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Tennis on How There Are No Shortcuts to Writing Great, Personal Songs

Welcome back to Soundfly’s weekly interview series, Incorrect Music, curated by guitarist, singer, and composer Lora-Faye Åshuvud (of the band Arthur Moon). In this series, we present intimate conversations with artists who are striving to push the boundaries of their process and craft.

Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley make up Denver, Colorado’s indie-pop duo, Tennis. The married couple had a prolific 2017, releasing a full-length album, Yours Conditionally, and an EP called We Can Die Happy. Alaina calls the EP a “postscript” to the full-length, and it certainly feels that way — more relaxed, like a short, joyful, contemplative addition to an already complete work.

The tension in a Tennis tune is simply, and elegantly, the tension between these two people and their tastes and fears and longings. “Patrick would love this term [incorrect music],” says Alaina. “He’s the one who pushes us to defy convention. For example, he hates repetition, which is the hallmark of pop music. He detests overly recycled choruses or hooks, and resists classic song structure whenever possible. I’m the one who tries to square his rebelliousness with the ends of a pop song… I think together Patrick and I strike a good balance.”

…A balance that’s always moving, I think.

We Can Die Happy is out now via Mutually Detrimental. Catch them on tour in April across North America supporting The Decemberists.

– Lora-Faye Åshuvud

Interview by RE Katz

After the success of Yours Conditionally, it was stunning to hear We Can Die Happy cap off a prolific 2017. Given that these two projects came out of very different creative drives, what stays the same for you in songwriting? What kinds of themes or routines do you return to in your process?

A couple of songs on We Can Die Happy were unfinished pieces left over from Yours Conditionally. In that sense, We Can Die Happy feels sort of like a “postscript.” We were still in the same headspace and working out the same themes. To get at your other question, I think the common thread throughout our writing is our preference for played instruments over programmed music.

If you only compose one way, your work will always be funneled through the same limiting factor. Thematically, I’m interested in working out womanhood and feminism for myself within the context of a heteronormative relationship. Music is a great way to tackle ineffable concepts, since much of the medium is wordless.

For many of your fans, your creative partnership and the story of your making work together has contributed immensely to what feels so good about listening to the music. How do you think moving between private diaristic albums and more produced albums has done for you as a band? How has this versatility helped you both speak directly to your fans and reach out to new audiences?

Oddly enough, our more produced records are our most personal. Although Cape Dory is straightforwardly diaristic, I didn’t take a lot of emotional risks. As we’ve pushed ourselves to expand musically, I’ve pushed myself lyrically. If I don’t write something that makes me feel vulnerable, then I don’t think I’m doing my job. On our first record, I was too inexperienced to ask that of myself.

What are some things you’re reading, listening to, and watching right now that are making their way into an influential space for your next project? What is sticking with you from this year?

I’m very interested in Yes right now. I love the layered, angular harmonies. I’m curious what that style of writing would sound like if it were made by a woman.

I haven’t read a blessed thing this year. We’ve been so busy making records and touring that I haven’t found time for it. I’m rarely inspired by film, musically. Movies are more of an escape than a muse. Writing itself is very unromantic for me. I just clock in and write. It’s very 9 to 5. The only thing I consistently pull from is my inner mental state, which is of course ever-changing.

You wrote songs for Cape Dory and Yours Conditionally while sailing! When it’s rough sailing, is there a particular kind of song that comes out of that? And in general, do you think the water comes through as a character in the music — a rhythm, a voice, a feeling?

The ocean is “The Other,” just like a crowd, or the noise of a city. It’s the background upon which you distinguish yourself and establish identity. In that sense I don’t feel compelled to write about it specifically in song. Popular songs incorporate so many nautical metaphors that they have totally lost their potency. Even literal sailing references feel metaphorical now, which is problematic for me when I’m trying to document it in reality. I don’t feel like I am lost at sea, I am lost at sea. But how can I make that distinction in the chorus of a pop song?

“If you only compose one way, your work will always be funneled through the same limiting factor.”

At Soundfly, we love to use the term “incorrect music” to describe the things an artist does that go against people’s assumptions, or even their own instincts, but which yield exciting and unique results. What about your music might you consider to be “incorrect”?

Patrick would love this term. He’s the one who pushes us to defy convention. For example, he hates repetition, which is the hallmark of pop music. He detests overly recycled choruses or hooks, and resists classic song structure whenever possible. I’m the one who tries to square his rebelliousness with the ends of a pop song. I want our music to be memorable. A few surprises are nice, but I don’t want to lose a listener or inundate them with information. I think together Patrick and I strike a good balance.

Do you think it’s possible to make new things while on tour? Are performing and creating at odds with each other, not just time-wise, but as creative functions?

It is for me, although I know tons of people who write on tour. On the road, I can’t even read. Even that feels too creative. Touring makes me feel displaced and out of touch with my true self. I feel more like I’m on a quest, engaged in physical and demanding work. When I get home and back to my routine, I suddenly feel like writing again.

Which songs off of your newest records do you most enjoy performing live and why?

Right now we really enjoy playing “I Miss That Feeling” and “Diamond Rings.” It took a while to get it right, but we have it down now. It always changes, though. Songs cycle in and out of importance for us, and we change our setlist accordingly.

What advice would you give aspiring singers and songwriters looking to create an original project?  

For me, it’s unglamorous. I just show up and do the work. It was hard for me to learn that lesson. A couple of difficult album experiences taught me that I have to hammer it out hour by hour. There are no shortcuts. I had to build a routine around writing. When I’m done writing, I have to live, give my mind a break, seek out new experiences. That way, I have something new to draw from when I’m ready to write again.

What’s next for you both?

We’re building a home studio, and when we’re done, we’re going to write and record another record. We also plan on sailing again. We’re halfway through an art book we’re working on with our photographer/collaborator Luca Venter. He’s been documenting our voyages photographically, and I’m compiling segments from my ship’s log as the text.

Have either of you worked in other media before, or has songwriting always been it for you? If you could choose another art form to try on, what would it be?

The art book will be my first experience branching out from songwriting. Patrick intends to eventually write a TV show.

With the political situation the way it is right now, do you feel like you have a responsibility as artists to be involved, to send a message?

I feel like I have a responsibility to be involved as a human and citizen. As an artist, I think my job is to reflect the times we are living in. I think art works as a sort of cultural, sociopolitical archive of whatever was happening at the time of its creation. I’m not very optimistic about art or music’s ability to change people or politics. Unlike journalism, art is a kind of reporting that is meant to be subjective. I can color my work with my own point of view. I think that is my only responsibility.

It’s great for fortifying subcultures and building communities, but I’m not going to pretend that a song can save the world. If it could, the world would look different.

Looking to advance your skills and open up more opportunities in music? Explore Soundfly’s growing array of Mainstage courses that feature personal support and mentorship from experienced professionals in the field, such as Orchestration for StringsUnlocking the Emotional Power of Chords, The New Songwriter’s Workshopand our newest mixing course series, Faders Up I & II: Modern Mix Techniques and Advanced Mix Techniques.

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RE Katz exhibited Boywitch Codex: Hypertexts as Artist in Residence at Dreamland Arts in Buffalo, NY in February 2017. Katz is interested in personal fashion, antifascist witchcraft, and television.

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