Live from Studio D: Sunny War's eclectic style fuses punk, folk, and the blues
Rolling Stone has called singer songwriter Sunny War, one of the best new voices in roots music.
Her latest album, "Anarchist Gospel," came out last month, and she's been on the road ever since promoting her eclectic style that fuses punk, folk, and downhome Delta Blues.
(Editor's note: we highly recommend listening to this story)
With the help of My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Allison Russell of Birds of Chicago, and Americana mainstay David Rawlings, "Anarchist Gospel" feels both a million miles away from Sunny War's time spent busking along Venice Beach, and a well-deserved acknowledgment of her undeniable talent.
Sunny's been playing gigs throughout New England this week, and she made time to visit NHPR's Studio D to play a few tunes, talk about her time spent on the streets of Southern California and life in general. Below is a transcript of her conversation with NHPR's Rick Ganley.
Sunny War: No one will ever be as mean as [the] people are to people playing on the streets. So it's like nothing could ever offend me ever again.
Rick Ganley: People not just ignoring you, but really being outright—
War: I've been robbed busking before! After playing for like five hours, I have had people steal everything out of my guitar case.
I've had people pay me to stop playing. Because I used to play in front of a restaurant and they were like, 'I'll pay you to just wait till we leave to play.'
This was the Venice Boardwalk where it's so loud and there's literally a whole drum circle behind me. It's like, wow, what I'm doing is so bad that I have to stop. But there's people that are drunk screaming. That'll hurt your feelings [laughs].
Ganley: That's a form of your style. And more about just like giving you a thick skin and saying that nobody's going to stop me here.
War: It makes you just feel like... 'I'm nothing.'
But then from there, you have to start playing for yourself.
Ganley : You know, you made a reputation in roots music, but it seems like your influences were kind of like straight ahead rockers. I mean AC/DC and Motley Crew when you're younger, but then 80s punk: Bad Brains, Minuteman. It's like that dichotomy — that's there's two sides of you in some ways.
War: Well, I like a lot of different music.
War: I only listen to anything as a guitar player. That's the thing. I never was like thinking of it as genres. I just wanted to hear the guitar in every kind of expression.
Ganley: Are there a handful of players you go back to each time though, and you study and you really watch?
War: Yeah, like Wes Montgomery and Chet Atkins. And I still like Angus Young.
Ganley: It's unique.
War: And AC/DC is kind of corny, but that's good guitar playing. Even Slayer like, that's really good guitar playing.
Ganley: It is. Well, there's virtuoso. I mean, it's like the technicality is really unbelievable.
War: A lot of metal is basically classical music. The effects make it different, but it's like, technically, that's classical guitar playing.
Ganley: So 'Anarchist Gospel' [is] the name of this record. Tell me about it. Why [the name]?
War: I think a lot of the songs are kind of trying to be uplifting. There's a lot of choir singing on the album, so to me it was kind of gospel sounding.
But I didn't want to be associated with with any religion or anything. Like, I like gospel music, but I feel like I'm not allowed to. So, like, 'Anarchist Gospel' is for everybody.
Ganley: I know you've been making music for years, but you're getting lots of press and attention now. And I was wondering what that's been like, and how that how that affects your writing and performing.
War: I still play the same awkward way I played before. [But] I'm trying to decide if I should have choreography or not.
Ganley: So you think it's the stages get bigger, it's like we've got to do more. We've got to be more animated. We got to run on the stage a bit or...?
War: Like you got to have something where you like, you sway back and forth. I don't know. I mean —
Ganley: You got to do what comes naturally, I think.
War: I just don't do things that seem natural to other people. I can't. I don't get it.
Ganley: You're super focused.
War: I don't move. I don't even move when I listen to music.
Ganley: You need a Motley Crew drums set that comes down and goes upside down.
War: Yeah, something like that. Maybe, just maybe practice. Stretch every day, learn how to do the splits.
Ganley: There you go.
War: And for one song, you jump up and you land on the splits.
Ganley: You want to give the audience their money's worth.
War: Give them the show.
Ganley: So you talked about some of your influences for guitar style, but what about vocal style? Not necessarily lyrics, but the way you sing?
War: I think Nina Simone and Tom Waits, but not because of how they sing, but because they're smokers.
So I just look up to people that just smoke and they just keep like, their voice just keeps getting deeper. That's what I'm into.
Ganley: A finely aged smokers vocal?
War: Yeah. That's what I'm going for.