Sunny War is far more than just a blues guitarist. Since receiving her first guitar at age seven, War has cultivated her sound into what she describes as a tribute to early-1900s country blues. Alongside this, she recently started the downtown LA chapter of the nonprofit organization Food Not Bombs, where she serves vegan meals in Skid Row. She’s also in a punk band with her high school friend Brian Rodriguez, called Anus Kings, whose hit album will be reissued in July.
In her interview, War gets into the creative process behind her last album, Simple Syrup; her musical influences growing up; and how COVID-19 has affected her work with Food Not Bombs.
Let’s start by sharing a bit about your music background. How old were you when you developed your interest in music and guitar?
I’ve wanted to play guitar for as long as I can remember, and I’m sure that it’s because my stepfather was a musician. A lot of my parents’ friends were guitar players, and according to my mom, I asked for a guitar when I was three years old. She finally got me my first classical guitar when I was seven years old, and I remember it being too big for me at first. I actually spent the first two years playing it flat on my lap like it was a pedal steel guitar.
I started a folk-punk band called Anus Kings when I was fourteen and mostly started out playing all-ages punk shows. Around the same age, I also started a ten-year career as a busker on the Venice boardwalk. I really developed as a performer from all my years playing on the street. Between Anus Kings and my solo stuff, I have recorded nine albums worth of original material.
How would you describe your sound?
I’d describe my sound as a tribute to the country blues of the early 1900s with contemporary lyrics or simply folk music.
Who would you say has been your biggest influence when it comes to guitar and your songwriting style?
I would have to say my biggest influence on guitar is Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten. I first discovered her when I was 13 years old. I really started getting into old blues; that’s when I learned that she was around my age when she wrote the song “Freight Train.” I was very inspired. Just a couple of years after learning to play “Freight Train,” I actually started hopping freight trains! So the song has become even more meaningful to me over the years, especially her unique style of playing guitar.
When did you first pick up the guitar, and what drew you to that instrument?
I got my first guitar when I was seven, but as I said earlier, my mom says I had asked for one since I was three. It is most likely because so many of her friends were musicians, and I had been around guitar players my whole life. My mom thinks it’s cos I saw The Rocky Horror Picture Show… but who knows?
Walk us through the process of how you wrote your last album, Simple Syrup. First, what was the inspiration behind your new album, Simple Syrup? And, second, what were some of your highest moments, and what were your most challenging moments.
There were a lot of different inspirations for Simple Syrup. A few major ones were COVID 19, my personal relationships, and dreams. While writing Simple Syrup, I focused on lyrics more than music for the first time. In previous albums, the guitar parts were most important to me, but with this record, all the songs started with lyrics. I would write little poems on my phone constantly, and I was trying different writing exercises that my mom suggested. The main exercise was forcing myself to write a couple of poems a day or to write anything for at least an hour a day. The biggest challenge was trying to write music for the poems. One of the other big challenges was learning how to appreciate simplistic chord arrangements and what was best musically for the lyrics.
What was the recording process?
I wrote most of the songs alone in my old apartment in downtown LA. I would record demos of the songs on my phone; then I’d go to Hen House Studios in Venice Beach and share my ideas with my producer (Harlan Steinberger) and bandmates (Aroyn Davis, Paul Allen). The majority of the album we recorded live as a trio.
Would you say your passion for activism and social justice comes through your music?
I love protest music and do have some songs that are political, but I never go out of my way to write about social issues. I try to stay honest when I sit down to write, and a lot of times, I just want to escape reality. As a Black woman, sometimes it feels overwhelming to write poetry every time someone Black is murdered by the police. Although I’d like to be “that” artist, there are plenty of secret songs that I’ve written out of anger, but no one will ever hear them because I’ve decided they lacked anything comforting for traumatized listeners. I will probably challenge more social issues through music in the future, but the more serious the topic, the more time I tend to put into my piece.
Tell us a little bit about your nonprofit Food Not Bombs’ response to COVID-19’s impact on the homeless community in LA.
I started the Downtown Los Angeles Food Not Bombs chapter before COVID in January of 2020. We started out serving vegan meals every other Wednesday in Skid Row. When COVID arrived, we took a few months off but resumed on June 10, thanks to the courage of my buddy Saku Devi. She came up with the idea of serving sack lunches instead of our usual potluck-style lunch. With all of us (Food Not Bombs volunteers) being unemployed due to COVID and not having much to do, we decided to do it every Wednesday instead of every other Wednesday. Although work has resumed for many of us, our volunteer group has grown, and we are still serving lunch in Skid Row every Wednesday! We’ve had lots of benefit shows and fundraising to keep this thing going. Lots of folks in Los Angeles have donated their time and resources to our Food Not Bombs endeavor.
What is one thing you want your fans to leave with when they listen to your music?
When fans listen to my music, I want them to feel calm and a sense of relaxation.
We hear you will have a surprise reissue of an album with your punk band, Anus Kings, for your fans. Tell us a bit about Anus Kings (love the name, by the way, lol) and what fans can expect to be different on this reissue.
Anus Kings is a punk band with my friend Brian Rodriguez on bass and myself on the acoustic guitar. We met in our freshman year of high school and immediately bonded over our love of ’80s hard rock and a desire to have a punk band of our own. We were both poor teenagers who never had access to practice spaces or the gear that we needed to have a real punk band, but we still made albums and still played shows. We were known as a Folk Punk band even though we never intended to stay acoustic forever. The reissue of our album Seems You Haven’t Learned will be out on July 21 via Hen House Studios. Harlan Steinberger re-mastered the album, and July 21 this year marks the album’s 10-year anniversary. We were young Black and brown punk rock kids who dreamed of having huge amps and a thrashy drummer. We had an acoustic guitar, electric bass, and a practice amp. I think there’s something sweet about how we worked with what we had, and the teenage angst isn’t lost in the quietness.