Interview: Philadelphia Songwriter Ryan Tennis
Michele | On 29, Jan 2012
It wasn’t long after singer/songwriter Ryan Tennis moved back to Philadelphia in 2008 and put out a self-titled EP in 2009 that he started gaining some forward momentum, initially turning heads with his charmingly optimistic single “To the Moon”. Tennis’s emotionally candid and melodically well-crafted tunes are low-key yet have springs to their step, reminiscent of Ryan Adams or an acoustic Dave Matthews. His latest release, Good Bye to the Ground, served in part as a fundraiser with non-profit group The Philadelphia Sessions, and made it possible for him to tour Latin America in early 2011. The album features the somber yet inherently hopeful “Wake Me Up”, which Tennis recently turned into a music video that can be seen on YouTube. He will return to the studio in March to start work on a full-length album.
In 2009, Tennis started a monthly concert series out of his south Philly home featuring local and touring artists. A relaxed, welcoming night of music, a typical Clubhouse evening usually entails a performance by three musical acts, followed by an after hours jam session that has been known to last until around 2am. It all takes place in Tennis’s living room and on his outdoor patio in the warm weather in addition to drinks, snacks, and good company. Past players have included Hezekiah Jones, Carsie Blanton, Up the Chain, John Francis, Griz, Don McCloskey, and many others.
Tennis discusses his musical output to date, his inspirations, and his Clubhouse Concert series.
Michele Zipkin: What inspired you to start playing music?
Ryan Tennis: I grew up going to a church school, so there was a lot of music going on in class and in chapel. I ended up going to a school with a really good music program with a lot of people who were musical and who could sing. I learned to play a little guitar, but didn’t really get serious about it until after college. I played football all through college and I loved it, but I never connected that well with other football players.
I think my personality was more ‘artist/musician’, but I didn’t know it at that point. My artistic side started coming through after college when I started picking up the guitar. The summer after I graduated I was a camp counselor and we did this thing where we had the kids write goals, and the counselors did it too. One of my goals was to be able to play five of my ten favorite songs on guitar by that time next year, and I did it.
MZ: So what are your ten favorite songs?
RT: Very different from what they were. When I got into music I was huge-into Dave Matthews. I don’t think I would have gotten into music had I not been so interested in him. I learned how to play all of his songs. I don’t really listen to his music anymore, but it holds a very dear place in my heart.
MZ: What kind of musical background do you have?
RT: I don’t really have any musical background other than listening and singing. It’s interesting because in my band (I play with about eight or nine people), all but one or two of them went to school for music and are seriously well-studied. I’m coming at it from a completely different perspective of just listening to a lot of music and writing. I was an English major. I’m in a place where I feel pretty proud of the songs I’ve written and my act when I play live. I think there’s something original to my way of expressing myself, but musically we’re not breaking any new ground. We try to create a really good vibe and good grooves, make it fun. I try to have genuine lyrics- things that people can really relate to, but I’m not necessarily trying to create a new sound.
MZ: What is your typical songwriting process like?
RT: I think it always starts with a feeling. A feeling and a melody come and often a line, and then after that it really changes. A lot of my songs have come relatively quickly- I’ll have written the whole thing in an hour or two and then do a little tweaking later. If I can’t get a melody or riff out of my head in a period of weeks or months, then there must be something good there. The song I finished recently that I’m really proud of is called “Fight Song”, and it’s essentially a song about fighting with your girlfriend. I had a riff I really liked and it definitely captured a feeling I had, but I got stuck with the verses. I probably rewrote the melody and lyrics of the verse about four or five times, which I never do.
There was some co-writing involved with a guy named Brahm Genzlinger. He wrote a really cool horn hook for it, and we had messed around with some choruses. I played it for Nate Graham as well, and he immediately had an idea for the chorus. It was the most co-writing I’ve ever done for a song, and it was in the works on and off for two months. I had a type of determination I had never had for a song before. I was really thinking about how it feels to be fighting with a girlfriend, but I wasn’t actually getting myself in that place. After I had been struggling with verses I got really fired up- I got myself emotionally in the place where the song was coming from, and then boom!, the right melody and words came.
MZ: Are there any songs that you’d like to cover?
RT: That’s interesting because last night I played with a show called Philly Sings Philly. It’s every Tuesday in November, and it’s really great. We were the last ones to play, and we played songs by Wanderlust, Griz, Chris Kasper, and “King of Discount Hoes” by Don McCloskey. That was my first time doing a rap song- I practiced it and I thought it went pretty well, though you always wonder what you’re gonna do with your hands. I do a lot of cover songs and I have a really good memory for lyrics, and I know all these lyrics to these ‘90s rap songs, so I always thought it would be cool to pull that off. It was no small feat.
MZ: What is the song “17 Years” about?
RT: That’s a semi-autobiographical song about the home I grew up in, though I was not actually raised in Illinois. My parents split up a few years ago, and I kind of wrote the song from the feeling of a family breaking apart from the perspective of a teenager. I was thinking of all these specific memories, and all the little things in the song are really true, like having one-on-one hockey tournaments with my brother, and playing freeze-tag, and using the slip-’n-slide in the backyard. That’s the song that people seem to relate to the most- every time I perform it at least one person will come up and tell me how much it reminded them of their childhood and their family growing up.
Everyone has a sense of nostalgia and loss about something from their childhood. It just feels like a very American song, that’s why I used Illinois- I used to go there when I was a kid to visit my cousins. It feels like a middle-America song. I think the key is tapping into that sense of loss in a very personal, specific, quirky way.
MZ: Where did you record your EPs?
RT: The first one was five songs and I did two with Brahm Genzlinger at his studio and the other three I did at Scot Sax’s studio. For this last album (Good Bye to the Ground), I did five songs at MilkBoy and the sixth one with Brahm. He and I had a really good creative thing going back and forth, and we spent a long long time work-shopping the songs. Those songs are the ones I’m most proud of because I spent the most time on them and it felt like there was something artistically special happening. We recently finished a video for “Wake Me Up”, the song I recorded with him on my latest album.
MZ: What are your views on studio recording versus home recording?
RT: I really liked my experience working with Tim Sonnefeld (engineer and producer, MilkBoy). We had really great equipment at our disposal. He’s hooked into a lot of really great musicians, and I am too, so we got really great musicians to come in to play. There’s a speed and a professionalism at which things happen that’s really great. People talk about the industry standard in terms of having really good-quality vocals and things like that, and you’re just gonna get it if you use the right studio.
I love the stuff I did with Tim, though the stuff that feels like the most my creation was what I did with Brahm. We were in his home studio and we could spend a lot of time bouncing ideas off of each other. He put so many hours into “To the Moon”, “Headlights”, and “Wake Me Up”. We had to do it piece by piece- only one of those three songs has actual drums on it, the other ones we recorded drum samples and mixed them around. It’s good to be able to let stuff really germinate.
On the other hand, it’s hard to capture a live energy at home because of limitations with different rooms. It’s a really tough thing to capture, but it’s great when you get that live feel. This is the question I’m asking myself right now as I plan to record another album.
MZ: Tell me about your Clubhouse Concert Endeavor.
RT: I live in a house that my parents own, and when my dad encouraged me to move back to Philly he showed me some pictures of the house. It looked like a great place through which to build up a community of people who were into music. So in the beginning we had a few casual house shows that were really well-attended. And now we’ve been putting them on every month or so and inviting different touring acts and Philly acts to come play. We give a little guarantee to the artists and provide drinks and things like that.
We’ve gotten some really good musicians in there in the past. I open up and then the bands play, and when the show’s over there’s almost always a jam cause there’s so many good musicians who come and hang out. We’ve had some legendary jams. The house concert scene is such a cool thing and it seems like it’s thriving in Philly. It’s such a good way to experience music.
Catch Tennis and his eight-piece Clubhouse Band at MilkBoy Philly on 2/18. Check out ryantennismusic.com for music and more information about concerts. Clubhouse concerts take place about once a month, with a $10-20 suggested donation at the door.