"I’m proud to be considered Americana" We chat with Becky Warren
With her 2018 album Undesirable, Becky Warren has been getting the critical notice that she deserves. Focusing on a societal issue gives the eleven tracks a shot of reality that makes the stories contained more vivid. Following appearances on a number of year end lists, we spoke with Becky about the album and its genesis, as well as the real life homeless that she got to know during the making of it.
Hey Becky, easy question first, what have you been up to today?
Not too much, happily! I’ve done some songwriting and some graphic design (another passion of mine), but mostly I’ve been reading and hanging out with my dogs.
And where are you right now?
I’m home in beautiful Nashville, Tennessee.
Introduce yourself to our lovely readers, in case they don’t know you.
I’m Becky Warren, and I’ve put out two solo albums, War Surplus, which came out in 2016, and Undesirable, which came out at the end of 2018.
I’ve justified getting the chance to ask you some questions for our feature month by putting you under Americana as a genre, but how would you describe your music?
I’m proud to be considered Americana! I think it’s a big tent format with lots of different artists underneath who could also be comfortable in other genres. I think of myself at living on the rock n roll end of the Americana spectrum.
Tell us a bit about you, what’s your first memory of playing music?
I really can’t remember because I always loved to sing and listen to music. The first artist I really loved, when I was four or five, was Billy Joel, and I remember collecting all his albums and singing all his songs with my friend Emily. Emily’s family even took me to one of his concerts as my first concert experience—I was probably six.
Would it be fair to say your recent album, Undesirable, is a concept album of sorts?
Definitely. All the songs were inspired by the stories of people who sell a newspaper called The Contributor here in Nashville—it’s a bit like The Big Issue in London. The vendors have all experienced homelessness at some point. I talked with a bunch of vendors as they sold the paper and then wrote songs inspired by our conversations.
There are loads of great tracks on the album, ‘Carmen’ is just one of them, what can you tell us about that song?
Thanks! 'Carmen' is a song I wrote about a couple I met one of the first times I went out to interview people. They’d both had difficult lives before but they’d found each other and had a lovely romantic story about how much better life had become for both of them. It’s a happier, simpler, goofier song than I usually write, and we almost didn’t put it on the album because we weren’t sure it fit or was interesting enough. Luckily, Dan Knobler, who produced the album, had the idea of using the sound of 80s-era Casiotone keyboards as inspiration, and once we tried that, we knew it had to go on the album.
And I really love the opening song, ‘We’re All We Got’, what’s the story to that?
I wrote that song about a man named Dwayne who sells the paper near a hospital here in town. He grew up in coal mining country and his dad and brothers were all miners but he knew he didn’t want to do that, so he left home and has kind of bounced around the eastern part of the US since then. I wrote the song as a kind of anthem for all the people I met who sell the paper. A lot of them are dealing with difficult lives and poverty but they have an incredible hopefulness and sense of self-reliance that makes them get out there every day in all kinds of weather to sell the paper. I hope I captured both those things in the song.
If people could only hear one song from the record, which would you want it to be?
Hm. Maybe 'Sunshine State' because it’s about a vendor who really became a friend as I was writing the album. He’s a lovely guy, really friendly and hardworking and kind of a local character everyone has seen. He makes everyone smile. So I was surprised to learn he’d spent 20 years in prison, and I really struggled with whether it was possible to go into prison a bad guy and come out a good guy, and whether he was really a good guy or if I was naive. I probably had a dozen conversations with him because I was so stuck on the song—that’s really how we became friends. In the end, I decided he really is a great guy now, but I wrote the song with some ambiguity, as an imagined conversation between my friend and the guy who testified against him and sent him to prison.
It's easy for homeless people to be ignored, or worse demonised, as we never know them as people, what's the one thing you've taken away from getting to know the people you spoke to for the album?
My first solo album was about Iraq War veterans, and particularly veterans' mental health, and before I started on this album, I thought there would be a lot overlap in subject matter—mental illness, alcoholism, etc. I was incredibly wrong. I can't speak to the larger homeless population in Nashville, but the people who sell The Contributor are a lot like all small business entrepreneurs. They're very hardworking and hopeful and, to be successful, they have to be good planners with good customer service skills. I was really impressed with them. I'm not sure I could work that hard in the hot Nashville sun, day after day, in the same situation.
And what are your thoughts on the homeless situation in Nashville now you've been in that world a little?
We have a major problem with affordable housing in Nashville, because so many people have moved here in the last ten years that rents have skyrocketed. There are also some structural problems with the hoops people have to jump through to qualify for housing. I actually met quite a lot of paper vendors who earn enough selling the paper to stay in a motel, which is generally a lot more expensive than rent, because they can't meet qualifications for an apartment. We're finally trying to address the affordable housing problem some here, but we have a long way to go.
What’s your approach to writing (and choosing) songs to record?
I write a lot, and I usually focus on just finishing lots of songs rather than stressing over whether they are any good or not while I’m writing, otherwise I’m afraid to even get started. Both my solo albums have been concept albums, and so I sort of separate out the songs I’ve written that fit the concept as I write them, and when I’m ready to record, I go through and decide which ones I think are the best songs, and what collection of them does the best job telling the story I’m trying to tell. I almost always write by myself.
Can you describe the recording of the album for me, what was your process?
I had know for at least a year that I really wanted to work with Dan Knobler, who I met when he came in to rescue a song on my first album by recording a guitar hook on short notice. After that, he played several shows with me, and I really loved his guitar playing and also his ideas. I knew he was a producer so I started looking into the records he’d made, and I discovered I loved his production work too. I was lucky to find some time when he was able to take the record on. My longtime bass player and producer of my first album, Jeremy Middleton, also handled some of the productio work, especially in the early discussions about arrangements, and both Jeremy and Dan played on the record. We rounded that out with another guitar player, Jeff Malinowski, who I’ve played with quite a bit, and a drummer Dan loves, Jason Burger. We’d talk through the songs a bit and then played them all live in the studio together. We did a bit of going back to re-record parts or vocals but tried to keep it live and imperfect as much as possible.
And what was the studio like you recorded in? Did you personalise the space at all?
We recorded at his studio, Goosehead Palace, which is attached to his house so has a very chill, homey feel that I liked a lot. I didin’t personalize it much other than requesting that Dan’s dog, Millie, be in the studio as much as possible.
You live in Nashville, so where’s the best place to go see live music?
We have a lot of great places! I really love The 5 Spot, which is in my neighborhood and has a lot of great rock n roll and country acts and a really great dive bar feel. The Basement is another great, vibey venue.
How would you describe Nashville to someone who has no idea what it is?
The city was built on country music, and it’s remained a music and creative town. These days, there’s a lot more than country music going on. People have been moving here a lot in the last several years to play music, but also to start other creative ventures like restaurants, small shops, etc. So there’s a great collaborative, creative vibe here.
What’s coming up for you in 2019?
I’m doing a lot of writing for my next album, and I hope I’ll be able to start recording it too.
Obviously there’s a lot of talk about equality in general at the moment, what’s your experience of being treated differently as a woman in your industry?
I think it’s still a little unusual to be a woman playing rock music, more so than on the acoustic side of Americana. There’s still a boys club for sure, though I think most of it is unintentional. Guys hang out together after shows and drink and form touring, management, and other relationships through their friendships and women end up excluded a lot of the time. In Nashville, there’s an incredible community of women in all parts of the music business and we all try to help each other out a bit to balance out the boys club.
I saw your tweet the other day about Kelly Clarkson’s all-female line-up, do you still think there’s a significant issue with the music industry “trusting” women to sell tickets and albums?
Yes. I think this is a huge problem in commercial country music right now, where women are just not getting played, and everyone in the chain—labels, radio stations, streaming services, promoters—are pointing at everyone else in the chain and not much seems to change. It’s crazy to me that an artist like Kacey Musgraves can make an incredible album like Golden Hour that picks up all kinds of Grammys including album of the year, but just can’t get added at country radio or the big, profitable playlists on streaming services. There’s also a booking problem. A great Twitter/Instagram account called Book More Women has been illustrating this by counting the number of acts with women in them at festivals in all genres. Both these things are getting better, but we still have a long way to go.
If you could recommend one artist to hear this week, who would it be?
I am so excited for Caroline Spence’s new album! She’s released a few singles from it and a recent one called “Who's Gonna Make My Mistakes” is so great and catchy I can’t help but listen to it on repeat. I got to sing backup vocals on the song and it may be my proudest backup vocal experience because the song is so great.
What’s the question we should have asked you today but haven’t?
I like to talk about my dogs. I have a schnauzer named Pearl who I adopted when she was a year old. She’s now 12 so we’ve gone through a lot together. She still has a lot of energy and personality and she’s largely disgruntled because she has very high expectations for how often she should be pet and fed. My other dog is some kind of scruffy-faced terrier named Herschel, and I’ve had him for about a year and a half. He loves life and playing and Pearl tolerates him most of the time.
Finally, how do you take your coffee?
As ice cream.
To find out more about Becky you can visit her website or check out her social media.