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Fingerstyle Guitarist Sunny War Wants Punk’s Honesty Back in Music

Sep 11, 2020

Fingerstyle Guitarist Sunny War Wants Punk's Honesty Back in Music

Guitarist and singer/songwriter Sunny War doesn’t necessarily miss performing live, in-person shows — she’s not even sure she ever really liked playing shows that much in the “before COVID-19” times at all. But, as she connects with BGS over the phone in preparation for another pandemic-tailored event, her Shout & Shine livestream show on Wednesday, September 16 (live on BGS, Facebook, and YouTube at 7pm ET / 4pm PT) her general feelings regarding the pandemic and its far-reaching impact on the music industry are very clear: It’s all just really weird.

She, like many creators in the March-and-April maelstrom that swallowed up any/all meaningful work for an interminable period of time, became depressed, distant, and took some time to work her way back into a creative mode that feels respondent to our harsh everyday without being bogged down in it. A punk-influenced and inflected lyricist, she’s once again turning to her songwriting pen as an outlet. 

While her peers turn to that same outlet to process many of the myriad daily tragedies and injustices we’re all so attuned to in this global moment, War instead pauses. “I kinda don’t like protest songs from people who didn’t do it before,” she explains, calling to task the frantic and frenzied rush to pivot records, releases, and pressers into more “appropriate,” digestible bits for a newly awakened, activist reality — and consumer. 

(Watch Sunny War’s complete Shout & Shine performance above.)

But War’s identity, her selfhood, as evidenced through every note of her idiosyncratically finger-plucked songs and through her carefully chosen words in her lyrical poetry and our conversation, calls upon her to challenge that propriety. “[Democracy] actually is working” she explains, noting hypocrisy and/or tone deafness in our roots music communities. “It’s working, it’s always been working. It just hasn’t ever been in our favor.” 

BGS: I’m a banjo player, I came up through bluegrass, and there’s something about your right hand in your guitar playing that’s really entrancing and relatable to me. It conjures bluegrass and fingerstyle, but it is so unique to you, it’s idiosyncratic. Where did your style come from? What influenced your right hand technique, how did it develop? 

SW: I think it came from mimicking banjo, actually. My stepdad’s friend played banjo, so I was around a banjo player sometimes growing up. The first fingerpicking thing I learned was “Blackbird” by the Beatles and that was the first time I thought I sounded kinda good. When I was a kid, I thought, “Wow! This [fingerpicking] sounds way better than just strumming a chord.” I never really learned a lot of chords, I still just play a lot of chords in first position. I was just playing C and G and D open and I thought, “Well now I sound like I’m really playing something.” 

I didn’t listen to blues until I was in high school and then I was kind of imitating country, blues, and my stepdad’s friend on banjo. Later, I was trying to be like Mississippi John Hurt; and I kinda wanted to be like Chet Atkins. But I couldn’t ever figure that out. 

I see plenty of folks in the scene who idolize Derek Trucks or Joe Bonamassa or even Molly Tuttle and Billy Strings who are coming up. There are these guitar fans that just idolize and adore them. Have you seen guitar fans trying to capture what you’re doing with your playing?

Not really? I don’t know. There are some people on Facebook and Instagram who message [me] and want to talk about my guitar style, but they’re usually just into old-timey blues stuff. Then we just talk about that. Sometimes they ask who I listen to. But I think [the implication is], “You’re really close to maybe being like this person I know of.” 

I can think of a lot of shredders out there, but I do the same kind of riffs in every key that I play in. I feel like I can say I really do fingerpick well, but I know people that really do it and can play as well with their left hand as their right. I’m not quite there. [Laughs]

It’s hard to talk about music and performing right now without acknowledging the giant, COVID-19 elephant in the room. It’s interesting to me that this moment of pausing, of stopping everything, especially in the music industry, has given artists a chance to refocus or realign their priorities – have you been thinking about the future? Thinking about the present? How has the pandemic felt to you? 

The first three months I was just depressed and drinking a lot and not doing anything. Then recently, I’ve been trying to write. I’ve been jamming with my friend Milo, who plays a lot of lead guitar on two of my albums, and we’re going to make some demos together. I’ve also been thinking about going to school, trying to get into some kind of two-year program. Since music might not [come back], there might not be live music for two more years. I’m thinking about getting a job. [Laughs] 

It’s daunting to wake up every day like, “I’m going to keep doing this now, because I believe — I think — it’s going to happen in the future.” It’s a lot! 

Yeah, it’s like, “Maybe music is just not essential…” You know? [Sad chuckle] 

Then, with the whole Zoom thing and the livestream thing, I’m just not really into it. I’m not enjoying it at all, it feels weird. It’s just like, sitting in a room by yourself, trying to make a video, and then you think, “Should I look into the camera? Should there be talking in between?” You’re trying to imitate a set at a venue, but you’re just sitting by yourself. It just feels weird! I would rather just play by myself, without a camera. 

I liked playing shows [before] kind of, but I almost didn’t even like that. At least it felt like there was a reason for doing it. I was talking to my mom and we both realized we used to watch concerts before, too. Just then it was an actual concert on film. Even that would be better! If there were somehow an audience in the livestream… I guess that can’t be, but it’s just awkward [without them.] Seeing a band play off of the energy of the room is more what it’s about.

Well, for your Shout & Shine livestream performance we’ll have to ask our audience to be “loud” in the comments! Use that clapping hands emoji! [Laughs] Who would you like to see as a guest on Shout & Shine? Whose music is inspiring you right now and getting you through the day-to-day?

I like Tré Burt! Amythyst Kiah, too. 

Have you heard of Yes Ma’am? They’re from New Orleans – the singer sometimes plays solo, but also has a band. They used to busk on the street in New Orleans. It’s just really good, a great kinda folky string band. 

I like the new Run The Jewels album. I listen to Elliott Smith still, and a lot of ‘90s music. I like Black Pumas a lot.

What would you like to see from the music community, as far as a response to this moment in our culture’s history — not only the racial injustice and righteous rebellions against police brutality, but also how divided and polarized our musical community is now. It’s like half people who want music to “remain apolitical” and half folks who are like, “Music has always been political, where the fuck have you been all along?” What do you see as the urgent need of our community to reconcile all of this? I know that’s a huge question.

I think it just needs to become about honesty again. That’s something I would like to see. I’m not really that into “Americana” music, but even so I feel like [Americana] musicians are going to be faced with not being able to let these issues go unaddressed anymore. I think that’s interesting. At this point, you can’t just put out your weird corny love song that’s not even about anything that happened in your life, but is actually just something that makes sense pop-wise and hit-wise. You should have to really be honest. People don’t necessarily have to be “political,” they can just write about all the emotions they’re going through. We’re all dealing with the pandemic and with Trump and with police brutality — it’s a lot. Even if people don’t want to write a song about why we should get rid of the police, they could at least write about how scared they are. I don’t know, there’s a different, new kind of folk that could happen about just being freaked out and unsure of your future. I love shit like that. 

I kinda don’t like protest songs from people who didn’t do it before. It’s just not hitting right. I don’t want your protest music if you weren’t writing it before. Whatever issue is being highlighted, it’s always like, “Yeah, we’ve BEEN talking about that.” [Expectant pause] This has been the conversation. I’m into punk, I’ve always liked protest music. As far as folk, I do like its protest music, but I mostly like punk or really politically-charged hip-hop. It’s kind of annoying when say, a really poppy country person who’s never said anything about anything is writing a protest song. It’s just cashing in. It’s corny. It’s weird. 

And another thing, a lot of people who are going out to these Black Lives Matter protests and stuff, I still don’t feel like they would treat me any differently than they normally would. I saw people posing and taking pictures. This is a weird thing to just be a trend. 

Like Breonna Taylor now being a meme.

Yeah. It’s offensive, it’s too much. 

And how many times they show those videos [of Black people being murdered by police]. There’s a lot of murder porn going around! People are saying one thing, but showing someone die every day. I was kind of like, “You know, I don’t think they would show a video of a white person being killed, over and over again.” A lot of things happening right now are really dehumanizing and I don’t think people can see it unless they really, really think about it. Or maybe put themselves in that position. It’s murder porn.

I know what happened. I don’t want to see this over and over again. I don’t need to physically see it to be angry about it. Think of all the bad this is doing to our psyches on top of everything else, seeing people murdered every day. 

But, a lot of musicians are “activists” now, I guess. I just… don’t really know what that means. They were going to put out a song anyway. That’s what they do for a living. Obviously they can’t just put out the typical love song — that’s what people always write about, love. That would be “offensive.” Or, it wouldn’t be “appropriate.” So they all have to change and pretend to be “activists.” It’s just a reflection of what’s trending right now. 

I just want to know: Are they actually going to change in a year? I’m curious to know how long the Black Lives Matter profile pictures are going to stay up. 

Photo credit: Randi Steinberger

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Fingerstyle Guitarist Sunny War Wants Punk's Honesty Back in Music
Fingerstyle Guitarist Sunny War Wants Punk's Honesty Back in Music