Becky Warren, an award-winning, risk-taking roots artist who still needs to be properly rewarded for taking on a cold, cruel world while working for a living in Nashville since 2013, has seen the dark side of life. Now she's shining a light on her own worst enemy — depression.
After recording superb solo concept albums to tell the stories of an Iraq War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder that dooms his marriage, then the plight of the homeless in a pre-pandemic party town that ignores the sad scene while still dancing the nights away, Warren is waging war with a part of herself. The sincere singer-songwriter decided to challenge a persistent opponent that packs an emotional and physical wallop. "It's the hardest thing I've ever talked about," Warren reveals about her condition in an email interview ahead of the 23 October release of The Sick Season, an extraordinarily personal but remarkably uplifting ten-song album.
Before learning more about Warren's struggles and how she managed to make a record that should ultimately have a positive impact on others who share similar experiences, check out "Good Luck (You're Gonna Need It)", which premieres today at PopMatters. The album's second song provides raucous revelry from a bona fide rock 'n' roll soul who proves she can find humor in the most hopeless situations.
"I've fought depression since I was about 13, although I didn't get treatment for it until I was in my 20s because I was so afraid of talking about it that I never asked anyone for help," adds Warren. Her formative years were spent in Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, before she enrolled at Boston-area Wellesley College. "When I finally did get treatment in my 20s, things got a lot better. I might still have a day or two of depression, but not the year-or-more stints I was used to having without treatment. I was doing so well in the summer of 2018 that my doctor tapered off my medication to address some side effects I was having. But unfortunately, the depression came back almost immediately, and the medication that had worked before did nothing."
16 Months of Hell
Prior to that setback, Warren had every reason to be high on life. Momentum was building for the impending October 2018 release of Undesirable. Her second solo concept album, bringing attention to real-life down-on-their-luck folks she interviewed while they tried to survive on the Nashville streets, made them the subjects of her illuminating, character-driven songs.
The follow-up to her solo debut War Surplus in 2016, when I was first introduced to Warren's earthy music before she became one of my top 16 artists of '16 and songwriter of the year at the Huffington Post, Undesirable was ranked 18th among Rolling Stone Country's 40-best country and Americana albums of 2018, and our in-depth interview was featured in PopMatters.
A frequent touring partner of Indigo Girls' Amy Ray and Emily Saliers, Warren, this time rarely left her home while "fighting with insurance for coverage of a new drug" to fend off depression instead of actively promoting Undesirable.
Design Face Eye by Geralt (Pixabay License)
Warren went through a depressive state she calls "the dark period" before it began lifting in late 2019. That must be what spending 16 months in hell feels like. "During that time, I coped by just withdrawing from as much of life as possible both because the only thing I could control was not hurting others, and because it felt truly awful to try activities I used to enjoy," Warren admits. " … I rarely left the house or spoke to anyone. I more or less lost touch with all my friends. And at home, I tried to distract my brain from endless self-loathing any way I could. I watched a lot of trash TV while also playing solitaire on my phone — that takes up a fair amount of brain space."
Interviews with possible subjects for a third concept album were derailed as depression began taking its toll around the release of Undesirable, even when she was contacted by a literary agent who presented Warren with the idea of writing her memoir. "I told her that all I could really write about was how terrible I was feeling," Warren remembers. "So I started writing a bit about depression, right in the middle of the depression, which I'd never been brave enough to do before — it requires spending a lot of time in my brain when my brain is an unpleasant place to be. But that helped push me to write songs, too. The memoir didn't pan out, but as the depression stretched on longer and longer, I realized I was amassing a lot of depression songs, and I had no idea when I might be well enough to focus on writing about anything else."
In February 2019, at about the midpoint of what she calls the "16-month-long treatment-resistant depression episode that inspired this album (though, of course, I didn't know I was halfway through then!)," Warren wrote "Good Luck (You're Gonna Need It)".
Honey, good luck, you're gonna need it / You loved me for no good reason / Now I'm a smudge on the moon / A dangerous tune / Good luck, you're gonna need it / Everything I got ends broke and bleeding / Til I lose it the hard way, cursing the memory of you.
"I was thinking about how much I felt like I was letting down everyone who cared about me by being such a sad sack for so long," Warren says. "And I guess I momentarily had a sense of humor about it — I just wanted to tell them all, good luck continuing to love me; it's going to be terrible because I'm terrible, joke's on you. Because of course, your brain tells you you're terrible constantly when you're depressed."
Warren's psychiatrist made a change in her medication that might have started to lift the depression in November 2019, she thinks, "But before I ever took medication, my depression would last 18 months or so and then disappear for a similar period of time before coming back, so my biggest fear is that it was just this natural cycle and we never did figure out the right treatment."
This January, following an "epic trip" in December with two friends to Uganda that included drummer Megan Jane, Warren went into Jordan Brooke Hamlin's Nashville studio MOXE (that felt like "a hideaway in the woods") to make The Sick Season with the producer she knew through Indigo Girls.
The musicians included three of Warren's "closest friends": Della Mae guitarist Avril Smith, her former bandmate in the Great Unknowns, an East Coast-based alt-country group; bassist Jeremy Middleton, a US Navy veteran she met through Smith and their string band called Big Chimney while all three lived in Washington, DC; and Jane, whose drumming Warren "fell in love with" during a gig after the release of War Surplus, her semi-autobiographical album about a woman whose GI husband's PTSD struggle ultimately leads to divorce.
Recording The Sick Season at MOXE on a recommendation from Saliers, Warren felt lucky to have this Indigo Girlfriend sing on "Tired of Sick", a tale of heartbreak that became the most gratifying (and most difficult) for her to compose for the album. "Her amazing part and vocals hopefully push it a bit towards art and away from a diary entry," the songwriter offers.
"I wrote it very fast because I was literally so tired of being sick; I just put down exactly how I felt in a really raw way," Warren explains. "And then I stuffed it away somewhere because I knew it would be painful to ever listen to again. When I started pulling together the songs that might go on the album, I almost didn't even bother listening to it because I had the idea that it was likely too raw and confessional sounding for me to be comfortable putting it on a record. But when I did listen to it, it made me cry, and I felt like the fact that I'd captured something that was so clearly true for me at that moment was something to be proud of. So I decided to record it, and then I dreaded having my mom hear it for months."
Warren did find joy in recording "Good Luck", though, particularly when her friend (and "one of my all-time favorite songwriters") Ben de la Cour provided harmony vocals from his home after the coronavirus invasion. "He sent me some normal harmony vocals that were good, but I asked him if he'd mind trying it a bit higher," Warren recalls. "So he sent back these vocals as kind of a joke — they were ridiculously high. But after I stopped laughing, I decided I kind of liked them. They were out of control in a way that helped the whole song and made me smile. So I decided to keep that version. I think Ben thought I was kidding about keeping them. But I'm glad I did. Four to five months after Ben originally sang them, they still make me smile every time."
With a voice and wry writing style that rivals some of Lucinda Williams' best work, Warren rides the wave of Smith's crunchy guitar riffs to deliver witty takes on her serious situation in other explosive songs like "Drunk Tonight", "RNR", and "Dickerson Pike".
Show of Support
Judging just from the reaction to "Me and These Jeans", which premiered at Rolling Stone Country on 2 September, Warren should pull in a diverse group — from loyal followers and curious roots fans to blessed souls and tortured minds — all singing her praises through the laughter, cheers, and tears. Who today can't relate to these lyrics, no matter how they're feeling: "Me and these jeans, we're out on the town if the town is my house if it's not then we're back on the couch."
"I've already heard more than I ever could have expected from listeners just in response to the first song — people who say they've also struggled with depression or other mental illnesses, and that has meant the world to me," Warren shares. "After being afraid to talk about it publicly for so long, I'm amazed and grateful for the outpouring of support I've received."
Also expressing gratitude for friends "who kept loving me even when I disappeared for so long, and forgave me for missing their shows and parties and other things during that time," Warren especially acknowledges her mother Robin, whose recent birthday they celebrated by embarking on a zip-lining adventure in Georgia.
Depression never hit close to home for Robin until Becky disclosed an experience when she was in her 20s while delaying a chance to get treatment. The revelation surprised her mom, Warren remembers, but she "immediately started trying to find me the right help (my fault I didn't follow it up for a couple of years after that).
"And my mom never experienced depression herself, but also I'm pretty sure (but not positive) she'd say she didn't know much about depression before [Warren's disclosure] — she hadn't really had a good reason to read up on it or anything before she learned that I had it."
Since then, though, her mother "has worked incredibly hard to learn about it and has been supportive and wonderful," maintains Warren, while the two stay connected through FaceTime at least once a week.
Photo: Courtesy of the artist
Back to normalcy?
For one of many indie artists struggling to make a living during an unforgiving, unforgettable year marked by the pandemic, racial strife, and a divisive political campaign ahead of the presidential election, Warren is adjusting by becoming even more self-reliant to promote this record. "I took my own photos in my backyard, designed all my own merch and album art, acted as my own publicist," Warren contends. "Something about the current moment made me want to focus on making everything as DIY as possible, which has really let me connect with listeners in a new way. I'm liking that part."
In some "superficial ways," according to Warren, a 2020 life spent in quarantine with books, TV or other distractions isn't much different than an existence in 2018-19 accompanied primarily by a depression that failed to respond to treatment. "But in all the real ways, I'm doing SO much better now," she points out. "Being stuck at home feeling healthy is a real privilege compared with being stuck at home feeling sick or any of the other things I know many other people are facing."
Despite trying to return to normalcy, Warren is having troubles in one department that should be well-suited for a winner of the Merlefest's Chris Austin Songwriting Contest in 2014 and Grassy Hill Kerrville New Folk Competition in 2015. "For me, it's a harder time to write songs," she confesses. "… It's hard to think of something I have that's worth saying right now when I especially want to hear the voices of people of color, and of people who've lost family members to the virus."
No matter their gender, age, race, or religion, anyone looking for at least an ounce of truth and authenticity in a world of doubt and fake news will find a lot about The Sick Season that puts the sanctity of life in perspective. "I hope listeners with depression feel seen and embraced when they listen to the album," Warren expresses. "I hope it helps people without depression have conversations with people they love who have battled depression — somewhere I hope there's a dad telling his daughter he's grateful for her continued fighting and awed by all she manages to do even though she carries this black dog. And for everyone, I hope the songs are also just good rock 'n' roll songs that make you want to drive 30 more miles or jump around the living room or sing in your shower."
For a record worth playing any time of the year, The Sick Season just might turn out to be a good-luck charm worth holding onto forever.
BONUS POINTS: THREE MORE FOR BECKY WARREN
For anyone who has never suffered from depression, how do you explain to them what the feeling is like and how it affects you physically and emotionally? Can you identify the early symptoms, and does it progress gradually or strike immediately without any warning?
I know the conventional wisdom is that it's like really bad sadness, but actually it doesn't feel that much like sadness to me. It feels more to me like the moments when you've said or done something so incredibly dumb and embarrassing that you feel an all-consuming desire to disappear on the spot. Except that feeling continues, unabated, for a long time —16 months for me. So it's partly mental — my brain tells me I'm worthless and terrible and no one likes me and it would be better for the world if I were dead. And it's partly physical — I'm exhausted and sick to my stomach and unable to do normal things.
For me, it can creep up a bit gradually, but if I'm smart enough to consider how I'm feeling for a bit, it's easy to tell from more temporary or healthy emotions. One of the main drives of all living creatures on earth from oak trees to antelopes is meant to be the desire to continue to live. Having your brain turn against you and tell you to die is really profound and awful. If you make a commitment to other people who care about you that you promise you'll keep living no matter what (which I have done), that's I'm sure comforting to them. But it doesn't help with the profound betrayal of your own brain pushing you to die.
Considering what you were experiencing while writing/recording your three solo albums, how did making The Sick Season compare to working on War Surplus and Undesirable?
Well, it was really different thinking about and writing about myself. That's actually something I don't love doing. Even when I was writing War Surplus, which was inspired some by my own story, I always felt like the characters on the album were definitely characters, and I would sit down to write thinking about what they might say. For these songs, when I sat down, it was just me and the brain I was at war with. That was very different. Given the subject matter, and the fact that so much of the rollout of Undesirable was colored by the fact that I was already feeling depressed, I really wanted the recording process to be as comfortable and loving and friendly as possible. So I made my recording choices based on a desire to be in a space that felt cozy and comfortable, surrounded by people I loved.
After the release of The Sick Season, what projects or plans outside of music do you have? Any shows, live stream, or otherwise, on your tentative schedule ahead of the holidays or for 2021?
I have one livestream planned already but I'm sure I'll plan closer to the album release date — it's hard that we now all have to be streaming experts on top of the other random expertise we indie artists were collecting! In the non-music world, I always go away with my dogs to a cabin in the mountains around Christmas and I'm still planning to do that this year. One of my dogs, Pearl, is nearly 14 and may not have that many cabin years left, so I want to make sure she gets to sniff all the woodland sniffs again even in weird 2020.