Ryan Tennis Talks New Album, Songwriting, and Music in Philly with ROP

Singer-songwriter Ryan Tennis has been doing his thing in Philly for years now. From house concerts to Philly Folk Fest, the former footballer has done his part as a member of Philly’s music scene, both solo and with his band. Now, he prepares to release his second full-length album, Silver Sun, one he’s put plenty of work into.

Rock on Philly sat down with Ryan to talk about just what he did with this album, his thoughts on songwriting, and the Philly music scene. See the fruits of all his efforts at the CD’s release show at the Clubhouse this Thursday, September 25!

Rock on Philly: Pay no attention to the recording device on the table! Just ignore it! (Both laugh) Okie dokie. So, this is album–number 4?

Ryan Tennis: I’ve had two EPs, one full-length, and this is my second full-length.

ROP: So exciting! So, when did you start? When did you release your first EP?

RT: I released my first EP in 2009. Then I guess the next one was 2010, then 2012, now 2014.

ROP: The band on the album–is that all your usual folks?

RT: No, it’s a mix of people. Parts of the band were in flux at that point, so…I did half the songs at Turtle Studios, working with Ross, and then I did half the songs at Jesse Gimbel’s Basement, which is a really nice home studio, and I produced those. It’s Brahm Genzlinger (my usual bass player), and then I used some studio musicians at Turtle. Some friends came in and sang: Anthony DaCosta, Brittany Ann, Sonja Sofya, my cousin Johanna sang some on it. And then when I worked in Jesse’s basement, I used the same bass player, my piano player Nate, Patrick Hughes on trumpet, and then mostly me and Jesse did the rest.

But the stuff in Jesse’s basement was mostly live stuff. We did a little bit to it afterwards, but I knew that, uh, I got this trio–me, Brahm on bass, and Nate on keys–and we had toured together a couple years ago in Ireland for two weeks. And we’ve played a lot of shows as a trio, and the groove that the three of us get going together, the energy the three of us get going together, is really, really good, it’s always right where I want it to be. So I knew that if I got the three of us together, we would get live takes that would be good enough to keep. So I didn’t worry as much about bleed, and just had us all perform together and captured that energy, and so we got a lot of the basic tracks in one afternoon, and I think that really comes through.

ROP: I love that, too. Just go, just hit record, and hear what comes out. There’s obvious risks–production quality, how things record, maybe something’s not quite at the level where you want it, but I love the energy that comes out of live takes like that.

RT: Yeah, and Patrick Hughes played on that one song, and one of the things that’s so amazing about him is he’s such a sensitive player and he’s so good at feeling music in the moment…so I knew that getting him in the studio with us [for “Ride Away”]–his performance on that song with us is amazing–I knew that there’s sort of a big risk, because when you have a trumpet player in the same room, everything he uses, you’ve got to take. You can’t edit anything out at that point. So it was a risk I took, but I knew that you get the very best out of people, and particularly out of Patrick, when he’s really feeling it in the moment. A lot of the recording in Jesse’s basement was a little risky in that way, but I was really confident in the people I had there.

 

We talked a little while longer about Ryan’s band, and the great players that he gets to work with and the music they play, like two old hens clucking at the morning feeding. Eventually, we got back to talking about the album, and Ryan’s role as producer, a little bit of a new undertaking for him.

 

ROP: So, speaking of your ear for what you want, what were you looking to do with this album, specifically?

RT: I wanted to express something that–I didn’t want to make a perfect album. I wanted to make an album that was touching, and that felt really good. That scratched the itch. Y’know, the recordings I listen to are not usually as heavily produced. I’ve been really into Gillian Welch and Devon Sproule, and that stuff has this sort of live element. It’s phenomenal performances, but it doesn’t sound too sweet all the time.

And that’s something that’s easy to get trapped in when you’re making a record, is to try and make everything perfect. When I was making this album and writing a lot of these songs, I was kind of thinking about how the best music hurts a little bit, and the best music is either written from a place of pain, or it’s written with the shadow of pain over the top of it, like the joy once you’re escaping from pain. And this whole album had that influence…I’m trying to say this concisely…I think the main point is that the music, the best music, the music I think speaks to the most people, comes from pain or the echo of pain. So I was trying to create raw energy and then work with that energy.

ROP: So, are all your songs autobiographical, then?

RT: In some sense. Y’know, I take a lot of liberties. I think it’s really hard to create anything that isn’t at least metaphorically autobiographical. (Laughs.) Maybe it just is for me, I’m not sure.

ROP: Are there any songs on this album that, for you, are that sort of musical sweet spot of coming out of pain, or the echo of pain?

RT: Yeah. I think “Silver Sun” and “Did My Best” are both coming out of that. “Silver Sun” especially. In the past, I’ve written a lot of songs that were sweet songs–melodically sweet, sweet, easy-to-listen-to music. That’s drawn a lot of Jack Johnson comparisons, and whatever, I’m not a Jack Johnson hater, but I wanted to have something that had a little more depth, and “Silver Sun” is the first time I’ve written and performed something quite that raw. Y’know, I was hurting when I wrote that song.

ROP: The sound you guys got on the album for “Baltimore Street”, which I know is not yours, it’s a Chris Kasper song, is the sort of…cross-country road trip sound that I associate with you, which I like! Hopefully that’s not a bad thing! (Both laugh.) It’s got a certain groove to it, and is still really easy to listen to. So, y’know, if the 18-wheeler cuts you off on the highway, and you lose track of where you are in the song, it’s not gonna throw off your listening of the whole record, you can just…not-die, and then come back and listen to the record and have a good time!

RT: Haha, thanks! Yeah, I love that one. That’s one of the ones that’s basically just totally live. I love covering songs by Philly artists. There’s a lot of guys like Chris Kasper, Griz [Chris Grunwald], Amos Lee, who have really influenced my songwriting and so I’ve always enjoyed covering their songs because I like to play them, and when we started doing this one with the band, it had a lot of life. It’s pretty different from the version he wrote, but…also, it’s just such a great showcase for Nate! The first time we covered that together, he just went wild.

ROP: I’m trying to figure out how to say this…you can get lots of different sounds out of your band. The sort of reggae vibe, the sweet and mellow singer/songwriter thing, or the groovy cross-country roadtrip thing, or even get really funky with some Bill Withers–you can hit all of these things, and each of them could be individually packaged as a band. But the thing that really ties them all together is that they’re rooted somewhere–it’s all got soul. It’s got some originality that way.

RT: I think I try to really dig in the roots of whatever I’m doing, and my music is really informed by being a real, working musician. I think of myself first as a songwriter, but I’m also a working musician. I just did my taxes and found out that I played 175 gigs in 2013! So I put in my time doing those crappy 3-hour bar gigs where no one claps or listens, and I’ve done coffee shops and house concerts, played in a bunch of different countries…but one thing I’ve really noticed is that…certain rhythms affect the energy of a room. Especially those sort of four-on-the-floor rhythms, they have so much joy in them, and if you’re playing those rhythms right, people can’t deny it. So all those hard gigs made me realize that you have to serve the grooves that underlie the music, because that’s the most important thing. And then if you build things on top of that, you just really can’t fail.

ROP: Let’s talk about you gigging. You’ve been involved with the Philly Folksong Society, you got that songwriter award a couple years ago…How long have you been writing songs? How long have you been a songwriter?

RT: (thinking) I wrote my first song in the winter of 2005. I was like a year out of college. I was obsessed with playing guitar and singing songs. I was playing a lot for fun, learning songs I liked, and I wrote some songs and the first few songs I wrote, I was like, “These are really good! I would listen to these!” (laughs)

And y’know, I was pretty green, and luckily I lived in San Diego and got to get a lot of my worst performances out of the way where nobody here would know (laughs again)…but one of the songs on this album, “Ride Away”, is one of the first songs I ever wrote. I reworked it, of course, but right off the bat I thought “This is something I can really do”, and I would have those really clear moments sometimes of  “This is what I need to be doing”, and it really felt like an internal mandate.

ROP: I think that’s so important for music–for art, in general–but I also value that sort of sincerity in art. So from writing that first song–you put a lot of effort into songwriting. What drives that, in an environmental sense? You keep finding songs inside yourself, how does that work?

RT: Well, it’s interesting. I think I’ve become slightly less prolific almost every year I’ve written songs, but the quality of the songs increases, I think. I mean, it’s just about making space for it in your life, which is really hard to do when you have to have a business mind, and that and a creative mind fighting for space. I’d like to say it’s just about hard work–often when I sit down and say “I’m determined to write a song!” what comes out isn’t that great. But then what I find when I do that is that in the next few days I’ll write something good that will just come to me. So I think that’s one of the ways to make space, is to force yourself to do something, and then you’ve, like, macheted your way through a rational-thinking-brain jungle and made a little space for something really natural to come out.  And obviously, traveling, and having different musical influences, and different experiences, and different connections with people influences my songwriting a lot.

ROP: How about the Philly music community, how has that played into your songwriting? You’ve been here a while, and played Philly Folk Fest, and that sort of thing…

RT: It’s been enormous. I think it’s part of what’s responsible for my focusing on roots, because Philly’s a no-bull town. If you don’t seem like you’re rooted in something real, it’s not gonna fly. Fluff doesn’t fly, in Philly. So it’s made me really focus on the roots of my music. And there are a lot of really great songwriters in Philly, a really genuine and warm music community, especially once you put in your time. People in Philly in general, and people in the Philly music community, aren’t just gonna totally welcome you right away with open arms. You have to put your time in, and you have to earn your respect.

ROP: So, being here in Philly, being inspired by the Philly music scene–why did you decide to have your CD release show at the Clubhouse? Why not at a larger Philly venue?

RT: I was thinking about a lot of different places to do the CD release, and there’s sort of this whole pressure and expectation about doing a CD release show, but here I have this amazing space where I”ve been doing about a show a month for the past 5.5 years–

ROP: Wow! I didn’t realize it had been so long!

RT: Yeah, there have been well over 50 by now. And I’m not trying to just follow the standard singer-songwriter path, obviously I want my music to grow, I want it to grow in a really organic and grassroots fashion, and this is something I’ve built that’s really important to me. And if I think about it as celebrating the completion and release of this album, it’s the perfect place to do it.

With the people who come–y’know, the regulars, and the people who just started coming this summer for El Caribefunk, and the main thing is I just want it to be a really fun time. I want people to have a really great time, and to have fun, and to be moved. And, for me, it’s the best place to watch music in Philly! I mean, for my experience of going to different venues, and it’s a really good party. And that’s what I want, I want it to be a listening room and then to be a really good party. And we’re gonna play songs from the album, and some old songs, and some of our favorite cover songs, and get the dance party going, and my brother’s Latin band is going to play, and it’s just gonna be a really good party!

 

Thursday’s CD release show will also feature Northeastern singer-songwriter Mieka Pauley in addition to Ryan, the Clubhouse Band, and De Tierra Caliente. Cover is $20 and gets you entrance to the party as well as your own copy of Silver Sun. Music starts around 8PM!

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