In her young life, Sunny War has been through more than most—homelessness, drug addiction, even making her first album in a sober living home as a teen. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, forcing much of the world into sudden, extended isolation—physically, socially, and emotionally—War, like a butterfly, began shrugging off her cocoon in unexpected ways.
“The only good thing I learned from last year is how to love and value my friends and family,” War tells Audiofemme from her home in Los Angeles, weeks before the release of her new album Simple Syrup. “My family started a group chat, and we talk more now than we ever did. I have also reconnected with old friends and talked with them for hours, like we were kids again. I’ve got a new roller-skating crew I meet up with at the park now. Before COVID I really hated people. Now I am more aware of how precious and fragile life is and I feel more connected to everyone [because] we are all trying to overcome this whole thing together.”
War has also been busy founding an L.A. chapter of the non-profit organization Food Not Bombs, which provides vegan meals to community members living on the streets through volunteer-driven services.
Aside from activism, re-connecting and roller skating, War also found a new passion for programming beats. After her tour was cancelled, War initially decided to wait out the pandemic before releasing new music. But the prolific poet and lyricist realized that she needed to translate this moment in history into song.
Simple Syrup was originally intended for release last year, a companion to the EP War released in March entitled Can I Sit With You? The EP centered on those who go unnoticed and uncared for, those lost and without a net when things go awry. An heir to Nina Simone’s legacy of unvarnished, hard-earned truth-telling through elegant, raw music, War brought those quiet emotional battles to the fore by cutting straight to the heart of trauma to speak for the disregarded and unseen.
Now she’s back with Simple Syrup, recorded at Venice Beach hangout Hen House Studios, with producer Harlan Steinberger at the helm. “Some songs were written before COVID and some during COVID. Making the album was a lot of fun because a few tracks we recorded live as a band. I had actually never recorded live with a band before then,” she says. The album includes contributions from War’s live band (bassist Ayron Davis and drummer Paul Allen) as well as guest appearances by several friends, like Fishbone’s Angelo Moore and fellow Venice Beach busker Milo Gonzalez. “The song ‘Like Nina’ is a live duet with me and Milo and we took like a million takes,” War says. “I feel like there were maybe more chances taken with this record. It strays from my typical Americana stuff a bit.”
Simple Syrup captivates from the beginning. War’s voice, lyrics and delivery are packed with wisdom and astute observations, but tracks like “Eyes” hold even greater significance—War wrote the song while “processing a lot of death and mourning,” having lost numerous friends to drug addiction and street life. “‘Eyes’ is about my ancestors and my dead friends. I am very certain they reach out to me and warn me about shady people and situations regularly. I am pretty sure I’d be dead without them. They are the eyes in the back of my head,” War explains. “A friend of mine died and I was up all night, drinking and crying, and then he came and visited me. I don’t know if he was really there or not, but I saw and felt him and I’ve felt him ever since. Then I realized I feel my grandparents and all my loved ones on the other side as well. I have an army and I will see them all again.”
Delving deeper into the spiritual has not only sparked healing, but revealed new musical paths as well. “I feel like I kinda reconnected with my roots on this album,” War says. “Blues and jazz are definitely back in my music and not as subtle as before.” Featuring her folk palette with shades of lush jazz, War was inspired by the works of Joan Armatrading and Nick Drake, as well as the saxophone. And while 2020 saw her less focused on her once ubiquitous guitar, the instrument remains a deep extension of her as a woman and artist. “I turn to the guitar for meditation,” she says. “I like to play trancey repetitive loops. I haven’t found my voice as a guitarist yet, but I think I’m getting closer.”
As vaccinations become more readily available and a summer of love seems possible, Sunny War hopes to return to touring and the people who keep her inspired to make music and tell stories. “I hope [Simple Syrup] can give someone a brief break from our current reality. I hope it can be a relaxing album for folks when they want to listen to something soft and emo,” says War. “I am just honored that anyone would even give me their ears and be interested in checking it out.”