photo by Florencia P Marano
Americana Highways had the good fortune of being able to chat with Los Angeles artist Sunny War recently about her new album Simple Syrup, and all kinds of cool things about Venice Beach, working with musicians and Harlan Steinberger on the album. But we also got into her work helping the hungry and homeless, and some eye opening perspectives on the general experiences on the street scene in Venice Beach and L.A.
Americana Highways: “Simple Syrup” has such an easy style, do you feel that way about it?
SW: It’s more loose, yeah
AH: How did you name it?
SW: My producer Harlan Steinberger and I were taking a break from the studio and we went to a coffee shop and I asked for sugar and they said “we don’t have sugar, we have simple syrup.” (laughs) and I thought it sounded funny, and just perfect for the album.
AH: You have worked with Harlan Steinberger on The Sun, Shell of a Girl, and now Simple Syrup. What’s his process to work with?
SW: He’s a hippie surfer dude, personality-wise. But he’s also really focused. He would be down to record ten songs in one night if you wanted to. I like that about him. He’s committed, it’s like: “Okay let’s do this!”
AH: That area of Venice Beach seems really cool, it has a musical style that I can’t put my finger on.
SW: People at Venice are so influenced by the ocean. There’s a relaxing element that you can’t escape from. I live in LA, closer to downtown in Koreatown. I only go to Venice to work with Harlan and record, and it’s so different there. I used to play on the boardwalk there for a long time. And then in the last couple years I played at this club called the Speakeasy a lot. And then I’d play at Time Warp Records which is in Mara Vista but it’s close to Venice.
AH: Tell us about your work with Food Not Bombs.
SW: I started the skid row chapter of Food Not Bombs.
We started in January 2020, so it’s been a little over a year. Every Tuesday we get together at my friend’s house and there are 4 or 5 of us. We make 100 burritos and we assemble sack lunches. We put masks in there, and oranges, water and the burritos. And another friend brings cookies that he bakes. We used to do more of a potluck style, but since Covid we do the sack lunches. Then on Wednesday we drive them to skid row and hand them out.
AH: The people there expect you?
SW: Yeah, we’ll all friends now, we see a lot of the same people every week.
AH: Are they homeless too?
SW: They are mostly homeless in skid row.
AH: And it’s vegan?
SW: Yeah, that’s a requirement for Food Not Bombs. It’s been fun. We’ve learned how to make a bunch of different stuff. We used to make enchiladas, spaghetti, we made vegan meatloaf once. A lot of people have dietary restrictions but most people can eat the stuff that we make.
AH: Let’s talk about the album. You have such a poetic style. And the songs are so moving. One of the standouts on the album is “Deployed and Destroyed.” Did you have an experience with someone that inspired this song?
SW: That song is about my friend Zach. He’s a musician also and we both used to busk on the boardwalk. He was deployed and then ended up homeless in Venice. He was okay. You could tell something was up with him but he was still hopeful, but then over the years he just couldn’t get it together. He has PTSD and he needed help from the VA to get an apartment and they didn’t help. He just got worse and worse and started getting arrested all the time, and doing drugs. He was from this little town in Texas and I’ve seen the same thing in Chattanooga where they go to the high school and they try to get people to sign up for the military. They use things like the promise of a college education, and in Zach’s case that was the only opportunity he had to do anything after high school. It was just exploitative not to help him out with his mental health issues after he was deployed. He needs medication.
AH: When you’re traumatized it takes a lot to feel safe again.
SW: When I was homeless I noticed there are a lot of veterans on the street. Something happened to them, they weren’t always this way. They need more help. Zach is young, there are a lot of young Iraq veterans now too.
AH: You mentioned that you were homeless, what was that like?
SW: I was homeless for about 6 years, and a little more after that. I just had to leave, as a kid, I just couldn’t go to school, I just needed to do my own thing. I felt like an adult.
AH: School has such a demanding structure, and so much is demanded every day, to be there at certain times, and homework over and over again. It’s like a corporate job, for kids.
SW: And you’re not getting paid. It’s like you’re working a 9 to 5 job. And eventually when I went back to adult school to get my GED and I got it in like 2 days. And I wondered why is it so stretched out, it made me mad again!
And the homework too. After you’ve already been in school for so many hours and then you have to come home and do more. When do you get to just chill?
AH: The song that has already come out is “Lucid Lucy,” which is a pretty, haunting song. Who plays cello on that?
SW: That’s my friend Niall Ferguson. I met him at KXLU for a radio show because his dad is the host of the radio show I played on. And we just clicked and he’s a professional cellist, he does movie soundtracks. At first I wanted him to play upright bass, and then he didn’t have his upright bass one time, but he had his cello. I wanted strings, but I was open to the cello instead of the bass and it just worked out. He worked on 3 songs on the album. https://nialltaro.com/about-1
AH: Are you playing electric guitar on that one?
SW: Yes, I was.
AH: “Its Name is Fear” is one of those songs that really hit home. It feels like it’s about Covid.
SW: Yes, it is about Covid
AH: It’s really perfect for the time. When did you write it?
SW: I wrote it in the first three months of Covid when I was especially paranoid. It was when all the different information was coming out. Everything was changing: what we knew about it, what’s safe about it, things were changing every day. I felt paranoid. And people online were still denying it and saying it wasn’t real. So I’d get angry. But then I was also having anxiety attacks for the first time in my life. I kept getting overwhelmed. Gigs were getting canceled, and then I didn’t know how to pay rent. So I was trying to get unemployement, I didn’t know what to do. And then there were people saying “we don’t legally have to pay rent anymore.” There was just so much going on I was having panic attacks. And I was experiencing regret, for not living life to the fullest when we were allowed to. So it’s about that too.
AH: What’s the story behind “Kiss a Loser”?
SW: In that song, I’m the loser. I’m an alcoholic and I don’t care to change that, I’m just working on keeping it under control. So if someone is going to be in relationship with me they have to accept certain dysfunctional things about me. You can be in a relationship with me if you want to but know that it is dysfunctional.
AH: One line is “I’m telling you I love you while I’m wishing you were dead.”
SW: That song is the most personal one on the record, because I might be bipolar, I don’t know. I can be a different person every day. I think I’m a hard person to date. I might feel like I love you, and then I hate you. I go back and forth, I can’t keep it on one page.
AH: Is “Losing Hand” related? Where you say you’re going to put down the losing hand?
SW: “Losing Hand” is about fate. Like maybe it’s just fate that you weren’t meant to have a good life.
I really only care about food. Because I know that can happen for me. (laughs)
AH: The song “Eyes” talks about guardian angels and spirits watching over you.
SW: I wrote that song when I was grieving. My friend Otto died, and we were the same age. It was such a horrible thing because he got hit by a drunk driver. And then they drove off. That’s how he died.
It brought up so much stuff. Me and Otto were roommates for two years. He was a painter and he’d sell his paintings on the boardwalk in Venice Beach and I’d be busking on the boardwalk too so we’d take the bus together. He was my buddy. Nobody expected this to happen. I knew him since I was 13, I grew up with him. And even before Otto, because I was homeless as a teenager, I knew a lot of street kids. A lot of them were addicts and a lot of them died. I’ve known more than 50 people who died before they turned 30. And something about Otto’s death really got to me. Because the difference was he wasn’t on drugs. He wasn’t doing anything self destructive. I just couldn’t get over it.
So “Eyes” was a way of saying I didn’t lose these people, I still know them. My relatives, like both my grandmas dying, that was a lot too. This song was a way of saying I am going to see all these people again. I just feel like you keep something of them with you. I have a lot of dead friends. But I like to think they have my back.
AH: Is there anything you’d like to add?
SW: The best thing we have is food. I really like food. It’s the best thing we have.
AH: Have you been able to schedule any gigs yet?
SW: I had a tour from last year that was rescheduled to this year but it was just canceled again and rescheduled next year. I do have two gigs in April in Florida. They are outdoor and socially distanced.
AH: I wonder if we will have Americana Fest in person 2021.
SW: I remember it’s usually hot, so they could do it outside.
AH: I saw you there last year at City Winery.
SW: That was when Yola played. But that wasn’t last year! (laughs) That was the year before.
AH: (laughs) What am I saying? I think we lost a year.
SW: (laughs) It seems like last year because nothing has happened since then. It seems like three years. But I think this will be our last year of covid. (laughs) I keep getting confused talking about this record too because it seems like last year didn’t happen.
AH: (laughs) Thank you for talking to me. I hope to see you on the road.