Singer, songwriter, folkie, punk, activist – Sunny War is all of that and so much more. It’s been a journey – having relocated from Nashville to Los Angeles with her mom and actor-stepdad when she was 12, she formed the folk-punk band Anus Kings in 9th grade with friend Brian Rodriguez.
“We would just play shows with other teenagers and stuff,” War says. “I dropped out of school like two years later, and then I started busking on the boardwalk. But I would say my first time playing shows was in the Anus Kings band. Then from busking, I was homeless and I was living off of that, and I just got better at playing, just from playing so much. Then I got invited to play shows sometimes, from the boardwalk. Different people would be like, ‘I’m having a barbecue – I’ll give you $50 to come and play your set.’”
As she entered her 20s, War was still busking to pay her rent – achievable because she had five roommates. But still, the stress pushed her to take a regular job at a mall. Unfortunately, the job left her with no time to play music, and she found herself in a not uncommon but impossible situation.
“I was just going back and forth – either I have to work somewhere else and I can’t play at all, or I have to figure out how I can play and be able to pay my rent,” War says. “So I started being more serious, having CDs to sell, and having business cards when I was busking so I could be invited to play gigs, and I slowly started playing more gigs. When I met my manager, who was also a booker, he would invite me to play sometimes. I guess it got more professional, just by playing more at venues.”
Now solidified as a solo artist, War describes her sound as “bluesy, folky, singer/songwriter stuff.” She also dabbles with banjo and enjoys blending genres. In addition, she occasionally picks up an electric guitar and plays a show with old project the Anus Kings.
“We played last year or the year before,” she says. “We’re actually about to re-release all of our records officially. We only had it on Bandcamp, so we just talked about it yesterday, ‘Let’s just put this out.’ So it’s gonna be online soon.”
March will see the release of her album Simple Syrup. We ask if she’s pleased with the way it turned out and she’s refreshingly, surprisingly honest.
“I mean, there’s one song on it that I think, ‘Deployed and Destroyed,’ I like it but I think it’s a little bit corny,” she says, with a laugh. “But I like it I guess. The rest of them I like.”
The single “Lucid Lucy” dropped earlier in February, and War says that it’s probably the prettiest song, and the most thought out, on the album.
“It’s just about lucid dreaming because I just believe that our only chance at happiness is to be asleep,” she says. “So it’s just about, no matter what is happening, you can maybe train yourself to enjoy sleeping.”
The Simple Syrup album was largely written before COVID hit, but there’s one song, “It’s Name is Fear,” that was written during the pandemic and added on at the end.
“I wanted to have a record at the beginning of 2020, because I had a lot of touring planned,” she says. “But then I just had to sit on it. At first, it was going to be a double album, and the EP that was released called Can I Sit With You was also going to be a part of Simple Syrup. But it was like, ‘now that there’s no touring, let’s put the EP out,’ so we took four songs out of the album. It’s weird. I didn’t know what to do. I was just like, ‘might as well put it out.’ But I feel like it’s over a year old. There’s some stuff that was added recently, it’s just all over the place. I don’t know.”
Having been homeless herself for a period during her teens, War knows firsthand the hardships faced by L.A.’s homeless community. So while living downtown, near Skid Row, she was inspired to start a branch of Food Not Bombs — a loose collective of vegan and vegetarian groups that provide food to those in need.
“There was a time I was drinking myself to death, and there was a Food Not Bombs in People’s Park, Berkeley, that would come once a week,” she says. “That was the only time I ate for months. I was blacked out for months. I probably would have died, because I really didn’t eat besides that once a week that they would come to the park. So I thought we should have that. I didn’t know there was already a Food Not Bombs group in L.A., but we just have our own chapter, the Skid Row chapter. It’s an anarchistic organization because other groups are from a church or something like that. It’s not about trying to push something on you or whatever. It’s just like coming together and having a meal once a week.”
It’s an admirable, selfless endeavor, and points to the authenticity, the honesty, that courses through War’s work. She’s currently driving towards that March album release and then, obviously due to the lockdown, everything is up in the air.
“I have some shows in April – I don’t know what’s going to happen, but as of now they’re booked,” she says. “There’s some other stuff in the summer. I’m supposed to go to the UK. I’m like, ‘really?’ I have no idea what’s going on. I thought they weren’t allowing Americans. A lot of the gigs that were cancelled last year were rescheduled for this year. I guess depending on what happens with COVID, we’ll see.”
In the meantime, she’ll play the occasional livestreamed show even if she hates that they sound shitty.
“If people are so desperate that they’re watching people play on Zoom, then we might as well do it,” she says.” I know some people are actually really, really isolated. Sitting in their room watching concerts on Zoom. OK, fine. Fuck it.”
Sunny War’s “Lucid Lucy” single is out now, and the Simple Syrup album is out March 26.