By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
On the tiny YouTube screen is a close-up of a diminutive black woman who looks about 12 but is, in the video, 16. Her hair’s in cornrows; she has a nose ring and three piercings between her eyebrows. She plays a beat-up acoustic decorated with a Bad Brains sticker and a taped-on definition of the word Liberal.
She’s harnessing her own arrangement of the traditional song “Deep River Blues” in a claw-hammer style: Her right thumb plunks the bass part while her forefinger upstrokes notes and chords, leaving the other three fingers unused. A banjo technique, it’s also used by acoustic blues guitarists. Her fingers are long and strong — Robert Johnson hands — in jarring contrast to the waif they’re attached to. The walking bass line sounds like a hammer striking piano keys in perfect meter, while the fills are dynamic flurries — like cluster bombs. I haven’t heard a young guitarist this dexterous and ass-kicking in eons.
“Sunny War is going to blow your mind,” Gerry Fialka said to me more than a year ago in a portentous voice. “She’s like no one else.”
Fialka is a Venice, California, cultural revolutionary, who produces several ongoing word and film events, including the PXL THIS Film Festival. He also agitates against the gentrification currently crushing Venetian bohemia. When he says a musician is going to blow your mind, you follow his links to YouTube.
There’s that voice. While clearly the product of a very young woman, War has the sob and throb of Billie Holiday — if Lady Day had emerged in Mississippi and not Harlem during the Depression. As if Bukka White, not Lester Young, were her mentor. Like Billie, War undersings. She doesn’t push the notes — the notes push her. “Her voice is like an open wound,” observes Moira Smiley of vocal group VOCO, “as if she has a physical need to sing.”
Most of the songs are originals, some (like “Police State”) political, others chronicle, as it turns out, her wayfaring, chaotic biography. “I’m the man of my house/To take care of my mother/Ain’t no father/Ain’t no brother,” she sings in “Man of My House.”
While the blues is her foundation, the singer is by no means a revivalist. Some tunes have the staccato chord structure of punk rock, others are utterly idiosyncratic. Peter Stampfel, co-founder of the legendary Holy Modal Rounders, is a fan: “I really like how her songs don’t fit in the standard blues forms, which I began getting tired of about 40 years ago. I like irregular forms and blues approaches to non-blues songs. I’m extremely gratified to see a young blues person breaking out of that straitjacket.”
Recently, I was invited to meet her at Fialka’s Mar Vista criblet. Sunny War is shy — bordering on painfully — and it’s clear she’d rather sing than talk, but she’s friendly, plays a few songs and demurely answers questions. (Some responses are so oblique you wonder whether she actually recalls her own life.) Born Sydney Lyndella Ward 18 years ago in Nashville to a peripatetic, bohemian, single mother, they moved every couple of years, to Colorado, Michigan and California. “But I don’t really know the order,” she shrugs, recalling “a lot of new schools.”
Replying in an affirmative “Mmm-mmm” when asked if she likes road life, the veteran busker’s been in L.A. for most of the last five years, leaving for months to sing on the streets of San Francisco and San Diego. In L.A., she gigs on the Venice Beach boardwalk and various farmers markets. (She sometimes plays in a duo called the Anus Kings, who gig at downtown punk club the Smell.) She’s squatted, lived on the streets and out of her van with her boyfriend, Patrick, and is currently staying at her manager’s pad. “Now I’m so used to it that if I’m somewhere for a whole year, I get really uncomfortable,” she explains. “So I have to go somewhere else.”
She can’t pinpoint where she picked up her startling Delta authenticity but credits Nashville and says, “My mom’s boyfriends listened to blues.” War began playing guitar around age 7, is largely self-taught (“I have tricks that I do and my own system for every chord”) and began fingerpicking while mimicking the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” (“Before that I was just playing basic blues chords.”) I mention that the Beatles learned fingerpicking from Donovan, to which she guilelessly queries: “Who’s Donovan?” She attributes the sob in her voice to the fact that “I smoke a lot” — a typical self-effacing Sunnyism — but there’s a genetic thread that reaches back through time.