“The thing about sailing is, you don’t know what day it is.”
Alaina Moore tells me this over the phone during our interview. The sentiment of losing yourself to time, and breaking away from the rigid structure of a calendar, wasn’t an unfamiliar one. Nearly all of my retired grandparents echoed what the singer-songwriter confided. Days flow into one another, like the ocean the band Tennis happened to be floating across when writing their newest album, Yours Conditionally.
The differences between retired folks and a band arguably in their prime aren’t easily identifiable. But for Moore to say this meant that she and Patrick Riley, her husband and bandmate, were truly lost in their work, much like an oldie in retirement. And you can pick up this calm easiness on the album.
“I think the real reason for that is that we had already decided that we would self-release and record it alone,” Moore says about the album. “Deciding in advance that it would all be for us, it took so much pressure off of us.”
Their sound is extremely relaxed, nearly subdued in its delivery. Although the topics of love, other emotions and even feminism carry colossal weight in the songs, the meat of them is delivered in a more than digestible manner, which manifested itself rather organically.
“We had no vision when we started making the record,” Moore says. “I usually just tackle it in terms of one song at a time, and as I go, I see a narrative arc emerge. There’s a few songs we really liked that we had to cut because they didn’t fit. It all started with the first choice to free ourselves from the expectations and suggestions of other people.”
This attitude plays like a throwback to decades past, with a smooth, easygoing feel, and some retro-pop sensibilities. Moore says, like most things on Yours Conditionally, this vintage style emerged subconsciously.
“Patrick is our engineer, and we really like the production of songs from the 60s and 70s,” Moore says. “We’ve jumped all over the map of what we’re interested in. Another element for the kind of retro feel is I really like to emulate that kind of songwriting. It’s very different from contemporary music; the intervals used in the 70s were radically different than now.”
Songwriting for the couple is typically divided, with either being able to point at particular songs, saying, “That one is mine.” Moore writes all the lyrics, whereas Riley writes music with production and sounds in mind.
“I’ll play him what I’ve made or recorded, and if we don’t impress each other, we know it’s out,” Moore says. “I’ll then hand it over to Pat and he’ll add some instrumentation so I can write new melodies, or he’ll give me a piece of music and I’ll add a chorus and lyrics.”
Along with the bulk of work being done on the open seas, the new album has a tremendous amount in common with the pair’s first album, Cape Dory.
“We made that record with the purpose of itself,” Moore says. “No expectations or consequences, and after that we began recording albums to make a living, and live up to something. The songs couldn’t exist on their own. I love the records we made, but we needed to cut ourselves out of that way of thinking, or we would lose our connection to songwriting as a personal expression.”
To do this, Tennis had to allow themselves wiggle room. With the only goal being to express themselves freely, they had to taper their own expectations in term of financial gain, and critical acclaim.
“We basically gave ourselves permission to fail,” Moore says. “As you get successful, you see what makes that happen and you internalize those observations, and they become hard to break away from. We made a concentrated effort to get away from that line of thinking.”
Luckily, the band hasn’t failed. The album marks a step forward in the band’s maturation process, while also reaching back and grabbing some of the magic responsible for their popularity.
Moore says this will be the new status quo, as the group plans to mimic this free-flowing creation process for future works. Like all other things Tennis, this sort of clicked, and when you get to one-up your previous works while also sailing on a boat, you kind of have to, right?
“We try to take a step forward with every record,” Moore says. “If we don’t feel like we’re moving forward, we wouldn’t want to make another record. In that sense, I think this is the best thing we’ve ever done.”
Yours Conditionally will be released on March 10. The duo will perform at 9:30 Club on March 19. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $20. Learn more about the band at www.tennis-music.com.
9:30 Club: 815 V St. NW, DC; 202-265-0930; www.930.com