed in the hands of then-director of A&R, Leotis Clyburn.
“The president of Polydor Records, Davitt Sigerson, forwarded a videotape of her performing,” Clyburn says. “Her voice, at that age—she was like 18—the power and the focus and passion. I’m getting excited now when I think about it.”
Signed to Polydor, Blount was working on her debut album when another incredible opportunity seemed to fall from the sky—a lead role in the movie Sister Act 2.
“I took the train up to New York and I auditioned for the film and they kept calling back,” Blount recalls. “I mean, every artist was in there—Shanice Wilson, Brandy. Everybody had auditioned for this part, so I didn’t think I had a chance.” Aleta Chappelle, casting director for Sister Act 2, knew otherwise.
“We did a huge search for the young people in that film,” says Chappelle. “We wanted a young Whitney Houston. The only person who came close to that was Tanya. I just knew she was the real deal.”
“It ended up boiling down to me and a girl I met in the lines by the name of Lauryn Hill,” Blount says. “Whoopi Goldberg really liked my voice and felt that it needed to be heard in the film. It ended up where I didn’t get the role of Rita, but we went to Whoopi’s house and she and the director Bill Duke and Aleta Chappelle ended up writing that scene into the movie.”
That scene, in which Blount solos on “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” is a standout in the movie.
“It wasn’t even in the script,” Blount says. “It was Whoopi’s idea, and it kind of turned out to be something that is long lasting in my career.”
Sister Act 2 was a hit, and the release of Blount’s debut album, Natural Thing, followed in 1994. The LP performed well, charting three Billboard R&B singles and earning Blount a nomination as Best New Artist at the Soul Train Awards. But after a regime change at Polydor, Blount was unceremoniously dropped from the artist roster.
“And then this thing happened,” Blount says, making an explosion sign with her hands. “I quickly learned about the ‘music business,’” she says. “I quickly learned it’s not how great you sing. It can be pretty tough, and when you grow up, all you want to do music for is music. You don’t realize all the stuff that happens behind you.”
She signed with Bad Boy in 1996, at the height of the label’s sales popularity, but Blount found the experience even more disheartening when she was confined to certain musical genres.
“Once I got with Bad Boy, I told Puffy ‘This isn’t the way I want my career to go. I would like to do different styles of music,'” Blount says. “In his defense, he did try to link me up with Diane Warren and a lot of different writers who wrote for Whitney Houston and Barbra Streisand. But at that time the music industry wasn’t open to genre mixing.”
“We were in boxes,” she continues. “There was the Black music division. There was [the] pop music division. Here I was, this little Black girl … who wanted to do pop music and wanting to cross genres and it wasn’t possible. So that was the devastating part because I felt like, with the skin color that I had, I either had to do a ’60s style of music or R&B and that was it. You had Whitney Houston—that was the one that they were going to let in, you know? And I just walked away from it.” After years of build-up and early breaks, Blount’s singing career was nonexistent by the end of the 1990s.
The main focus in Trotter’s childhood wasn’t chasing early ambitions—it was finding a way to survive. Part of this survival plan was moving to D.C., where he had visited relatives since he was 5. When he was 12, he and his mother made the permanent move, from his hometown of Cleveland, to escape an abusive father struggling with addiction.
“We moved into the House of Ruth Homeless Shelter for Battered Women and Children,” explains Trotter. “I felt very special in that place, because I didn’t understand that it was a shelter. The house was a lot more immaculate than the home I grew up in. I just thought ‘Wow, we’re going to live in a mansion!’”
Making a permanent move to D.C. made quite the impression on young Trotter.
“As small as people would like to say the District is, I felt big city,” he says. “I felt like it was out of my league. I felt presidential. Something that you always hear about, the Capitol and the White House itself, and you tend to feel prideful. I felt a lot of pride with Washington, D.C., and then when we moved, I felt a sense of belonging.”
He attended D.C. public schools, where he played baritone in the marching band and sang in the choir. He was not a fan, however, of tickling the ivories. “My mother reminded me that I took a piano lesson,” Trotter says. “I said that correctly. I took a piano lesson. I took one for 15 minutes. It was supposed to be 30. And I quickly quit, when I was 7 years old.”
What he was drawn to was a certain woman in a certain movie singing a certain song.
“Around ’97 is when I started to realize the power of Tanya Blount,” Trotter says. “As a young dude, watching the film Sister Act 2, and discovering this movie in an era and period where silence was demanded in my own house. My mother and I would have to sneak and watch that movie cause my dad was so into drugs and so out of his mind. We would sneak and rehearse a scene where Tanya and Lauryn Hill were sitting at the piano instigating ‘His Eye Is on the Sparrow.’ My mother and I would reenact that scene often in our home.”
After earning his GED, Trotter joined the Army in 2003, serving two tours in Iraq. It was in one of Saddam Hussein’s abandoned palaces that fate and the insightfulness of his unit’s commander would introduce him to his future career.
“The state of the palace was broken, war-torn,” Trotter says. “I could look straight up from my living quarters and see the sky. It looked like something straight out of Saving Private Ryan or Schindler’s List.
Trotter’s commanders realized he was faltering mentally, so they tried something unconventional. Three days after his arrival in the palace, he was shown Saddam Hussein’s piano.
“I was the weak link,” Trotter admits. “For the safety of the soldiers they thought ‘Well, let’s give this soldier something out of his file that will remind him of a peaceful time in his life.’ They read that I love music. I was introduced to that space, that area of the palace, because I was overcome with so much fear. So I would go down there and one-finger it. Play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.”
One-fingering eventually turned into chords which turned into compositions, with Trotter developing his songwriting by creating tunes about his fallen comrades, which he would perform at their memorial services. It also allowed him to expand his love of music, delving into classical compositions to broaden his songwriting abilities.
“I was able to write and create songs and really start to hear the beauty of classical compositions, especially falling in love with Beethoven and Mozart,” Trotter says. “I just fell in love with music and it got me through the war.”
Very few people can pinpoint the exact date and time when a life-changing moment occurs, but Trotter can. August 28, 2010, 3:45 p.m. Trotter met Blount in the middle of a field at the appropriately named Love Fest in Laurel. Neither were flourishing, personally or professionally. Trotter was homeless. Blount was living in the basement of a friend’s home. But for Trotter, meeting Blount was kismet.
“I always believed that we would be married, which was a weird thing,” Trotter says. “I had nothing, so I knew that I was not marriage material or boyfriend material.”
Blount gave Trotter her number. He didn’t call. She tracked him down a day later.
“I’ve come to learn this about Tanya through the years: She is a great detective,” Trotter says. “She found my number somehow.”
A personal connection was made, but they didn’t attempt to make a musical connection at first.
“We just loved being in each other’s company,” Trotter says. “When we met each other, we found what we were looking for. Broke, homeless and all. We were just like, ‘We’re rolling together and we’re going to be in this until this is no more.’ You couldn’t tell us that our circumstances were unhappy because we were so happy.”
Three years after they married, they made their first attempts at a joint music career. With it came some classic first group names: Nine Years Apart, Dear Martha, Mike & Tanya, Empty Earth, Trotter & Blount. (“We were more like the law firm band, Trotter & Blount,” Blount jokes.)
Teaming with Trotter, musically, was the most natural thing for Blount.
“I was so overjoyed meeting a talent who had the same fire I had,” Blount says. “I had that same fire when I was 17 and I signed my first deal. The look in his eyes and the brilliance in his writing—I knew that he had it.”
Wanting a fresh start with no distractions, they also decided to leave the D.C. area, moving first to Albion, Michigan, for a few years, and then settling outside of Nashville.
Three years into their marriage, Blount also learned Trotter was a veteran, something he’d never mentioned to her.
“I didn’t know that Michael had served in the war,” Blount says. “I didn’t even know that he was in the Army. There was not a picture around. No one talked about it. No one in his family.”
Blount also had no idea that Trotter was dealing with PTSD.
“The arguments that we were having, I just didn’t understand it,” she says. “I’m like, ‘I don’t understand why there’s some explosion every time we talk.'”
Arguments can be beneficial. Case in point: During one, the name The War and Treaty was born.
“We were arguing,” Trotter recalls. “She said ‘This is not the war …’ and did this pause … ‘and we need to come to some sort of treaty,’ I’m like ‘Oh hell, you just settled it for me.”
As The War and Treaty, their career escalated quickly. They self-released the EP Down to the River in 2017 and their debut album, Healing Tide, the following year. Unbound by a major label’s musical expectations, the duo created material that combined all of their influences, including gospel, country, R&B, soul, folk, and Americana. A common thread throughout their catalog is stories of resilience, hope, and forgiveness. Their unique blend of genres gained critical attention, and the releases were widely praised.
But old demons, including Trotter’s PTSD, continued to haunt them. One day in 2017, Trotter was overwhelmed and feeling suicidal. Blount begged for five more minutes to love him, stalling until help could arrive. It did, and the incident helped both understand how to navigate Trotter’s PTSD.
“As someone who is dealing with PTSD, I’ve learned to acknowledge it,” says Trotter. “I’ve learned to slow down and say ‘Hey, I feel it coming along. The day’s going to be a bad day and here’s what I need for you to do.’ And I’ve learned what works for me.”
“The person is not PTSD,” Blount adds. “PTSD is the unwelcome entity that you then have to embrace and say ‘OK, you’re a part of us now.’ We know that you’re there but we’re not going to allow you to control the situation.”
After the crisis, the duo took their pain and created joy, writing “Five More Minutes,” the lead single from Hearts Town. Tanya’s pleading with Michael in that moment can be heard in the lyrics “Stay with me / Don’t leave just yet / We’ve got all night / So please forget about tomorrow.” The album also gave Trotter the ability to step into another role as producer, something that carried its way into their home life.
“There were a lot of moments where my producing affected our home,” Trotter says. “Where I come home and I am not going to have a good night because of the way I behaved in that studio earlier that day.”
For Blount, the clashes were annoying, but worth it to get to the final result.
“I was doing a lot of songwriting, and if he wanted to change one of my lines I would get offended because it’s my line,” admits Blount. “Not realizing that the end goal for the song is the song and the lyrics. So, once you lend your ego to that and understand that, it’s about the full body of work.”
Blount is quick to compliment both Trotter’s songwriting and producing abilities, something that causes Trotter to cover his face in embarrassment and subconsciously tug at the sleeves of his leather jacket.
“He has it, you know?” says Blount. “He has the ability to be, I think, years from now—not just because he’s my husband—but generations to come people will be studying his music and how he composes.”
July 29 will be another banner day for The War and Treaty, as they return home to the DMV and step onto the Wolf Trap stage for the first time as headliners. With both of their families still in the area, their show will be part reunion, part revival, and a celebration of resilience and survival—not only for Trotter and Blount, but for Trotter’s parents, who have since reconciled. They’ve been together for over 30 years, and his father has been sober for 15 years. “My father’s my hero,” Trotter says.
They’ve performed at Wolf Trap twice before, as openers for the Indigo Girls and Al Green. If you want an idea of how diverse The War and Treaty’s music is, the fact that they opened for such contrasting musical acts should give you some idea. But crossing that threshold as the main act is something completely different.
“That place is like the Mecca for artists that are growing up in Washington, D.C. and where you want to play,” says Blount.
“It’s terrifying,” laughs Trotter. “Just thinking of the feet that have touched that stage. One in particular is Ella Fitzgerald. A great amount of fear grasps you because you just want to make her proud. You just want to do your best.”
One thing is certain: Trotter will gaze at his sweetheart, and, joining forces with Blount, provide a living example of music’s ability to heal and lift. And they might break into giggles. Either way, it’s mission accomplished.