In the fall of 2018, I was preparing for an interview with Amy Ray when I ran across the Indigo Girl harmonizing on “We’re All We Got”, a single from Becky Warren’s then-new album Undesirable. Conceived around the homeless denizens of Music City, Undesirable was a collection of guts & guitar-driven stories that made me abandon my deadline and current research for a dive down a different rabbit hole. As it turned out, Warren was old pals with Ray, having been signed to her Daemon Records as part of Boston-based alt-country rock outfit The Great Unknowns. In 2016, she released her solo debut. War Surplus told the (mostly) fictional story of a soldier home from deployment and his wife as they attempted to navigate life under the weight of PTSD. Warren had in fact been married to an Iraq War veteran and the album acted as a pseudo-memoir of the relationship that touched on but didn’t necessarily encapsulate her private experience. For Becky, the stories and the songs she writes are an exploration of what she calls other— people who have fallen through the cracks and remain just out of focus– and rarely, if it all, has she ever written absolutely about herself. Until now. The Sick Season stands as Becky Warren’s personal battle with a depression that’s stalked her since childhood. Armed with an ability to wring the last drop of angst from a chord, Warren chronicles her saga with barbed wire hooks and 100 proof rock n’ roll.
AI- You call The Sick Season the first album that you’ve written about yourself. That’s got to be a strange creative process for you when you’re so used to doing research and asking questions of other people. Did you approach yourself in the same way as the subject matter?
BW- No (laughs)! I wish I could say yes, but no, because I don’t have that kind of distance from myself. And also because I kept hoping I would be able to write about something else. When I was writing most of the songs about myself, I wasn’t thinking of turning it into an album. I was just thinking, “Well, here’s another song about me…” I was really depressed and I wasn’t going outside much and I just thought, “This all I have goin’ on, so I’ll write about it again, but soon I’m gonna get back to a real album project!” And it just never happened. So yeah, it was definitely a very different writing process.
Before you you sank into this dark depression that consumed you for over a year, you were actually working on another concept album in the same vein as War Surplus and Undesirable?
Yeah. I was at least doing interviews for it. I was planning to.
Without getting too far ahead, what was that going to be about?
I was really interested in elderly people actually. I was volunteering to drive elderly people to appointments and grocery shopping and stuff like that. And then I would talk to them about their lives while I was driving them around. I hope to make some songs out of that, but it just got to the point where, as the depression set in, I couldn’t even get up to go to that volunteer gig. I was doing fewer and fewer rides, so it just wasn’t gonna work out, unfortunately.
That in itself, I imagine, can have some depressing qualities to it– speaking to the elderly. War Surplus and Undesirable— did you find yourself combating with the depression during those experiences? Or was this something just totally different that came at you?
It was pretty different, but I’ve struggled with depression since I was a kid. This period of time that the album chronicles was the first time that the depression was treatment-resistant. Since I’ve been treated for depression, I’ve been kinda okay most of the time– until that period. But the memory of what it was like to be depressed definitely gave me a way to talk to other people who were struggling. In that sense, I definitely think there was resonance between the experience of people going through difficult things and my own experience with depression. Yeah, it was in there some, but it was definitely different than being right in the depression as I was working on it.
What made you ultimately decide that these songs were gonna make up an album?
You know, (laughs) it was sort of an accident and then the accident didn’t even come to fruition! A literary agency got in touch with me and asked me if I would consider writing a memoir. I had never thought about doing that before and I said, “Well, I don’t want to write about the whole veteran thing ’cause been there done that, but I’m going through this period of depression, and I think I can write kind of a self-deprecating memoir about that.” At the time, I was calling myself aggressively single. It was like a way of dealing with the depression and they loved that. They thought it was funny and they wanted me to write it. And then they did some more research on me and decided I wasn’t famous enough yet to write a memoir!
So it didn’t pan out. But during the time I was thinking of writing it, it was the first time I had really contemplated being open, publicly, with people that know me– including my family and my friends– who didn’t know about the fact that I struggled with depression. Contemplating that and coming to peace with that idea in my head as I was thinking about doing this memoir, it made doing an album seem like something that was more possible than it had seemed before. So that’s what first got me thinking about it.
Would you consider doing that book again?
Maybe? I don’t know. I’d have to get more famous apparently (laughs)!
Let’s talk about that part because, with this album, I read where you talked about how this has been a very do-it-yourself, much more personal, grassroots involvement for you and the promotion of the album, as opposed to last time around. Does this sorta take you back to your Great Unknowns days?
In some ways, but as you probably know since you did some research on Amy Ray when you found me in the first place, the very first Great Unknowns album [Presenting The Great Unknowns], she put out on her label. So actually, my first experience putting out an album was this deluxe experience where her label had an in-house team and helped with touring and so it’s definitely not like that. That was an amazing experience. But the second Great Unknowns album (Homefront), we put out ourselves, so it is a little bit like that for sure.
What have you rediscovered about the music business doing it from this angle?
The cool thing is– especially without paying a publicist– I just wasn’t as focused on, “How many press hits did I get and where were they?” Instead, I was focused on what I was hearing from fans or people that were listening to the record. A lot of people wrote me emails or left me comments– really personal stories about their own struggles with depression. And I just felt really grateful that they had been willing to open up to me like that and really moved. It made me feel less alone about my own struggles. I’m not sure I would have had the time or the space to appreciate all of that and respond to everyone if I’d been focused on all the stuff I’m usually focused on with an album. That’s been really wonderful.
You talk about that response that you’ve gotten from your fans. Were you concerned that you wouldn’t get a positive response?
I guess my biggest fear was I wasn’t hiring a publicist or anything and maybe nobody would even hear it at all. Just the fact that some people heard it has been a huge relief and then really great. All of my albums, I feel like I accessed the experiences of other people in some ways through my depression. So in some ways, it didn’t feel like a big thing to come out and say, “Hey, I have depression!” I figured a lot of people knew. But in other ways, a lot of the people that know me best, like my family, they didn’t all know. And that part was kind of scary and I wasn’t sure how people would react. So yes, it’s been really nice and then also a relief to have people respond so positively.
Before you’d gone into the studio, if I’m not mistaken, you’d already had that time booked quite a bit in advance. Was that something that you had to focus on? Like, “Alright, if I can get to that point, I can make the album?” Or had you originally planned to go in there and do the original concept record?
No, by the time I booked the [studio], I knew it was going to be these other songs. But you’re right, I wasn’t quite done, so that was a little bit terrifying! But I work well with a deadline! The more terrifying part than not finishing the songs was, I didn’t know if I would be well by then. ‘Cause when I booked the time, I was still battling the depression and trying to find some kind of treatment that would work. Luckily the depression finally lifted maybe a month before went into the studio. That was extremely lucky timing. But yeah, that was a bit scary not knowing what it would be like.
I like the sound, the production. Sonically. it sounds like if I was in a bar and you were on stage playin’, that’s exactly what I would be getting. The guitar tones, the drummer, it’s all very real.
I’m really glad to hear you say that. Yeah. I told Jordan [Brooke Hamlin], the producer, that I really just wanted it to be me and my friends in my band. ‘Cause I used all my regular players I’ve been with a long time. I wanted it to sound like we were all in a room together playing the songs. That was really important to me.
An additional question to that… I would really, really, at some point in time, like to hear that album on a piece of vinyl. Any chance that’s gonna happen?
Yeah. I would like to also! I get that from people sometimes. It’s just that vinyl’s such a tricky thing and especially right now when people don’t know when they’ll be touring again… Yeah, I would love to do that at some point too. We’ll see.
Speaking of touring, something that I have been attempting to do in my limited capacity throughout this whole experience– COVID-19 and with everything else that’s happening– is to chronicle everything through the voices of artists and musicians and what everybody’s been going through. Normally, folks would be out touring or would have been out touring or going into the studio, getting ready for the Christmas break… And everything’s been upside down! Everybody, like me, has just been sittin’ home at the mercy of social media, orderin’ online, watchin’ TV… Basically, you entered into a second quarantine. But this time around, you’re much more in control. I don’t like to use the word enjoy, but have you been able to take advantage of this time where you’re not in a constant battle of emotions? Does that make sense?
That’s an incredibly insightful question. Yeah, in a lot of ways, it’s very similar to where I was a year ago, except that now I feel fine mentally. It’s a hundred times easier. I’ve done all this before. I know how to occupy my time endlessly at home. But I’m not unhappy. I feel good and it’s a lot easier to get through the day. Yeah, I feel very fortunate to have it much easier than I did last year.
Are you writing now? Are you collaborating with anybody?
I’ve only been writing a little bit here and there. I’ve done some co-writing with my friend Noel McKay. I don’t know if you know him?
I do. I actually spoke to Brennen Leigh [Noel’s partner] about two months ago.
I love Brennen too! I’ve written with her a little bit, but not during this quarantine. I’ve written with Noel a few times over FaceTime and whatnot. I’ve written a little on my own too, but I haven’t been a writing machine like some people I know. I wish I could say I have been!
Conceptually, the way that you typically write with a theme and a story and characters…What about right now? The racism in America, extremely political uncertainty, the pandemic– will you try to tackle those subjects?
I’m really interested in the kind of people that are seen as other or people that we don’t think of that much and those topics are so well covered by other people. I think it’s probably not the right area for me to step into. I’m not sure what I’m gonna do next, but my guess is it’ll be something kinda weird (laughs) about people who are not naturally in the news right now!
I saw you talked about a program that you’re involved with called Girls Write. I’ve got a 4-year-old daughter and we’ve always spent a great deal of time listening to music, but particularly this last six months, she’s started writing her own songs, taking pieces that she likes, and then adding her own parts. Tell me about your experience with that program, what it does, and what you do in it.
It’s really an amazing program co-founded by two songwriters from Nashville, and the flagship part of the program pairs female songwriters with girls who are interested in songwriting. And these girls are just amazing! I was a one-to-one mentor for two years and it’s just unbelievable! One year, I think my mentee was 13 and the next year my mentee was 12, I think. Gosh, if I had written like that when I was 12 or 13 (laughs), I don’t know what I would be doing today! They’re just incredible! And then last year until COVID took everything online, I was working for Girls Write in a middle school doing an afterschool program twice a week. That was 10 or 11 girls each day after school who wanted to write songs. That was really cool too. Instead of working one-on-one, I was working with all of them together and how they bounced ideas off of each other. It’s just really a cool program.
You almost became a teacher didn’t you?
I did! I was a teacher in Boston public schools for one year. And then actually after that, I moved down, not too far from ya’ll. I lived in Statesboro for three years and I was a museum educator there.
Oh, that’s just right down the road! Well, maybe that would be a good focus for a book? Teaching songwriting?
Yeah, could be!
With The Sick Season and the response that you’ve gotten, I know it’s different than what you have done, but will you write about yourself again? Will you include more Becky Warren in future projects?
I don’t know (laughs)! It’s kinda hard and a little uncomfortable for me. I’d much rather be talking to you about other people right now, just cause I think other people are more interesting than I am. So I don’t know. I hope nothing very interesting happens to me in the next few years so that I can just write about other people for a while.
The Sick Season is available now for purchase on CD or on all your favorite digital platforms! Like & Follow Becky Warren for news and updates on live & streaming performances!