Becky Warren released an album Friday, October 19: Undesirable. This album is songs written from the lyrical perspective of a variety of different people who all happen to be homeless, or who have recently been homeless. Americana Highways had a chance to talk to Warren about this concept for this highly unique project, how she gathered material and stories, and the songs themselves.
AH: You interviewed people as you were writing songs for this album. What was your process for that?
BW: I interviewed people who sell The Contributor, the street paper in Nashville. All the vendors are either homeless or formerly homeless, and this is a small business for them. They buy the copies at cost, and then they can design their hours and selling location from there. It’s changed formats recently but when I did the interviews they could buy the paper for 50 cents a copy, and it sold for $2 a copy. It came out weekly.
I would just walk up to people who were selling the paper, and tell them I’m writing songs about the experiences of people who sell it, and I’d ask if I could hang out with them and ask questions while they worked.
This gave me a reason to break through ordinary social conventions to be able to talk to people. In a way, it’s a similar to what singing and playing music for people does. It provides an opportunity and an occasion to break through to people.
The conversations inspired the songs but the lines were not necessarily direct things the people said.
My goal with the record was to help people who maybe don’t know anyone who has experienced homelessness to understand; and to help these people come alive for a listener who maybe hasn’t had a chance to identify and relate to someone in this situation before. I hope the characters come across as human. In general they all had a lot of hope for their futures.
AH: Your album cover features a pile of trash. Is this meant to emphasize that some people are considered disposable? Or is it a recycling pile?
BW: The title is a play on the idea that certain people are treated as though they can be discarded. But yes it also may be a recycling pile, as people start over again!
AH: “Carmen” is a love song, it has a joyful presence. What is the story behind this one?
BW: I wrote the song “You’re Always Drunk” about this same woman. She left her abusive husband and became homeless, and then met this wonderful man, who was also selling The Contributor. They are both artists. It’s about happy things for them. It’s meant to be joyful.
AH: “We’re All We Got,” sung with Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls, has the opening line: “We mark Christmas Day by killing something wild,” a hunting reference; some hunting seasons open on that day, and it’s also a day people have off from work. Who was this hunter?
BW: This man grew up in West Virginia where his father and brothers worked in the coal mines and he felt like he never fit in. So he left West Virginia and is struggling to make it now.
AH: Do you think these characters and stories can be extrapolated to relate to really anybody’s life?
BW: Inevitably we always ended up talking about things we had in common, so I hope the things I picked up on naturally will resonate with a lot of people even if they’ve never lived in poverty. But I also think this is a very particular group of people, who have all chosen this particular business, so I do think they have some particular things in common based on that. Those who experience homelessness have a range of different experiences. I’m sure there are a lot of different stories. But in the most general sense, for sure it was important to find that common humanity of hopefulness that we all share.
The thing I was most surprised by was just how entrepreneurial these people are. They all have these characteristics shared by any entrepreneur – a relentless pursuit of their goal and a focus on customer service and friendliness and hopefulness and belief for themselves. I found this to be really admirable. They all had hope that this was going to be the path for them out of poverty. Many of them had been selling the paper for multiple years, so clearly it was working for them. It was a business that they were finding helped their situation.
These people who embody the spirit of pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps. To turn a 50 cent investment into a $2 sale individually, in person, over and over again every day, in all kinds of weather, and nobody I spoke to had a car –so they’d be taking multiple buses– you have to be tough and you have to believe in yourself that you can turn this into a business.
AH: Tell us about the character in the song “Nobody Wants to Rock ‘n Roll No More”
BW: He is a musician, he’s in his 70’s, he’s still writing songs and calling his music “geezer grunge.” He sells the paper and he also plays music. He was telling me about all the famous musicians he has sold the paper to, and how hard it is to find people to play with. He confessed his frustrations in that talk. A lot of people who sell The Contributor in Nashville are musicians.
AH: Would you say that rock ‘n roll has become marginalized, whereas other forms of music have become more valued today? Is Americana more central now, with rock ‘n roll at the margins?
BW: I definitely agree with that. I count myself in at the rock ‘n roll end of Americana and I think that part of Americana is smaller than the folkier end of Americana.
AH: On the other hand, is rock ‘n roll a metaphor for having fun itself?
BW: For him, for sure, it was related. He was missing the fun that came from also missing rock ‘n roll. I think the rock ‘n roll has a qualitatively different kind of “fun” that the fun going on at the folk end of the music spectrum. There’s still a place for escapism and fun, like rock music provides, even though our national scene feels serious right now.
AH: Your album was produced by Dave Knobler (Rodney Crowell). How important is it for you to have a producer for your projects?
BW: When I write a song, I hear chords, melodies, lyrics and that’s it. So it really helps me to work with somebody who can hear and flesh out more of the arrangement of the overall song. I like and really value the collaborative aspects of working with a producer. It helps to have someone make suggestions.
AH: Your vocals are really real and genuine sounding, and not at all contrived.
BW: (Laughs) Vocals are the one area where I have really strong opinions! I want the vocals to be something not too messed with, because I want the song to be noticed, and not have it just be about the vocals.
AH: What’s coming up next for you?
BW: I played at Americana Fest with my side project the Reckless Electric with Mary Bragg. I’ve done some touring opening for the Indigo Girls.
Read our review of the album here: REVIEW: Becky Warren’s “Undesirable” Chronicles Real Lives of Homeless in Top Album of the Year Check dates here: https://beckywarren.com/
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|10/26/18||Nashville, TN||The High Watt||United States|
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