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Indie-pop group Tennis set sail to find inspiration for its new album

Written by
David Chiu
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Denver-based duo Tennis has a thing for sailing. Its 2011 debut, Cape Dory, documented a lengthy trip along the Eastern Seaboard on their 30-foot boat, Swift Ranger. In early 2016, after weathering several cycles of recording and touring, the husband-and-wife team of guitarist Patrick Riley and singer-keyboardist Alaina Moore set out again, taking a five-month trip through the Sea of Cortez between the Baja California Peninsula and Mexico. The result—a lush, romantic-sounding new record,Yours Conditionally, out Friday, March 10—continues the development of the duo’s sound, incorporating elements of R&B, ambient and folk music to its retro surf pop. Ahead of Tennis’s upcoming NYC shows, Moore talked about taking out the sailboat again and the new album’s feminist themes.

What prompted you and Patrick to make another sailing trip?
We felt we released enough music consecutively that we could go away for a little while and reassess everything that we’ve been doing. We did a much more ambitious trip where sailed down the Pacific Coast [and into] the Sea of Cortez, which is actually a very violent sea with crazy weather systems. It was a huge step for us. We weren’t able to do any writing until we got deep into the Sea of Cortez. It was, like, waves crashing into you, and the wind is insane. All you can do is tend to the ship every second until you get to port.

"The much more real fear of my ship sinking completely eclipsed my fear of writing a crappy song."

Did you have an idea of how you wanted the new album to be?
We had written half of the record before we left, so we had already established a trajectory. We didn’t have any electric instruments, so there were a lot of limitations that affected the way that we wrote. In general, writing is so internal for me. I am normally so afraid of writing a bad song. But I realized that when we were sailing, the much more real fear of my ship sinking completely eclipsed my fear of writing a crappy song. And so whenever I could think about writing, it came easily and naturally. 

The songs explore your relationship to the world as a woman. 
I was feeling [like] I didn’t know the boundaries between myself and the world that I was relating myself to. With people who listen to our music, how much do I want to belong to them? And then in my marriage, where’s the limit to my devotion? And I don’t know. I always felt sort of surprised and troubled as a feminist to find myself in such a conventional situation, and I’m just wondering how to navigate that [since] I don’t really have any examples in my life. 

The title of the track “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar” seems very provocative at first. 
Patrick and I were working on a song...and I was trying to sing [this guitar solo] to him so he could play it. He was having trouble figuring it out and I got so frustrated. I was like, “I want to take the guitar and play it for you, but I can’t because ladies don’t play guitar” [Laughs]. I was given a piano without [anyone] batting an eyelash: “Here’s your piano because you’re a lady.” I love playing piano, and I’m not mad at my parents because they didn’t teach me electric guitar. I’m kind of being facetious, but then I realized that [the song] encapsulated a lot of my frustrations with boundaries that I run up against all the time as a woman. 

With this current political climate in the country, especially regarding women’s issues, the songs on the new record seem timely. 
I’m 31 and I’m always thinking about the next life steps—first there’s marriage and then it’s inevitably motherhood. So I was already considering that when I started writing this record anyway. One of the lines in “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar”—“Try to build a legacy / That will not complicate the future of your own progeny”—I was thinking about, Do I want to have children? Will it complicate my ability to be a songwriter and a musician? And I don’t know and I don’t have answers. I had no way of anticipating the current climate. I’m glad that I have an opportunity to talk about my feminism because it’s not normally something I would shoehorn into an album cycle. It just naturally was something I was considering as I wrote. 

Yours Conditionally is your fourth full-length record in six years, and it continues to mark a growth in the band’s sound. 
When I look back at our previous records, I basically see a history of development in our writing where we’re trying things out and we’re figuring out what we like to write. I felt the biggest challenge for us has been to write songs that suit my singing voice. I hear someone discovering through practice and trial and error how to write for themselves. This record is the first time that I feel we were really confident when we made it and more sure of what we were doing. 

Will you and Patrick ever sail again?
We could live on the boat forever. So we are planning on crossing an ocean—that’s our next goal. We’re thinking about the Pacific. 

Tennis plays Bowery Ballroom March 21 and 22 at 9pm (boweryballroom.com). $20.

Tennis - Interiors, created by Vinyl Me, Please. & Yours Truly featuring music from Yours Conditionally

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