The story behind the creative process of Tennis' debut Cape Dory has been told ad nauseam elsewhere. Make that "everywhere else"; the internet seems incapable of mentioning the band without talking about The Trip. And in that narrative, you'll see words like beach and sunny to describe the music of this Denver-based couple (Alaina Moore and Patrick Riley are married).
But that's not what Moore and I wanted to talk about.
I remember an interview with an author who said that the term "beach read" is an insult because it implies that the writing has no depth and can be consumed with little effort. As you'll see, Moore's songwriting process--really, her life--reflects the anxiety behind that idea. When descriptors like that follow your music everywhere, I imagine it must frustrate Moore, whose songwriting has far more depth than that.
Moore writes pop songs, but she wants them to have meaning beyond mere aural fulfillment. So she does what any musician does when not on the road: audits a philosophy class on the history of prisons and punishment in western civilization. (Moore was a philosophy major in college). It's a once-a-week class at the University of Colorado, filled with lightweights like Marx and Foucault. I should mention that she's doing this while reading Infinite Jest, a book that brings many a reader to their knees. She does all the work, including the class presentations. Moore hopes all of this will inform her songwriting and help bring clarity to her role and purpose as a pop artist. As she told me, "For a long time I've been wrestling with the desire to integrate deeper levels of philosophical thinking into our music."
Alaina Moore and I spoke twice over the phone about her creative process. True to the band's latest fantastic album Ritual in Repeat, Moore's process involves a specific routine, including daily exercise, reading, and staying off social media. And like John Oates told me last month, airports can be a goldmine of inspiration for songwriters.
I apologize in advance if I sound out of breath. I just went for a jog for the first time in about a month.
How far did you go?
Probably about three blocks. I'm so out of shape.
There’s a lot of research now about the impact of aerobic exercise on creativity. I actually wrote an article about this in the Washington Post. There’s about a 90 minute sweet spot after exercise when people are at their creative peak.
Oh wow! I'm so happy to know that there is scientific evidence to back what I've always experienced. I've always known that to be true, but I could never explain it. That's actually a part of our process. Whenever Patrick and I go into songwriting mode, we exercise every day. We make exercise a part of our schedule because it gets us through that midday slump when we lose focus.
Besides songwriting, what other creative outlets do you have?
That changes for Patrick and me from album cycle to album cycle. Right now I'm auditing a philosophy class at the University of Colorado on the history of prisons and punishment in western civilizations. It's amazing. We're working through writers like Marx and Foucault. It's a three-hour class once a week and I go any time we're home. And I do all the work.
The class has been an incredible source of balance for me. The purely aesthetic function of creativity—the visual component of being a musician—caught me unawares the first time we wrote an album. We got endless requests for visual art: the album art, the singles art, the lyrical art, the press photos, the videos. We were really out our comfort zone at first. Now it's different because we think about these things ahead of time. I think our videos are now just starting to mirror our tastes and aesthetic as musicians.
This philosophy class has been exactly what I need: it gives me something that's grounded historically and with social consciousness, but that’s still creative.
How do you think that class influences your songwriting process?
For a long time I've been wrestling with the desire to integrate deeper levels of philosophical thinking into our music. But is it even the right medium for those kind of ideas? For example, what's important to philosophy is having a demonstrable thesis and being connected historically to other ideas. You have to be able to say that you're going to address this topic but not that topic, and that you're only going to focus on one certain idea.
It's hard to do that in a pop song; you really can't make qualifications like that. You tell just one little piece of a story, then people interpret it any way they want even if you never intended it that way. I can’t have liner notes that tell people, "Here are my intellectual parameters. Don't take me out of context." That's been really frustrating: can I write something that's more intellectually stimulating, or do my songs just need to be the most simple human emotion? I just don't know what's appropriate to pop music. Sometimes I feel like lyrics that are too heavy can be too distracting. I want to try to avoid that.
There seems to be this confluence of serious cultural criticism being brought to light through pop music. And I feel like sometimes artists are unaware of this and unaware of the fact that they are inadvertently highlighting issues like white privilege and cultural appropriation. I feel sympathy for [some of these massive pop stars] because often they are unfair targets. All they are doing is unwittingly conveying in a song what so many people do, and we attack them.
This is fascinating to me because a pop song is a bad medium for making a complex point about cultural appropriation, yet we still hold a pop singer accountable for it. I'm trying to reconcile that point, so the only thing I can do is keep taking philosophy classes. Laughs. I'm very aware that I can do an interview and this idea can come up and then all of a sudden I say the wrong thing. I'm especially aware of that idea when we make music videos. How culturally sensitive is this? Am I unwittingly using a symbol that means something to me but that means one million different things to other people?
Is there an ideal environment where and when you get your best writing done?
I need to be home. If I'm not at home, I need to be somewhere that feels exactly like home. I need to be alone. There are a few coffee shops in Denver where I can write lyrics, but I wear headphones and face the wall usually. We also work best in the morning.
Define morning. Because morning to a songwriter can be early afternoon.
Actual morning. Like eight or nine in the morning. I've noticed that if we wake up and even check email or look at social media, it poisons the day. I have to wake up, make coffee, and start reading a book. I have to immediately go into that world where I'm either writing or reading. Any distractions disrupt the day.
Do you have a specific routine? Are you a creature of habit when structuring your day around writing?
We are routine oriented. I'm fascinated by writers’ routines. I struggled with horrible writer's block on this album cycle and went months without accomplishing anything. That was mortifying. So I read this book called Daily Rituals and realized that I had to establish a routine for myself to get through the writer's block. I had to stick to routines so that writing became habit and I didn't think about it as much. I stopped worrying about the outcome and stuck to that routine every day, because I knew eventually something would get made.
We wake up, make coffee, eat breakfast, then I usually read or listen to music. I like to read either poetry or short stories. Then I write lyrics for about an hour. After that I write music on my own, maybe by playing the piano and coming up with some chord progressions. Or maybe I'll pick up a guitar and create some melodies. Then I stop for lunch. After lunch is when we do something outside, like maybe go for a run or play tennis. During last bit of the day when we come inside we might go to ProTools and pull up a song that's maybe 50% completed, but we don't know where it's going. We work on that until around 5 o'clock and then were done.
So it sounds like you consciously set things aside, and that works well for you.
Yes, but there is a law of diminishing returns with that. If we agonize over it too much we start undoing things that were good. We start second-guessing it. But we almost never finish anything in one setting. That's why I devote the first half of the day to new ideas when I feel the most creative. The second half of the day when I'm little more tired is about finishing ideas we've already started.
A quick pace for us would be a song finished in about a week. A normal pace would be a song finished in about a month. We're pretty slow but we usually have several songs going at once.
When you revise lyrics, what do you look for?
That's also changed over time. It used to be that the melody always came first. I’d just sing nonsense over the melody until I found syllables and vowel sounds that were good. Then I'd fill those lines with real words. But that was way too limiting. It was painfully slow.
Now for me it's more like writing poetry. I'll write songs with no melody in mind. Then I'll start getting to know them and will imagine what kind of melody would do a service to the phrase or line. That's my most recent method of writing, and it's making me a better songwriter. The problem with starting with nonsense syllables or gibberish is that I have no vision when I start; at least with this way now there is a guiding idea to the song.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done? Carl Newman of the New Pornographers told me a funny story recently about this. He's convinced that you can't really write when you're sad or depressed despite what people say, because when you’re sad and depressed the last thing you think about is writing.
I agree with him. I don't see how anyone could get anything done when they're depressed. I need to be emotionally removed from what I'm writing about. I like to think about art and music and big concepts with a little bit of detachment. That's why I enjoyed this philosophy class so much and why it was my major. I like to look at ideas with detachment. One of the goals of the songwriter is to universalize the sentiment or a personal experience even if it reflects their own experience. I like to feel more objective. I almost like to have no emotion. Laughs.
That's exactly what Hemingway said. He said you had to have distance to write about a place. You can't write about that place when you’re in it.
Absolutely. Even though Cape Dory documented our sailing trip, we didn't write about it until a year afterwards. If I'm sad I don't want to write, and if I'm happy I want to enjoy the moment. In neither of those emotional states to I think about writing a song.
Most songwriters I've talked to are voracious readers. There's a very clear connection between writing and reading. You cannot be a good writer unless you read. So how has all of your reading affected your songwriting process?
It's probably too subconscious for me to know directly, but I do know that if I'm not reading, I just don't write clearly. And when I'm writing the most, I'm reading the most. I go through phases where different writing styles connect with me more. When we started writing our second record, I was reading a lot of poetry. If it wasn't in iambic pentameter or didn't have a rhyme scheme, I wasn't interested. That was also the type of writing I was doing.
I recently started reading more contemporary fiction. I'm reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, though struggling is more like it. I've been at it for about nine months. I'm only on page 500 but I feel like I should be on page 10,000.
I often have a discussion about Infinite Jest for songwriters. I remember talking about it with Derek Miller from Sleigh Bells recently. He finished it too, but most people talk about how far they got before they quit reading, not about how they actually finished it.
The problem is I'm not reading anything else now. I have a rule that I won't crack another book open until I finish Infinite Jest. I'll be really disappointed if I don't finish it because I love it so much. I'm a huge fan of David Foster Wallace. I've read The Brothers Karamazov and Anna Karenina; both seem like a breeze compared to this. I almost feel like I have a relationship with him right now because he's just toying with me. I feel like he's daring me to put it down.
That book really affected my writing in in an interesting way. I've always had an affinity for Victorian literature, and in this weird way I feel like if Hemingway wrote Victorian literature, you'd have Infinite Jest: that same perfunctory contemporary way of speaking with the insane run-on descriptive sentences that Victorians had. A sentence will be 10 or 15 lines long, way overly descriptive, but still with a clipped tone. It's so hard to describe. It's a weird synthesis of things I love that seem like opposites.
You’re in San Diego now. I've been there a few times, and I think I've seen a cloud once. Does that kind of environment influence your creative process?
I’ve seen our music described many times as “sunny,” and I do think that our environment informs how we write. It doesn't mean our music is superficial, but that climate connects with us the most. Like I said, I can't work when I'm sad. I'm instantly depressed when the sun is obscured. I like to feel isolated, but I can get that feeling anywhere. I know a lot of people who need to get away to write, but I know a lot of people who like to write on tour. I can never do that. That's one of the things I learned from the daily rituals book: some authors need chaos and spontaneity to write. That doesn't work for me. I need to have as much control as possible over my routine and my environment.
How do you get inspired? Do you actively seek inspiration or wait for the muse?
Probably once or twice a year I have that epiphany where an idea or lyric or melody falls into my lap. It's extremely energizing and I love when it's happening. I do everything I can to stay in that moment. I cancel whatever plans I have and let the momentum carry me.
When we wrote our first album, I had no songwriting experience. It was so much of those epiphanies. We had no pressure, no expectations, no ambitions. It was natural and unreflective and uninhibited, over and over again. Probably eight songs on the record were like that. That will never happen again, so I don't wait for inspiration come to me. It's about tricking myself through monotonous work, silencing my mind so it's more like a reflex. I'll just write and write and write until I realize, “Oh, that's something.” But it's hard. Lyrics are a lot tougher than music for me.
So are you consciously aware of your environment when it comes to mining for song ideas?
Yes. I have a little notebook that stays with me everywhere I go. I've been getting a lot of ideas recently in airports or airplanes. Maybe it's because I'm really afraid of flying and I'm reflecting on great big themes like life and death. I try to be prepared so that I don't miss those moments.
The problem is that it makes reading really slow for me. If something I read is inspiring to me, I write the page number or the quote down. That’s why Infinite Jest is taking so long. I read one paragraph and have to write down 200 things. Laughs.
I can see airports being a great place to get inspired because there are people from all walks of life there.
Absolutely. I definitely turn into a little bit of a snoop on an airplane because I'm so close to everyone. That's the one redeeming quality of flying, because I can't emphasize enough how much I hate flying.
But I also get really emotional on airplanes. I read an article in The Atlantic about why we cry so easily on airplanes. I was just on a flight recently and cried when I was watching Miss Congeniality.
I've read a few people say that we need boredom to be inspired. But then the question is how do you purposely become bored?
I've read similar things, and I'm actually afraid of losing that ability with technology everywhere. It's so easy to check Instagram if you have 30 spare seconds. That's one of the benefits of sailing. You can't have those things. I can sit for hours and hours and just stare at the water. My mind goes crazy, but I'm not bored.
I could never do that if I were an airport waiting for my flight. I wouldn't be able to handle the boredom. Patrick is the same way. He actually tries to be bored. We have a little window seat where he just sits and stares out the window, bored, for half an hour every day.
Technology can stifle the mind of the artist. We try to negotiate it is much as we can. For example, we share one phone. It's not easy, but It's always worked and we have no intention of changing.
How do you know when a song is done?
We start recording really early on. We commit pretty quickly. One of the things we've learned from producers is not to agonize over the things that we hear. If over your first few listens you were excited, just let it go. Half the time you’re noticing things that no one else will ever notice. If I added some synth pad in the high mids to fill it out, very few people will care.
We've seen ourselves ruin some songs because we rework them and rework them and rework them. We change the arrangement until two months have gone by. We’ll listen to the original demo and realize that it’s way better. That's one of my struggles with creativity: it's not like a math equation with a beginning and end. It's never done. Songwriting is hard for me because I'll never feel satisfied.
What song is your proudest accomplishment because it was such a struggle, where you wanted to give up so many times, but you finished and you're glad you did?
“Mean Streets.” That song took a year to write. We always have really weird names for our demos to help us remember them. That was called “Fleetwood Jammer” because it sounded a lot like Lindsey Buckingham’s playing, which is funny because it's not even remotely apparent anymore.
I was stumped when it came to writing the vocal. I remember at that time I was obsessed with Band on the Run. I loved the piano and bass interplay in that song “Bluebird.” I took the chords that Patrick had on guitar and put it through my Paul McCartney filter. I changed the rhythm, and slowly but surely it started evolving. Patrick put this funk R&B beat behind it. I finally got the verses written, but it took another two months to write the chorus. Then it sat for three more months.
One day I was listening to an old Carole King song called “Baby Sittin’.” I thought about it in the context of “Mean Streets.” The whole thing clicked: the lyrics, melody, and chord progression all came to me at the same time.
Who do you like to read? Besides David Foster Wallace, of course.
Unfortunately, I don't like poetry that much. I read it because it's more similar to the format in which I work. If I just read fiction or essays, my songs would look like longform prose. Laughs. I’m most enamored by T.S. Eliot now. I've also been reading some D.H. Lawrence's poems. I'm a big fan of Victorian literature, but mostly the novels. Middlemarch by George Eliot is my favorite novel. I like her so much because she defied gender and culture and convention, and she wrote male characters so well, probably better than any of the other women writers of that time. I don't think Jane Austen or the Brontë sisters did it as well. That's why she's my hero.
Moving forward to the modern period, I just read this amazing book called Heroines. It's about the wives of the great male authors like Fitzgerald and Eliot. Their wives were excellent writers on their own and would have had excellent careers had they been encouraged at all, but they were all institutionalized. What people saw as pathological was actually creative ambition. That book inspired a lot of lyrics for me; there's a song on our new record called “Viv Without the N," a reference to Vivienne Eliot.