In Tennis’ upcoming album, Yours Conditionally, Alaina Moore sings “Ladies Don’t Play Guitar”, while, who would’ve guessed, playing a guitar. She and her husband Patrick Riley formed the band after writing a handful songs on a (casual) eight-month sailing trip with no idea that it would become a groundbreaking and extremely popular indie album. After three subsequent records, in a nostalgic throwback by an already-retro band, Tennis spent the beginning of 2016 once again on their sailboat, drifting across the Pacific with little more than their instruments in hand. From that trip was born their upcoming record, Yours Conditionally. In anticipation of their tour stop in Salt Lake City (at The State Room on March 3rd) I spoke to Alaina about what it means to be a “Modern Woman” as well as what it means to have curly hair and 70’s sound.
The following is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity only.
On Why Conditioner is Overrated:
SLM: I’ll just dive right in—I love the new album. And I have to say… I love your curly hair. It is phenomenal. It’s so wonderful.
AM: Oh my god, thank you! This is the nicest start to an interview I’ve ever had!
SLM: It’s always nice to see people with natural curls just rocking it, because there’s way too much [straightening and heat styling]…. you know what I mean?
AM: I literally always straightened my hair, even in the early years of our band. Patrick would be like “Just embrace your hair, it’s what makes you you.” I felt so insecure… like, it doesn’t blow in the wind right, you can’t flip your hair right, you can’t have the most contemporary haircuts. It just took a really long time to move through that and embrace it.
SLM: When did you start to finally embrace it?
AM: Well, I found a girl who I really trusted with great taste and we decided to make a long term project of slowly figuring out what kind of haircut works for my curls. Now I have this kind of halo, rounded, mushroom-cap afro thing that I really like. It looks really good photographed, it’s really sculptural. My curls are so thick and they really don’t fall out very easily. So we were like, “Well, if we imagine that we’re shaping a hedge, trimming a hedge, instead of just cutting hair, we get a different outcome.”… I put cream in it, but I do nothing. I actually stopped using conditioner, too, because it made no difference. I want my hair more 70’s, looser, coarse curls… conditioner was almost cancelling out my long-term goal of fluffier, crazier curls.
SLM: Ya, it weighs it down sometimes!
AM: Ya, exactly, I didn’t want it to be so maintained. So we’ve got that down, I think.
On Giving Yourself Permission to Blow Things Up:
SLM: Since you were going into this album with the knowledge of, “Oh, I’m actually going to release this to a wider audience that knows my music,” was there more pressure during your sailing/writing sabbatical? [As opposed to before, when Tennis went on a sailing trip with little knowledge of their musical fame to follow.]
AM: Yeah, that’s a great question… That’s the weird thing I never considered about achieving some new small iteration of success, it’s like the most overwhelming joy when you have it… like, “Wow, I can’t believe this is happening!” And then it immediately turns into dread like, “Now I have to maintain this.” Otherwise it’s seen as sliding downhill in our careers. So that became a very constant, low level of anxiety.
SLM: So how did you approach that anxiety, how did you tackle it?
AM: We just decided to blow up our whole career, basically… It’s been a really long time, six years I think, since our first sailing trip… So we thought, “We need to clear our heads and hardcore get away and really be in the middle of nowhere.” We had this epiphany—at the time we still had a record deal—but if we self-released the whole thing could be a lot smaller, and a lot easier to maintain. I felt like we were being pushed by the natural flow of the industry to build some kind of an empire. That’s not our personality and that’s not what music is to us. It’s always very personal. When I imagine Tennis, it’s me and Pat in our living room or our bedroom quietly writing and tinkering around on our instruments alone to ourselves. That’s Tennis to me.
SLM: That’s such a good image.
AM: It’s not me prancing around with costume changes. I’ll never do that and I don’t even want it…We aren’t trying to be antagonizing to our audience. We hope that they like what we do. But we threw away the need to maintain anything anymore… We were like “What jobs would we get, if this is the end, and we’re still on good terms with our old bosses just in case?” We were prepared for that possibility. Fortunately… it’s like nothing has really changed, somehow, miraculously, it’s still Tennis and we’re still going on tour and people are still buying tickets to our shows, I’m still having an interview with you, and everything is still there… But we gave ourselves permission to blow the whole thing up. We were okay with that. And that’s how we got out of it.
On Favorite Lyrics:
SLM: What are your favorite lyrics you’ve ever written, or what are your favorite lyrics somebody else has ever written?
AM: I think for our record I really like the first verse of “My Emotions are Blinding”.
SLM: That title is so good.
AM: I packed a lot in there. It didn’t undermine the melody at all, it’s something I think about all the time. [In the song] I’m speaking tongue-in-cheek… “Women are much closer to nature, so why can’t you understand? Binary opposition hits me like a divine plan. I get hysterical, it’s empirical.” It’s confronting those gender stereotypes that constrict me even if they aren’t real or descriptive of me in any way. It felt very cathartic to write that. I felt like I did some serious work without compromising melody, which is always my biggest concern. But if I could’ve written lyrics to anything… Well, one of my favorite songwriters, her names is Judee Sill. There’s a song called “Jesus Was a Crossmaker.” It’s about a breakup but it’s also about losing religion… it’s poetic and powerful and if I could’ve written that song… I wish I could’ve written something so beautiful.
On Evolving 70’s Sound:
SLM: How do you feel like your sound has evolved throughout the albums? Do you feel like this one is drastically different in any way, instrumentally?
AM: Our writing and our sound has naturally evolved over time because our taste evolves over time. You write whatever you’re interested in and then you play it live every night for a lot of shows and then you’re over it and you don’t want to hear that anymore. I feel like whenever people are mad at a band changing their sound, it’s like… they just had to play the same thing for a year and they’re over it now and they want to hear different things. Every time we think we’re dramatically changing our sound, we write something that feels so risky and then we play it back and I’m like, “Oh, that just sounds like Tennis still.” … There’s nothing very intentional about the changes. [For Yours Conditionally we focused on] the 70’s production of a really tight double and dry vocals, which is a totally different effect. I used no doubling on our first record, and now I did that on this whole record and used very little reverb. So it’s those subtle changes but we’re still writing the way that we write.
On Unromantic Love Letter Catchphrases:
SLM: Can you talk about the title of the album—“Yours Conditionally” and where it came from?
AM: While we were thinking about blowing up our career I was thinking a lot about… how devoted am I to our audience, to the image of Tennis, to Tennis itself? When I was thinking about love songs…. I basically had this epiphany that I’m crossing an ocean for the man I love. That’s crazy, because that’s like a really cliched metaphor in love songs—like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”—I’m literally doing those things. I was amused by it, almost. I’m cynical about romance and I’m a feminist, but I’m doing the most cliched acting-out of my love. That’s kind of weird…. So Patrick and I talked about that a lot. The phrase we kept landing on was “yours conditionally” because we were thinking of a funny and surprising and unromantic way of ending a love letter.
SLM: That’s so much healthier.
AM: It came to represent … working hard to carve out my own terms and making sure that I am actively constructing my own identity, I’m not letting it be dictated to me in terms of my relationships in the world, which I think is something that women tend to have—“mother”, “daughter”, “lover”, “wife.” We talk about these issues all the time. It’s an easier pitfall for women to fall into where you’re not actively self-defined, you’re just passively being defined by your roles in the world. I felt like I needed to resist that for the sake of myself and hopefully for my art. I felt like… I would be a happier person if I knew where my boundaries were and how much responsibility I wanted to take on of maintaining an audience, or even a marriage! So that’s where the title came from… I’m a people-pleaser so deciding that I would have some boundaries was like an act of rebellion.
On Metaphysical Music Moments:
SLM: Is there a moment in your life when you knew you wanted to be a musician?
AM: I always sang growing up. I was homeschooled, so that’s why music is so personal—I always associate it with being at home. So the first time I sang in front of anyone was at church. It was a long, fortuitous thing where basically the worship leader of my church plucked me out of obscurity and was like, “I want you to sing,” and I was singing in front of like 1500 people.
SLM: That’s a big deal!
AM: It wasn’t like a mega-church, but it was big. And the first time I sang in front of everyone I was 14 or something. The first time I did that, I felt out of my body… everyone was singing with me and the point wasn’t to be performing, the point was to use music to point towards a shared experience—trying to experience God, essentially. I didn’t even have words for it, I didn’t know what it would feel like, I’d never even sung in front of anyone before, but within like one moment of me beginning to sing I felt like I traveled out of my body with my voice… I’ll never forget how I felt, my body was trembling.
SLM: That’s extraordinary.
AM: I’m not religious anymore and I don’t go to church, but I will never forget how profound and powerful that was and that’s when I [realized] music is a door to something that is ineffable. There’s no words for it, and I don’t know what God is, but it’s a way of experiencing something metaphysical. I’ve never forgotten that moment, and that’s when I knew that music was precious to me, and I’m still trying to have that feeling again. [Laughs].
Tennis plays at The State Room on March 3rd. Tickets are $18 and doors open at 8pm. For tickets, click here.
–by Amy Whiting