Interview: World-touring musician Ryan Tennis
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
I grew up with music in my life, mostly from a church setting and with the stuff my parents connected me to (The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, CSNY, Michael Jackson, etc). But when I was young, the first and last thing on my mind was sports, football in particular. I was a full-on jock playing football through college, but while I loved the actual sport, I was never that fond of football culture. I think I was just too sensitive of a guy - I never liked the hazing/ballbusting/ultra-macho thing. When my career ended, I just felt this need to connect to something deeper, and music was the pathway for me. I started having intense, even spiritual experiences listening to music, and I started exploring what it meant to be an artist and to develop my guitar playing and singing. A few years into playing and writing, I had this clear moment after I had written something I was fond of, and it hit like a bolt of lightning, this voice saying, “You can do this, and this is what you NEED to do!” From that point on, I was all in.
I think if I hadn’t played music, I might be teaching high school, (which I did, poorly, for a year) and coaching football. Or maybe I would’ve been a lawyer. I was actually all set to go to law school, did really well on the practice entrance exams, but on the day of the LSAT, there was this huge snowstorm, and it was canceled. I sat in my room and played guitar all day, and I was like, “hmm, maybe there’s something more for me in this.”
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
I organize community concerts at my house and act as the host and curator. There’s definitely a “coming together” kind of vibe with my music, and that’s all tied up with community building. I also listen to a lot of podcasts about comedy, science, the NBA, or some combination of those things. Mostly that’s just escapism to occupy my overactive mind, but I do think hearing comedians talk about their craft has definitely influenced the way I approach my shows.
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
I’m from Philly, and that has informed me so much about me as a musician. It’s a gritty place, but one of the best parts about this city is that people don’t put on airs. They present themselves as they are, and this humility allows for a genuine sense of community and a lot of collaboration without as much ego getting in the way. It’s something special and unique - artists from other cities always comment on it when they spend any time here.
How did you come up with the name of your album and what does it mean to you?
With the title, Hey, Rollercoaster, I’m saying, ‘Look, I have no idea what the world is going to throw at us next. It’s been a wild ride the last few years, and I don’t think I’m alone when I say I’ve felt disoriented and tossed around. This album is my attempt to take back the control I do have, the decision to turn off the news for a while and stop the doom scrolling and to try to enjoy the real moments, the people, the music, the nature that is in front of me.
We have to find joy where we can!
Tell me about your most memorable shows.
Well, I just had an album release show in Philly, so that one is fresh in my mind. There were so many people I care about, friends, guest musicians, everyone dancing. It was exactly the kind of warm, open celebration I was going for. Hmm…one time when I was just getting started, I had been traveling, and I one way or another ended up playing at a women’s rights gathering in Bangladesh for several thousand women. That was pretty unbelievable - the energy, the colors, the dancing. It was really an amazing thing to be a part of.
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
My favorite venue is the stage I built in my backyard over the pandemic. It’s a beautiful spot that we call “Tracks at the Vale” (the house is “the Vale,” and the backyard is a hill that goes up to the train tracks). I usually open the shows there, and I book all the music, so I know it’s going to be something I love. We’ve had some fantastic acts - Latin Grammy Nominated Colombian group, El Caribefunk, Cameroonian Bass Player/singer, Francis Mbapepe, Philly-based jazz/soul collective Omar’s Hat, and a lot more.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
Paul Simon is my favorite songwriter, and in my opinion, the greatest lyricist in the English language, so I would love to have him. If Bill Withers was alive, I’d love to play a show with that sweet man!
What advice tt you would give to someone who is just getting into playing in a band and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
For someone getting into a band, I would say this: There is no “making it.” If you’re making music that you love, and someone’s listening, then that’s it, you’re making it. So many people think that if music isn’t their only source of income, they’ve failed or something, but that’s insane. So many of the best musicians do so many different things to make ends meet, and taking a little of the money-related pressure off of music can really let you enjoy it more and have a longer, healthier relationship with your music and yourself.
For my younger self, it would be this: PLEASE stop worrying about what other artists or music people think of you. You can’t please everyone. Find the music you like, play it the way you like, and if you do that with everything you have, the right people will connect with it.
Of your songs on the album, which one means the most to you and why?
“Alligator” means a lot because it’s a song I wrote early on in the pandemic when I was kind of losing my mind. Some of the lyrics are this inner dialogue going on between different parts of me, and I ended up choosing phrases and words that just sounded satisfying, as opposed to things that made sense, but I ended up expressing the moment more clearly that way after all. The track itself just bumps too, and I love the work Brahm Genzlinger (co-producer for this and one other song on the album) and I did on the horn lines. I also made a video of that song with filmmaker Will Drinker, and it might just be my favorite thing I’ve ever released. I committed more fully than I had ever done before to the craziness of the song and video, and I was so happy with the results.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
My favorite to play is definitely “Oh, Alexandra.” That song just knocks in any setting, but especially with the band, it just comes alive (and when you’re bandmates love playing a song, it’s always going to work better). I love the build on that one and the way I can sing with all my force by the end.
What is the creative process for the album, and what inspires you to write your music?
When I was younger, songs would just come, I think mostly because I had a lot more time on my hands. I still do get blessed with a song that just arrives, (“Morning Song” and “Alligator” were like that), but now with all the grind of being my own manager, I need to carve out time for writing. It’s not the sexiest answer, but it’s true. During the pandemic, I was just like, “okay, at least 10 minutes a day of something songwriting-related. If I want to go longer, I can, but at least I’m going to sit down and put my head to it for a moment.” This mentality really worked. When I was making sure to open that creative pathway every day, it was just more likely to stay open, and I was more likely to have lyrics or melodies come to me in other moments as well.
Recording the album felt pretty easy this time around. A lot of these songs have been around for a couple of years, percolating with the band, getting arranged, and rearranged in live settings. I wanted this album to capture the energy of the great musicians I play with, in particular my core guys - Elliot Garland on bass and Joe Keim on drums/percussion. When the moment came to record, we were more than ready. We went up to [Producer] Pete Donnelly’s home studio in Katonah, NY, for a few days, and he just made us comfortable and ready to be energetic and creative. It flowed really smoothly!
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
I want my music to make people feel free and easy, warm and comfortable with who they are. I’m proud of my work as a lyricist, but mostly my lyrics are real, down-to-earth, and conversational. I just express as clearly as I can what I’m feeling, and then as I look back I often find layers and deeper metaphors under that.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
The big plan for the moment is a 7-week, 35 show tour in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany from the end of March to the middle of May. I’ll be going with two amazing Colombian musicians, Andres Mordecai and Yamil Chagui of El Caribefunk. These are guys I’ve toured with and performed with on and off for 8 years, so we know each other and get along really well. They’re also fantastic performers, so I know the shows on this tour will have that Caribbean energy and power coming through.