Sunny War: Punk-Folk Guitarist on Optimism and Survival

Sydney Ward (aka Sunny War) isn’t your typical blues guitarist.

Raised in a musical family between Nashville and Detroit’s music hubs, at an early age she developed a unique acoustic guitar style. Influenced by such diverse genres as bluegrass, punk, and Delta Blues, she has come to gain notoriety for her ability to fuse some of the more technically challenging aspects of bluegrass picking with the spiritual catharsis associated with acoustic blues.

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An optimistic and free-spirited type who’s survived periods living and busking on the streets of Berkeley, and who’s spent most of the pandemic assisting the homeless population in her newly-adopted home of Los Angeles, Ward is the epitome of Millennial contradiction. At 30, she’s both socially conscious and politically active, as evidenced by her involvement with the Los Angeles chapter of Food Not Bombs. Yet, she remains ambivalent about allowing her activism to seep into her music. Nevertheless, throughout Covid, she’s stayed busy and committed to both endeavors.

Her fourth and latest LP, Simple Syrup, was released last March under the moniker of Sunny War. A collection of snappy and breezy blues-fueled numbers, the album is a testament to Ward’s ability to combine seemingly disparate musical elements that create a unique and distinctive sound while simultaneously invoking the emotive quality found throughout the Great American Songbook.

I caught up with Sunny War to discuss her musical influences, activism, love of Bob Dylan, and her views on finding success and fulfillment in today’s underground scene.

How old were you when you first discovered your love for music? 

I started playing when I was seven, but I wasn’t really passionate about writing songs until the ninth grade. That’s when being a teenager was really overwhelming, and I had to lose myself in music to try to survive everything. That’s also around the time when I started paying attention to lyrics in music as opposed to before when I mostly listened to things that were melodic.

Do you come from a musical background? What type of music were you exposed to as a child?

I definitely had a musical background. My uncle is a classical bassist, and my stepdad was a singer for a rock band, and his friends would be around and play guitar. So as a small child, I grew up seeing people playing and writing music together. And then, my mom would also take me to shows when I was a kid in Tennessee.

At what age did you start playing the guitar?

I got a guitar when I was seven but didn’t really start learning until I was ten when I went to a kid’s lesson at a community center in Nashville. The guitar teacher, his name was James Dixon, and he was a blues guitarist. Electric blues guitarist, and he was amazing. He was like a BB King kind of guy. At that time, I was already playing fingerstyle, and he would tell me ways to improve it and really encouraged me to keep playing and taught me other styles too. That’s also around the time I learned to play “Blackbird,” and also started mimicking one of my stepdad’s friends who was a banjo player, especially the fingerpicking.

What’s up with your stage name? Is there a story or a meaning behind it?

I’ve had the nickname Sunny since middle school, and my last name is Ward, so I kinda thought that “War” sounded better than Sunny Ward. It had more of a band name to it.

You have a very peculiar story because you spent some time living on the streets in Los Angeles. Was it right before you began making music? Can you talk a bit about that experience?

I had a folk-punk duo already before I started sleeping on the streets. It was me and my one friend from high school. Also, a lot of the other bands out here in the punk scene on the West Coast were squatters. And at the time, my mom and stepdad had divorced, and she was getting sober, and the both of us were living in a sober-living home, and that’s when I started to drink a lot. I started feeling like I would possibly get her kicked out of our living situation, so I felt like it was best for me to leave. Especially because I was making good money busking and all my friends were ‘gutter punks,’ so I was into that counterculture too.

How has that experience influenced your songwriting or the way you approach your music?

I think it’s helped it because I had a lot more time to think about things I probably wouldn’t have thought about if I lived a more normal life. There was a lot of traveling and meeting many people like train hoppers, and their life philosophies really shaped me because it felt like they made sense. It was like a lot of what people like Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan would sing about. At least that’s how it felt to me.

Your newest album, Simple Syrup, was primarily recorded before the pandemic. In it, you and your producer Harlan Steinberger chose to go for a minimal approach that used just the core of your live band. What drove that decision, and what was different about recording this album as opposed to your previous ones?

I wanted to play with the band that I had just started playing with and that I was hoping to go on tour with. I wanted a sound that reflected what we were like as a live group on the road, and that was a hybrid of how the three of us sounded together. As far as how the recording went, I’m not good really at telling people, “this is what I want you to play.” I just know what I’m going to play. So, we usually just played together a lot and waited till things just morphed together eventually.

The track “Its Name Is Fear” was the only one recorded during the pandemic. I’ve read that it has deep personal significance for you. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

It’s about Covid, and I wrote it in the first two months of lockdown. A lot of it has to do with all the paranoia that was going on around that time. How there was a lot of different and conflicting information about the virus and what was happening, and how there were people who thought it was some kind of conspiracy. There was a lot of information overload, and the song taps into that for sure.

In your songs, you’ve often been quite outspoken about social issues or the state of society in general. Would you consider yourself a socially conscious singer-songwriter in the vein of Joan Baez, Tracy Chapman, or Dylan?

I don’t know. Not really. I feel like they made it a point to talk about certain, specific things. They were committed to discussing social change and all, whereas I’m not committed to anything. I like to just write about whatever is going through my head at that moment. It could be love songs, for instance, but there’s no true commitment to anything in particular.

I’ve read that you’ve often said that you feel a kinship towards artists like Elizabeth Cotten or Mississippi John Hurt. But as far as current artists and genres, who do you admire or draw influence from?

I don’t really listen to music that’s similar to what I play. I listen to a lot of ’90s crust punk and rap. Also, a lot of dancehall. I also like a lot of Brittany Howard’s solo music or Valerie June’s early albums, but for the most part, I listen to music that’s really loud and has a lot of yelling and blast beats.

We’ve mentioned Dylan a couple of times now, and the video for “Mama’s Milk” seems like an homage to the old black-and-white short he made for “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Whose idea was that?

It was my idea. I’ve always loved Bob Dylan, and when I was a teenager, I became weirdly obsessed with him as a writer and just in general. Growing up, I was really into the younger Dylan, and I felt like there was a huge connection, and I wanted to write like him and as much as he did at that age.

How does it feel to know that you might finally be able to bring the new record to live audiences? Do you have any dates planned, or what’s the year looking like as Covid restrictions ease up and live music resumes?

I’m actually not going to play that many songs from Simple Syrup. Not unless I have gigs as a trio, and most of what I have right now are gigs as a duo. I honestly don’t want to play these songs without drums, so I’ll likely stick to other songs when my drummer isn’t there. As far as touring, a lot of stuff has popped up. We have a tour as a duo in July and then one as a trio in August.

I know that giving back to the community is something you’re big on, and for a while now, you’ve been working with the Los Angeles chapter of Food Not Bombs. Can you talk about that? Is there anything about that project that you’d like to share with your fans or audience?

Sure, we’re always in need of donations and volunteers, and people can go on our Instagram page, which is @LAFNB. We have all of our links there. Every Wednesday at noon, we go to Gladys Park in Skid Row, and I think it’s a good thing because people are now used to us being there, and we’ve created a sense of community. And it’s good because I used to see people in tents every day and I always wondered why there wasn’t any help for them. When I used to be homeless in Berkeley, I would get many of my meals at Food Not Bombs, and I felt like L.A. needed a chapter. Like there was a need for community outreach. Now, fortunately, we have two, and it’s a good thing.

Any advice you would give to any young or up-and-coming artists?

Always try things you haven’t tried and be open to new things. Definitely take advantage of the internet, whether it’s having a Patreon or a YouTube channel, because that goes a long way. And then, try to create a community, even if that means having monthly shows in someone’s backyard. Do whatever you can to reach people and do it independently and for yourself. People that love music love finding new bands, even if it is at a barbecue or backyard, and if they like you, they will follow you on social media or even support you by buying your music on Bandcamp. So just work on an underground community.

Follow on Instagram @sunnywarmusic

photos by Florencia P Marano

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