Saving Up All Those Regrets: Interview with Becky Warren of the Great Unknowns
Seemingly unrelated anecdote: A boy on my daughter’s 5- and 6-year-old soccer team last spring fancied himself quite the ladies man and smooth operator. A girl named Bryanna, one of at least three female teammates that this young Romeo considered to be his girlfriend, missed a couple practices and games in a row. When she finally returned to the fold, he glided up to her and asked, smoothness in full bloom, “Hey, Bry. Where you been, girl?” Needless to say, “Hey, abbreviated-name-here. Where you been, girl/boy?” has become a bit of a catchphrase around the house.
Fade back close to eight years, which is when the CD Presenting the Great Unknowns found its way into my world. It was like at first listen, and thanks to richly detailed writing courtesy of frontwoman Becky Warren, rootsy hooks galore, and a high level of Lucinda-ness, the relationship grew well beyond that. For a long stretch, whenever I was heading out the door for a drive, it’d be with keys in one hand and Presenting in the other. The CD made a natural copilot courtesy of the trips to North Virginia, New England, Las Vegas, Abilene, Corinth, Tennessee, and Carolina that were recounted across its 10 songs. It was more than that though. (See “richly detailed writing” and “rootsy hooks” above.)
But then Warren and company were not heard from again during the remainder of the ‘00s. No follow-up surfaced – and, trust me, I was looking. “Hey, Bec. Where you been, girl?”
A lot of places as it turns out, both physically (she comes by those road songs honestly) and emotionally. And much of what has transpired found its way onto Homefront, the anxiously awaited and searched-for second release from Becky Warren and the Great Unknowns. Homefront, released on January 10, is a travelogue with heart as well as a travelogue of the heart. It carries with it all of the gifts offered by its predecessor, plus a new twist or two. And also like its predecessor, it’s quickly become a go-to travel companion. Here’s what Becky Warren had to say about Presenting, about Homefront, and about the years in between.
It’s been seven-plus years since the release of Presenting the Great Unknowns. Why so long between releases, and what has been keeping you busy in the interim? Did you ever step away from music completely?
Becky Warren: There are several reasons for the long delay. For one, while we were recording Presenting in Boston in 2003, we were thinking of it as a way to capture some music we were really proud of for ourselves and our friends and families. We didn't have a plan to promote it more widely than that and, in fact, our drummer, Andy Eggers, had already moved to Washington, DC and I had plans to leave Boston too. The record then got picked up by Daemon Records in 2004 in a sort of magical series of coincidences, and suddenly we (well, mostly they) were promoting the record. It was amazing and we're so happy it happened, but by then we were spread out across the country, which made touring and recording really difficult.
Mike Palmer, our guitarist and my cowriter on most of Presenting, had the most difficult schedule because his day job was filmmaking, and he was working on a Martin Scorsese documentary, the George Harrison film that came out on HBO a few months ago. I kept holding out hope that I'd be able to write another 5 or 6 songs with Mike, but he just didn't have the time with his demanding schedule. In the end, he couldn't really make music and filmmaking work together timewise, so he decided he really couldn't make another record with us. Luckily, we were able to talk guitarist Avril Smith into joining the band. She was already a close friend of ours, and she's also one of the best guitar players in the mid-Atlantic.
Meanwhile, I got married just a month after Presenting came out, and my husband, who was a solider with the 3d Infantry Division, left for Baghdad just a couple weeks after that. He was gone for a year, and when he came back in 2006, it slowly became clear that he'd developed PTSD while he was in Iraq. Needless to say, it was very difficult for both of us. And for me, I withdrew a lot from everything else in my life to deal with what was happening at home, and that included music. During that time, I did a little music here and there – wrote several songs and sang with some cover bands – but music definitely wasn't part of my life on the scale that it had been. When my husband and I split up in early 2010, one of my first thoughts was that I wanted to put all the pain of those years into a bunch of songs for a new Great Unknowns album.
What was most different this time out when making a record compared to the debut – and how much did the seven years that passed contribute to that difference? Any lessons learned...?
BW: For me, there were three main differences: I wrote nearly all the songs without a cowriter. This time around, I felt really strongly that I wanted to do justice to the mental health struggles of post-9/11 veterans and their families, so there was something specific I wanted to say with the album, unlike Presenting. And for the recording process, we were paying by the hour like a normal band – we recorded our first record ourselves for free – which meant we couldn't waste time in the studio trying dozens of different ideas.
Lessons learned: When you don't have a cowriter, it's especially important that you play with other musicians whose musical opinions you really value and with whom you feel comfortable, because you'll need them to tell you if what you're writing is any good. And when you're paying for everything by the hour, you can't let perfect be the enemy of great, because you'll run out of money really fast. Better to just save up all those regrets for the next record.
The main theme on Homefront seems to be looking back, sometimes with longing, other times with regret. Almost every song has that component, with the bookends “Lexington” and “Army Corps of Engineers” probably the most exemplary. What do you find appealing about that theme, and how did it come to play such a major role on the record?
BW: Most of it comes back to what was happening in my life in the years between our records. I spent a lot of time during those years trying not to look back at the past because it was painful. I'd tell myself that I'd make another Great Unknowns record as soon as my marriage was sorted out, but that became a more and more difficult line to buy into as it became more and more obvious that my husband and I didn't have the skills, on our own, to sort out PTSD. Thinking about music was especially hard because I desperately wanted to be writing and playing, but I didn't have the emotional reserves to make it happen. (The Homefront song) "I Wish I Was the Girl I Was" is most clearly about that feeling, I think.
Then, when the marriage ended, I felt guilt and sadness and all of that, of course, but also a sense of loss about the years I'd lost musically and the relationships I'd neglected. So it's true that the album is full of songs where I'm trying to process what happened during those years, and make sense of how I got so far from where I had been.
Becky Warren sings the title track from Homefront:
Okay, you name the band the Great Unknowns, and on “Love Song” you sing about knowing you won’t make the charts and you won’t write a song people will know by heart. Are you doing everything you can to avoid recognition and success, or is this some kind of reverse-psychology ploy?
BW: Ha! I would say, just before and just after the first record came out, we were doing nearly everything we could to avoid success. Looking back, I don't know what we were thinking; I wish we'd taken advantage of everything that signing with Daemon made possible for us. Now that we're doing everything on our own I realize what a tremendous opportunity that was. But all of us came from other bands that had tried to get famous, and we all thought we were past that and ready to have serious, adult lives. With Homefront, we really would like people to hear it. But it's much harder than it was the first time because we're doing things ourselves and the music business has changed a lot in the last seven years.
There's a simple reason for "Love Song" though. I have a ton of affection for songs that bands record about their own rise to fame and fortune, like Pink Floyd's "Have a Cigar" or Boston's "Rock N Roll Band" – though I think that one's a total fabrication. I wish every famous band had a song like that. We're not famous, so "Love Song" was the closest I could get to writing something like that. If we ever get more famous, I would love to take another stab at it.
Well, let’s make your bandmates the Great Knowns, and please tell us about their, and your, musical backgrounds.
Altay (pronounced ALL-tie) Guvench plays bass and is the one who knows his way around a recording studio, so he deserves a lot of the credit for the overall sound of our records. He also cowrote "I Wish I Was the Girl I Was". As with all of the Great Unknowns – except me! – he’s a multi-instrumentalist and also plays guitar, violin, and cello. He's originally from Portland, Maine but now lives in San Francisco where he plays with a band called The Odds of Survival.
Andy Eggers plays drums on the record, but he also sings backup and plays mandolin when we play live. Andy's started out in jazz, though he was playing with singer-songwriter Pierce Woodward when we all met. Andy is brilliant and regularly picks up new instruments; his latest love is the fiddle. Unfortunately for us, his brilliance also means that he's great a lot of non-musical stuff too, so he recently took an academic job in London, which means we're currently in search of a new drummer. Whoever it is will have really big shoes to fill. Andy's from Rochester, New York.
Avril Smith plays all the guitar and mandolin on the record, and sings some backing vocals too. While Avril's main instrument is guitar, she can pretty much pick up anything with strings and sound amazing. She has too many awards from the Washington Area Music Association to count, and she's played with most of the mid-Atlantic's best musicians. While she plays mainly electric guitar with us, she loves acoustic music, and she's an accomplished bluegrass player. Her bluegrass band, Big Chimney, may be my favorite band in DC. She also plays with the roots rock band The U-Liners. She's originally from Tarrytown, New York.
One important thing about all of us is that we're all really good friends; I'm not sure all bands can say that. We've been friends for years: Andy, Altay, and I played together in another band before the Great Unknowns, so we’ve played together more than a decade. And Avril was a good friend of ours for years before she joined the band. The music business is a tough world and I'm not sure we'd be able to navigate it if we didn't all love spending time together. Plus, it makes it a lot easier to disagree.
It’s been said that some songwriters sound like they write with a thesaurus always within arm’s length. In your case, it sounds like there’s always a road atlas nearby. In just titles, across the two records, we get Las Vegas, Abilene, Tennessee, Lexington, Dead River, Texas, and Birmingham. Is it safe to say that you have a fascination with the road?
BW: Definitely. I love to drive. Nearly all the songs I write mention driving at some point. I would rather be on the road than almost anywhere, and I do a fair amount of writing in my car too. I also find place names really evocative. I mean, Dead River is a real place in Lake Country, Florida. How can anyone know that and not want to write a song called "Dead River, Lake County"? And, in my head, places are really tied to feelings. Some people wouldn't have given the song "Birmingham" that title because the word is only in the song once. But for me, I connect the feelings in that song really strongly to Birminham, Alabama. So it felt like the right name.
There’s no shortage of heartbreak songs in country and roots music, to state the painfully obvious. What approach did you take when you decided it was time for you to write your heartbreak-in-the-title song, “I’m Gonna Get My Heart Broken”? (Of course, there’s also the promise of heartbreak to come in “By the Time You Get to Texas” and plenty of ache elsewhere, but “I’m Gonna...” is the only song that advertises it in the title.)
BW: I wrote that song not long after my husband and I split up. I had just been out on one of the first dates I'd been on in years. I could tell that it was eventually going to end in heartbreak for me, but I also felt completely unencumbered compared to how I'd felt in the last couple years of my marriage. So it was really a kind of happy feeling: I could see heartbreak coming, but it felt so small compared to what I had been feeling before, and realizing that felt great. I see it as a happy song, which made the arrangement somewhat difficult for us because I don't write a lot of happy songs, and because there aren't many rock songs in 6/8. We tried it several different ways – we even tried it in four – but it never quite captured the feeling we were going for. Then we hit on this kind of boozy rock feel that seemed just right.
Your songwriting shows a wonderful attention to the little detail and a knack for description – “with your snap shirt on and your blue jeans worn to white.” Where do you think that comes from, and does that knack manifest itself elsewhere?
BW: I definitely like those sorts of details in songs that I listen to, so I've learned a lot from songwriters who are really great at it. I do get some practice in the other parts of my life. My day jobs have nearly always involved writing. I worked at a museum for a while, where I wrote text for exhibits, and at a nonprofit where I wrote descriptions of programs for potential donors, and at an embassy where I wrote about HR policy. In all those roles, my job was to take something complex and boil it down to its most essential for an audience that appreciated brevity. In songs, I think that's often done by hanging on to those small details, which I always hope will convey a lot in just a few words.
I love the horns in “Bad Way,” and I definitely didn’t see them coming. How tricky was it working with the horns and that arrangement?
BW: Andy had the bright idea initially to try a sort of Motown sound on the song, and once we settled on that feel, he suggested the song could use some horns. Luckily, we have a friend who is a stellar horn player. His name is Jon Natchez and he plays with Beirut and Okkervil River and lots of other indie bands. So we asked Jon pretty early on if he could arrange a horn part for the song. The hard part then was that Jon was really busy and we were moving forward on recording, so we ended up recording most of the song without knowing what Jon's part would eventually sound like. When Jon finally had some time to work on it, the backing vocals were already recorded and he had to arrange around them. Luckily, Jon is brilliant, so he made it seem easy. He whipped up two totally different possible arrangements in just a few hours and e-mailed them to us. A couple days later, he sat down with Altay in New York to talk through the arrangement quickly. The next day Altay and Jon met at a studio and Jon played all the horn parts one-by-one. He's a total pro. And then our good friend Tyler Wood, who also played organ on our first record, helped stitch everything together with a really smart organ part. This is true throughout this record and on our first album too: the sound would not have been possible without the participation of our hugely talented friends.
Do you have any go-to musicians or go-to records when you’re in need of inspiration or escape?
BW: Well, it's probably no surprise that we all listen to a lot of Lucinda Williams. She's definitely a songwriting inspiration for me, and we tend to listen to her a lot when we're mixing because her records have such a great sound. Springsteen is also a big songwriting inspiration for me, and I listened to his songs over and over while I was writing this record because nobody is better at writing great rock songs with a message without getting preachy or boring. Steve Earle has also written some great songs about post-9/11 veterans that I listened to a lot for inspiration, especially "Home to Houston." For escape I tend to listen to stuff that's not very similar to the stuff I write, like Spoon, Pernice Brothers, Matthew Sweet, and Old 97's.
The album-ending “Army Corps of Engineers” is such a moving and emotional song – both in terms of the lyrics and your delivery. Can you tell us about that song?
BW: Sure. The lyrics in the song’s chorus are quite old. I wrote them when Mike and I were trying to finish up the writing for Presenting, but I couldn't figure out how to build a song around them. My dad died unexpectedly a few years before I started work on the songs that would become Presenting, and I wrote those lyrics as a reminder to myself that, no matter how bad things seemed, I had been through worse and, over time, loss hurts less and you find you're okay. By the time I got around to writing for Homefront, I'd experienced another profound loss – my marriage – so suddenly it was easier to write the lyrics for the rest of the song. Usually when I write songs, they're about my life in some way, but I obfuscate and change details so the songs end up as 60% truth and 40% fiction. “Army Corps,” however, isn't obfuscated at all and is, in that sense, the most personal song I've written. Which definitely makes it a hard one to sing.