If you’re familiar with Sunny War’s work, it might come as a shock to discover that she sees herself less as a roots artist and more as a punk who happens to play acoustic guitar.
Of course, her new, critically-acclaimed album Anarchist Gospel is full of sounds that suggest she’s been steeping in roots sounds her whole life. On opener ‘Love’s Death Bed’, for example, War channels a soulfulness so evocative it’s as if she’s tapping into gospel and blues traditions at their ancient, primordial roots.
A powerful creative presence, it’s no surprise that War is able to render songs like Dionne Farris’ ‘Hopeless’ and Ween’s ‘Baby Bitch’ in such a way that they fit the ambience and flow of the album - with no small help from producer Adrija Tokic (Alabama Shakes, Hurray for the Riff Raff). War doesn’t merely succeed in making those songs her own but goes a step further, weaving them back into a collective American musical fabric that goes back generations.
The range of her palette is abundantly clear throughout Anarchist Gospel. Much like Roberta Flack was able to glide effortlessly between jazz, folk and soul, War blurs the lines between an array of styles that all seem to just fall under her fingertips, tilting ever so slightly towards one genre one moment and a different genre the next, with an earthy twang that permeates the record like a thick, low-hanging fog.
With all that said, even listeners who marvel at the new album’s many shades might be taken aback to discover that War has yet more versatility that’s not covered by the album. The material she’s been working on since finishing Anarchist Gospel, she tells us, hews in an ambient worldbeat direction, while she’s also been working on beat production and starting a punk band.
Her picks for Songs That Changed My Life paint a portrait of an artist with a lot more to say.
Dave Rawlings’ guitar playing on this song really impacted me a lot - it got me more into acoustic music because it was very emotive. I wanted to capture that.
Later, in high school, this song led me to get into folk music and acoustic blues, which I’ve pretty much stuck with ever since. That whole album (Time the Revelator) is still one of my favorite records. The lyrics and the singing are amazing, but the guitar alone is so emotional that I keep going back to it.
[Rawlings makes a guest appearance on Anarchist Gospel]
I really loved ‘Thunderstruck’ because that was the first song I learned when I got my electric guitar. At the time, I thought there was something about tapping, where I felt like, wow, I’m shredding! That little lick isn’t that complicated, but to me it was like, I’m really playing.
I remember in middle school, there were three other kids who played guitar, and that was a big deal—we kind of had an after-school music program, so we’d have our guitars at school and at lunch we would show each other what we’d learned over the weekend. I pretended I was Angus Young all the time.
This was the first Bad Brains song I ever heard. I think I was maybe 12 or 13 and it just changed my life, first of all because they were black, and also because they were playing way faster than any of the stuff I was listening to, which was exclusively rock at the time.
It was actually a teacher who burned me a copy of that album (Bad Brains’ self-titled yellow tape). He was like, “I just want you to know that there are other people like you.” I learned how to play all of their songs, and that started my venture into listening to punk music and wanting to hear the fastest music I could get my hands on.
One thing about Bad Brains is that they started as jazz fusionists and they also played reggae. Both them and Ween are examples of people where genres don’t really apply. Their genre is just music.
I never wanted to be a singer. I only ever wanted to be a guitar player. I started appreciating lyrics and singing later in life, but I still mostly care about guitar— in everything.
This song by Nina Simone, though, always connected with me lyrically. It means more from where she was standing, dealing with segregation and feeling like she couldn’t be all the things she knows she can be, like she says in the song. But I feel like it’s still relatable.
To me, this song is just about being born in a certain position. People put each other in these boxes, and to just be able to do the things you want to do, sometimes you have to fight against all these barriers that are in place for you. You can have this intention, but the world tells you “no” and you have to fight against that. Every time I hear this song, I want to hear it again. It’s very simple, but it’s like an anthem.
It’s just the greatest riff of all time. If you haven’t had coffee, you just can’t get that much energy from any other song. When it gets to that line, “Before you see the light / you must die” and then the drums come in, it’s like time stops.
It still sounds exactly like it did to me when I first heard it, and it’s been 20 years. The feeling is the same. It doesn’t change. That says a lot - there’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t hold up like that.
Public Enemy was the first rap I was really, really into. I remember first recognizing the sample of the riff from Slayer’s ‘Angel of Death’ that they built the song around, but the song as a whole started my adventure with hip hop and appreciating a DJ because of Terminator X.
There’s something special about the time before everything changed and got super-digital and hip hop producers stopped using analog. I think Public Enemy were the best at that old classic approach. Even now, that whole album (It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back) is just timeless, and it led me to electronic music. I’ve been trying to make beats for a while now.
This song defines my whole youth - being a homeless punk kid in a squat house with a bunch of other young gutter punks, and just the chaos of that all. I mean, it’s about a squat house. It’s a gutter-punk anthem. Also, the guitar is sick on this song too.
I couldn’t understand how Atkins was playing his part on this song, so I tried to learn how to play it. That sent me down the path of jazz guitar players like Wes Montgomery. Atkins isn’t a jazz guitarist, but there’ are a lot of jazz sensibilities there, so listening to him got me into that whole world, and starting to learn about how crazy and technical you can be in that kind of context.
I was attracted to Chet Atkins for the same reason I was attracted to Slayer, but it was more clean and melodic. I couldn’t understand how he was playing chords and playing lead at the same time. I never actually learned how to play what he was playing, but it really opened my mind up to the possibilities.
This one’s just sick. They’re mixing punk and hip hop and industrial music. I love Ho99o9 for the same reasons I love Public Enemy, but also for the same reasons I love Bad Brains. They give me everything that I need. They have live drums and the drummer plays thrash on some songs. They rap, but they also scream, and they also sample punk guitar. It’s everything that I need from music.
This one actually gave me the idea to have the kid singing the chorus on the Ween cover on my new album. This band does that same kind of thing with ‘Sunshower’, but they do it very beautifully.
The whole album (self-titled) is really awesome, but this is my favorite song on it. It always gets stuck in my head. It makes me feel like I’m on a tropical island or something. In a lot of ways, it’s one of the most creative songs I’ve ever heard. The album is a disco album, but this song isn’t a disco song. It’s very colorful, very whimsical. I could listen to it over and over again. It’s just a perfect song.
Anarchist Gospel is out now via New West Records. Sunny War is one of Holler's 23 artists for 2023 - check out the full list here.