Last September, Sunny War stood in a parking lot in Bristol, Tenn., as part of the city’s annual festival, the Bristol Rhythm & Roots Reunion. She did the first four songs alone, proving that all she needed for accompaniment was her big acoustic guitar. Unlike most singer/songwriters, she didn’t strum it but instead picked out single-note, country-blues motifs as melodic as they were hypnotically rhythmic. That virtuosity was the first thing a listener noticed.
But gradually, one also noticed her singing, a deep, raspy alto as tuneful as the guitar parts, a voice that seemed to blossom from the instrumental soil. And the arresting sound of the vocals forced one to pay attention to the words, which wrestled with life’s paradoxes. In “Rain and Shine,” from her 2014 debut album Worthless, for example, she tried to convince her main lover that he shouldn’t be so upset that she slept with someone else. “It wasn’t love, it was sex,” she sang in a shrug-it-off deadpan. “You know I’ve got my needs too…. He could never take your place, but you were gone, and he was there.”
A diminutive woman, War wore a faded denim jacket against the chilly Appalachian evening. Her brown-print dress was short, but her laced-up black boots rose to her knees. She had gold-hoop earrings and frosted corkscrews in her hair. After the four songs by herself, she called up her road manager, Eric Nedrow, to play bass.
“I dated my past bass player,” War told the modest crowd, “but we broke up. I never believed it when people said you can’t date people in your band, but now I really believe it.” She paused and then added, incredulously, “He even took my dog.”
War’s new album, to be released this week, is filled with songs about that break-up. The record takes its title, Anarchist Gospel, from her belief that these spiritual issues of love, sin and faith are crucial topics but don’t have to contained by the rules of any established church. Let’s be realistic, she seems to say: love, politics, drugs and anything else we can become addicted to provide both transcendence and derangement. Finding the right balance is an earthly not heavenly matter.
“It’s not religious,” War says over the phone from Nashville, “but it’s trying to be uplifting in a choir-like, spiritual way. You can be an atheist and be spiritual, which to me is being really in touch with the planet and caring about people. I don’t believe in heaven and hell and the guy in sky, but we’re a god together. There’s a universal energy we have that’s godlike.”
The album’s sound benefits from the call-and-response gospel vocals of Kyshona Armstrong and the gospel organ of Jo Schornikow. Anarchist Gospel boasts the fullest sound of War’s six full-length albums, thanks to producer Andrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Deslondes, Hurray for the Riff Raff). It will get better distribution, courtesy of her new deal with New West Records, and should be the breakthrough that lifts her to a new level in the Americana field, a prominence that is long overdue.
The lead-off track is “Love’s Death Bed,” a kiss-off song so final in its decision that it takes the form of a wake for a dead relationship. Over the gospel harmonies, swelling organ and mournful harmonica, War sings, “Babe, I’m done, gotta run. I heard you loud and clear this time. But I hope it was fun being the last heartbreak of mine.” The same sound and attitude carry over into the next song, “No Reason,” which begins with War declaring, “Good intentions that you keep don’t change the fact that you’re a beast.”
But just when you think that War has given up on romance as an irredeemable illusion, she sings about trying to put a broken relationship back together on “New Day” and then sings with unbridled optimism about a newer relationship on “Sweet Nothing.” And it’s those paradoxical feelings that make the songwriting so impressive.
“I wrote ‘Love’s Death Bed’ the day after my ex moved out,” she confesses. “I had lost love, and I was mourning it. ‘New Day’ was written earlier, while me and the same ex were trying to work it out again, like maybe we could. And ‘Sweet Nothing’ was coming to the realization that I’m still interested in love in general, because it’s a basic element of life. Each song reflected what I was going through in real time as the songs were written. If I’m being honest, I’m going to contradict myself.”
War wrote all but two of the 14 songs on the album, but those two also respond to broken romances. “Baby Bitch,” from Ween’s 1994 Chocolate and Cheese album, is an over-the-top put-down of an ex-lover. War’s version even has a children’s choir sweetly singing the chorus hook, “I’m better now; please fuck off.” “Hopeless,” sung by Dionne Farris and co-written by her and Van Hunt, describes the morning when you finally let go of an ex and move on with your life. “You see I cried just a little too long,” War sings. “Now it’s time for me to be strong.”
“‘Baby Bitch’ is the ultimate petty, super-bitter break-up song,” War says. “I’ve listened to that song on repeat after every break-up I’ve ever had. My parents are super into Ween, and I used to play it on the boardwalk a lot. To me every Ween lyric is how I talk. And I’ve loved ‘Hopeless’ ever since I heard it in that movie Love Jones.”
Not all the tracks on the album are relationship songs. She sings about addiction to drugs, to work and to pollution on the songs “Test Dummy,” “Whole” and “Earth” respectively. But these songs too respect the complications of our spiritual needs and weaknesses and set those struggles within the sound of the songwriter’s secular gospel.
“I have nothing negative to say about drug use,” she says. “If you’re going to condemn drug abuse, you have to say something about fast food or workaholics; a lot of things can kill you. A lot of times addiction is just part of someone’s journey. Maybe they try things for a few years and then stop. Some people can maintain and never hit bottom.
“I couldn’t maintain; I got to the point where I was having seizures. I almost died. It scared me enough that I quit. But I did it wanting to get high. Even now I’m not completely sober. I’m sober from hard drugs, but I still drink and smoke cigarettes. I love singers like Tom Waits who smoke. On each album the voice sounds deeper and raspier.”
The core of her sound is still her alto voice and acoustic guitar, but now she plays electric guitar on the solos. She uses a full rhythm section on most songs and adds such exotic flavors as vibes, pedal steel, mellotron and tympani.
“In the old days,” she explains, “I just did my demos on my phone. But in 2020, I got Logic Pro software for my new laptop and suddenly I was able to add drums and bass tracks to my demos. I could sit there and wonder what the harmonies should be and that changed the kind of choruses I wrote. Now I was designing each song for a band, not just myself. On the song ‘No Reason,’ for example, the little ‘mmmm’s’ that go throughout the song, I couldn’t have heard those before, but now I could. That makes it more interesting for the listener and more fun for me.”
Sunny War was born Sydney Lyndella Ward in Nashville in 1990. Her parents were rock ’n’ roll fans, and her early interest in guitar was driven by a desire to play fast and loud like such bands as Slayer, Minor Threat, Ween and the Bad Brains. The family moved to Colorado and Michigan before winding up in Los Angeles, where she attended the performing-arts program at Alexander Hamilton High School.
“When I was 13, I thought I was really good on guitar,” War remembers, “and maybe I was compared to other 13 year olds. But at this school, I was challenged to go beyond rock ’n’ roll and learn about blues and jazz. I had to learn the history of the guitar. When I heard Chet Atkins and Wes Montgomery, I said, ‘Oh, this is more interesting than Slayer.’”
War wound up focusing on the country blues of artists like Elizabeth Cotten and Mississippi John Hurt. The way they would weave together a melody picked out with the fingers and a bass line plucked with the thumb formed the basis for everything War has done since. She bonded with a fellow student, the guitarist Brian Rodriguez and they formed a punk duo called the Anus Kings. But even an arts high school proved too confining for her.
“I left school early,” she says. “That was more a puberty thing. I was tired of being told I had to be somewhere. I went to Venice Beach for a while, then San Diego, then San Francisco, then Oregon. I was having a lot of fun. My mom would put out missing-person reports, and the police would pick me up and bring me home. Then I would take off again. When I turned 17, she gave up.
“The positive part was I was playing guitar on the street all the time, just so I could make enough money to eat. It made me more aware of what I had to do to connect with people. It gave me tough skin. The negative was the inevitable substance abuse. That’s the problem of being really young on the street. Because I had so much energy, I would wake up feeling fine, and that ended up being dangerous, because it made me feel invincible.”
She says a “drug-induced mental breakdown” landed her in jail for a year when she was 19 and 20. She moved from jail to a sober-living facility and there she kicked the heroin and meth habits she’d acquired. She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do next, but she was sure she didn’t want to sleep on the street again or use hard drugs. And she sure didn’t want to end up in jail again.
“I was trying to figure out my life and get my shit together,” she explains. “By the time I got my first studio apartment, I was 22. I had to stop busking, when I almost got kicked out of my apartment because I couldn’t pay rent. So I started working full-time as a janitor, but then I was depressed because I wasn’t playing music enough. So I made some CDs and business cards and tried to get real gigs. I was trying to figure out how to be financially stable enough to pay rent and not do a full-time, non-music job.”
Between busking, the occasional gig, the occasional part-time kitchen job and sharing the rent with as many as four roommates, she was able to make it work. She became part of a lively street-music scene in Venice Beach. And she realized that if she was going to move beyond busking, she’d have to develop some original material.
“I was always more of a guitar player,” she admits, “but I always made arrangements of other songs. I never got the appeal of lyrics; I only cared about the music. I didn’t care about words until I needed words. Being newly sober, feeling like I’d walked out on a life that was a lot more free, but knowing I couldn’t go back and stay sober, I needed to hear inspiring words.
“I really loved the lyrics of Elliott Smith, Meshell Ndegeocello, Nick Drake, Jeff Buckley and Gillian Welch. Most hit songs are pretty mediocre; they just follow a formula. But the stuff I think is good paints a picture for me. At first, my main goal was just finishing something and getting it to the point where I could play it for people. But I wasn’t happy with anything; I felt it was all terrible. Eventually you learn that you have to start with something and trust that the second version will be better.”
You can hear the results of her evolution as a lyricist on the new album. “Swear to Gawd” takes the Randy Newman approach of singing as someone other than herself. In this case it’s a sharp-tongued, disapproving parent: “Don’t be slamming doors like you pay bills in my house.” “Test Dummy” describes the drug war as it were a sci-fi scenario: “I was a human test dummy; I was an ape in the lab.” “I Got No Fight” is a harrowing confession of despair: “Sometimes the end’s the only light I see—why live a life no longer serving me?”
The vocal on that latter track is especially dramatic, hovering between angry resistance and helpless surrender. The bleaker the lyrics become, the deeper her alto seems to sink. It reminds one of Nina Simone, another singer/songwriter who explored the territory between fury and anguish. On her 2021 album, Simple Syrup, War wrote and sang the song, “Like Nina.” “Tell me that I look like Nina,” she sang, “got her same demeanor, same sad look in my eyes.”
“Nina really speaks to me,” War confirms, “not just her lyrics but also the way she sings. Like me, she was pretty eclectic musically and faced a lot of hardships that changed the trajectory of her life. She was also an activist, also a chain-smoking alcoholic, so I relate to all that. I like that she has a deep voice. That range is grimy; it’s morbid, it’s a mood. It makes me want to drink whiskey in the dark. It’s not angelic. It automatically makes me listen more, because I know this person has a story to tell.”
Back in Bristol, when War sang her 2018 song, “Gotta Live It,” her voice was even deeper than it was on the With the Sun album. “I’m still young,” she sang, “but I’m too old not to know when I’v? been fucked around. The caged bird sings, and th?y all love the sound.” She too has a story to tell.
“That’s what art does,” she suggests; “it can tell a story. That’s what 12-step meetings are for. People can say what they’re going through, and that can help you to understand what you’re going through.”
Watch Sunny War play live from the Paste Studio at The Hotel Cafe in Hollywood, Calif., on March 29, 2021.