Blues music, Appalachian music with roots in the British Isles, punk rock and more go into the potent music made by Sunny War. A young African-American woman who grew up in Nashville and Los Angeles and is now based in the lively Venice Beach, Calif., street scene, she’s a powerful and innovative guitar player and has a unique style of songcraft, too. Her new album With the Sun melds influences vast and deep into a set of songs that move both heart and mind – and occasionally your body too, if you’re so inclined.
Sunny War’s singing style is a bit idiosyncratic and might not immediately be your thing. But like any singer with a unique style, from Tom Waits to Joan Armatrading, if you stick with it a little bit, both the tunes and the lyrics will grab hold and you’ll find these songs stuck in your head.
Case in point: “How would you know you had a heart / if it wasn’t broken?” That’s the heart-rending refrain of the opening track “If It Wasn’t Broken,” which is as good as any to introduce her style in full: her muscular picking, her subtly emotion-laden vocals, and her lyrics that pull no punches. On the album it comes with a DIY sound of her fingerpicked guitar with fiddle and bass. This live solo video highlights her excellent picking.
Sunny War takes no prisoners. “I’m Human,” her response to the killing of black people by police, is as gut-wrenching as they come. This could be delivered as a punk anthem, with its two short verses and its anthemic chorus of “I’m human./I’m human./I’m human./Don’t shoot.” But her presentation of it as a simple folk song with Malian blues-style guitar picking makes it all the more powerful.
“He Is My Cell” is an anguished love song with a deep blues groove. “Violent” is a dark first-person portrayal from inside the mind of a domestic abuser. The album ends with two deeply sad songs about lost love. “Finn,” with its meandering guitar line, is a quietly heart-breaking homage to a good one who got away. And the final track is a bit of chamber folk; “Come Back” pairs Sunny’s pleading and promises to love better, with a string quartet-like arrangement, and her guitarist Milo Gonzalez’s subtle and just-right electric fills.
Fortunately, it’s not all sad and blue. “With The Sun” is a swaying soul song of love to the summertime, with piano leading the way and a light touch of cello and violin. The sounds of a playground introduce “The Change You Make,” then Sunny’s fingerpicking and the bass slowly emerge from the sounds of children playing in the schoolyard, and she sings about learning the most important things away from school, about not always trusting the rules, finding yourself, and being an agent of change. There’s ’70s-style folk in the song “Immortal,” languid, swaying folk-pop in “Static,” and a foot-stomping, mountain style, fiddle tune called “Til I’m Dead.” Plus she shows off anothers side of her huge range of influences with the Elizabeth Cotton-style picking of a Robert Johnson homage, the upbeat “To Love You.”
Sunny War is: as punk as they come; a blues-style guitarist; a street performer with a singer-songwriter’s heart. All of the above. I’d call her a major new voice in Americana.
(Hen House Studios, 2018)