Sunny War is a Los Angeles-based folk singer, songwriter, and guitarist who often plays with a distinct fingerpicking style that draws influence from older blues, folk, and country; a technique she developed over several years she spent as a street performer and traveler. Her songs share the story of life on the fringes, and her own unconventional life path is part of what sets them apart from those of other artists.
War’s music represents the intersection between punk and folk—and the potential for growth and expansion of both genres. On her latest album, With the Sun, which was released on February 2 via Hen House Studios, she blends these worlds with her own unique qualities, and through dolent chords and anecdotal musings, she portrays the sort of melancholia that epitomizes blues.
Her lyrics and playing style also reveal her fondness for transparency and frankness. Early in the album, on “Gotta Live It,” she sings “I’m a drunk and a dreamer /I’m a punk, closet screamer” over an intricate fingerpicked melody as both a declaration and a plea for something greater.
War’s approach to guitar adds depth to her sound and complements the intimacy of her lyrics. Using a two-finger picking style, her thumb strums walking bass lines while her index finger picks upwards on chords and individual notes, recalling the technique of pioneering blues musicians such as Elizabeth Cotten.
Born in Nashville, she grew into her style organically starting at age seven when her uncle began to teach her guitar. One of the first songs she learned to play was “Blackbird” by The Beatles—she liked how fingerpicking, rather than strummed chords, gave Paul McCartney’s acoustic guitar a fuller sound. As a kid, she got to see blues, folk, and country artists perform (including Bo Diddley); many of the musicians she observed had individualistic ways of playing their instruments that make their sound unmistakably theirs.
As a result, War says of her own development as a musician, “I never felt like I was playing wrong.” Outside of traditional guitar music, War also became interested in rock and punk. “I think I wanted to be Slash,” she recalls, laughing.
During her teens, War began living the unconventional lifestyle of a street punk. “I think I was in high school for like a year and a half or something, and then I just started hanging out at the beach with all the street kids and stuff and I just started drinking a lot,” she says. “And then suddenly I was like homeless. I didn’t consider myself homeless but after I saw them just like [busking] and drinking on the street, and it seemed like having fun every day, I just wanted to live like that.”
By then War had landed in California, and she began busking herself. She approached street performing as a job, which meant she played a lot. As a result she became more creative as a solo artist. During this time, War also met many people who, like her, were interested in folk and blues, and also led nomadic lifestyles. Many of them played resonator guitars because they were louder than traditional acoustics, and fingerpicked them to get a more interesting sound (and often resulted in more money from their audiences). She also met “kids who made their own washtub basses” and “train hoppers with cigar box guitars.”
Within this folk punk scene, Sunny War learned even more about older acoustic music. “It was interesting to see where the blues and folk can meet the punk community,” she says. “Being a wanderer and being broke as fuck—a lot of these blues songs are really talking about that,” she says. “In a weird way you could relate to it way more [than in the past] because it became your life.” War’s 2015 debut full-length, Worthless showcases many of these formative influences.
Eventually, War changed directions in order to find sobriety. “Luckily, I had to stop doing all that shit. I started doing all kinds of stuff and I was gonna die,” she explains. Around age 20, she entered a sober living space, and as she puts it, “I couldn’t be a street kid no more.”
Over the years, War has further developed as a songwriter, and the songs on With the Sun latest album are more dense in composition and lyricism than some of her previous work. Expand on her early influences, War covers themes including relationships, heartbreak, sobriety, and making ends meet, all with an underlying message of finding one’s place in the world.
In “Till I’m Dead” War proclaims that she has “no money,” “no friends,” and “nowhere to go”—subjects that are characteristic of early blues. Propelled by a steady hand clap and fiddles, it conjures images of folks sitting by a railroad track, waiting for a freight train to come by. The line “I don’t wanna live and I don’t wanna die” suggests a more modern, and even uplifting view on dealing with the difficulties of life.
Sunny War with Micah Nelson as Particle War
War says she’s become more lyrically than musically driven in her songwriting, and her lyrics often start as a poem. “I’m Human” was written this way, and it carries a particular weight. After hearing about a high profile case of a black person being killed by the police, War wrote the song, recorded it on her phone, and immediately uploaded it to YouTube. In the song, War bares her soul and shares her laments, “I feel like there’s a lot more that I could’ve said, but I think it’s better to just stay true to whatever came out in the moment, when I actually felt inspired to write about something.”
These days, Sunny War stays inspired by pushing herself to write more, performing, and collaborating. She’s been working with Micah Nelson of folk act, Particle Kid in a new project called Particle War. The communal songwriting effort on the duo’s self-titled debut (out April 20) evokes the same freedom expressed on With the Sun, with its mixes of rhythmic blues and introspective guitar phrasings. It seems that wherever War focuses her musical talents, she reveals the good that can come from being true to oneself.