TENNIS‘ Alaina Moore is like the college roommate you wish you had. She’s effortlessly cool, and the internet is obsessed with her Dirty Dancing-era, Jennifer Grey sense of style (just check the comments for their video for “In The Morning I’ll Be Better”). More importantly, her eloquence, self awareness and philosophical insight come to light in everyday conversation and her quirky yet confident demeanor shines through on the duo’s fourth album, Yours Conditionally (out Mar. 10th via Mutually Detrimental).
Lyrically, Yours Conditionally delves into more modern themes like independence, feminine power and gender roles. Sonically, the record transports you to another era in the way that only Tennis can, thanks to Patrick Riley, and his knack for creating airy guitar licks that flirtatiously encircle Alaina’s delicate vocal melodies. This kindhearted musical push-and-pull is the momentum that carries the listener effortlessly through all 10 tracks.
The fact that Alaina and Patrick are married isn’t the defining factor of the band’s likeability, but rather the catalyst that drives the duo continually forward. In early 2016, Alaina and Patrick set out on their second sailing trip together which served as both a vacation from a world obsessed with social media as well as a hunt for the “reset button” for their patience with navigating the music industry. With a new short film and a North American tour in progress, we caught up with Alaina to discuss the duo’s love for discovery, fear as a motivating factor, and what it takes for Tennis to channel their creative energies.
You often speak of your fear of the sea and your fear of performing — what motivates you to face the things that frighten you?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot; the simplest answer is probably Patrick. He just charges on ahead and it’s up to me if I want to be a part of it or not, and I’m kind of competitive, so whatever he’s doing I’m going to do too, even if I’m terrified. But I’ve been noticing the more likely answer is that I’ve started using fear as my compass. When you’re confronted with infinite choices everyday, you can choose a million different things — where you go, who you talk to, what you pursue, what opportunities you take, and which doors you close. I sometimes feel a lot of existential dread confronting so many choices.
One way I started navigating that is by using fear as my compass. Not petrifying fear, but the option of my future that I shrink away from — usually that’s the most important thing that I should do because I will learn and gain the most. That’s how I’ve starting finding myself in these situations where I’m constantly confronting my fear of the ocean and fear of water essentially. My fear of performing is not because I want to punish myself, but because the things to be gained from these situations totally outweigh the fear of them.
It’s the same thing with choosing relationships. When you’re afraid to dive into a relationship with someone it’s often because there’s a risk worth taking, and if you don’t have anything to risk then you don’t have anything to gain. You need to have skin in the game. That’s how I like to approach things.
How do factors like companionship, nature, and adventure inspire your creativity?
My companionship with Patrick is foundational to the trajectory of my life. We work really hard to establish autonomy and preserve individual identity. One thing we’ve really resisted is allowing our two separate identities to collapse into each other, like “married duo Tennis”. I don’t go by Alaina Riley because I don’t want us to be the Rileys. I’m Alaina Moore and I’m keeping my personhood. As much as it informs my life, our partnership, our friendship and our companionship, it enables us to do these great big challenges or undertakings together and we still work really hard to balance that line of “us against the world” while still being two separate people.
As far as adventure goes, I’m not motivated by adventure; I think I’m just motivated by newness and discovery. I’d love to get those things in less adventurous ways, but I haven’t figured out how yet. If I could get as much newness and discovery from reading a book, I would choose that. I can occasionally get that much from a book, but I don’t think there’s enough books in the world to replace going on a sailing trip with my life partner.
I’ve never even thought of myself as a nature girl; I’ve always been very bookish and indoors-y, I’m not athletic, I get winded walking up stairs, but whatever — I’m afraid of all bugs and animals (laughs). I don’t even see myself as that kind of a person, but anyone can be inspired by a grand, pristine vista — somewhere remote where there’s no evidence of humanity. I don’t know anyone who can’t feel moved or inspired by that, so even I, despite all of my discomforts and preference for the safety of a building with doors and windows, even I feel moved by that.
I think I’m mostly attracted to solitude, which is the role that nature plays for me in my life and my writing. My work is extremely internal so the more quiet and more alone I am, the freer I am to delve into myself and make whatever. I don’t even feel like I make things as I’m just mining for stuff that’s already inside of me but it’s all too loud and distracting for me to find it.
In March, you and Patrick will be releasing your fourth album Yours Conditionally and like Cape Dory, the record is largely influenced by your latest adventure at sea. Are there any notable differences between these two albums and the ones that were not written during a trip?
For this record, even though we wrote it in part while we were sailing again, it definitely hearkens back to that time in our life when we made Cape Dory. But this is not an album about sailing; it’s just about what’s going on in my world and the things I was interested in at the time. In terms of subject matter, we worked really hard to learn how to write other things after Cape Dory, as it was so easy to write, and the other albums were a lot more challenging. I feel like the subsequent records were us working really hard to grow to another level in our songwriting and in our musicianship while trying to push ourselves.
I hear all of that building up to Yours Conditionally and the reason we went back to sailing was because we needed to clear our heads and re-center ourselves. We were getting mired in the industry, things were feeling stunted and rickety, we were slowing down, and it was feeling really labored. We wanted to bring back some of that spontaneous joy we had when we wrote about that first sailing trip, and this was the best way we could think of to jar that back into existence.
From months at sea to spending two weeks in a cabin in Fraser, CO to finish the album, what is it about taking time away from reality that helps you understand it?
I think its not the understanding, but you need the time for reflection to gain any perspective on what you’re doing or where you stand with something. The other thing is having the confidence in your interpretation. It’s very hard to be sure of your own voice, your own opinion and your own vision when you are bombarded daily with everyone’s opinions and visions of the world, of you, and of your work and anyone’s work. It’s really important to me to be able to shut that down.
Sometimes the only way I am able to do that is by doing something really drastic, otherwise I just settle into my routine at home of checking the Internet and looking at social media. Not only does it erode my time, but it continually orients me in terms of what everyone else thinks about something or someone instead of me actively creating my own identity or my own work. I feel like I’m being passively shaped by the world around me and that’s why we go to such great lengths to eliminate the outside world. Only in spurts obviously because I could never live like that. I love the world and I enjoy technology, the Internet, and social media, but I’m not a misanthrope or anything. I need little bursts where I can cut it away in order to have the strength and confidence in my own vision to make anything worthwhile.
I know it’s impossible to live completely free from outside influence, but would you say Yours Conditionally was written largely with minimal outside influence?
We definitely don’t write in a vacuum and nobody does, and I’m not pulling ideas for songs out of the ether. When I first considered songwriting, I thought that’s how everyone made music — it just appeared like an explosion out of nowhere into your mind. I now know that’s entirely untrue as you hear things that give you ideas. You hear a song and you think “That composition is cool, but I think I’d like it better if it did this different thing or developed differently”, so you put it in a different key and develop a new bass line and now you’re writing a song. All the input that comes to you from the world around you, you synthesize it and make new things out of it.
When we do start writing, we work really, really, really hard to monitor what types of music we let ourselves listen to. We actually work hard not to listen to much of anything that’s coming out in contemporary music only because I don’t want to be influenced by what my peers are doing. I just want to enjoy their music as a fan. When I’m done with my own record, I get really excited to discover everything that came out over that period of time when I was writing and I get really into it and I consume everything. I’m a huge fan of the music that’s coming out now, but I don’t want to doubt myself if I hear a new song and they’re doing something different than what I’m doing, and I don’t want to doubt myself and think “This style is the new thing and maybe we should have produced it differently”. It immediately gets into my head and I doubt my instincts.
I also really have a fear of ripping off somebody else but I think everyone has that fear. I really want to do something new and it’s hard to police yourself but usually between everyone that’s in the studio, you can catch if you’re accidentally channeling somebody else’s melody.
Personally, I love the title Yours Conditionally; it represents such a beautiful balance between being there for the people and forces in your life, but also respecting what you need as an individual. Was there a time in your life when you didn’t have this balance?
Absolutely. With the last two albums, I felt like I was losing that distinction and I felt like I was allowing myself to be eroded away by forces outside of me and the needs and expectations of people in my life. Even sometimes even really vague conceptual things, like “What is a wife? What is an artist?”. It wasn’t necessarily direct pressure put on me by a person — it was more like social and cultural forces — but I felt I wasn’t actively existing or even doing a good job of noticing the way I was responding and changing myself according to those forces. It was something I was able to notice about myself when I was in the middle of nowhere.
I think it started off when Patrick and I were talking about love songs, and we were talking about how there’s not enough sense of self in the most romantic love songs. They’re usually like “Treat me bad. It doesn’t matter what you do. I will be here forever, I will always love you”, and we were just saying, as married people, how unhealthy that is. Like I would love you within reasonable boundaries (laughs). I have to get something out of this and this has to be respectful and mutual, and we were joking about how unromantic of a love song that would be. It evolved into all these things, such as signing a love letter “Yours conditionally”. That’s how the whole concept came about and we immediately noticed how it applied to every relation in our lives, and our art, the music industry, and with our friendships etc.
In what ways are introspection and self-awareness an integral part of the songwriting process?
In every way! It’s definitely the way that I write; I’m more analytical and reflective. With writing, I’m sorting through certain emotions that I have and I’m hashing them out. It’s not spontaneous or stream of consciousness at all. I’ve read about people who don’t really revise their lyrics, but I revise infinitely. I’m always looking for a better word. I don’t know if it’s just my personality or the way that I think or the fact that philosophy was my first creative expression before songwriting… I don’t know exactly what it is, but all of my work really feels structured and analytical.
Is there a song from the new record that stands out to you personally?
For once, I don’t really think I can choose anything. Sonically and musically, there’s a song called “Baby Don’t Believe” that I feel most proud of. I really like what we did with that song. As a song in itself, I really love “Modern Woman”. It’s one of those songs whenever I sing it, I feel a very strong emotional response. I feel like it does a lot of emotional work for me and I don’t usually get that in a song. It’s hard to feel specific things about specific songs as it’s one continuum of experience and expression for me, but there are a few moments on the record where I feel like we did something particular and I’m really proud of those moments.