Sunny War

Love and Nothingness
Sunny War
Sunny War: Joshua Black Wilkins.

Eclectic folk-punk stylist Sunny War’s latest album, Anarchist Gospel, is a break-up album mixing black folk, acoustic gospel, and symphonic trappings. She’s backed by ethereal moods, rustic textures, talented guests and sends the listener to other-worldly places. But don’t be fooled – there’s humor in War’s dark prose, and 2023 is the year she walks in the sunshine.

What prompted the move from Los Angeles to Nashville?
I signed a deal with New West Records, which is based here, so I came to record. I’m originally from Nashville, so this is kinda like my hometown. I like Nashville better in the summertime. It’s a good music community, but it’s all roots mosaic. It’s either Americana or blues. It’s cool, but sometimes I want to tell people, “Hey, you know there are other kinds of music, right?” (laughs) I like the alternative stuff that happens in L.A. I like weird s**t, too. I can appreciate a straight blues band, but I also want to see some crazy metal band. I want to hear everything.

How did you decide to work with producer Andrija Tokic on Anarchist Gospel?
John Allen, the president of New West, suggested him; a couple of their bands work with him. He gave me a list of potential producers, and I already liked a lot of records that Andrija produced, like the Alabama Shakes. I had listened to many of his records, but didn’t realize who the producer was. So, I was like, “It makes sense to go with this guy.” I also like how he records, because he uses analog stuff, but it’s still kinda new but old-sounding.

Was it his idea to mix symphonic elements with banjo and electric guitar with your acoustic playing?
I did it because I was making demos with Logic. All of the songs had demos, but I was composing full parts. I was adding keyboards, programming drums, and adding bass and harmonies. In pre-production, I came up with a lot of ideas for melodies. I knew I wanted to add harmonica before I even had a producer. I was originally playing banjo, but then Dave Rawlins ended up playing it. He also played guitar on two songs.

I worked out all the parts, only because I learned how to use Logic in 2020 during the pandemic. I never really had been able to work out all the parts before, or record tracks by myself. It helped with planning out the songs. Before, I was making recordings on my phone and my demos were just guitar and singing. I never got to hear bass, or add tracks. I had Midi keyboards, and I could add layers and make up string parts. When I had 13 songs, I was like, “Okay, I’m ready to record.” I was sad enough, so I had a lot of sad songs. Now I’m back to my normal cynical, morbid self (laughs).

What made you decide to cover “Baby Bitch” by Ween?
The album is half break-up songs, and that’s one of my favorites. I was just being petty (laughs).

Your voice weaves with others on the album, like on Van Hunt’s “Hopeless.” Was that your idea?
That was Chris Pierce and Allison Russell. I love Van Hunt’s music. I didn’t know he wrote that song until we hooked it up. I only knew the Dionne Farris version. The [other half of the album is about] the school-to-prison pipeline, suicide, and being optimistic to love, and nothingness at the same time.

Have you worked out any new fingerstyle-guitar tricks?
Not really. I played more electric guitar on this album. I used Andrija’s Gibson SG for all the solos. I’d never played a guitar with a tone like that. Last year, I got a vintage Gibson tenor guitar, a Harmony acoustic, and a Les Paul. I don’t do fingerpicking on the Les Paul; I play punk stuff. I would on a Strat, but the tone on a Gibson is weird and doesn’t pick it up like that. I played the solo on “His Love” on a Strat because it was clearer. I play my Guild acoustic the most.

Are you optimistic about the new year?
I’m excited to play more. I’ll be rehearsing with a drummer and bass player. I’d rather be busy. I like touring, but I hate sitting in the car all the time. I’m glad I’ll be able to get out and see my mom. Playing these songs live is going to be a lot of fun.

This article originally appeared in VG’s April 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.

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