“It’s definitely been a long time coming,” admits Alaina Moore. Speaking from a hotel room in Vancouver, the Tennis frontwoman is reflecting on the release of their latest album, Ritual In Repeat, which is arriving in the UK five months after its US release, and an entire eighteen months on from its completion. Turns out this deferred street date was probably the least problematic part of the process.
“Patrick [Riley] and I struggled with writer’s block for about a year, writing songs and then throwing them away,” Moore recalls. “We eventually realised that removing the mystery – and reducing writing to this unromantic, tedious, monotonous routine – was the key to producing again. And when you imbue any constricting routine with personal or spiritual significance, it becomes a sacred ritual.”
This painful process doesn’t just jar with Tennis’ whole sensibility – founded on the breezy indie-pop of 2011’s Cape Dory, an album inspired by a yachting sojourn – it’s at odds with the effortlessly- melodic end-product.
“…the feminine experience is not seen as universal; the masculine experience is.”
Variously produced by Spoon’s Jim Eno, The Shins’ Richard Swift and Patrick Carney of The Black Keys, Ritual In Repeat is by far the duo’s most sonically ambitious set yet, extending from the lush dream-pop of ‘Viv Without The N’ to the acoustic balladry of ‘Wounded Heart’, via forays into funk on ‘Night Vision’ and ‘I’m Callin’’. Moore credits their expanded range to a “more autonomous writing process”, in which she and Riley would work-up ideas separately, before exchanging demos for the other to finish. “I imagined ‘I’m Callin’’ as a piano ballad,” she laughs. “When I brought it to Patrick, he gave it a bassline and a disco beat.”
Describing Tennis’ sound as the overlap in the Venn diagram of their separate tastes, Moore admits her own songwriting is rooted in the “strong vocal melodies” of her childhood. “I had an incredible upbringing, but it was extraordinarily sheltered, conservative and religious. The music I listened to was mostly classical, or old American standards, or songs from musical theatre – singers like Judy Garland and Peggy Lee.” She credits her creativity on this record to discovering her “patron saints of songwriting” – Laura Nyro, Carole King and Judee Sill – and feeling “emboldened by these discoveries.”
Consequently, Ritual In Repeat is also the first Tennis record that foregrounds the female narrative, confronting the concept of maternal altruism (‘Needle And A Knife’) and the religious guilt that can surround the female experience of sex (‘Bad Girls’). Why wait three albums to tackle those experiences?“ I think I felt timid about my voice being female,” Moore muses. “When I first started writing melodies, I would imagine a male voice singing them. Even though my perspective on the world is that of a woman, the feminine experience is not seen as universal; the masculine experience is. And it bothers me that work done by men appeals to everyone, whereas work done by women only appeals to women. So, for a long time, I worked really hard to make my writing androgynous.
“Even now, I don’t want anything I write to feel polemic or sententious, but I do want those experiences to be there for anyone who wants to find them. And I like to use religious imagery, the way that Judee Sill would. She was an atheist, a heroin addict and a prostitute, but she wrote these beautiful, vivid, spiritual songs with biblical metaphors, because it’s the language that she inherited. I feel the same.”
The result is a Tennis record that, for the first time, is as rich in meaning as it is in melodic beauty; a development that was definitely worth the wait.