Writing Other Women: Tennis and T.S. Eliot

Alaina Moore of US band Tennis talks to Port about penning a song in honour of T.S. Eliot’s wife Vivienne

Portrait of Alaina Moore shot by Luca Venter
Portrait of Alaina Moore shot by Luca Venter

My discovery of Vivienne Eliot was an accident. I was sitting at my kitchen table in the dark, even though it was only four in the afternoon. Winter, a historically desolate time for my psyche, had got me re-reading The Waste Land. T.S. Eliot is not my fair-weather friend; I don’t read Hysteria when I’m high on love or Prufrock in the warm thrill of summer, I go to him in dark moments… When I cannot work, when I am thick with doubt or when I can’t stop googling celebrity pets.

I had never read Eliot until my first bout with writer’s block a few years back, while working on my band’s second record and learning the meaning behind the expression ‘sophomore slump’. In times of crisis, I revisit his work with ‘sacred text’ levels of reverence, sometimes not even reading but just looking at lines.

On the day in question, I was reading carefully – perhaps with just a touch of aggression – and discovered Vivienne, his ‘institutionalised writer wife’. She was a dazzling type who, depending on what you believe, either inspired her husband’s best work or threatened to ruin it, published nothing in her own name, and whose coup de grace was a gossipy tell-all about Thomas’ inner circle. Where most people find inspiration in love, I find it in terrible marriages.

It is strange to write pop music for a living when you feel ambivalent about love songs, but I do. My co-writer and collaborator Patrick Riley is my husband of five years. I have written exactly 12 love songs for him, which is sufficient to the point of creepy/obsessive; it’s time to move on, but to what I don’t know.

It took me three months to eke out the lyrics to Needle And A Knife, a relatable song about my mother leaving her hometown of Canada to marry my American father and raise four children in the US. This is clearly an unsustainable pace, and no part of the result could be seen as a top 40 radio hit (sorry, record label!). Its potential for mainstream success aside, it was the first song I’d written in a long time that felt good. It felt accurate. 

Months away from turning 30, I had a habit of reflecting on my youth in a way that rendered it frighteningly distant. It had become a pinpoint on the horizon. But, from this vantage point, a new closeness emerged: empathy for my mother and alignment with women whose talents were overshadowed by the men they loved, instead of encouraged like mine. I wrote the lyrics ‘I ain’t afflicted with a mind that’s either feminine or kind’, because T.S. once praised Vivienne for having a mind that was ‘not at all feminine.’

One by one, each line appeared, pliant, eager to be written. In less time than it takes an artisanal barista to brew a cup of pour-over coffee, I wrote what I later calledViv Without The N – it’s not a love song, but is just as intimate. Despite the unknowable differences, I share a fundamental connection with Vivienne. I am a bell that rings and she is the echo: quivering, distant. The album practically writes itself…

Tennis’ new album, Ritual in Repeat, is released on 20 April 2015