Sunny War on Making Lemons Lemonade
Sunny War (photo by Joshua Black Wilkins)
I may not know much, but I’m certain I know how to polish a turd. In 2021, COVID-19 was still holding me, my boyfriend, and all other Los Angeles residents hostage. The whole city had a 6 p.m. curfew, and LAPD was actually enforcing it, unlike all the other “laws” in the city. My boyfriend and I faithfully doled out $1,600 a month for a tiny, cramped studio apartment, and it was starting to take a toll on us. We were two musicians relying on nothing financially but virtual concerts and Bandcamp Fridays. We finally figured out how to get unemployment money, but we were really hoping to return to our usual troubadour ways. Both of us were as chaotic as we were creative, and it proved to be like oil and water when confined to such a small space. Songs were made but love wasn’t. This was the beginning of the most emotionally draining period of my life, yet also the most fruitful creatively. In isolation from friends, family, and even the man I slept next to, words and music became my only refuge.
Unemployment money was flowing like water, and I like the Da’Nile River. I was in complete denial that anything was more important than buying a laptop, midi keyboard, and Logic on Uncle Sam’s dime. I was also spending a lot of cash on mushrooms because I heard they would help with anxiety. The shrooms didn’t reduce my anxiety, but they certainly sparked a lot of new creative energy. I was convinced if I spent my COVID lockdown learning to make beats with my new gear, I’d be the next Missy Elliott. My beats were terrible, though. I spent hours trying to make them better and unintentionally got very familiar with the Logic program. I paused my electronic music ventures and returned to my guitar. Before having a laptop, I only had my voice memo phone app to record demos. Now, thanks to being manic and impulsive, I had a new way to record. If I had spent that money on rent and bills like I probably should’ve, I wouldn’t have this shiny new tool on my belt. The fresh skills came in handy because I soon signed a contract with New West Records. It was time to get the new demo machine up and running!
During the summer of 2021, my boyfriend and I put the last of our unemployment money together for a larger one-bedroom apartment. Since so many people left the city, there was a rare opportunity to secure reasonable and affordable housing. For a brief moment in Los Angeles, when landlords got desperate for tenants, they knocked up to $500 off their original asking price. We were fighting so much in our studio apartment that we were hoping a larger space would solve our issues. It didn’t. We didn’t even make it to Halloween before he moved out and left me in our new home to finish the lease alone. I couldn’t afford the place on my own and knew I had to start writing to get something going for myself. I didn’t want to write but I had to. I also had to get some roommates to help me finish the lease. A punk rock couple I knew from Venice Beach rented out the bedroom originally intended for me and my ex. I slept in the living room, drinking myself to death every night. I would drink and cry about my ex to my new roommates every night and they eventually had a little intervention for me. The biggest pothead I know took a huge bong rip and muttered, “You ever try non-alcoholic IPAs?” His girlfriend followed with, “You’d love them, Sunny, we’ll get you some.” That’s when I knew I was really doing bad.
I didn’t have much at that point, but I still had my laptop, guitars, and midi keyboard. I became obsessed with recording demos and trying not to drink. I couldn’t fake any happiness or self-worth, so I wrote about what I knew: suicidal thoughts, heartbreak, abandonment, and conspiracy theories. My roomies and I became some kind of weird little family. We’d share meals and play board games. They’d tell me I was “doing good” every time I managed to string four days of sobriety together. They were my only friends at the time because I didn’t want to talk to anyone who knew my ex and I as a couple. I was embarrassed about our breakup.
Around Christmastime, my roommates and I all got COVID and discussed transferring the lease to their names. We figured out how to sign it over and I was free to go. I had roughly 13 demos about suicide and heartache, and I was ready to record. Figured I’d head to my hometown and be as far away as possible from anyone I knew. In Nashville I could just start over. I packed my five guitars, three banjos, two keyboards, three skateboards, two unicycles, and djembe. I gave LA the deuces.
My bud Tré Burt had a spare room in East Nashville he was willing to rent out to me. Luckily, it was only 10 minutes from Bomb Shelter Studio where I’d soon begin recording with producer Andrija Tokic. New West suggested recording the album with Andrija and when I looked up his catalog, I knew it would be a perfect fit. I was already listening to a lot of albums he produced and just never bothered to peep who was producing so many gems in my record collection.
I was really starting to feel good about my move to Nashville, and having a lot of fun too. I was seeing bands at the 5 Spot bar and Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge, and I was meeting some amazing musicians. Everyone who played and sang on Anarchist Gospel was brilliant and inspiring. I was no Missy Elliott, but Andrija said my home demos sounded pretty good and he encouraged me to keep going with the demo-making. He made me believe maybe I could be a producer one day. The album was coming together nicely, and for a brief moment I was happy and optimistic.
My happiness and optimism scattered when reality slithered its way back in. My little brother called me and said I’d better get to Chattanooga to say goodbye to our father. I told Andrija I couldn’t come to Bomb Shelter because I had to see my dad in the hospital. Andrija knew I didn’t have a car and offered me a ride. He drove me two and a half hours to the hospital and I’m very grateful for his compassion in that moment. I got to hug my father goodbye. He died two days later.
My dad’s death ignited another destructive drinking binge. Tré Burt asked Fiona Prine to help me out and put me in contact with MusiCares. Fiona asked Margo Price to reach out to me to tell me how she quit drinking. I went to some AA meetings, went to my father’s funeral, and then went back to the writing board.
I’ve relapsed, gone to meetings, and gotten clean over and over again since then. But I am so glad that I am here among such a beautiful and righteous town of musicians. Everyone has been really kind.
Although I haven’t yet followed through with seeking therapy from MusiCares, I am practicing my own therapy once again: words and music. Trying to do it militantly this time around. Not because I want to, but because I have to. My songs are the only consistency I’ve ever had in my life. Partners, locations, friends, and even family are not promised to any of us tomorrow. I have to hold on to the only thing that is promised to me tomorrow. I know my songs will still belong to me even after I die. Songs are all I have left and my only chance at sobriety. I have to write whether things are going good or bad. I’ve got to polish turds, make lemons lemonade.
Sunny War’s new album, Anarchist Gospel, was released Feb. 3 on New West Records.