Sunny War Revisits Her Early Career In New Album
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
* Sydney Ward got her in start music when she was a teen busking on the boardwalk of Venice Beach, Calif. Now she's on stage as Sunny War, a successful musician in her 30s who's celebrated for her guitar skills.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUNNY WAR'S "LIKE NINA")
SIMON: This is from Sunny War's sixth album, but her first, which she made 10 years ago, never got its public release until now. NPR's Sophia Alvarez Boyd has her story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUCID LUCY")
SUNNY WAR: (Singing) Lucid Lucy, you'll see the stars again.
SOPHIA ALVAREZ BOYD, BYLINE: Listening to Sunny War's most recent album, "Simple Syrup," it's hard to believe that she was once in a punk band.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PUNK ROCK GIRL")
ANUS KINGS: (Singing) I met a girl there, and she almost knocked me dead. Punk rock girl, please look at me. What do you see? Let's travel around the world just you and me, punk rock girl.
BOYD: But that was how War and her bandmate Brian Rodriguez bonded when they met at Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles.
WAR: We were both in this guitar class together. And I think we just bonded over, like, '80s hardcore. He was obsessed with Minor Threat. And I was really into Bad Brains. And we decided that we had to make the greatest punk band ever. But we didn't have electric guitars or amps or rich parents, so we had to have a punk band that was acoustic (laughter).
BOYD: They named their band Anus Kings.
BRIAN RODRIGUEZ: She had this Stella guitar, and she came up to me, and she was like, hey, Brian, you want to hear this song I wrote?
BOYD: And Rodriguez still remembers the first time he heard Sunny War play.
RODRIGUEZ: I was just completely shocked that this tiny, silly little girl in a Clash T-shirt was now just doing this technique that I've never even seen before or heard before with the crab claw fingerstyle and playing, like, blisteringly fast.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANUS KINGS SONG, "WOE IS ME")
BOYD: Her skills stunned LA Weekly music critic Michael Simmons, who wrote he hasn't, quote, "heard a young guitarist this dexterous in eons." She's also been compared to Robert Johnson. And she uses a technique - no guitar pick, only her fingers - that's favored by some of the most legendary blues musicians. Sunny War has played the guitar since age 7, but she honed her skill on Venice Beach.
WAR: I always had my guitar with me because I had to have my guitar for school. And then I met Gregory Kruse, who's a street musician on the boardwalk, and he sounds a lot like Johnny Cash. So I would go and listen to him, and then I would, like, jam with him. And that was my first time playing on the boardwalk. And I think - I was, like, 13.
BOYD: But there were dangers there as well.
WAR: In 10th grade, I dropped out because I was just drinking a lot and, like, failing all my classes. And I just kind of felt like a burden, like, to my mom. And then also, I met a bunch of gutter punks on the boardwalk. And I thought, like, I need to be an anarchist, and I need to hop trains and live with these people. This is the lifestyle I want.
RODRIGUEZ: She had kind of run away and then come back to school, like, pretty early on from playing music together.
BOYD: Bandmate Brian Rodriguez.
RODRIGUEZ: I wouldn't see her for a long time. And then she would give me a call, and, you know, like, we would start playing again. Through that process, there was a lot of times that she would be either on something or drinking too much. It was really hard 'cause more and more, I wasn't really seeing, you know, my friend.
WAR: My mom didn't trust me to be in her house. None of my friends were really talking to me. I was, like, gone. So I know what it's like to feel like because I'm so deep in my addiction, nobody I know wants to talk to me anymore.
BOYD: Sunny War busked to survive all along the California coast.
WAR: There was a time in Berkeley that I was in People's Park basically just drinking myself to death to the point where, like, my stomach looks like I was pregnant because I was drinking so much that I was just - I really was going to die. I can't explain it. The only time I would eat was when Food Not Bombs came to People's Park.
BOYD: Food Not Bombs is an organization that gives out vegan and vegetarian food to the homeless. War started a chapter in downtown Los Angeles, and she volunteers there almost every week. She also got help for her addiction. She entered sober living homes and eventually got herself a manager and a booking agent. Her music career took off from there. Now she's revisiting those first songs she wrote during that difficult chapter of her life. The album is called "Seems You Haven't Learned."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWNTOWN")
WAR: (Singing) Cracked out in the streets of Skid Row. No place to run to. No place to go. A dog-eat-dog world that nobody sees. Living in filth, living in the seas.
BOYD: And she's not just reminding herself of her past. She's planning to recreate it as well.
WAR: We are going to rerecord all the songs with drums. So it's kind of, like, maybe an introduction 'cause I still think they could be really awesome punk songs if we had access to the instruments and stuff.
BOYD: But it's been a long time since Sunny War started her life as a musician. And that's something you will be able to hear on "Seems You Haven't Learned."
WAR: I used to sound like a baby. And now after 20 years of smoking, I sound like a man.
BOYD: Sophia Alvarez Boyd, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEEMS YOU HAVEN'T LEARNED, PT. 1")
WAR: (Singing) Remain faithful to the lie... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.