In “Anything That Lasts,” a melancholic acoustic ballad on Becky Warren’s new album War Surplus, the Nashville singer-songwriter artfully captures the perspective of a veteran home from deployment: “Your heart gets broke, you’re gonna wanna die / Holding an M16 or a case of Miller Lite.”
Warren is singing from the standpoint of a character named Scott, one half of the couple on which the album centers. In other tracks, she embodies Scott’s longtime girlfriend/eventual wife, June. Though the names have been changed, the characters on her debut solo album are largely informed by Warren’s own life. In 2005, she married a soldier who was deployed days after the wedding and later returned with PTSD. After four years, they divorced.
“I found it really freeing, to be able to think about these things as characters instead of as myself,” says Warren, talking by phone just before hitting the road with the Indigo Girls.
While married, Warren abandoned music and her Americana band the Great Unknowns, fresh from releasing their debut album, Presenting the Great Unknowns, to critical praise (the Great Unknowns reunited to release 2012’s Homefront).
After her divorce, Warren started writing again. In 2012, she attended the Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriters Project, a program that, she says, upped her game. Some students and instructors at the project had musical-theater backgrounds, inspiring Warren to create character-based narratives, starting with Scott. “That’s how I really got the inspiration to just write a whole album about him and his story and eventually that grew into the story of him and June,” Warren says.
Finding the right tone for War Surplus was tricky because of the political subject matter.
“From the beginning I was really clear that I didn’t want it to come across as a primarily political album. I wanted it to feel like a human story of these characters and I didn’t want it to be sort of a verdict on the Iraq War,” Warren says. “I was married to somebody who was deployed to Iraq, and it doesn’t feel political once someone’s over there—that was hard sometimes because people would hear things as political.”
When Warren moved to Nashville in 2013, she hunkered down to fine-tune the more than 40 songs she’d started for War Surplus and whittle them down to 12. After finding a vocal melody, Warren turned to her Takamine parlor guitar, using standard tuning. She tested the new material on the festival circuit, winning first place at the AG-sponsored Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting Contest in 2014 for “Call Me Sometime”—the lead track on War Surplus—and being named one of the recipients of the Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Competition for Emerging Songwriters in 2015.
During the songwriting process, Warren found inspiration in My War: Killing Time in Iraq, a memoir by Colby Buzzell, and Bruce Springsteen’s concept album The Rising. Her producer, veteran Jeremy Middleton, also offered perspectives. Middleton plays bass on War Surplus, alongside guitarist and pedal-steel player Paul Niehaus, drummer Dillon Napier, and organ and accordion player Adam Wakefield. While performing songs from War Surplus, Warren has met others with similar experiences, including vets suffering from PTSD. “The only good thing I can say to them is that my ex-husband is doing so well now,” she concludes.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.