Releasing a pair concept albums as your first two ferings would be daunting for many musicians, if not deemed "too gimmicky" by the more cynical set. Becky Warren was considering that while mulling over the idea for what would become Undesirable, her second solo album to be built around a singular story or theme, when an inquiring tour mate prodded her to follow her inspiration.
"I was on the road, opening a lot shows for the Indigo Girls at the time I began thinking about Undesirable. My shows were almost the same show every single night, because War Surplus, Warren's 2016 solo debut] tells a story in order, so I would go in order the album nearly every night. Amy Ray liked the album, but it wasn't long before she came up to me and said, 'Okay, but what are you going to do next?'" Warren shares with a laugh. "When I started to tell her, the fact that she thought it was a great idea gave me the initiative to go forward with it, because I trust her judgment so much."
What Warren had in mind for her followup effort was a continued exploration into those labeled "other" by society. Whereas War Surplus told the semi-autobiographical story a couple facing the issues many Iraq War veterans (and their families) have found upon returning from a tour duty, on her new album she shifts her attention to a group salespeople she would pass frequently while traveling through Nashville.
The Contributor is Nashville's "street" newspaper, sold throughout the city by homeless and formerly homeless vendors. Buying copies the paper from the non-prit that produces it, and then selling each copy for a prit, the vendors set up on roadsides and in traffic islands for hours each day. Warren approached several as they were working, striking up conversations about their life experiences, and quickly found that any worries she had her two albums being too similar to each other were unfounded.
"I actually thought there would be a fair amount overlap with subjects that I already knew well from writing about a veteran with PTSD - mental health, substance abuse - but I learned after just a couple interviews that those were complete misconceptions," the singer admits. "To make a living selling newspapers], you have to get up every day, no matter the weather, take a long bus ride, and stand outside for hours making a real connection with your customers, like any good salesperson. You have to be incredibly hardworking, with an unshakeable belief in yourself to make it work."
Ray serves as both a mentor and friend to Warren, and has helped her at each step along the way to becoming established within the folk/Americana world. It's a relationship Warren had always felt was so special that she didn't want to risk it by asking Ray to lend her talents (and potentially name) to any project that the singer-songwriter may have been working on at the time. The standout track on Undesirable, "We're All We Got," changed that. Premiering below on Billboard, it's an anthem for those fighting back from a few bad hands dealt their way, with the music fueled by a Southern Rock vibe that provides a sonic glimpse an alternate universe where Bruce Springsteen was born in Gainesville, Florida, and helped form the Heartbreakers.
"I've known her for a long time, but had never asked for her to make an appearance on an album before, so when I finally asked this time I did it in a way that would make it easy for her to say no without feeling bad about it," Warren admits with a laugh. "I thought she could maybe add maybe a harmony line or two to the song, if she had the time. Instead, she sent this incredible stacked vocal, and helps on the bridge in a really amazing way."
Following on the heels the lauded War Surplus, Warren has met the challenge releasing an album with as much humanity as its predecessor. Here, she talks about overcoming her natural shyness to make this album and how it helped her realize misconceptions she held about homeless people.
What started you on this creative journey?
I really liked that my last album had a theme. I liked talking about an issue that I cared about, when I was doing interviews for its release. I just would have enjoyed it more if the album] hadn't been all about me, so I was looking for something that had a similar feeling to that, and I thought about a vendor] who I had been buying copies The Contributor from for a couple years at that point. I didn't really know much about him, and I started thinking about the interesting stories that he and the other vendors that paper, so what if I got to know them and just wrote some songs inspired by their stories.
Have you received any feedback from those vendors on their songs?
I've had the chance to play some the vendors the songs that they inspired, and in some cases, I was a little bit worried about how they'd react; the songs were inspired by these stories, but that doesn't mean that the songs are completely true to those stories. Usually I would discuss any number things with each one when talking to them, and then I would end up focusing on one very small thing that they said to build the song from, and that may not have been the one thing they would have personally chosen. Everyone that I played their respective song to, however, was very overwhelmed. I think it was just a feeling having been seen, and to have their stories inspire someone to put them to music, they all just seemed very touched. That has been the most rewarding part this whole process.
Was there ever a sense trepidation when you first began interviewing them?
Yeah, because I'm really shy to begin with, and hadn't really thought through all that before beginning. When I was writing the last album, a lot it was based on my own experiences, but a lot it was also based on things that I researched] and could find without really talking to anybody else. It hit me about halfway into this that I wouldn't really be able to write the songs the way I wanted them to be without approaching strangers and starting conversations with them. That's a tricky thing for me to begin with, but then it gets weird to just pull over the car wherever I would find a vendor, walk up and introduce myself. Then I would ask if it'd be okay if I just hung out with them for a while as they sold the paper, which I'm sure made it even weirder for them.
It was very hard at first, but the more I did it the more I loved it, because I started finding all these things that I had in common with these people that I didn't know. It just became this natural thing to discover that we shared common life experiences, and I found that I really enjoyed the feeling making a connection with a stranger.
Is there a central theme that runs throughout Undesirable, in the same way that PTSD was found throughout War Surplus?
One thing that really surprised me, and this was kind my own ignorance about homelessness, but I felt there would be more overlap the themes between the two albums]. I was thinking, 'Okay, mental health and addiction, I'll just revisit that again,' and I really didn't. The thing that surprised me the most - and I hope that it's the true theme that comes through in the album - is that this particular group homeless people, just by the nature what they've chosen to do in selling this newspaper, they're all incredibly hopeful and have a ton tenacity. Just to wake up early every morning, walk out to the spot on the corner the street that you work - in all kinds weather, and whether you are having a good or bad day - in order to make a connection with people who might become customers. It takes a lot fortitude and strength, and it's not something that I could probably do if I were ever put in the position being homeless.
I really hope that it comes through that these are really hopeful, tough people, who are against all odds still moving forward with a tremendous sense optimism.
Did the process making this album help you put a face to the word "homeless"?
I found that each person had a rich history family connections, or jobs that they had lost, and every story became a 'there but for the grace God' type thing. Usually it was something that someone like me - with family support, and the jobs I've been lucky to have - could probably weather, but for so many these people, it was just one thing that led to the whole house cards falling down.
I don't think I talked to anyone who would say that being homeless was their main personal trait about themselves. Even people I spoke to who were literally sleeping on the street, being homeless was never the main thing they wanted to talk about; they always had something else going on in their life that was more interesting to them.