Despite the slightly ironic nature of their name, The Great Unknowns have struck a chord in the hearts of many with their alternative-country sound. The Great Unknowns will perform tonight at the Rock N Roll Hotel in D.C. to preview their upcoming album Homefront. Proceeds from the event will be donated to the philanthropic organization Cause, Comfort for America’s Uniformed Services.
The story of the band’s journey within the music industry largely surrounds singer, songwriter and frontwomanBecky Warren. Long before she received her master’s degree from the Communication, Culture and Technology program at Georgetown University, Warren had been interested in music. However, the band didn’t form until after she attended Wellesley College and began to collaborate with other musicians in the Boston area.
What had at first been intended as a simple record to be shared with family and friends ultimately became the catalyst for her professional career. In a twist of fate, Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray received a copy of the record and loved what she heard. Ray signed the group with her record label, Daemon Records. The band members never imagined that in the coming year they would grow from recording in a college studio to traveling on tour with the iconic Indigo Girls; thus the name The Great Unknowns.
“The name just felt right, because we felt like we were doing something we would be proud of, but we didn’t think that many people would ever hear it,” Warren said.
The Great Unknowns flourished in the unexpected success of the release of their first album, 2004’s Presenting The Great Unknowns, until a combination of circumstances led the band to stop recording. After this, the band faded back into obscurity for about five years.
“We were all living in different cities, and I had also gotten married to a soldier who went to Iraq. He came back with PTSD, which made our marriage pretty difficult,” Warren said. “During that time I just had a lot going on with that, and everyone was in different places, so we weren’t recording.”
In the span of the next five years, Warren continued to sing for various cover bands, but she was not writing any original music. The strain of her husband’s stress disorder ultimately led to the end of the marriage.
A short time afterward Warren rediscovered her songwriting voice in the midst of what Georgetown students remember as “Snowpocalypse,” the major snowstorm that hit D.C. in February 2010. With several feet of snow confining her to her house, Warren reconnected with The Great Unknowns bass player Altay Guvench. Together they joined the online phenomenon known as February Album Writing Month, or FAWM.
Once she started, Warren said she couldn’t stop. Impassioned with a writing fury, she began to express her emotions of frustration, isolation and hardship, which became a therapeutic experience for her. The songs that she wrote during this time reflected the feelings she confronted during the struggle of her marriage and formed the core message of her new album.
“I feel a renewed and more intense drive to be out there playing the music for people, because I missed several years of doing that,” Warren said. “I feel really proud of our first record, but it didn’t say anything the way this record does, so it’s a change that this time I’m hoping the record will be a way of shining a light on the needs of veterans and their families.”
The next album, Homefront, is expected to be released this winter. Warren said the title song”Homefront” encapsulates the fundamental meaning of the album.
“The song is from the point of view of a veteran, and it’s about what it’s like to return and to feel like, you know, you don’t have this supportive homefront that people had in previous wars,” Warren said. “It’s also about the burden on families that comes from having to become that homefront for them because it doesn’t sort of exist naturally. So that is really the center of the record.”
Fellow band member Guvench said he was excited to restart the band. “This is what Becky was made to be doing. I feel like my purpose was to be a catalyst and support her in making the music,”Guvench said.
During the band’s hiatus, Warren was also inspired to become involved in efforts to reach out to returning veterans and their families. She began to volunteer for Cause at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in D.C.
The nationwide organization was founded in 2003 by veterans of the Vietnam War who graduated from West Point. They wanted to ensure that this generation of war fighters received the comfort and support on the homefront that they had been denied. The mission of Cause is to offer recovering veterans and their families a variety of entertainment and healing programs.
“We provide recreation, relaxation and resiliency programs for the wounded veterans. Our mission is to bring them comfort, laughter, smiles and just to get them to take a break from their stressful lives during the healing process,” Brianna Broad, development coordinator for Cause, said. “The wounded need to be shown that our nation supportsthem.”
As a volunteer, Warren was impressed by Cause’s commitment to the veterans and the strong impact of their work. While searching for an organization to partner with for the upcoming performance she said that Cause was the obvious choice, and her band members agreed.
Lead guitarist Avril Smith said, “I think it’s a fantastic partnership. It fits really well with the stories in the songs. There’s a connection with the work they do of providing positive experiences for wounded veterans.”
Cause was also enthusiastic about the collaboration.
“Their message is very patriotic and that is exactly what we stand for. … This is definitely a great way to raise awareness, and people are having fun listening to music, but doing it for a good cause,” Broad said.
As of now Warren works for the British Embassy in internal communications but says she wants to further her music career. In the future she hopes to collaborate with more organizations and continue to make an impact on the lives of recovering veterans and their families through her songs.
The performance begins at 9 p.m. on Friday at the Rock N Roll Hotel. Admission is $10 and attending veterans will receive complementary gifts. Natalie York and Owen Danoff will be opening for The Great Unknowns.
For first-time listeners, it may be time to face the music and discover something great in the unknown.