"Even though I started the band wanting to work with women, it was never about being a feminist. It was never about putting ourselves onstage to say 'fuck you' to men."
That's Allison "Sunny" Faris talking about her band, Blackwater Holylight. The Portland, Oregon-based rock group is an all-female operation, and that's by design. The bassist-vocalist says that she and her bandmates — guitarists Laura Hopkins and Mikayla Mayhew, synth player Sarah McKenna and drummer Eliese Dorsay — have all played in bands with men before, but Blackwater Holylight isn't necessarily a reaction to those experiences.
"I don't think it was as much of a reaction as it was just a curiosity about how my process could be different playing with women and how my own vulnerability could be sort of nurtured with women," Faris offers. "Like, 'How can this art also help me be a better person?' I think that was the curiosity I wanted to fill when I started Blackwater. It was about nurturing vulnerability."
While the group's music might ostensibly fit into the "stoner rock" category — they release their records through weed-friendly label RidingEasy Records — Blackwater Holylight are pretty far from your typical red-eyed, two-riff wonders. Their second and latest album, Veils of Winter, offers up plenty of churning riff-o-rama — but also super melodic excursions into dream pop, shoegaze and kaleidoscopic psych rock. "Everyone's experience of our music is so unique because it's all over the place," Faris ventures. "It's sort of like Choose Your Own Adventure, and whatever you take from it belongs to you. And I really, really like that."
It's all expertly woven together by the gorgeous vocal harmonies of Faris and Hopkins. Years before Blackwater formed, the two singers used to be in a folk group together. "I've always loved singing with Laura because we've been friends for a really long time," Faris says. "We've sung together for years, so we've really meshed and it's very natural to sing with her."
Faris began singing as a kid growing up in Fort Collins, Colorado. In seventh grade, she got a solo in her school's Christmas show. "I took choir in middle school because I think it was just more appealing than whatever other fucking class I had to choose from," she says with a laugh. "My sister did choir, and the music teacher in my school was really awesome. My mom talks about seeing that Christmas show a lot, actually. I was doing the solo, and both she and my dad were like, 'What the fuck? We had no idea she could sing.'"
Though clearly gifted, she never pursued classical training. "It was never anything that I took seriously," Faris says. "Even today, in comparison to most musicians I know, I think I'm a pretty lazy vocalist. I should put more energy into that side. But I've always really loved it."
Faris moved to Portland in 2009, partly to attend Portland State University — but mostly to get out of Fort Collins. "It's just the kind of place that people stay in forever," she says of her hometown. "And I knew that was not what I wanted to do. But I think PSU was the only college I got accepted to because I was never a great student."
She says she was in school "for about seven seconds" before she dropped out. "But I fell in love with the city and I still love it here," she adds. "There's mountains, there's the ocean and there's little arts communities that are rad. It's a really amazing place to live, especially as a musician."
Portland is also where Faris eventually came over to the dark side. In fact, she didn't get into heavy music until fairly recently. She'd heard the infectious tritones of Black Sabbath before, but the band that inspired her to actually play this kind of music was Swedish doom trio — and former RidingEasy labelmates — Monolord, who Blackwater Holylight will be touring with later this fall. "Before Blackwater started, a friend of mine put on Monolord at my old job," she explains. "I was listening to it and I thought, 'Damn, this is fucking cool. It would be so fun to be in a heavy band like this.' I had some reference of metal at that point, but nothing compared to my catalog now."
Not that she wanted to start a Monolord clone band. "I was just interested in fucking around with some fuzz and some heavier tones," she says. "It wasn't like, 'Let's make a doom band' or 'Let's make a metal band.' We just wanted to write some songs and fuck with these tones that I've never really fucked with before because they weren't appropriate for any of the bands that I've ever been in. So it was more like tonal curiosity. We didn't want to be Monolord — we've been completely ourselves the entire time. But it's just so crazy that that's how it started, because now we're going on tour with them."
When the members of Blackwater first started writing together, Faris quickly realized the interpersonal advantages of an all-female lineup. "If there was a point of contention between two people, it was more of a conversation than, like, an outlet to blow up," she says with a laugh. "We do have our moments — don't get me wrong — but it's just a little bit more delicate and soft in keeping each other's feelings in mind. It's more like, 'How are we gonna resolve this conflict?' — which we ask each other all the time — instead of having it be a 'fuck you' kind of thing."
In Faris' previous band, Grandparents, she was the only female member. And the inter-band dynamics were quite a bit different. "This just feels a little bit slower and calmer," she says of Blackwater. "There's more conversations and more patience and listening involved."
To absolutely no one's surprise, the all-lady dynamic hasn't gone unnoticed by audiences, who appreciate the female empowerment as much as the music. "I think it's really fucking awesome that we have that effect on people," Faris says. "For some women that watch us, I think it's more about us being women. And for other women, it might be about how we play. But men and women and non-binary folks come up to us after shows and they're inspired by us whether or not we're female. So if us being up there and playing our songs inspires someone and gives someone confidence to go and work on their art, that's extremely fulfilling."