Savoring their first two Grammy nominations, Michael and Tanya Trotter mine their marriage to produce their onstage magic: "We had to really dig down deep"
The Grammy for best new artist is an “all-genre” category, and who better fits that description than nominee The War and Treaty? The powerhouse duo’s music embraces it all: country, gospel, rock, R&B and Americana.
But Michael Trotter Jr. and his wife, Tanya Trotter, have their own name for the music they make. “It’s the sound of our love,” says Tanya.
Romantic? Of course. But it’s also a statement of fact: The couple know they wouldn’t be where they are today if they hadn’t added their marriage into their musical equation.
Where they are right now is in the midst of an exploding career — with two Grammy nods, as well as previous ACM and CMA nominations; appearances at the CMA, ACM, Grammy and Emmy awards; a pair of trophies for Americana duo of the year; and billing with Chris Stapleton, John Legend and Brandi Carlile, among others.
Combined, the Trotters create such a musical force that perhaps the most puzzling aspect of their professional partnership is that they didn’t sing together — even in their own living room — until three years into their marriage.
“I think we were so smitten by each other’s personality and each other’s life, and not really the talent,” Michael, 41, tells PEOPLE. “The talent kind of took a back seat.”
Perhaps even more pivotal, Tanya, 50, had long since given up on ever having a singing career. She had early success, first making a splash in 1993 with a Lauryn Hill duet in the hit comedy Sister Act 2. She went on to sign with two labels, including Sean "Diddy" Combs', and she notched a Top 40 R&B single. But her momentum eventually waned, and by the early 2000s, she let go of her dream. When she heard her future husband perform at a Maryland arts festival in 2010, she was working in anonymity as a worship leader.
At the time, Michael, an Army vet who’d recently returned from a second tour of duty in Iraq, was trying to get a toehold on a solo singing career. “I was just surviving,” he recalls. “I was going from day to day, place to place. I couldn’t figure it out.”
But Tanya heard a joy and honesty in his voice that instantly drew her to him. A love match soon followed, and they married a year later. Michael continued to scratch away at his career, and Tanya says she was content to be supportive of her new husband’s aspirations. Soon, she also was caring for their infant son, born in 2011 and named Legend (yes, after the artist his parents have since toured with).
“I always knew that I was hearing God say this is what he needed,” Tanya says about helping Michael, including at one point serving as his manager. “I felt like there was gonna be something on the other side of it. I didn’t know what it was.”
In 2014, Michael wrote a duet for Tanya’s brother, also an aspiring musician. The intent was for Tanya to provide the second voice on a demo; when the time came to cut it, the brother was stuck at work, so husband and wife decided to go ahead and do it themselves. This was the first time they’d merged their voices — but they didn’t hear the magic themselves. A friend did when she listened to the recording.
Tanya recalls: “She was like, ‘Do you guys hear this? You need to be doing this together.’”
The Trotters, though, didn’t jump at the idea. Michael explains why, recounting legendary duos — Sonny and Cher, Ike and Tina Turner, the Judds — and noting that all had a dominant voice. The couple’s demo was intended as a one-off. Could they really build a career on two alpha voices?
“We knew we could sing individually,” says Michael, “but could we do it together? How does it look?”
Eventually they found their model in the Civil Wars, the celebrated Americana duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White, who deftly navigated a similarly perilous path during their 2008-2014 partnership.
“They are so fluid,” Michael says of the Civil Wars' recordings. “If she’s going left, he’s already there without her even knowing he is going there. So it’s like, how do we do that with our power, our strength and our skill?”
The answer, they determined, was to bring the intimacy of their relationship into their music. “We realized that in order for us to make it work, we had to put our life in it,” says Michael. “We had to really dig down deep.”
Whatever initial hesitation she might have had, Tanya soon realized joining forces meant rekindling what she thought was extinguished: “I found the light I’d been looking for to light me back up with the love of music.”
Both Trotters have songwriting backgrounds, and Michael is particularly prolific; they share writing credits on all but one of the tracks on their 2023 major-label debut album, Lover’s Game. “Blank Page,” which they performed on the ACMs, has rewarded them with a second Grammy nomination for Best American Roots Song.
Their relationship, says Michael, is his primary writing inspiration: “A lot of our songs are very spiritual and very symbolic of either what we are going through, what we went through, or what we came out of.”
Lyrics offer the couple just one love language. Their reliance on multiple genres gives them other ways to express the contours of their relationship. “We have a sound that can fit any moment of living,” says Michael.
Even the duo’s name reflects the push and pull of marriage: Appropriately, “The War and Treaty” is the result of an argument over what to call themselves.
After finding a home in the Americana market and, more recently, broadening to country, the couple has slowly but surely built a devoted following and benefited from some crucial early support, most notably from legendary Nashville producer Buddy Miller and Black artists Rissi Palmer, Valerie June and Mickey Guyton. Such influential figures as Legend, Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Brothers Osborne and Jason Isbell have since jumped on the Trotters’ bandwagon. Zach Bryan gave them a turbo-charged boost by asking them to collaborate on “Hey Driver,” a standout cut on his latest album, and they’ve since watched their streaming numbers increase exponentially.
“Zach just took our career and said, ‘Let’s lift it up,’” Michael says, gratefully. “He said, ‘Where’s my light? I’m gonna shine it right here.’”
Based in Nashville since 2018, the Trotters have spent the last year mostly touring, bringing along their son, who’s now 12 and home-schooled. They’ve also been taking advantage of high-profile televised opportunities that are increasingly coming their way. Besides the ACM and CMA awards appearances, these have included a Stapleton tribute on ACM Honors, a Patti LaBelle tribute on CMT’s “Smashing Glass” special, an appearance on the CMA’s Christmas special and most recently, their Emmy Awards performance with Charlie Puth. More often than not, their stage performances evoke the same reaction, levitating audiences to their feet.
Audiences aren’t the only ones in awe of the Trotters’ vocal abilities. Husband and wife are both each other’s biggest fans. Michael’s thrilling falsetto actually places his range higher than Tanya’s. “Sometimes I forget my lyrics because I’m just watching him,” she says. “I’m supposed to be singing, and I’m like, did he just hit that note?”
As they look toward the Grammys, Michael says they just want to enjoy the experience without any expectations. Tanya is mostly worried about what to wear. Michael is most excited about music exec Clive Davis’ annual pre-party, where they’ll sing with Josh Groban. The nominations, he knows, are another “stepping stone.”
Many more await: a new album (now being recorded), more touring with Stapleton and also with Bryan. Even a movie about their life is in the works with John Legend attached as a producer.
Through it all, the couple is staying grounded by making sure their marriage is at the center of their lives.
“For me,” says Michael, “the music means absolutely nothing if I lose sight and forget that’s my wife. She’s my everything. These love songs that I write are about her. It makes it easy to partner because we partner in life. As long as you’re keeping that in the front, you cannot fail.”
Tanya echoes her husband: “Being a solo artist and then getting in a duo — not just with an incredible genius of an artist but an incredible person that you’re married to — I think you learn what life is about. And life is about the balance. Life is about partnership.”
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