Folk-punk singer-guitarist Sunny War is one of Los Angeles' great renegade phenomena. A sensation as a teenage street performer in Venice Beach, she has gone on to international renown and a solid series of releases that have established her as a significant artistic force. The 26-year-old musician's prodigious, largely self-taught finger-picking style stuns all in earshot, and her songwriting is an ideally fluid, wholly self-propelled method of expression that — as her high-impact new album, With the Sun, illustrates — the cats on Music Row back in War's hometown of Nashville would kill to manifest.
"I used to be obsessed with the guitar," War says. "I like to play, but feel like there is a lot of other stuff I should also be doing — songs, I love to write and am a lot more into writing songs now. I’d like to write for other people, try something different. I just met this 18-year-old who wants to be an R&B singer, maybe I’ll try to write for him. Or if I could find some metal band that sings about crazy dark stuff, I’d like to try and write something like that. I always imagine what could I try and do? Make a jump into a different style, to be experimental, I’d like to do that."
To call War a striking talent would be a drastic understatement. Her dazzling, mutant finger-picking style, born of the blues and claw hammer banjo, conjures a luscious blur of rolling rhythm and rich riff flurries bristling atop every note struck. Equally earthy and ethereal, her vocals project a wealth of psychic truth via her painstakingly wrought lyrics. It’s a knockout combination, and in the oft-artificial context of Los Angeles’ overstimulated pop music confectionery, War strikes a blow for authenticity that is undeniable and sorely needed.
"I started writing when I was 14, with my friend Brian Rodrigues," War says. "We had a punk band: the Anus Kings. But when I was a kid, I heard [the Beatles song] 'Blackbird' and really liked that sound, so I just kept playing like that. And I listened to Chet Atkins and Mississippi John Hurt, but what I do, really, it’s a made-up style. It’s like a banjo style, but I only use open chords. Instead of strumming a G chord, I play notes under it and it’s just more interesting — I have riffs I play on every chord so it sounds like there’s a lot more going on, but it’s all just open chords."
The result, a brilliant six-string collision between Merle Travis and Bad Brains' Dr. Know, is distinctive and arresting, and War perfected it on the city pavement, a public proving ground by turns mundane and exotic.
“Out on the street I’ve been robbed and some other stuff, which sucks, but I still like busking,” War says. “And I get a lot of gigs from busking, you get introduced to a lot of different people and scenes. I mean, if [I'm] at Venice Beach, just about everybody comes there at some point and you just never know who or what you’ll run into. One gig I got was playing ayahuasca ceremonies. I did that for a while, [and] I would’ve never tried ayahuasca otherwise. And I still do it because if I don’t, I’d have to get a job or something — when I don’t have gigs, I still have rent to pay."
With the Sun is a departure — while War’s long-established MO was to cook up her guitar parts and then drape lyrics upon them, here the songwriting came first and foremost. It’s a beautiful set, intimate, genuine and artful; War's gently evocative, soulful delivery elevates the already first-rate material. It’s gorgeously rendered poetic expression whose overall tone is somber, shadowy and fraught with profound depth.
"The songs are all just about life," War says. "If I sit down and try to write about a specific subject, it just doesn’t work — it has to be about what I am feeling. Most of the songs are sad because, at the time I was writing it, things were weird for me. I was in a shitty relationship, trying to be sober, and I was thinking about all that and also trying to escape it, so a lot of it is also very imaginative. I’d lock myself in a room, and I was escaping. 'With the Sun' is the only happy song, that was when we finally broke up — I was happy as fuck."
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War’s juxtaposition of graphic realism and bittersweet fantasy creates striking examples of message and metaphor, all put across with a mixture of refined execution, soul-deep involvement and raw emotion that combine for an almost hypnotic affect. But for War, this is already behind her.
"I like the album, but I am over it," she says. "I've already started writing the next one. I don't like to listen to most of my stuff — it's like I'm always trying to find something wrong, I can't enjoy it. For each album, I try to concentrate on a certain thing. I want the next one to be more melodic, more punk, but not so angry. ... I just don’t want it be boring.
"I have to create something specifically for me. I am obsessed with making the perfect album, that’s what I want to do, where you can just take off, listen to it and not skip a single song. I want to create the ultimate playlist."
Sunny War plays an album-release show at the Bootleg Theater (with Edith Crash and Samira Winter) on Thursday, Feb. 1, at 8:30 p.m.; tickets $10; more info here.