The carnival atmosphere of the boardwalk in Venice Beach, California, seems an unlikely place to encounter a musician like Sunny War, who has been busking there since she was a teenager. The farthest thing from a grandstander, the young musician sings softly, with an aching intimacy. Along with her original songs she plays some well-known covers, but in such unconventional ways they’re nearly unrecognizable; in her hands, even the Beatles’ “She Loves You” comes across like a lonesome ballad. And then there’s her guitar playing—a startling take on fingerstyle technique, with melodic riffs dancing over bluesy bass lines. The overall effect is something like a blend of Skip James, Nick Drake, and Joan Armatrading, with a depth and subtlety more suited to the stage than the street.
War does play stages, too. Her latest album of original songs, With the Sun, came out in February, and when I catch up with her by phone at home in Los Angeles, she is just back from a North American tour with blueswoman Valerie June. But War credits the busking experience as fundamental to her style, and she still sometimes takes her battery-powered amp and Guild flattop out to the boardwalk.
“I think the best thing is that you learn how to be really rhythmic on your own,” says War. “Busking is like practicing with a metronome. I started playing a lot of covers that I don’t necessarily love, but I thought I’d probably get more tips if I played songs that people know. To play these covers, I’m imagining how the song is with a full band, so I’m always trying to re-create as much of it as I can with just one guitar.”
War, 27, got an early start on that guitar quest. Born Sydney Ward in Nashville (she got the nickname Sunny in middle school and later dropped the d in Ward for her performing name), she picked up the guitar at seven—at first trying to play lap style because she couldn’t reach across the body. Early lessons gave her a foundation in blues, and when she was 11, a guitar teacher showed her “Blackbird,” inadvertently laying the foundation for her idiosyncratic fingerpicking style—she uses only her index finger and thumb except when strumming. “That was the last time anyone really taught me anything,” she recalls, “and I just kept playing like that because I thought it sounded better.”
By high school, already well versed in hard rock guitar, War began to discover some of the masters of acoustic fingerpicking. “When I was a freshman, I got obsessed with Chet Atkins,” she says. “I can’t remember how I started listening to him, but I learned how to play ‘Mr. Sandman.’ The other stuff I was playing before—I was learning all the AC/DC songs and Slayer—I could learn by ear. It would take a while, but I could figure it out. But I couldn’t figure out Chet Atkins, and it kind of did something to me: ‘Oh, this is real guitar-playing!’ After that, I got more into Mississippi John Hurt and Elizabeth Cotten.”
All these fingerpickers were highly melodic, and War spent countless hours woodshedding with independent melodies and bass lines. Like Hurt, Cotten, and many acoustic blues players, she often picks the melody along with her vocal.
“I sing along to what I’m playing on guitar because it’s hard for me to sing without following something,” she says. “Or, a lot of times, if I write a song and I write the guitar part first, I can’t really come up with another melody for the vocals, so it’s just easier to sing along to what’s already there.”
The sounds that War coaxes out of her guitar are certainly not easy to achieve. Her thumb has the snap of classic country blues, and on top she adds ornate lead lines with rapid-fire hammer-ons and pull-offs. To my ears, on songs like “He Is My Cell” on With the Sun, she sounds strikingly similar to Malian masters like Ali Farka Toure or the guitarists of Tinariwen. But, as it turns out, War had never heard Malian guitar music until listeners on the boardwalk a few years ago told her about the resemblance—and then she looked it up on YouTube.
“To me it just sounded like a different kind of blues,” she says, “but it did remind me of how I play. I came to the conclusion that that’s just inherently how black people play guitar. I don’t know—I have no explanation for that, or even how much the old American blues guitarists sound like that. It’s really interesting that they could sound so similar and not have known of each other.”
The same is true of the similarities I hear between War and Joan Armatrading, especially in her unvarnished vocal style. Once again, War only recently learned of the pioneering UK singer-songwriter (and potent acoustic guitarist) from people on the boardwalk—and then she looked up Armatrading’s music and became a fan.
Like Armatrading’s music, the songs on With the Sun feel raw and vulnerable, often reflecting struggles through hard times. War has seen plenty of those. As a kid, shifting between the care of her mother and grandmother, she relocated every few years—Nashville, Detroit, Denver, L.A.—and spent much of her teen years living on the street and out of a van, a period she recalls hazily because of heavy drinking and drug use. “I’m a drunk and a dreamer/I’m a punk, closet screamer,” she sings in “Gotta Live It.” “The man I sleep with ain’t the man I love/His dysfunction fits me like a glove.”
Though her lyrical themes can be bleak, War’s songs somehow manage to be simultaneously mournful and comforting. As she asks in the poignant opening track of her new album, “How would you know if you had a heart/If it wasn’t broken?”
Following the independent release of With the Sun, War is on a creative roll but remains skeptical about sustaining a career as a performing songwriter. Over the years she has had some industry breaks—a Gibson endorsement, tour dates with Keb’ Mo’, gigs in South America and Europe, representation by a major booking agency—and she has also seen opportunities vanish as quickly as they arrived. “One time I made a lot of money on the tour,” she says, “and I spent it and it was gone, you know. And then I had to pay my rent, and I had to go busking.”
Whatever the future holds, she is adamant about not allowing the business to compromise her art.
“I feel like, if I want to make the kind of music I want to make, I should just expect to not be really successful,” she says. The industry may demand new songs and new albums at certain intervals, but “I do not agree with that spiritually. I would rather somebody wait until they felt inspired enough to write a whole album. I’m always going to be a musician, but I don’t know if I will always be able to sell music. I can’t train myself to think of art as a product.”
What Sunny War Plays
Her guitar is a 1989 Guild True American DC-1E NT, a cutaway acoustic-electric dreadnought, nicknamed Big Baby.
She uses D’Addario strings, .013s (mediums) or heavier. Light strings (and electric guitars in general), she says, don’t work with her aggressive playing style. For the most part, she stays in standard tuning, often using a Dunlop capo high on the neck. All of the songs on With the Sun are in standard except “Till I’m Dead,” played in open G with the capo at the ninth fret.
For busking, she plugs her guitar and vocal mic into a battery-powered Roland Street Cube.
This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.