February 26, 2018 | by Jocelyn Hoppa photo by Florencia P. Marano
What’s immediately striking about Sunny War (born Sydney Lyndella Ward) is her intricate claw-hammer fingerpicking style of guitar playing often reserved for the banjo, which favors her mix of Delta blues and country. Immediately, one can hear the likes of Robert Johnson and Son House in her playing. Her voice is pensive and heavy-hearted, full of hard-won wisdom, like a young Billie Holiday brought up on punk and hip-hop.
Sunny War is a wandering soul, essentially a teen runaway, spending most of her formative years sleeping on the streets, busking, and learning from kindred spirits about how to live free. From San Francisco to San Diego and now Venice, her unique approach to writing punk songs from the approach of a blues musician has caught on.
Her album With the Sun dropped earlier this month, and it’s full of personal stories, as well as philosophical and political outlooks, from being lonely and broke to alcoholism, police violence, love, and loss. Sunny War took some time out from her recent tour opening up for Valerie June to answer some questions for No Recess!. Reading her responses, one can't help but feel inspired by her life's story and commitment to her passion. Sunny War is the real deal.
NO RECESS!: How’d you get started playing guitar? Did you have lessons or learn on your own?
Sunny War: My mother gave me my first guitar when I was seven years old. It was a classical guitar. A friend of hers showed me a few basic chords to work on and I remember learning to play “Greensleeves” from some beginner's guitar book I had. At age 10, my mother signed me up for free group guitar lessons at Centennial Park in Nashville. My guitar teacher was a bluesman named James Nixon; I learned to play “Blackbird” by the Beatles and got an intro to blues guitar.
NR!: I’ve read you moved around a lot but also lived on the streets on San Francisco. Tell us a bit about your nomadic childhood and how that has shaped you as a musician. Also, was San Francisco with your mother or with friends? This last bit is important, because the housing situation there is so abhorrent.
Sunny War: Growing up, I lived sometimes with my mother and sometimes with my grandmother. By the time I was 12, I had lived in Nashville, TN (my hometown), Detroit, MI (my mother’s hometown), Denver, CO, and finally Los Angeles, CA (where I live now). Unfortunately for my mom, I was a mess and felt totally grown by the time I was 13. I met some street kids in Venice Beach and decided I wanted to go with them. I went to San Francisco with a bunch of kids who really liked The Grateful Dead and I ate a lot of acid and drank a lot of beer. I was really just a runaway. I would play guitar on Haight Street in SF and make enough to do whatever I wanted ($30-$50). I would sit under the Janis tree and learn about how to live free with my new friends. From there, I went to a Rainbow Gathering in Eugene, Oregon. I ate acid with real OG Deadheads and we sat by a fire pit and they listened to me play guitar all night. I will never forget that night. I was one of the youngest people there but they totally respected me and supported me as a wandering artist. I really regret worrying my mom, but I will never regret the choices I made at that time because I know I needed those experiences. I know if I ever lose my mind and want to get it back all I need to do is sleep in the woods for a couple months and I'll be spiritually renewed. I spent age 13-19 sleeping on the streets with just a sleeping bag and a guitar. I had a dog and a van at some point... but to be honest, those six years are very blurry and hard to pin to an exact timeline for me.
NR!: I can imagine in Venice, people would be supportive to street musicians. I also imagine it can be fairly isolating as people rush by you. What has been your experience?
Sunny War: Busking in Venice can be tricky because it's all about finding and keeping the right spot on the Boardwalk. Sometimes it's best to get there at 5am to secure a spot and even then you may be too late because some of the vendors sleep on the beach and you can't beat them there. Me and most of the street musicians have battery-powered amplifiers. Sometimes the police give us a hard time because we're "too loud." Sometimes people on the Boardwalk give us a hard time because we're "too loud." Some days are amazing and leave you feeling loved and inspired, and other days can be extremely depressing and make you consider filling out an application at McDonalds. But I believe, overall, it is a great experience for any musician to play on the Venice boardwalk and it is very important to love your own music even when no one is listening. When you forget that you are playing for tips and begin to get lost in the song... You don't see anyone walking by anymore, it's really magical.
NR!: Can you tell a story or two about being an LA (Venice Beach) street musician for the last few years?
Sunny War: There's not too much I can form a story out of. I typically get there early in the morning with all my gear (amp, mic, mic stand, guitar), CD's, and business cards. I set up around 8:40a, and start playing at 9am. I usually play in front of Fig Tree Cafe where there is a breakfast crowd. Different people come and talk to me about guitars and blues. I stop and take a break around 1pm, then I come back and play until sunset. I average $100-$200/day and I get a lot of gigs out of it because quite a few people take my cards. A lot of people try to make me feel bad about busking and pretty much treat me like a loser. I don't really know what else to do though. If I get a job my schedule usually doesn't allow me to be as spontaneous. If I had a work schedule I wouldn't have been able to stay at Hen House Studios all night working on With the Sun. I wouldn't have been able to skip work to finish writing a song like I do with busking, or leave Los Angeles for a couple weeks to tour. I feel like getting a job would be sacrificing my passion for financial security. What would be the point of paying rent and bills if I wasn't supporting a passion? Before I left for tour I talked to two different club owners about having a weekly residency at their spots, so hopefully that will be my new "work." Only busking story I have is once Justin Bieber threw a $1 in my guitar case and told me to "keep doing what you're doing!" That really bummed me out, I don't know why but that was probably one of the worst busking days of my life.
NR!: Your singer/songwriter sound is a refreshing take on melding punk with country blues and Americana. I think I read somewhere you’re like Robert Johnson with a shot of Bad Brains. How did your affinity for these genres take root and eventually meld into the musical voice that comes out of you?
Sunny War: I consider myself to be a country/blues guitarist with contemporary lyrics. I love a lot of different music for different reasons. Fingerstyle blues is still the most appealing thing anyone's ever done with a guitar, in my opinion, but lyrically I favor punk and hip-hop because those are the voices I can relate to. There are plenty of exceptions, of course... but musically I'm influenced by 1930's blues and lyrically I'm influenced by 1980's punk/hardcore, and if there were a band that sounded like Robert Johnson and Bad Brains they would be my favorite band for sure.
NR!: On “Gotta Live It” you proclaim to be a drunk, a dreamer, a punk, and a closet screamer, that the dysfunction fits like a glove (something I definitely get). That’s only the beginning… this song is a stunner at every lyrical turn. Tell us a bit about what “gotta live it” means in this song.
Sunny War: "Gotta Live It" is exactly what I've got to do. It's exactly what everyone has to do. In this song I am just whining about things I have a problem with in life and the chorus is the only solution: "It's my life, gotta live it / It's my strife, gotta give it / All I've got to make it outta here / I shoot em' down and then they reappear.” It's not much of a solution but we all definitely have to keep trying to confront our problems and keep shooting them down to make room for the new bullshit that will come the following day. I'm still working on the problems I mention in the song, but I hope at least addressing them will be a start.
NR!: Somehow, when you’re talking about heartbreak and not being able to eat or sleep (“The Change You Make”), I catch myself smiling, I guess knowingly. With hindsight these things are easier to fess up to, but in the moment, I’m not sure how simple it is to admit to others. Do you write songs when the wound is fresh, or do you typically do it with some distance and perspective?
Sunny War: While writing "The Change You Make" I had just the guitar riff at first. The chord progression reminded me of some kind of lullaby, so I started to think of the song that way. I wasn't in any emotional pain at the time, but I was thinking about things that happened to me and things I wish I could share with my younger self or even my little brother. It's all about the stuff you surprisingly overcome growing up.
NR!: Maybe my favorite track off your latest LP is “Violent” — the guitar work here is intricate and beautiful, especially for a song that states, “You don’t want to see my violent.” To me, that’s a specific sentiment from all those who’ve felt controlled somehow, the things we’re expected to stuff down for so long and the rage that is bubbling dangerously close to the surface. I guess I just wanted to say kudos on this one. If you have any added perspective, especially on the guitar parts, that would be much appreciated.
Sunny War: "Violent" is one of the more personal songs on the album. I wrote it the day after a very heated and physical fight with my boyfriend at the time. He had just left after trying to apologize for that night and I couldn't even speak, I just ignored him and started writing "Violent." Milo Gonzalez plays lead electric guitar throughout the track. A lot of friends who heard the song before it was released thought there was too much lead guitar and it was taking away from the vocal parts... but I decided to keep all Milo's parts on the song because he's so sick. He's the best guitarist in Venice.
NR!: As these questions are being sent your way, you are supporting Valerie June on some February dates. How is the tour going? Is this your first time out on a tour supporting an artist like June?
Sunny War: Last night was the first show opening for Valerie June, there was supposed to be another show tonight in Albany, NY but it was cancelled due to a snow storm. I have opened for similar artist before (Keb' Mo', Booker T, Mindy Smith, JJ Grey) but never when it's this cold and snowy. Tomorrow we will head to Montreal where it is even more cold and snowy. I just hope the other dates don't get canceled. I'm looking forward to the rest of this winter wonderland adventure and seeing Canada.
NR!: With the release of With the Sun, do you have future plans to go on tour to further support the album?
Sunny War: My manager and I have discussed doing a Midwest tour and a West Coast tour this year. So I am definitely planning to play more. If you're reading this and you want me to play somewhere, just hit me up!
You can purchase With the Sun at Bandcamp.
Watch Sunny War's official video for lead track, "If It Wasn't Broken"
Watch Sunny War perform "Gotta Live it" for Jam In the Van
A younger Sunny War playing "Deep River Blues"