Even as he’s living the dream of every working musician — out on the road playing packed venues and massive festival stages all across the country — organist/vocalist Michael Trotter Jr. admits he could have never written the script for his life right now.
And it’s easy to understand why.
The story of how he went from Iraq to Albion to Bonnaroo is one-of-a-kind, and carries with it the true power of music.
Back in 2004, Trotter was a scared soldier encamped in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, where he found an upright piano. He’d spend hours there learning to play, and later wrote his first song after his captain was killed. Over the next three years, he used his voice to help other soldiers heal with music and went on to win Military Idol, the army’s version of American Idol.
But that was only the beginning.
After returning to the U.S., Trotter met his soon-to-be wife, Tanya Blount, while performing. An accomplished vocalist, Blount had earned a record deal as a teenager, worked with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Entertainment, and even appeared alongside Lauryn Hill in Sister Act 2. But after more than a decade of writing and performing, she was still blown away by Michael’s music and voice.
The couple collaborated and fell in love, getting married not long after and releasing their first album as a duo in 2016. Then, a chance encounter took them to the unexpected place that would change everything: Albion, Mich.
“We were travelling from Indiana late one night and we got lost,” Michael Trotter told Revue. “Our phones weren’t working properly, and we decided to ask the gas attendant what’s the nearest hotel and what town we were in and he said, ‘Albion.’”
Based out of the Baltimore at the time, the duo immediately fell in love with the community and its charm. Originally from the Midwest, Trotter felt like it was the perfect place to raise his own family, and just over two years ago they moved to the town together with their son.
Renaming their project The War & Treaty, the duo soon assembled a live band from players around Michigan and recorded their seven-song EP, Down To The River, right in Albion.
“I think that everybody involved in that whole experience will be the first to tell you that they weren’t considered real musicians,” Trotter said of the recording. “Most of those guys were looking for work. They had been laid off from being scientists and having what I’d call real jobs, and they were pretty much looking for something to get into, and Tanya and I, we have this ability to see what others can’t.
“Although they didn’t see themselves as top-notch musicians, Tanya and I saw them as having top-notch hearts, and that was what spoke to us more than anything, was their hearts and how they loved their families and their community and how they just wanted to help us.”
Released last year, the EP has earned a nationwide following, including legendary musician Buddy Miller, who invited the duo to perform with his band at Americana Fest last year.
Since then, life has only continued to heat up for The War & Treaty. The duo has lined up gigs everywhere from Telluride to Pickathon, packing in a summer full of shows that includes opening dates for the Indigo Girls and a triumphant return to Michigan this month at Otus Supply in Ferndale on June 2 and 3.
“Music didn’t get us here. Honesty did. Truth did. Love did,” Trotter said of the band’s recent and rapid success. “Music doesn’t own humanity. Humanity owns music. And music isn’t doing this — it’s the person’s heart that’s doing it. And in my case, it was my wife. She used music and love to drive the message across, and the message that she broke to me was, ‘It’s not over for you yet. You don’t have to be stuck in the war. You don’t have to be stuck back in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Turkey, or wherever you are. Love can move you forward.’”
Inspired by the high-energy traditions of old-fashioned gospel revivals, classic R&B, blues and old-time folk music, The War & Treaty raise the roof to the heavens and shout down their demons together, their powerful voices reverberating with emotion, passion and grit.
Working through Trotter’s PTSD, depression and anxiety with lyric and song, the couple hopes to share its message of love and togetherness with as many people as they can.
“When I went to war, my goal was not to kill an enemy,” Trotter said. “My goal was to unify. It was to meet as many people as I can, Iraqi or American, and let them know, ‘You know what, I don’t fight you. I don’t. You’re a human being just like me.’ And when I got out, I wrote these songs with my wife. And we sing these songs with our multicultural band, and our goal is to remind America not just what makes us great, but what makes the human spirit great.”
This spring, The War & Treaty took the next big step in their journey, inking a deal with Nashville-based entertainment company Thirty Tigers, who will partner with the duo’s own label Strong World Entertainment for the upcoming release of their first full-length album, which they just finished recording with their musical “godfather” Buddy Miller as producer.
“Our country is in a rift right now,” Trotter said. “And I’ll get political. That rift has nothing to do with our president. That rift has everything to do with the hearts of mankind. And we’re in trouble. And if you come to The War & Treaty show, our job is to be truthful and to say we cannot blame one another.
“We’re not going to preach to you. We’re not going to bash you over the head with what we ain’t doing, or what we should be doing. We’re going to remind you of what it is to feel again.”
345 E. 9 Mile Rd., Ferndale
June 2-3, $25-30
otussupply.com, (248) 291-6160