It’s barely 10 a.m. and Alaina Moore, one half of the husband-wife pop duo Tennis, has spent the morning curled up in her pajamas talking to journalists. Female journalists, specifically, which has made it a great day so far, she says, speaking from her home recording studio in Denver. The occasion? Tennis’ fourth LP, Conditionally Yours. The new album — sonically illustrated by lush vocals and glittering, retro-inspired production — was partly composed at sea, much like how Alaina and her partner, Patrick Riley, conceived their 2011 debut, Cape Dory. This time, they voyaged from San Diego into the Sea of Cortez and it was a journey that had Alaina contemplating her feminism. How does it pair with her marriage? With being a female artist, amongst pressures and labels?
“I want to decide for myself how I want to be in the world,” Alaina affirms.
WHAT PROMPTED THE NEED TO CREATE AT SEA AGAIN? We hadn’t been sailing since that first trip that brought Cape Dory to life and we felt like we had really immersed ourselves into our careers — trying to figure out where Tennis could go and how solid and real and sustainable we could make it as a project together. And after about six years, we just started to feel a little bit of burn out and we needed to clear our heads and look at everything we’d been doing in more of a third person perspective. Because we just started to feel so mired in it, if we asked ourselves, ‘what do we want from this, where do we see ourselves in a year?,’ we couldn’t even answer those questions. We thought, ‘okay, it’s been a really long time’ and we both missed it immensely, so we decided to do another sailing trip that was even bigger and more ambitious than what we’d ever done before.
HOW DID YOU WRITE? We were only able to write for about two weeks out of the whole period of time — out of about five months of sailing — because sailing was so demanding. The environment is really extreme. It’s known for crazy weather. When we finally had 10 days of peace where we could sit down and write on our boat, we finished half of the record almost immediately and I think it was because we had that distance and perspective and we felt all alone in the world, so we didn’t feel any pressure to please anyone with our writing. I felt like we were writing for the sake of itself, just so that it could exist.
IT’S AMAZING HOW PUTTING YOURSELF IN A SITUATION LIKE THAT CAN IMPACT YOUR PERSPECTIVE. It was just very grounding and it helped remind me what was important to me.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE MOMENT FROM THE TRIP? It’s so hard to choose. I mean, the feeling of triumph when you enter a port for the first time after three days at sea. We sailed into Cabo San Lucas and I had never been before, so it was my first time seeing those beautiful, natural land formations at the point of Cabo — those arches where everyone goes for their Spring Break photos. I saw that for the first time, covered in salt and soaking wet from three days of really rough sailing with my husband on our 30-foot boat.
It just felt like the most bold, tiny form of discovery.
THE ALBUM’S NARRATIVE EXPLORES YOUR RELATION TO THE WORLD, FEMININITY AND GENDER ROLES. HOW DO YOU DEFINE YOURSELF, BOTH AS A WOMAN AND AN ARTIST? I’m not sure if it’s correct to compartmentalize it, but it’s easier for me to think of it when I parse it out. I think of my relationship with Patrick as a wife, in a monogamous relationship, and then I think about my relationship with an audience as a songwriter and then in another iteration as a performer, one who’s visible and kind of perceived as the frontperson of a band. I notice the ways in which I feel shaped by expectations from the world and a lot of those are governed by stereotypes or archetypes and just conventional assumptions about gender roles, and, in my eagerness to please the world, my audience — that’s partly my personality type, but I think it’s something a lot of women can relate to — I noticed that I almost felt like I was wearing myself down in an effort to become all the things that people needed from me.
On the performative side, for example, I want to be technically proficient and a good musician, but then the criticism — and it’s not these things are unfair, they could be totally true — that maybe the show is dull because I’m focused on my musicianship. I’m not making eye contact. I’m not engaging directly enough. I’m not smiling enough. I don’t look like I’m having fun.
I’m not trying to be the next Madonna or anything. I just want to be a band that plays the music live for people who enjoy the music.
I’m asking myself where the limits of my devotion [are] to my audience, to my husband, to the way that the world wants me to be as a woman, and establishing some boundaries for myself where I can assert my own humanity against some of these things.
HUMAN BEINGS DON’T JUST FIT INTO SINGULAR DEFINITIONS. You know, even my relationship to fashion — I love clothing, I love makeup. As a person in the arts, I love aesthetics and making something banal a little more beautiful. I’m all for that, but even that’s something I have to continually think about. Resisting the urge to buy clothing all the time because every time I’m photographed I need to be wearing a new outfit that’s better than the last one. Or, in my desire to present the best version of myself on stage, am I inadvertently contributing to every other girl’s daily insecurity of not being good enough in the world? And I think about that all the time, even when I’m just using Instagram. Not like I have some impossible form of beauty, I’m a very plain person, but I just care about that I don’t want to be one more person putting that out in the world.
DO YOU CONSIDER DRESSING TO BE A FORM OF EMPOWERMENT? Yes, absolutely. I know I’m wearing the best outfit if I feel just the most like myself and I feel powerful — and that’s how I want to feel onstage, which is why I almost always wear pants. I have two sisters and we talk about this all the time, that we love to wear pants because I just feel power. I can run or kick and, we joke, I can always escape. I can always run away. Fashion plays an important role in my life, but I don’t want it to dictate my life.
THE ‘70S ARE A BIG SOURCE OF INSPIRATION FOR TENNIS, MUSICALLY AND AESTHETICALLY ON CONDITIONALLY YOURS. WHAT IS IT ABOUT THAT ERA THAT YOU AND PATRICK ARE DRAWN TO? Our original desire to write music as Tennis came from listening to girl groups and that Wall of Sound, Phil Spector production from the ‘60s. And in the intervening years as we’ve continued to write and your taste just naturally moves on to the next thing, we joke that maybe we’re just moving forward in time.
And then I also just discovered a lot of female songwriters and I found women who composed primarily on the piano, rooted in the early ’70s that really inspired me, like Carole King and Laura Nyro. I feel like that’s another reason why we landed aesthetically where we’re at right now.
THOSE ARE ALSO VERY POWERFUL WOMEN. Another interesting thing that I noticed, that in the ‘60s, obviously Carole King was ghostwriting for some people and there were other female writers, but most music was written by men. And when Patrick and I first started writing, he wrote most of the music. And then as our careers progress, I write more and I contribute more equally to our songwriting. So, I feel like it was kind of natural that I move forward in time to an era where women emerged as their own writers — the person behind themselves was themselves, not a man writing for them.
By Yasmine Shemesh
This interview has been edited and condensed.