Maggie Morris had hit the jackpot.
After years of slugging through her grocery store day job and dozens of seemingly fruitless shows with her indie-pop band, Genders, in 2014 the Portland quartet secured an opening slot on a full tour with Built to Spill.
"We lived out our dream touring with our favorite band," Morris says. "Sometimes I had to remind myself, 'You're here for a reason. You deserve to be here.'"
The only problem was that, eventually, they had to come back home—and back down to Earth. Returning to play shows by themselves, for substantially smaller crowds, proved to be a drain on the other members of Genders, who longed for a break of several months or more to recharge. The involuntary time off gave way to a crisis of faith for Morris.
"Why am I living in this shithole if I'm not playing music?" she says. "That's why I do this—to have free time to make music. I'm working a job I don't like so I can do this thing. So I got motivated and started something else that just snowballed."
Recruiting Typhoon drummer Pieter Hilton, who she's known since high school, and bassist Jenny Logan of Summer Cannibals, Morris formed Sunbathe, initially to give herself something to do while giving her Genders bandmates a reprieve. But it soon became an outlet for some of her most personal songwriting; she admits to having cried on stage performing the material on more than one occasion. Harvested from some past experiences with "heartbreak of all kinds," the band's upcoming self-titled debut seems to follow the lovelorn template carved out by Joni Mitchell's Blue. But Morris is reticent to pin down every source of inspiration.
"Some of the songs are about failed relationships, a couple are about a failed relationship with my father," she says. "That being said, I think good art is relatable to many different types of people for many different reasons. If, to you, it's a break-up album, then it is."
Like the floral paintings in the background of the self-portrait she drew for the cover, Sunbathe is a bright, colorful expression of someone aiming to showcase the array of strengths hard times have emboldened. With a beefy backbeat and a foundation of shaggy fuzz and slinky bass, Morris moans through the stages of heartbreak to a classic, doo-wop-indebted groove, often carving out space for at least one twinkling guitar melody. The shiny transparency of her reverb-touched guitar tone evokes a barren desert landscape you imagine is populated only by Morris and the gruff, gigantic expanse of her backing band.
With Sunbathe gearing up for their first official tour and Genders newly revitalized, Morris is hugely optimistic about the immediate future. She echoes a sentiment from her onetime tourmate, Built to Spill's Doug Martsch, imparted after a particularly long, exhausting stretch of shows, without a night off: "I get to play music for people every night. To me, that is a night off."
"That's the kind of gratitude I hope to have," Morris says. "To do something you love and not have a sense that people owe you for it."
SEE IT: Sunbathe plays the Know, 3728 NE Sandy Blvd., on Tuesday, June 13, with Paper Brain and Strange Ranger. 9 pm. Contact venue for ticket prices. 21+.