Despite a hiatus from touring, Tennis is keeping the ball volleyed on the match that is their career. The indie pop duo, comprised of husband and wife Patrick Riley and Alaina Moore, have set out on tour again to promote their first album since 2014, Yours Conditionally, which drops March 10. Before they sail into Madison and play at High Noon Saloon on Wednesday, Moore, the songwriter and vocalist, chatted with me about her feelings regarding performing across the nation, her subtle feminist messages in their songs and how she hopes the audience “gets whatever they need” from going to one of their shows.
How's the tour been going so far?
It's been amazing; the shows have been so, so good. I've just loved it. It's been a long time since we've toured and I was a little nervous to get back into it, but it's been so rewarding.
You guys took kind of a long break from the road. Why did you decide to tour again after the break?
Well, the album's coming out and we have to. I wouldn't tour if we didn't have to, to be honest. But that's the way album cycles work.
Why would you not tour if you didn't have to?
I am just a really private person. For me, my connection to [music] is songwriting. I feel like a writer—that's where all the interesting and meaningful comes out for me. I love seeing people connect with [the music], I love to know that people enjoy our music or have certain connections with lyrics or something; obviously that's all intensely rewarding. But, in my greatest life's dream I don't feel like a performer, I feel like a writer. Sometimes I just get overwhelmed by the fact that it's required of you to be both in order to make music, and for a long time I just really struggled with that. The songs are so diaristic and my life and thoughts, it's weird ... I never feel like I want to dance around a stage and perform that at you. It's not my connection to the music and, even when I go to shows, what I listen to... it’s usually pretty downtempo dude-bands who just play their guitars and look at their feet and there's no flare going on. Like no light shows or drama, they just play their songs and leave, and even now I feel like I'm just going to recreate the songs live and that's the best I can do for you. My goal is not to be like people that do it so well, like FKA Twigs or Solange. It's the multi-faceted, performative, almost visual art and, for me, it's just songwriting as emotional and mental catharsis and expiration, and when I take that to a stage it just feels like not what my goal was when I made the song. That being said, the shows are packed rooms with very, very kind, supportive people who often sing along with me, which is my favorite. I grew up playing in church, so when everyone sings in unison it always give me a spiritual experience, even if it's not religious. I love the shared experience of everyone enjoying the song at once, everyone singing it together. Those communal moments, those are really rewarding for me live and I kind of live for those. I'm pretty open about it because it's something that really would've held me back, and I feel like there's gotta be somebody else out there in the world that feels the same way as me. Like they're a great writer but don't think they could ever get on stage, and I just want them to know that there's a lot of other people who feel that way too.
How has the break been for you from touring? Your sounds definitely changed, so how do you feel like you guys have evolved during the break?
We needed the break just for perspective, just to decide what we want to get out of Tennis–what we need from it, what our goals are. I think giving ourselves a lot of distance from Tennis and all the things we have to do as a band, like touring for example, just gave us so much perspective about what kind of music to write, and we really focused on just writing for ourselves and not trying to obtain anything, like no end goals with our work. You know, not trying to write any hits or make anybody a lot of money, just writing songs that bring us joy and do some work for us emotionally and I think that if we hadn't taken that time we wouldn't have come back with this record. I don't know if we would have come with a record at all, to be honest. We were feeling a lot of burnout after our last album cycle, and I think we would have just stopped making records and gone quietly away. But, fortunately, that time to ourselves gave us what we needed and we made a record that I'm deeply, deeply proud of.
You and Patrick wrote several of your songs on a sailboat. How do you incorporate the vibes of writing out at sea into your performances?
I don't really because the sailing trip was really more just like a backdrop of our day-to-day, it's just where our routine happens to be placed, but we didn't really write about the trip. With this record I'm trying to convey, in a way that didn't occur to me with our first record which was also based on a sailing trip, that the sailing trip is an arbitrary backdrop to our writing career. It could've been anything else. Sometimes I feel like sailing feels like an unattainable thing to other people, or people wouldn't even be interested in doing it. I don't want the message to be like “Oh, we have to do this really difficult thing in order to be good artists.” I feel like it's so othering to people who would never be able to sail—that's not the thing I'm trying to tell people about. I really want people to know that it's not about sailing, it's just about how your art benefits from living a full life. You just have more to say. The deeper and fuller your experience is of the world, the more you have to give back to the world. Sailing happens to be the first thing we did after college. We were super broke, we ate canned beans everyday, it wasn’t glamorous. It was a really inspiring time. It could've been anything, it just happens to be sailing. I'm never trying to make that be my message because I want to empower people to feel like they can create art. When I’m on stage, in the best possible way, I want people to think, “I can do that.” I want it to be like, “I’m just an everyday person, doing my best, putting my work into the world, anyone can do this.” That’s the message that I want to convey. I don’t want the sailing trip to be the thing that makes it seem like no one can have it because a sailing trip is too hard to get.
In a statement you wrote "How much am I willing to belong to audience that I don't know but need?" and also explained how you struggle with being a feminist and performing. How do these things, and you being a private person, affect your performances?
I think that what I've discovered is that it's a constant negotiation. There's no flat answer to that, and that is a lot more nuanced and complex than I think. I feel like this is something going on culturally with concepts of, like, gender fluidity becoming more mainstream. I think Western American culture especially is very binary, you know—male and female, black and white, good and bad, night and day—we kind of deal in this binary opposition. One of the problems with that is, not only is it reductive, but it's also value-based, so like light is better than dark, rational is better than irrational. So not only are they false opposites, but one is better than the other. Obviously, within patriarchy, male is better than female. So, for me, rejecting this dichotomous thinking and getting right into these difficult concepts and parsing them out and seeing them as complex, nuanced issues in which, for example, I can be a feminist who's in a lifelong partnership. I can accept some conventions and reject others. Me even getting married, I wondered if it was a betrayal of feminism ... I just decided that, for me, every one of those things is a negotiation, but I want to address them thoughtfully and intentionally. I also need to recognize that my experience as a straight, white woman is just one experience, and there's myriad of other people's experiences of the same world. Feminism at its best makes room for all of those things. That's where I'm trying to land—basically in the middle of a very complicated place, and allowing it to be complicated.
Critics have said that your music is perfectly suited for today's social climate. What are some of the messages that you want to hit audiences with at your shows?
I definitely feel comfortable and ready to discuss feminism because it's so personal to my experience. It informs the way I approach our business and my marriage and my songwriting. Beyond that, I'm not a scholar or an expert, so I don't want to try and speak to things that I don't have the authority or experience to do so. But insofar as those things touch my own life, I really like to include it all. So, definitely my experience of being a woman in the music industry I want to talk about because I feel like I can. That's why I wrote songs like "Ladies Don't Play Guitar" or "My Emotions Are Blinding." I also always want the primary focus to be the songs. I want the other philosophical and political layers to be there if you're looking for it, but it's not shoved in your face. I want to write pop music and for there to be more substance so, if you're looking for it, it's there to be found but it's not forced down your throat.
How would you say this run of shows differs from previous tours that you have gone on?
I feel like we're at a point in our career where we have a strong back catalog, and we've been around long enough that I feel like we have fans. I feel like there are people who know our music, have been there with us for a long time and have a deep connection to what we're doing. The feeling is kind of palpable and I've never had that before. It's very humbling and it makes the shows really fun.
What do you hope the fans take away from your shows?
I hope they get whatever they needed out of the show. Everyone goes to a show for a different reason, like an escape or distraction. Maybe they had a hard day, maybe they had a great day and they want the icing on the cake or something. Everyone has their own needs, and I hope they get what they needed out of the show.