In March of this year Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley released Yours Conditionally, their fourth full-length as the dreamy indie-pop act Tennis. Ahead of their show at Omeara next month, John Bell spoke with Moore about how the record was a product of the couple’s return to self-reliance.
“Everything is idyllic at sea. Storms, sleepless nights, loneliness, brushes with mania, all of it,” explains Tennis’ Alaina Moore. “We left San Diego and sailed south along the coast of Baja in January. We arrived in La Paz in the Sea of Cortez in March. We explored the upper sea until May and then returned home to record what we had written”. At the beginning of last year, after the heat of their third record Ritual and Repeat had calmed, Moore and Patrick Riley embarked on a sailing trip to inspire what would be the next instalment of their elegant and nostalgic brand of pop as Tennis.
Yours Conditionally was released in March of this year and is breezy, melodic and refined from start to finish, qualities you would hope for after some time of rest and a half-year trip along the coast of Mexico. It’s both a romantic and ambitious feat, but, as Alaina reiterates, Tennis think in terms of grand gestures. “We commit fully and wildly to whatever idea or plan we make. This album is no exception,” she says.
Indeed, this was not the first time the married couple had turned to the sea as a muse. After meeting at college in Denver, Colorado, Moore and Riley soon fell in love and realised an ambition quixotic to many: heading on a voyage across the Atlantic coast. It was an experience that would inform and inspire the couple’s debut album, Cape Dory. Read any review of that record, or those that followed for that matter, and you can be sure it will be rooted in Tennis’ alluring origin.
But whilst it’s tempting to imagine Moore and Riley silhouetted by sunset, penning the likes of ‘Seafarer’ and ‘Waterbirds’ as they drift gently toward Bimini Bay, the reality wasn’t always so flawless. “We had no idea how to sail on our first trip,” Moore tells us. “There was a steep learning curve and the limits of our knowledge prevented us from sailing wherever we wanted. Also, we had no intentions of writing during that voyage. Music came to us later, after we returned home to our landlocked apartment.”
Though music was an afterthought from their journey in the first place, it nevertheless galvanised a new life and career for the couple, who were barely out of college. “Music had become our primary focus and we didn’t leave space for much else. When it came time to write [Yours Conditionally], we felt aimless and dissatisfied. We wanted distance, perspective. Instead of making plans to work with a producer and book studio time, we made plans to sail to the Sea of Cortez”. In a kind of full-circle motion then, Tennis returned to their beginnings, aware of how necessary self-sufficiency, perhaps even solitude, had become for their art. As Moore explains: “we like the feeling of self-reliance. It works for us”.
This realisation was the result of a period of frustration for the two, feeling lost as a kind of cultural commodity under the pressure of a record label, regardless of how close they were with them. Despite its critical acclaim, the band note 2014’s Ritual in Repeat as this period’s centre-point. “The whole enterprise felt joyless and transactional. We knew that if we self-released we would have a smaller reach, but be fully in control,” Moore notes. “There is no pressure to pursue something we don’t want, or rely on the opinions of others”.
“I wanted to examine, and in some cases resist, the way that gender shapes my work, my relationships, and others’ perceptions of me.”
The result of this realisation means Yours Conditionally has all the dreamy tweeness of the first two records with the kick and clout of third-album Ritual in Repeat. Lyrically, Moore is at her most succinct here, as she considers her relation to the world as a woman with a twist of irony in tracks such as ‘Ladies Don’t Play Guitar’ and ‘My Emotions Are Blinding’: “I wanted to examine, and in some cases resist, the way that gender shapes my work, my relationships, and others’ perceptions of me.” Nowhere is this clearer than in ‘Ladies Don’t Play Guitar’, which plays with the perception of the guitar, Moore’s favourite instrument, as a masculine object: “Ladies don’t play guitar / Ladies don’t get down down to the sound of it / Maybe we can play pretend / Baby I can go down deep just to be what you’re needing”.
At times the record is also quite evidently about marriage, Alaina and Patrick’s marriage: “Sweet summer morning early in July / Sweet summer morning when you made me your wife”. Indeed, this isn’t something Moore is hesitant to talk about. “Patrick and I didn’t promise each other forever; we promised what we could. The goal of our partnership is quality, not longevity, although, of course, we hope that it lasts,” she says. “Our individual freedoms are the most sacred part of our relationship, and we apply that mindset to our careers as well. I don’t want Tennis to succeed at any cost. There are limits.”
It’s an incredibly grounded and pragmatic ethos, particularly in the context of the idyllic romance of the sailing narrative. But how does this dynamic work when your partner is also the second half of your musical project, of your career? Does their profound intimacy complicate the process of explaining new song ideas? “We try to avoid explaining the idea of a song to each other,” Moore explains. “Instead, we write mostly alone until a song is quite fleshed out, maybe seventy-percent complete, then we share it with and involve the other. This protects our egos during the vulnerable early stages of an idea, where it can be easily snuffed out”.
It’s easy to admire the levelheadedness and maturity with which Alaina and Patrick tie together their musical and matrimonial journey, though, like all great voyages, lessons are learnt along the way. As Moore herself puts it, “creative collaboration is the greatest challenge to our partnership, but enjoying the finished product is the greatest gift”.