Ryan Tennis: Two Days on the Fence
“I wrote these songs with the intention of giving people hope and positivity in their lives. In general, we’re inundated with negativity – from the news to Facebook, it’s so easy to get bogged down. I’m not one to write protest songs, but in a way I did that by writing songs to make people feel good. There’s a lot of power in that message, the audacity it takes to feel joyful in tough times.” – Ryan Tennis
On January 12th, singer-songwriter and guitarist RYAN TENNIS released Two Days on the Fence. The five-song EP is a rousing and enriching collection of all-new material that draws inspiration from the genre-bending musician’s recent travels around the globe, particularly on the sounds he heard in South America and performing with South African musicians.
“Musically, I wanted to explore more powerful rhythms than you get with the usual acoustic singer-songwriter thing,” Tennis says. “My band can play a lot of incredible grooves, so I know I can throw anything at them and they’ll turn it into genius stuff that makes people move.”
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A longtime Philly resident, Tennis chose the Rittenhouse Soundworks studio in the nearby neighborhood of Germantown to record Two Days on the Fence. The studio’s expansive live room proved to be the perfect environment for Tennis and co-producer Tom Spiker (Calvin Weston, Sun Ra Arkesta, G. Love) to capture the vibrant, telepathic performances of the singer’s well-oiled Clubhouse Band – Joseph Keim (drums), Shaun Hennessey (percussion), Brahm Genzlinger (bass), Maxfield Gast (sax), Nate Graham (keyboards) and Christopher Farrell (guitar). The group’s inventive and virtuosic interplay forms a rich, colorful rhythmic bed for Tennis to embroider the music with soaring melodies and robust vocals.
Over the years, Tennis has seen his music embraced by audiences in America, Europe and South America. However, he rejects the label of “world music,” because it “misses the American roots to describe what I do. I’m more folk, soul and Afro-Caribbean.” The songs on Two Days on the Fence finds Tennis and his band fleshing out every contour of those rhythms, particularly on the rousing party cut “Down & Up,” which he wrote as an undisguised homage to funk legends the Meters.
Two Days on the Fence is Tennis’ sixth release, and he views the EP as an important step in his development as a bandleader. In the past, he admits he used to impose his ideas on the group, but with the addition of new drummer Keim into the fold, Tennis is embracing the beauty of letting go. “Joseph and Shaun find these pockets in the grooves that are unbelievable,” he explains. “Everything becomes bigger and more expressive when I just let them fly.”
Tennis points to the luminous instrumental track “Strange How It’s Changing” as an example: “We just started jamming and it unfolded. Earlier, I wouldn’t have had the faith to just let go, but now I have the seasoning to allow that kind of magic to happen. These guys are just too good – I’d be crazy to try and stop them.”
Despite his multi-genred approach to music, Tennis admits he was a late bloomer when it came to songwriting. Sports occupied much of his time during his teens and into college. “I didn’t start playing music and writing songs until I was about 23,” he says. “I wasn’t very good at first, but I enjoyed it – I felt a sense of purpose I hadn’t experienced before. Discovering all of these sounds from all over the world seemed to unlock something in me – it was almost spiritual – and I think I bring the athleticism and determination from my past life into my music. If it moves and grooves and makes you feel good, I’m in.”
With Two Days on the Fence, the singer-songwriter noticed a dramatic change in his compositional approach than on previous albums. “On my last record, The Easier Mile (2015), I spent a lot time crafting the songs, but you can only force things so much,” he notes. “On this record, I’m more about being in the moment.” He cites the soaring title track as an example of this newfound attitude: “It’s a love song I wrote about trying to work out a long-distance relationship. I realized that I couldn’t control everything; all I could do was can stand up tall and own the things I said and did. That came out in the lyrics: Whatever was meant to happen would happen.”
Tennis recently wrapped a triumphant six-week tour of Europe and a knockout homecoming pre-holiday show in his beloved Philadelphia. On the release of Two Days on the Fence, he heads back to South America in mid-January for a month-long tour of Columbia, after which he’ll return to the U.S. in February to launch an East Coast tour that includes an appearance at Folk Alliance International.