Sunny Faris and Laura Hopkins put melody in doomy metal-framed soundscapes. Here, they’re joined by their main tools: a 1996 Fender Musicmaster bass played through a Sovtek MIG-100 half-stack and reissue ’72 Fender Telecaster played through a Fender Hot Rod Deluxe. Photo by James Rexroad
Blackwater Holylight’s new Veils of Winter sounds like the product of collective decision-making, because it is. While the album could easily be lumped into a heavy-music category, there’s actually a lot of detail going on that co-founders Allison “Sunny” Faris, who plays bass and fronts the group, and guitarist Laura Hopkins credit to the diversity of musical interests in the quintet. The tones are heavy and often detuned, but the layers of atmospheric guitar, reverb-soaked vocal harmonies, and vintage-sounding synths supply colors that can’t be pigeonholed, bringing to mind a range of references from retro horror-movie soundtracks to 1970s proto-punk. “Spiders,” for example, features an homage to the iconic intro from Television’s “Friction,” but there are also nods to prog rock, post-rock, psychedelia, and doom metal.
“There’s no way I can say I wrote that record, because I didn’t,” says Faris. “All five of us did, and that’s really special and really important to me.” While Faris came up with the idea to form the band and instigates much of the songwriting, she is also very appreciative of the creative balance within the group. “I just really love and honor bands that are up there doing their thing and letting everyone be themselves and sharing songwriting credits,” she adds.
Longtime friends Faris and Hopkins intended Blackwater Holylight, which they formed in 2016 following their time together in Wildwood, as a way to explore some of Faris’ heavier influences. “Me and Sunny had been playing together for a long time, and I had been tour managing for her old band [the Grandparents] and just waiting for her to be free enough to play with me,” says Hopkins, who also played bass in Tamed West and now has a solo project called Laura Palmer’s Death Parade. “Her and I had always sung harmonies together, acoustic style, and she wanted to do something a little louder. I was just getting into pedals and electric guitar volume at the time.”
Their reputation as members of respected bands in their hometown of Portland, Oregon, helped Blackwater Holylight get off to an auspicious start, selling out their first show and getting signed to RidingEasy Records six months later. “It took a little while to get it all together for the first record, but once that came out, it’s been rolling forward and it’s been really great. We’ve been learning a ton every day,” says Faris.
Contributions from new guitarist Mikayla Mayhew are felt throughout the album, opening up the sound captured on their 2018 debut, Blackwater Holylight, with elements like the guitarmonies in “The Protector” and the weaving two-guitar interplay in “Motorcycle.” “It’s cool to have another guitar player,” says Hopkins. “It gives more space and I’m stoked about that—especially playing the old stuff.” The lineup is completed by keyboardist Sarah McKenna and drummer Eliese Dorsay.
We caught up with Faris and Hopkins on the phone to discuss Blackwater Holylight’s story, from the inspirations behind the band to Veils of Winter and their favorite gear—including whether rusty strings and dirty home-modified amps contribute to the group’s sound.
Where did the sound of Blackwater Holylight emerge from?
Sunny Faris: I’ve always had a spot in my heart for heavier music. This band was about filling a curiosity I had about wanting to experiment with tones and writing styles that I didn’t really get to use in my old band. As soon as I started doing all this, it really opened up the gateways to a lot more metal that I listen to and just a lot more music in general. All the stuff that I’m into now, I wasn’t listening to when the band started. I had a little bit of heavier stuff in my library, but really it was a lot of psych. My love for metal and heavier tones has kind of formed as the band has formed, side by side.
In my old band, I wasn’t the songwriter, so it was a little strange. Now I can kind of do whatever I want and visit these areas that I’m curious about. I left it really open for myself and all this happened. I was vulnerable because I didn’t know what I was really doing all the way, but it was also fun.
Laura Hopkins: Sunny has been into heavier music and she’s been teaching me a lot about heavy music, doom, and metal. I have been more into moody singer-songwriter music that is emotionally heavy, and psych rock. Our different tastes really speak to the music we make, because we all listen to such different things.
What bands would you consider reference points and influences?
Faris: Some of my favorite metal bands are Sumac, Thou, Inter Arma, Mizmor, and Fórn. I have a million favorites, so the list could go forever.
Hopkins: My favorite bands are Blonde Redhead, Big Thief, and Electrelane, which is pretty far from some of the music that Sunny listens to, but there’s a similarity in feeling and emotion to be portrayed. I think that’s where Blackwater got its sound from. It’s rooted in the fact that we hadn’t played heavy music before, but we wanted to. When we all got together, we were like, “This is a safe space for us all to experiment and not have someone tell us that’s not how you’re supposed to do it.”
It’s crazy when we get in the van. Our tastes are so different, we get annoyed when another person puts on another kind of music … because Sarah is going to go into Goblin or some synthy ’90s hole, or I’m going to put on something emotional where everyone is crying, Sunny has someone screaming. We’re all really annoying in the van! We’re all very different.
How does the songwriting process work in the band?
Faris: When I write songs, it’s usually because I’m trying to digest something that happened to me. You can hear that on the record. A lot of the songs are about people that we’ve lost and scary situations we’ve been in. I’m influenced mainly just by the climate of life. The way the songwriting goes with us is, I come to the table and I usually have a bass line or guitar part and some sort of vocal idea. I come up with the ideas for stuff, but then once it’s all out on the table, we’re talking about it and working on structure, and we’re rearranging some stuff and it’s totally a collaboration.
For the song “Motorcycle,” I had part of the riff down and I played it for the band. We jammed on it and Laura went home and added on the second part of the riff and brought that to me and said, “let’s do some vocal melodies,” so then I came up with the vocal melody on top. That song was a combination of us writing.
TIDBIT: The band fleshed out its songs for Veils of Winter in a marathon three weeks in Northeast Portland, Oregon’s Red Lantern studio with engineer Dylan White, who also played with Faris in the Grandparents.
Throughout the entire record in general, everyone wrote their own parts. Mikayla and I switch a little bit on the new album, so she plays bass and guitar and I played bass and guitar throughout it. There’s no doubt there’s a lot of different sounds on the record, and that’s just because we’re all into a lot of shit, so we’re not pigeonholing ourselves into making a super-metal record. That’s just where we landed. We still get to do whatever the fuck we want and we’re going to do whatever the fuck we want.
Sunny, let’s talk about your experience as a bass player. What gear are you using? You tune down, right?
Faris: We do a couple different tunings. We play in standard and we play in drop D and drop C for some stuff. Right now, I play a 1976 Fender Musicmaster, and that’s been my bass for a long time. When I first started playing, I was playing a Danelectro, but I bought this a handful of years ago and I love this bass.
My amp is a Sovtek MIG-100 that I play out of a Sovtek 4x10 cab. When we’re doing a soundcheck, I always get to hear that it’s a guitar amp, and I’m like, “I’m aware,” but it sounds really good so I’m gonna do my thing. I also have a Sunn 215B that I play out of sometimes when I feel like hauling it around, which is not always.
The guitar that I played on the record is a friend’s Gibson SG. I just fell in love with that guitar. I love fingerpicking and it’s just perfect for that.
I use a couple different pedals. I have a Death by Audio Fuzz War, which is a huge and amazing pedal, and I also have a Magic Pedals Wizard Fuzz. Those pedals are really cool. It’s this guy who builds amps for Dunwich, and on the side he makes these pedals. I also have an Electro-Harmonix Small Stone phaser and I just recently got a Tech 21 reverb pedal, and it’s just so cool that I wish that I had it when we made the record.