Sunny War's musical influences are wide-ranging. Nashville-born and Venice Beach, CA-based, War spent her childhood moving frequently, and lived on the streets as a teenager, busking and playing in punk bands. Thanks to her grandmother, she cultivated a deep appreciation of the blues, and still loves the bluegrass and old country music of her birthplace. All of this subtly makes its way into her songwriting and playing on With the Sun.
War's singing style is more than a little reminiscent of Joan Armatrading (whom she claims as an influence, alongside Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt), only softer and warmer. Her lush, finger-picked acoustic guitar combines a number of traditions: she refers to her style as "crab-claw picking," borrowed from the banjo, but her generous use of hammer-ons and pull-offs occasionally conjures Mali's guitar great, Boubacar Traoré.
There isn't really a song on the album that could be described as "blues," but there are nods to the tradition throughout, in chords, vocal inflection and lyrical themes. War has a way of tackling the truly depressing without actually sounding depressing: alcoholism ("Gotta Live It"), anti-black police brutality ("I'm Human"), domestic abuse ("Violent"), and classic love and loss ("Finn"). She also manages to throw in the odd vulgarity that, thanks to her velvet delivery, doesn't even come across as vulgar.
While War's singing and guitar playing is always front and centre, the album includes some great supporting instrumentation. "With the Sun" features Nick Drake-esque interplay between piano and guitar, and Nikita Sorokin's fiddle playing adds colour throughout, but is especially present on the raucous stomp-and-clap number, "Til I'm Dead." "The Change You Make" juxtaposes unexpectedly ominous chord changes with the carefree sound of children playing in a schoolyard, and "Come Back" pairs War's earthy voice and guitar with the smooth sheen of a full string section.
Sunny War's diverse influences come together to produce something all her own, and well worth the attention she's been receiving. Her sound is unapologetically black and female, and With the Sun is devastatingly beautiful without even trying to be pretty. It's the kind of music 2018 desperately needs. (Hen House Studios)