How American-Roots Singer, Songwriter and Guitarist Sunny War Writes Her Songs

Sunny War press photo
Singer, songwriter and guitarist Sunny War told JME's Hurley Winkler that internal conflict can drive her approach to lyric writing | Press photo courtesy of the artist, graphix by Bonnie Zerr

Welcome to Songwriting School, where we talk to musicians about how they write their songs.

Emerging from a broad spectrum of musical influences and styles, Nashville-born singer, songwriter and guitarist Sunny War blends folk music traditions with punk rock. Her latest album, 2023’s Anarchist Gospel, earned wide critical praise — Rolling Stone, Spin and Mojo named it one of the best of the year. The New Yorker has called her “an ascendent voice in roots music.”

Sunny War is coming through Jacksonville on Friday, January 12, performing on the WJCT Soundstage. We spoke with her over the holidays about her songwriting process, influences, and the inspiration she finds within her own internal conflicts.

Listen to Hurley Winkler’s conversations with Sunny War

When you’re on the road touring, do you write songs, or is songwriting typically a practice that occurs when you’re at home?

I think both. A little bit of both. Maybe not melodies on the road, but I write a lot of lyrics on the road. And then at home, I have more freedom to, like, actually play, because it seems like, on tour, it’s harder to play in your free time because you’re just playing every day. Sometimes my hands even hurt.

Do you have a system when you come back home? Or, not a system, exactly, but maybe a practice when you come back home, pairing those lyrics to melody?

No. I’m trying to learn one, because a lot of times, I can’t. I have a bunch of stuff that I like that I don’t know how to get it into something. But then a lot of times, stuff comes out of trying. Something new will come out of trying to make music to lyrics you already have.

Who are some big songwriting influences for you?

I really like Elliott Smith and Nina Simone. And maybe Bill Withers.

That’s a solid mix. What are some things you take from their songwriting?

The honesty, I feel like. All three of them are just very honest writers. And I think that, like, that kind of humility is what makes a good song.

Do you write all of your songs on guitar?

Most of them. Some of them on banjo. And then I have some electronic stuff that I guess is just synth. I guess I’ve been kind of playing, trying to write to that. Because I thought that would help.

For you, what typically kicks off the process of writing a song?

Conflict. Like, something that you can’t talk about with anyone, or just something that’s like just driving you insane.

Well, speaking of conflict, I want to ask about your song “No Reason” from your most recent record, Anarchist Gospel. The song starts with these lyrics: “Good intentions that you keep don’t change the fact that you’re a beast.” When you first wrote that line, who was the beast that you were addressing?


What kind of conflicts with yourself were you trying to work through by writing that song?

Self-isolating and depression. And self-harming. I was kind of going to treatment, but I knew I wasn’t in it, though. It’s like that. I guess that could be a good intention. Like, I know what the right thing to do in certain situations is, but I wasn’t really actually in it.

Nowadays, when you sing this song onstage, are you ever addressing a different beast? I guess what I mean by that is: has the meaning of the song evolved for you at all?

Not really, but I think it can be. Anybody can be just the beast, because I think that’s just the duality of man.

Whenever listeners tell you that your songs resonate with them, what means the most for you to hear from them?

Well, sometimes people say like that it helped them through some kind of rough times. It’s like something email going on usually that they want to listen to that.

Sunny War performs Friday, January 12 on the WJCT Soundstage. Doors at 7 p.m. Folk is People opens the show. Tickets here.

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