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June 30, 2017

Book Notes - Victoria Redel "Before Everything"

Before Everything

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Victoria Redel's novel Before Everything is a powerful and lyrical exploration of female friendship.

Booklist wrote about the book:

"Redel has crafted a lyrical ode to female friendship, proving that bonds can somehow be made of iron and elastic, sometimes strong and sometimes frail. She fleshes out the five main characters admirably for such a short book, linking each of their most vulnerable memories to their shared crisis. Fans of Anne Tyler and Jennifer Close will adore this warmhearted and clear-eyed novel."


In her own words, here is Victoria Redel's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Before Everything:



Whole chapters of my life are intertwined with the music that circled on the record player or spilled late night out of my bedroom radio when I was growing up. In certain cases music memory seems more vivid than the actual memory of the who-what-where-why of actual events. For instance, I can drift back into almost every cut on Jackson Browne's 1974 album, Late For The Sky, but specifics about where I was any Friday evening of that year are vague.

My new novel, Before Everything swirls in time over five decades with music playing a large role in the book. The story is about five women who've known each other from when they were age 7 to age 52, who have shared life's surprises and distresses and now are facing a new challenge when one of the women chooses to stop medical treatment for Cancer. Anna, one of the novel's central characters plays in a weekend rock band hired to play covers, the friends punctuate ideas and sentences with references to songs, they chime in on lyrics and harmonies. Songs, particular bands, are one essential thread of memory for characters in the novel and as part of the group. It's that way for me, too.

When I'm writing I can't play music with lyrics, but when I hit a rough spot, I put on an album and call it "research." And in off hours I go to concerts and also call it "research." I'm lucky to have a husband who's completely nuts for live music and has, like me, wildly eclectic taste. Over the years of writing Before Everything I went to hear: Los Lobos, Rikki Lee Jones, The Gypsy Kings, Bob Mould, Youssou N'Dour, Leon Russell, Toshi Reagon, Dinosaur Jr., Bonnie Raitt, Mac Miller, Son Volt, Lucinda Williams, Amy Grant, Joan Armatrading, Matthew Sweet, Don Henley, Nile Rodgers, Mike Doughty, Billy Gibbons, Kenny Loggins, Bruce Hornsby, Indigo Girls, James Maddock, Jason Isbell, Todd Rundgren, Ricky Skaggs, Ry Cooder and best of all, over and over, we hit the dance floor at the amazing NYC Rhythm Revue Dance Party DJ'd by Felix Hernandez.

So in addition to the inspiration from all those musicians, here are some songs that appear in Before Everything or lurk on the edges of the book.

1. "A Case of You"
Joni Mitchell, Blue

I've got to start this list with Blue. It is the anthem album for the women in the novel and Joni Mitchell is their high priestess of lyric and cool. Joni and the album Blue are laced all through the novel. But here I want to showcase Prince's cover of "A Case of You" from the album A Tribute To Joni. When I first heard that high tremor of Prince singing, I knew he knew just what Joni meant about "touching souls" and that he was singing right back to her how "part of you pours out of me from time to time."

2. "Gonna Take a Miracle"
Laura Nyro, Gonna Take a Miracle

A trope through the book is how much we long for miracles, sometimes maybe even get one, but finally have to face what we can and can't control. Laura Nyro, first and foremost, must be listened to for the music she wrote on early albums like Eli and the Thirteenth Confession which showcase her unique cool blend of jazz, swing, and funk. She's got a knock out soul voice, writes remarkable lyrics and has an unmistakable percussive piano style. But it's Nyro backed by Patti La Belle and The Labelles singing "Gonna Take a Miracle," the R&B classic from her all-covers album of the same name, that is sung in the novel at the wedding of Molly and Serena. Nyro takes what was a hit for The Royalettes, slows it down and thickens the hurt.

3. "Angel From Montgomery"
Bonnie Raitt, from Streetlights

In the game of-- if I could be a rocker who would I be-- I always choose Bonnie Raitt. She's my serious girl crush. She can play such a badass slide guitar. She can rock like nobody's business and play the blues to break my heart. I love her voice and all its phrasing. So many people have covered John Prine's "Angel from Montgomery" but nobody carves out that longing better than Bonnie Raitt. Of course I heard it first on Streetlights, but it's really amazing to hear the more seasoned ache of Bonnie backed by the likes of Jackson Browne and Bruce Hornsby twenty years later on her 1995 album, Road Tested.

4. "Hold It All"
Red Molly, from Light in the Sky, 2011

I confess I've never made it through listening to this song without busting into tears. For the first two drafts of Before Everything a verse from "Hold it All" was woven into a scene where two friends, Caroline and Anna, sing together. Even though that scene didn't remain in the book, a Red Molly concert is mentioned as "peak moment" for the friends and lines from the song-- God I don't know what to do with this love/That I've tasted/I've tasted/Cause I can't put it down/ I can't figure it out/And I'm wasted—written on an index card, remained propped right by my computer to remind me of the the conflict between the acute desire for life and the exhaustion from trying to get healthy that I was trying bring into in the novel.

5. "Baby I Need Your Lovin'"
Four Tops, 1964

I spent the better part of my childhood playing records, working on my dance moves, half believing I was somehow part of the Motown sound coming out of Detroit. But that is part of the magic of great music-- that a kid growing up in a ranch house in Westchester where her mother and grandmother shouted non-stop in Russian, can think there's a good chance she might be invited to join the Four Tops. Since I don't listen to lyrics while writing, I listened to the ever beautiful jazz pianist, Geri Allen playing this Holland-Dozier-Holland tune on Grand River Crossings, her foray into the Detroit sound.

6. "Sunlight"
Jesse Colin Young from On the Road

I'm a little conflicted about including this song. It appears in the novel as a quintessentially romantic song from the '70s and I confess that as a shy teenager, Jesse Colin Young's dreamy open unconditional vision of love expressed all the ease I longed to feel. Listening to it now, it seems skewed toward all the unconditional giving happening in one direction and the song doesn't hold up for me musically or romantically in the way "Suite for Judy Blue Eyes" (Crosby, Stills & Nash) remains a great. But isn't this part of what's interesting about the ways music adheres to memory? I can have my more nuanced adult critique and  still the flute riffs on "Sunlight" instantly transport me back into all that longing and hope.

7. "Help Me Find A Way To Your Heart"
Daryl Hall, Soul Alone

Even though nothing from this spectacular album directly makes its way into the novel this 1993 solo album has all the pop and groove I could ask for. I love the whole album but this song speaks so directly to the ways we can lose one another over time in a relationship and desperately need to find our way back to intimacy. In Before Everything, in addition to new great loves, characters try to stay the distance with each other through adversity. Daryl Hall nails that longing to endure and the work of love and does so with his amazing pipes.

8. "Evangeline"
Matthew Sweet, Girlfriend 1990

I heard Matthew Sweet play the Girlfriend album in its entirety in 2012 at a concert. And, ever since, this is an album I blast in the car and sing along to when there's no one in the passenger seat. Okay, yes, I'm a sucker for the best of '90s pop. But Matthew Sweet can also seriously rock. While the novel spins in time, the foreground of the novel is 2013 and I imagine that on the long drives each of the women take to meet at Anna's house, one of them lets herself get lost for even a bit in the hope and pulse of Sweet "Evangeline."

9. "Superstition"
Stevie Wonder, Talking Book, 1972

At Molly and Serena's wedding, "Superstition" is welcome funk relief after the guests have tried dancing to Grateful Dead songs. Superstition, magical thinking, religious and new-agey rituals weave through the novel as a stand-in for how to reckon with what we cannot control. "Superstition" was Wonder's first #1 on the soul chart since "Signed Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours." Just four years later Stevie Wonder came out with Songs in the Key of Life, which I consider to be one of the top five albums of all of time. It's an epic album where I'd be hard pressed to pick favorites. "As" or "I Wish" or "Love's in Need of Love Today" might be at the top of the list but, honestly, the only true option is to download the double album, sit back and let Stevie take you on the entire spiritual trip.

10. "Willin"
Little Feat/Lowell George, Waiting For Columbus, 1978

In a book with tons of music, an actual musician, the keyboard player from the Grateful Dead, Vince Welnick makes an appearance at Molly and Serena's wedding and Anna joins them on stage to sing among other cover songs, the great Lowell George's "Willin.'" Lowell George played with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention before forming Little Feat which was a great concert band of the 70's. The cut of "Willin'" on this album is live. Sadly Lowell George died of an overdose just a year after the album was released. It's almost despite the druggy aspect that I've always loved this song. Instead it's the determination, the "I had my head kicked in and I'm still on my feet" willing of the music and lyric that seemed so important in this scene and as foreshadowing of what is unfolding in the book.

11. "Stayin Alive'"
The Bee Gees, released as a single, 1977
for the film Saturday Night Fever

I end the list with this disco classic although it is the first song referenced in the novel. Before Everything is an ode to friendship over time and it's also a novel about how we manage the choices of those we love. In the primary situation of the novel, one of the friends, Anna, chooses to stop medical treatment. While the friends struggle together and privately with this decision, they keep their old banter going and "Stayin' Alive" – disco moves and all—is part of that banter. It's hard to hear this song with fresh ears but the tension between the hard life in the street lyrics and the incessant driving upbeat in this hit single speaks to an essential urge to rise up, to dance, to live. That question—what it means to be alive, stay alive, and how do we achieve a quality of life is at the heart of Before Everything.


Victoria Redel and Before Everything links:

the author's website

BBC Culture review
Booklist review
Publishers Weekly review

Guernica interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

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