“I made my first EP when I was in sober living. I was always thinking, ‘Oh, I’m working towards making an album’ or something. Even if I wasn’t thinking that, it would be something that a lot of people would hear [from me],” says Sunny War. “That’s an influence from the punk scene. A lot of the people I listened to were just local bands that nobody really knew about, but they consistently put out albums, and I looked forward to hearing them. I just like making and finding stuff that’s hard to hear.”
As War recalls her early days making music, it becomes clear that music and trauma have often gone hand-in-hand in her journey. War got her start as a clawhammer-style guitarist, and reluctant singer for her L.A. punk band Anus Kings (with co-founder and bassist Brian Rodriguez). “We thought we were going to get a singer, and we never did,” she says. “So, we were like, ‘OK, either you sing, or I sing.’ Because we had lyrics, I was writing songs.” The Anus Kings released Predictable Teenage Rebels in 2009, followed by two more releases, before War ventured out on her own.
As someone who busked in San Francisco and San Diego, as well as on the Venice Beach boardwalk to survive, finding any sort of success in music seemed far-fetched idea to War. But her 2018 album With the Sun, her blues-meets-punk debut, netted acclaim from places like NPR and the Los Angeles Times. The charismatic misfit, whose stage name captures her dichotomies—charming but weary, spirited yet vulnerable—had a profound ability to eloquently capture her darkest moments in lyrics that were neither maudlin or navel gazing.
On her sophomore release, Shell of a Girl, War turns her tumultuous personal history into a springboard for spiritual healing. Born Sydney Ward, War’s young, bohemian mother lived a nomadic lifestyle—as a child, War lived throughout the United States, through places like Colorado and Michigan—and the guitar was her only constant friend. At 13, she began running away from home to hang out, drink, and attend punk shows by artists like Trash and Bad Brains with the Venice street kids whose lifestyle she admired. For a while, it always ended the same: she’d be found by the police—often drunk—and be arrested and returned home to her mother. By 15, she was flunking out of school and questioning if she was too much of a burden for her harried mother, who was in the midst of a divorce from her stepfather. The pair were living in a women and children’s transitional home when an argument between War and the manager of the residence threatened to leave them homeless.
“I remember feeling like, ‘My mom’s going to be homeless because of me,’” War says. “I just felt like a burden. So it was a combination of feeling like, I’m not helping my mom’s situation, and I was also feeling really bad about not doing well in school and the fact that I was starting to drink a lot.”
War chose to leave for good, leading to a turbulent life on the streets where War alludes to traumas we don’t discuss. She was homeless for five years until heroin-induced seizures and lock-ups in jails and psych wards bottomed her out.
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