Venice’s music community has embraced Sunny War, a singular talent rooted in the blues
By Bliss Bowen
Most artists with new releases hew to talking points, a business-forward mentality that imposes a promotional structure on interviews that can drain the humanity from discussion about something inherently personal — their music. But longtime Venice Boardwalk busker Sunny War doesn’t talk marketing speak.
She doesn’t indulge in customary social filters either. The petite guitarist and songwriter interrupts her sentences and punctuates comments with “I don’t know” as if to qualify her ownership of her experiences. She laughs at herself frequently. The resulting paradoxical effect echoes her music: sly yet shy, tough yet vulnerable, rooted in blues while resisting genre tropes.
Recently returned from touring with eclectic Americana darling Valerie June, War released her deeply layered album “With the Sun” in February; “Particle War,” a quasi-psych-folk collaboration with Particle Kid (aka Venice local Micah Nelson), came out last month. She also has a side project with soul artist Chris Pierce, War & Pierce, with whom she’d just performed at the Joshua Tree Music Festival when we spoke Sunday night.
Born Sydney Lyndella Ward to a “bohemian” mom, War found refuge from her nomadic childhood and bullying classmates in her cat and guitar. By 13, settled in Nashville, she was writing songs, schooled in blues by her mother’s boyfriends. By her mid-teens she was busking in Venice, more or less homeless by choice. Fellow musicians and passersby were attracted to her distinctive clawhammer style and fingerpicked covers of punk tunes, Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” and the Beatles’ “She Loves You,” as well as childhood-inspired originals like “Police State.”
Between-song banter is minimal. She communicates with her guitar like it’s an extension of her thoughts.
“A lot of times I hear a younger player and immediately know, ‘OK, this person’s into Blind Lemon or Tampa Red or Merle Travis … most never move on to making it their own,” observes Venice resident Rick Holmstrom, a formidable guitarist and bandleader for soul/gospel legend Mavis Staples. “Sunny War is different. Totally unique. She’s made it her own. That’s huge. I mean, sure, I hear Elizabeth Cotton and maybe Rev. Gary Davis or maybe Blind Blake, but she meshed it all into something else. She’s got that thumb-and-forefinger picking thing going, but she throws in these long single-note runs that run alongside her thumb perfectly.
“It’s like she’s walking a tightrope and you think she’s gonna plunge but she just jumps off the rope, does a little ballerina flutter thing with her feet and continues on with a sly grin. In a weird way, her complete-package-at-a-young-age thing reminds me of how Ry Cooder bundled all of his influences into his own sound right from the start.”
“I was instantly moved by Sunny’s authentic spirit and musicianship,” Pierce says. “We started making music together on the first day we met. Now, several years later, I consider her family — like a sister that you know is destined for creative success, no matter where the road may take her.”
By the time she made her 2013 EP “Worthless,” War had extracted herself from the street life that’s part of her local legend. Fuzzy on numbers and biographical details, she guesstimates she was rotating between San Diego and San Francisco from 2005 to 2008, before settling in Venice.
“I went to jail for a while up north,” she says with a shy laugh, “2008 or 2009, and after that I had court dates. I wanted to try to get a job. But then, I don’t know, I had a bunch of other problems. I had to get sober. I got my GED, and I was maybe gonna learn how to drive. … I was doing everything wrong.”
War’s tango with the judicial system can be summarized as: stupid shit that happens when you’re young, fucked up, and too broke to breathe. Wracked by seizures, weighing 80 pounds, she checked into a sober living facility. Since emerging, she’s become more prolific and musically focused.
“With the Sun,” recorded at Hen House Studios in Venice with local resident/producer Harlan Steinberger and Micah Nelson, Milo Gonzalez and Nikita Sorokin from Insects vs Robots, flows like melodic ear balm despite themes of depression, violence, sobriety and “accepting adulthood.” War’s playing and vocal phrasing reflect the influences of Joan Armatrading and Billie Holiday, though smoking’s deepened her tones.
“I still don’t feel that comfortable singing,” she admits, adding that she’s been listening to “voices that are characters” like Tom Waits and Macy Gray. “I like how Elliott Smith sings and I feel like I can hear his personality. I think I’m trying to get in touch with my own personality. …
“I think it’s a beachy album, as much as blues,” she adds, citing the studio’s relaxed communal vibe. “Everybody in it is somebody I met from Venice.”
The title track’s loping, Malian-influenced guitar lines reflect time spent listening to Tinariwen, and past gigs playing at ayahuasca ceremonies according to a shaman’s dictates (“minor chords had to be paired with major chords”).
The wise “If It Wasn’t Broken” and “Gotta Live It” (“I’m a drunk and a dreamer/ I’m a punk, closet screamer”) have been featured in War’s live sets for a couple of years.
In 2016 she composed and posted a raw cellphone demo of “I’m Human” on YouTube after seeing a video of a black man being shot in the back by police.
“It’s really messed up, because I can’t remember what specific incident that I saw,” she says. “They made him turn around and then they shot him while he was turned around. A lot of stuff was happening like that, a lot in a row.”
“Till I’m Dead” is blues (“I don’t wanna live and I don’t wanna die”) without being straight-up blues.
“I didn’t feel suicidal but I felt really empty,” she explains. “I felt like I have no money and no friends. [Chuckles] I was trying to think of things that I could be happy about.”
With this album she consciously strove to “think of songs more as poems,” rather than using lyrics to “decorate” songs. But channeling emotions through music remains her reflexive response to life.
“I don’t know what else to do,” she says. “Now I like writing more, or I feel more like a poet. I want to be a poet. … I don’t know. I feel like I could be obsessed with playing probably for a long time.”
Sunny War plays at 8 p.m. Sunday (May 27) at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Country bluesman Todd Albright also performs. Tickets are $12. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit mccabes.com.