On her excellent new album, Sunny War creates folk music without limits
Sunny War’s music has been described as folk punk, but the artist said she moved past that tag a long time ago. Her heartfelt songs, often confessional and political in nature, are arranged with hints of jazz, blues, pop, rock, hip-hop and much more.
“I have an open ear to whatever comes along,” the artist said from her Los Angeles apartment. “I haven’t decided to commit to a single style. A song takes shape, depending on how the lyrics feel. I listen to all kinds of music, so stuff comes out in different ways. I used to call it folk punk, ‘cause I was in a folk punk band in my early 20s. Lyrically, I feel punk with a lot of songs because they can be confrontational but, mostly, I’m trying to figure out how to make music I like. Music that meets my own personal goals.”
The singer’s new album, Simple Syrup, is a solid, 11-song collection that showcases her impressive guitar playing and unique vocal phrasing. She can glide from melodic trills to deeper jazz inflections. Her vocals on “Like Nina,” a tribute to Ms. Simone, dance around the beat to add dramatic accents to her singing. “That wasn’t thought out,” War said. “I was just following the guitar riff, vocally. Nothing was planned out on this record. On my other albums – [With the Sun, 2018; Shell of a Girl, 2019] – I had a full idea for every song and we layered the tracks up in the studio. This time, I played live with my regular trio – drummer Paul Allen and bass player Ayron Davis. We made up the arrangements on the spot. I played them the songs, then we improvised. It was finished in 2019, but then the COVID thing happened. We couldn’t tour or promote it, so it didn’t make sense for it to come out.”
War writes timeless songs about the human condition, so nothing on Simple Syrup sounds dated. “Mama’s Milk (Spit Ya Back Up Again)” is a put down of a dysfunctional partner that rides a jazzy, syncopated beat that’s equal parts jazz, rock and hip-hop. Her intricate fingerpicking suggests the blues of the Mississippi Delta, while her playful vocals create elaborate harmonic accents that compliment the jittery melody. A cello plays plaintive sustained notes to support War’s tender vocals on “Eyes,” a ballad that finds the singer taking the blame for a failed relationship. “Its Name Is Fear,” a song about the impact COVID has had on the country, is a delivered by War and her acoustic guitar in a simple, straightforward manner that intensifies the song’s emotional impact. “I recorded that alone in the studio. I was in one room and Harlan [Steinberger, the album’s producer] was in the control room, but we both had masks.
“I made a living playing music before COVID and I’ve have had some virtual gigs and it looks like I’ll do more of them this April. Hopefully, by next year it’ll be back to where it was. I’ve done some commercials too, singing jingles for little 30-second commercials. It’s like being a voice actor. You have to perform in a style that compliments the corny lyrics they give you to sing.”
VIDEO: Sunny War “Mama’s Milk”
War said she’s been playing music for 23 years. “I started on a classical nylon string guitar when I was seven-years-old. A friend of my mom’s showed me the basic chords. I only listened to The Beatles and The Jackson 5, but my mom and stepdad listened to all kinds of music. I was also doing dance classes, drawing a lot and playing pool.
“When I was 12, I started using music as a way to deal with my emotions. That’s when it became a tool. It got hectic at home and school and it became therapeutic. I got a Les Paul Epiphone guitar one Christmas, with a little amp and an AC/DC guitar book. I started learning songs and figuring out stuff by ear – Bad Brains, Guns and Roses. I didn’t start writing till I got to high school.
“I write a lot of poems. Sometimes they can be songs. I go back and forth between writing a lot and playing guitar a lot. I don’t write down music, only the words. If I sing something a couple of times, I can remember it.
VIDEO: Sunny War “Lucid Lucy”
“When I was 15, I left home. I needed to get out and I wanted to travel. I was busking everyday and I didn’t need that much money. If I made 30 bucks I could eat, drink and get high. I had a sleeping bag and just wanted a sandwich and some beer. I started in LA, then went up and down the coast. I hopped trains, hitchhiked, got rides with Deadheads in vans and went anywhere. I was the typical teenage kid who wanted to drop out of high school, but my mom wouldn’t allow that. I told her I was going to play music for a living, so I didn’t need school or college. It seemed like a waste of money and time, but I do have some regrets about leaving when I did. Eventually, I got a cheap apartment, made some CDs and kept busking, selling the CDs on the street. People started offering me gigs in clubs and I started playing around town.”
Looking ahead to the warmer months as Simple Syrup was released to universal critical acclaim at the end of March, Sunny’s primary goal is to simply maintain a clear mind with which to enjoy the fruits of her rising stature in modern folk.
“These days, my biggest challenge is maintaining my mental heath,” she tells Rock & Roll Globe. “Allowing myself to be depressed enough to write a good song, but not enough to kill myself. My goal is to be able to make a living doing the things I like.”