It’s no secret that great art comes from the margins. From those who are either pushed to create from inner forces, or who create to show they deserve to be recognized. Los Angeles-based street singer, guitarist, and roots music revolutionary Sunny War has always been an outsider, always felt the drive to define her place in the world through music and songwriting. As a young black girl growing up in Nashville, she searched for her own roots, looking first to the blues she heard from her mother’s boyfriend, and learning from a local guitarist. Moving to Los Angeles in her teens, she searched for herself in the LA punk scene, playing house shows with FIDLAR, and shoplifting DVDs from big box stores to trade at Amoeba Records for 80s punk albums. But here too she found herself on the outside, working to bridge her foundation in country blues and American roots guitar traditions with the punk scene she called home. She first made her name with this work, bringing a wickedly virtuosic touch on the fingerstyle guitar that sprang from her own self-discoveries on the instrument. But her restless spirit, a byproduct of growing up semi-nomadic with a single mother, led her to Venice Beach, California, where she’s been grinding the pavement for some years now, making a name for her prodigious guitar work and incisive songwriting, which touches on everything from police violence to alcoholism to love found and lost. Her new album, With the Sun, out February 2, 2018 on Hen House Studios, is the culmination of years of burning curiosity as an artist, the result of many wandered paths to find some new way to speak her heart. For the first time, she’s writing songs first and crafting the guitar work second, focusing on her own poetry and trying to tell her own story. She’s an outsider artist in the truest sense, living on the margins of the establishment and fueled only by her own creative genius.
To help achieve With the Sun’s larger vision, Sunny War turned to the ragtag group of Venice Beach musicians she’s fallen in with, mainly members of psych folk band Insects vs Robot, including percussionist Micah Nelson, fiddler Nikita Sorokin, and guitarist Milo Gonzalez. Produced by Harlan Steinberger at Hen House Studios in Venice Beach, which also doubled as the record label, the new album pushes and pulls between cleverly arranged orchestration and the DIY aesthetic that remains as Sunny’s throwback to her punk roots. For an artist with so many different influences, the album is remarkably cohesive, choosing to focus on Sunny’s songwriting and intricate guitar work. As an artist, Sunny borrows ideas and patterns at will from across the canon of American music. Her influences range from Elliott Smith, Black Flag, Joan Armatrading, and Tracy Chapman, to Robert Johnson (“To Love You” is her homage to Johnson’s “They’re Red Hot”), Elmore James, and Bessie Smith. “I feel like I am a blues guitarist, but I don't think I'm a blues artist,” Sunny explains. “I only use the scales and techniques that I know and the only time I was trained in music was on blues guitar. I really love Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt. I still like to listen to them to feel that there's nothing wrong with me playing the way I play.”
So much of what Sunny War does on her new album, With the Sun, is based on creating a new sounds from existing patterns. That’s why it’s difficult for her or the listener to pin down the influences behind each song. She’ll refer to some songs as bluesy, to others as mountain music, to some as punk, when they all sound like one thing: Sunny War. She’s a singular artist, driven by her own vision and compelled to write what she knows first. As she sings on the album, “It’s my life, gotta live it.” And this is her music.