Tennis Stay Grounded on Sixth Album ‘Pollen’

Tennis took a break from songwriting following the release of their fifth album Swimmer in 2020. Forced off tour in support of the album due to the pandemic sent the husband and wife indie-pop duo of Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley into a more listless state.

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“I never realized how much we relied on touring as a reset between albums until we weren’t able to do it,” Moore told American Songwriter. “It’s like I needed to purge the record from my system to make room for the next one.”

A year and a half after the release Swimmer, Moore and Riley were finally able to tour around the album and re-enter their “creative headspace,” writing their sixth album Pollen from the spring of 2022 through the fall.

Formed in 2010, the couple wrote and recorded their 2011 debut Cape Dory while living on a sailboat along the Atlantic Coast. They continued experimenting with their sound and songwriting through follow-ups Young & Old in 2012 and 2014 release Ritual in Repeat before their breakthrough Yours Conditionally in 2017, another written at sea, while the couple sailed the Sea of Cortez on the Gulf of California.

Pollen is Tennis’ most textured offering, a peak in their musical wayfarings over the past decade. Inside are revelations on the relative states of marital bliss on the slowed soulful funk of “One Night with the Valet” and the tantalizing “Let’s Make a Mistake Tonight.” Moore ponders her own perceptions of things on the spacier “Never Been Wrong”—I’ve never been wrong about anything or anyone / Irrefutable as the rising tide or setting sun…It’s like doing needlepoint with a hatchet—and the evolution of Tennis on the dreamier close of “Pillow for a Cloud.”

Moore spoke to American Songwriter about how the 10 songs of Pollen emerged, opting for land over sea to make the album, and learning to release all inhibitions while writing.

American Songwriter: What’s the timeline of these 10 tracks? Were some songs older and fleshed out over time, or were they mostly new?

Alaina Moore: We always start fresh, usually with a dozen rough demos, as in maybe a single chord progression that we scale up into songs. Some demos get combined, some are mined for parts, some act as springboards to totally new ideas. It’s a frustrating, circuitous process where we make a lot of progress one day and delete it all the next. There are always a few problem songs on each record. “Forbidden Doors” and “One Night with the Valet” nearly killed us, but it was absolutely worth it in the end. 

AS: Sonically, there was a deliberate shift on Pollen from Swimmer or anything you’ve done before. What drew you both to experiment and push the boundaries of sound a bit more on this album?

AM: Our tastes have solidified at this point, but we don’t want to repeat ourselves. The more we grow as writers and musicians, the more we strive to challenge ourselves. Changing up our tools, writing routines, and recording process always helps with that. I’ve also been exploring my voice, noticing that it can take on different timbres and moods that I’ve never attempted on previous records. I learned the hard way that belting isn’t very sustainable for me on long tours, so I challenged myself to write in a way that is more sustainable in performances. 

AS: Two Tennis albums (Cape Dory, Yours Conditionally) were written at sea, while Pollen developed back on land. Do you still own the boat, and sail around, or are those days behind you?

AM: We recorded in our home studio, and worked a bit out of a friend’s studio in Los Angeles for a change of scenery. We knew Pollen was going to be a grounded record. We didn’t want to isolate ourselves at sea, we wanted roots and community. Patrick and I are still sailors but we don’t sail often. It’s more like an RV we pull out every few years to live on in the wilderness. It’s a potent experience being off the grid like that, a great counterbalance to being in a band and living a public life. 

AS: Lyrically, what are some of the things tying these 10 tracks together?

AM: Pollen isn’t a concept album, so there’s no narrative thread. I reflect on my partnership with Patrick (“One Night with the Valet,” “Hotel Valet”), my relationship with myself (“Pollen Song,” “Never Been Wrong”), and noticing the ways we have changed or not changed since forming the band a decade ago (“Pillow for a Cloud”).

Tennis sixth album ‘Pollen’

I had some specific goals for myself. I wanted to write with more pointedness and specificity. I’ve always held back a bit, trying to ambiguate the songs to make them more universal. I wanted to let that inhibition go this time. 

AS: When it comes to songwriting, now, how do songs typically come together for you? How has this shifted over the past decade or more?

AM: We used to write separately, then share our work once it was about 70 percent along. Now we write together from start to finish. Pollen is the first record we’ve made where we can’t remember who wrote what part. The one thing that still falls solely to me is the lyrics. Those come slowly for me, and I’m usually rewriting them up to the last moment of tracking. 

Patrick is an incredible engineer and his ability to sculpt sound is integral to our songwriting. We explore tones for hours and often the sound he creates inspires me to write a part. All of our synth-based songs on Pollen were created this way. He learned a lot from working with Richard Swift. It doesn’t matter what room you’re in, or even what gear you’re using. It’s all about trusting your ears and getting it to sound right before you hit record. We try to be committed to tones at the first stage of tracking. This keeps the session exciting, and helps create a sense of internal logic to each song.  

AS: It’s been more than a decade since Tennis’ debut Cape Dory (2011). Now that some time has passed, what is your perception of these older songs now?

AM: The first albums we released will always be a point of nostalgia for us, but I believe we’ve surpassed those albums many times over at this point. Sometimes we joke that every new album is a refutation of the last one, but that’s not exactly true.

Each album laid the groundwork for the next. Some older songs I can’t do live anymore. I can’t sing them with the same feeling or conviction. That’s what makes the ongoing process of writing so rewarding. As long as Patrick and I see ourselves progressing as songwriters, we’ll keep writing. 

Photo: Luca Venter / Big Hassle Media

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