Towards the end of Sunny War’s “Shelter and Storm”, a sound collage floats into the mix, her voice in various inflections repeating the line “When the humans are away.” The effect is chilling, the words a reckoning– Mother Earth, facing certain ecological catastrophe, will reclaim its territories and vitality, returning to life before the Anthropocene, even if it swallows our souls in the process. The track is one of the many stirring moments from War’s latest LP, Anarchist Gospel, an immersive record suited for the headphone experience. Since Worthless, her 2014 solo debut, her records have been a one-woman show, occasionally whispery and always to-the-bone. On AG, orchestration and forethought send War beyond the stillness of the coffee house stage.
Support from her new label New West Records and producer Andrija Tokic has helped War realize her vision, but so has her embrace of technology. She says, “I think it was more because I was able to make demos with Logic software, which I never did before. Before, I would just record into my phone, just me singing and playing guitar. But then during 2020, I used my unemployment money to buy my own home recording setup, and that really changed how much I could plan out the song, where I was recording harmonies and bass lines and adding drums adding keyboard parts. I was making full demos. Anarchist Gospel is the first record where I actually planned out all the parts, and I really got to try to make a real version of the song before going to the studio.”
From War’s preparation and revision emerges a record that ignores categories. It’s at once a break-up record and a political statement. It says both “fuck you” and “we’re fucked.” It’s an album that finds common ground among roots music, gospel, the blues, and punk, the through line a desire to endure and outlast.
In her teens, War fell hard for punk, post-punk, and hardcore bands, citing Bad Brains and The Adolescents as early influences on her guitar playing. Yet she refused a one-dimensional relationship with music. She says, “Even in the punk scene, I was always looking outside of everything anyway. I always liked punk, but I also always liked art in general. I would be at punk shows, but I would also go to shows at Amoeba Records growing up, which could be any genre of music. I was just interested in music.”
She soon developed an appreciation for the cleaner sounds of Chet Atkins, David Rawlings (who guests on Anarchist Gospel), and Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten, leading her to abandon her electric guitar for an acoustic. “I went to a music high school where I was studying jazz and music theory,” she says, “We were all acoustic in our classes, so I had to bring an acoustic guitar to school. Then after school, I would go to the beach. It’s the thing that I was playing all the time. I was really into electric guitar in middle school. But I think there’s something about just being able to have my acoustic guitar on me all the time where I would even just sit and play at the bus stop, waiting to go home. I would be able to play all the time. So that’s why I got really comfortable with it.”
With that comfort came a liminal relationship with music, living between worlds. Genre has never concerned War. “I just never understood what genre was,” she says, “I think that might just be growing up with the internet. We were the first generation to be able to listen to anything we wanted for free online, so it changes everything, whereas, my mom growing up, you had to buy a record or you had to buy a CD, and you couldn’t just listen to a bunch of stuff for free unless you were hanging out at a record store at the listening station. But with my generation, if we wanted to only listen to music from India for a year, we could, and we didn’t have to pay anything.
“Maybe it’s because I went to a music high school where we were all learning about music theory. It was a part of our homework to actually listen to a bunch of stuff that we probably would never listen to. It became very fluid. You could be really into punk rock and also know a lot about classical music at my school.”
Even though she’s found success as a singer-songwriter, War still considers herself a guitarist first. She admits, “I’m not really into lyrical music; I’m into composing, I’m more into the music side of things. I do sing, and I do write lyrics, but I’m more into just making music. I feel like the words I have to add to make it sellable, but actually, I’m more into just like the music without the words.”
Despite her ambivalence about lyric writing, Anarchist Gospel carries the weight of the human experience, chronicling the near-crippling demise of a relationship in songs like “Love’s Death Bed,” indicting our country’s failed war on drugs in “Test Dummy”, staring down resignation in “I Got No Fight”, and finding resolve in “New Day”.
The empathy at the heart of the album comes firsthand for War. “I think what helped me understand other people’s feelings was experiencing homelessness. I think that just made me empathetic because I experienced people hating me for being homeless for a really long time. So I think I’m always quick to try to understand where somebody is coming from and what their situation is, even with mental health. I feel like people aren’t as sensitive to that stuff as they can be. There are so many medicated people out there, and it’s not as easy as people make it seem like to get on the right medication that you like. There’s so many other things that could be a part of whatever is going on in someone’s life.”
Yet she refuses the political tag she’s often burdened with, saying, “I think because I do activist work, so they want everything to be that. I do have some political songs, but I also will write a love song. I’ll just write about whatever I want. I’m not thinking about politics all the time. There are musicians that only do political music, so I would call that more activist music. I think that gets boring though. You can be a well-rounded person. You can be interested in more than just one thing.”
War’s need to be a well-rounded person finds her at odds with a life in music. “It seems like there’s a route you could go,” she says, “You could be a touring musician and a songwriter and a producer and have no life, like no actual life. So I guess I’m at a crossroads. I’m 32. I’m like, ‘Do I wanna just have no social life and no love life?’ Because right now, even with my whole year coming up, it’s not even realistic that I’ll even make friends in Chattanooga. I’m not gonna be home enough to even [have friends]. I barely live here or live anywhere. And I’m kind of like, ‘Do I wanna live like that, where the only time I see people I know is when I’m on the road, but I’m also at work?” It feels kind of lonely, and I’m not sure– do I love music more than I love having a healthy life?
“I think I wanna have a social life. Not like, ‘I wanna have friends,’ but more like maybe I wanna have a family and just feel like I live somewhere.
“I do wanna do music; I just don’t know how long. I’ll always wanna make records because I’m gonna do it anyway, no matter what ’cause I just like doing it.”