Your songs dwell on your tough experiences of being homeless as a teenager and alcoholism. What is the link between your biography and your songs?
I usually write poems and lyrics when I’m trying to work through something emotionally. They often deal with my teenage years. I was born in Nashville, Tennessee, but then lived on the streets after I ran away from home aged 13.
I busked all over the west coast and traveled by train hopping, sneaking onto freight trains and traveling from state to state. I often write about those years or whatever else is going on in the world or in my head. I write a lot about addiction because I’ve been struggling with it my whole life. Music is like therapy. I can’t afford therapy, so I have to write.
So rage fuels your lyrics?
I used to get angry when I was younger, but now I just get sad. Let’s face it, in America at the moment, there’s a lot to get sad about.
What in particular?
Sometimes I think the whole country should just disappear. Abortion has now joined the list of things to get upset about: racism, sexism, classism, the fact that so many don’t have healthcare or homes. These days, lots of people work full time but can’t even afford a home.
And there are also many children living on the streets. In your experience, why do they end up homeless?
Personally, I ran away as a kid because I was an alcoholic. I didn’t want to go to school and I also romanticised the lifestyle. Most of the other homeless teenagers I met were foster kids who had left because of sexual abuse. This relates to the abortion issue right now: Unwanted children often end up in foster care where they can get sexually abused and sex trafficked. They run away because they don’t want to get raped anymore.
“If somebody doesn’t want their child, don’t make them have it and put them in foster care. That will just create an army of unwanted children living on the street.”
Homeless kids are legally too young to work and often end up being prostitutes. I lived on the street and trains from when I was 13 and I saw so many young people running away from sexual abuse in foster homes.
It’s a bad system that produces broken people. You might as well just be dead. If somebody doesn’t want their child, don’t make them have it and put them in foster care. That will just create an army of unwanted children living on the street.
How important was music to you when you were homeless?
My guitar was my only way to make money. I often visited San Francisco and enjoyed busking there the most. If I didn’t play music on the street, then I would have had to be a prostitute because I needed money: I had to eat. As a child on the street you fall through the cracks. When I left home, I wasn’t even old enough to get food stamps, I couldn’t apply for any services or help.
„I have to be stronger than you just to survive. It’s about having a lifestyle of always having to be on the go all the time.“
My song “Soul Tramp” has a chorus about that time: “I’ll be damned if I ain’t gone before the sun rises, I’ll be damned if I’m not strong enough for what you call crisis.” Meaning I have to be stronger than you just to survive. It’s about having a lifestyle of always having to be on the go all the time. You can’t settle anywhere. You’re living on the outside.
What strikes you when you think back to your years on the street?
So much really bad stuff happened. The one thing that is the most traumatising is that almost everybody that I used to squat with is dead now. The people who survived are those who got arrested and they went to prison for a long time and stayed sober. Or they had a kid, and that changed their whole life.
But other than that, everyone I knew either overdosed on heroin or died of liver failure before they were 30 years old. It's really tragic. A lot of them were foster kids and had no parents or family.
Back then they were just kids. Nobody ever told them don’t do that, don’t try that. It's hard to tell a 15-year-old that they shouldn’t do something once they've done it. Before they know it, they’re addicted to heroin.
As a way of escapism?
If you‘re homeless, you‘re bored and you feel depressed because everybody looks down at you, treats you like you‘re nothing. So you just want to get high. Thinking back to it makes me want be an activist, to help reform this mess. Something needs to change.
“We need to get into actual politics, we need to figure out how to change laws. In Los Angeles, for example, the housing crisis is out of control.”
And you do voluntary work with homeless people now?
I started the “Food Not Bombs” chapter in Los Angeles which serves vegan meals twice a week. It’s great, but we need to get into actual politics, we need to figure out how to change laws. In Los Angeles, for example, the housing crisis is out of control.
There are big problems in the system, like when people get arrested and they become a felon, they can’t get a job. Not at a gas station or anywhere else.
What are people supposed to do? Of course, they end up breaking the law again. That situation needs to change if society seriously wants to stop crime. There are also lots of homeless people with mental health issues, like schizophrenics who aren’t on medication. They need support but in Los Angeles, they just take them out of the psych ward and put them on the street.
So it's a failure of the state.
Yes, I saw that when I was doing Food not Bombs and really getting to know people. There were some who used to sell crack, but once you heard their story you realise: yeah, of course they did. In their situation I would do the same thing.
So, maybe you need to become a politician to change things from the top down.
Yes, I think so (laughs). This mess can only be changed by politics, but that's the complete opposite of what I want to do.
Interview by Jess Smee. The singer, songwriter and guitarist Sunny War is based in Los Angeles. Her latest album “Simple Syrup” was released in 2021 by Hen House Studios.