Tennis Thrives In Isolation On 'Yours Conditionally'

Mar 5, 2017
Originally published on March 5, 2017 9:29 am

The band Tennis has again taken to the high seas.

Six years ago, the husband and wife duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley sailed in the Atlantic looking for inspiration; stories from that trip provided the songwriting material for their full-length debut, Cape Dory. Now, for their fourth album, they've returned to the water, navigating from San Diego into the Sea of Cortez on Mexico's coast — sleeping in shifts, with almost no cell service or contact with anyone on shore.

"For us, disconnecting is a huge part of our writing process," Riley says. "If we can reflect on ourselves without any sort of third-party analysis, it just makes us write more freely."

Riley and Moore spoke with NPR's Mary Louise Kelly about the journey that became the new album Yours Conditionally. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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Some creative types will hole up in a cabin in the woods when they need to mull over a project, but the husband-and-wife music team, Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, retreat to the isolation of the sea. They call their band Tennis, and their first album, released in 2011, came out of months living on a sailboat in the Atlantic. They recently returned to the water to work on their latest collection, "Yours Conditionally."


TENNIS: (Singing) Have you heard a serpent speak? Would you lift a veil to take a peek? Hold a mirror up to me.

KELLY: Departing from the California coast, the two of them left their lives behind and sailed south around the Baja Peninsula into the Sea of Cortez, where they found the quiet inspiring.

PATRICK RILEY: For us, disconnecting is a huge part of our writing process. If we can, like, reflect on ourselves without any sort of third-party analysis, you know, it just makes us write more freely.

ALAINA MOORE: We've learned that our sense of self is so precarious that isolation really lends itself to our writing (laughter).

RILEY: Totally. We're, like, the most judgmental people we know (laughter).

MOORE: Of ourselves (laughter).

RILEY: So, like, we don't need too many more people in the mix, like, telling us, hey, you should maybe, like, rethink that chorus.

MOORE: Just confronted with the ocean, it just opens up parts of my mind that make writing so much more, like, natural and joyful and fluid than it is when I'm at home.

KELLY: How alone were you? Did you have Wi-Fi on the boat?

MOORE: No, not at all (laughter).

RILEY: Yeah, and we didn't have cell service for, I'd say, about 90 percent of the trip.

MOORE: We did have, like, bare-bones safety equipment, like a satellite messaging system that would give our latitude and longitude to, like, the Coast Guard and our parents so they knew we weren't dead (laughter). But yeah, on our watches, we would sleep in shifts, two hours on and two hours off for multi-day passages. So when I was up, Patrick would always be asleep. And when he was up, I would always be asleep. So it really felt lonely. I think it just did really interesting things to our psyche.

RILEY: For sure.


KELLY: Now, I understand one of the songs on the album - this is "Fields Of Blue" - that the lyrics actually came from the ship's log. Let's give that a listen.


TENNIS: (Singing) Follow me into deep fields of blue, moving right into delivering me to you. I really love you. What could I do?

KELLY: Walk me through that process. How do you go about translating a ship's log? Not exactly poetry there. How do you translate that into song?

MOORE: The ship's log is mine. I keep the account. And I realized in reading my ship's log, going back through it after we finished our trip, that it was, like, no useful dates or facts. I barely remembered what ports we were entering. But I was always trying to describe, like, my inner mental state. And so "Fields Of Blue" was, like, the phrase that kept coming to my mind in my most useless ship's log ever written (laughter).

KELLY: So not a lot of latitude, longitude markings in there.



MOORE: Not at all.

RILEY: But, you know, I feel like your ship's log is more, like, stream of consciousness, like trying to capture what your brain is doing while you're at sea.

MOORE: My ship's log is more like a teen girl's diary, actually.

RILEY: (Laughter) Oh, is it?

MOORE: Yeah (laughter). I was really surprised by how sentimental my writing was when we were sailing. I am pretty cynical about love songs, and I didn't really anticipate writing so many as I did for this record. But something about the fact that, when you're on watch, you're actually responsible for the life of your partner really is - it's a different aspect to marriage than one that I have ever been used to before.

So yeah, it prompted a lot of romantic sentiments in my ship's log. There's a song called "Matrimony" that's basically just a detailing, full account of our wedding day.


TENNIS: (Singing) Haven't got the time for vain excuses. Let me lead you to the cool spring bubbling that we linger till we fill right up. Body lips instead of paper cups. Blonde lashes curling on your cheek. Hide your gaze so I won't catch you looking at me.

KELLY: I'm guessing the experience of spending months on a 30-foot sailboat with one other person could be a make-or-break experience for a marriage. Were there moments where either of you felt like throwing the other overboard (laughter)?

RILEY: Not at this point. I think on our first trip a few years ago...

KELLY: You're not confessing to it.

RILEY: No (laughter).

MOORE: Oh, our first trip, plenty of overboard-throwing situations (laughter).

RILEY: Yeah, because we were still learning everything. So, like, we didn't know who to point the finger at (laughter).

MOORE: The only reason why we even seek out these endeavors is because we do really well together as a team.

RILEY: And I also feel like there's, like, this us-against-the-world feeling that gets heightened when we're...

KELLY: Sure.

RILEY: ...On the boat, which is...

MOORE: It does wonders for romance.

RILEY: Oh, yeah, right?

MOORE: Yeah.

RILEY: But it real - (laughter) but for real, I think that, like, us-against-the-world feeling is something that's always been core to our band. Everything we've written, you know, since day one has kind of always been this reflection of our two identities.

KELLY: The latest album from the group Tennis is called "Yours Conditionally." Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MOORE: Thank you.

RILEY: Yeah, thanks so much.

MOORE: I appreciate it.


TENNIS: (Singing) Sweet summer morning early in July... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.