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February 24, 2020

Mathea Morais's Playlist for Her Novel "There You Are"

There You Are

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Mathea Morais's coming-of-age debut novel There You Are impressively wields music as the heart of both its characters and environment.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"...for readers who enjoy a story of robustness and fragility of love, Morais' work is a must-read."

In her own words, here is Mathea Morais's Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel There You Are:

While There You Are is a love story and a coming-of-age story, I didn’t think about it that way when I wrote it. To me, There You Are is about music - and the people who turn to it for guidance, solace, kinship, and relief. I keep saying I’m going to make a playlist that includes every single song/artist that is mentioned in the book, but it didn’t make sense to do that here since it would be some hundred songs and no one has time for all that.

There is already a corresponding playlist for The '80s, '90s and 2000s Mix Tape sections of the book, so I decided to make an Outtakes Mix. These are the 20 songs that didn’t make it onto the other mix tapes, but that I still consider crucial to the story and to understanding the characters. Interestingly enough, when making the other mixes it took a lot of work to get the order of the songs right so that they worked together the way a mix tape is supposed to. However, these songs fell right into place.


Boom - Royce da 5’9”

I think I can safely say that I love anything that Premier produces, but the pairing of Premier and Royce da 5’9” is simply genius. This is one of their earlier songs and in the book, when I say that Octavian listens to Royce while readying his classroom for the beginning of the year, this is the song I imagined he would put on first.

Billy Jack - Curtis Mayfield

I am a true sucker for anything with horns (or drums for that matter) and the horns in this song always bring tears to my eyes. Octavian plays songs for his students to inspire them. This song, which is about a friend getting shot, he puts on because it has been stuck in his head since learning about Michael Brown’s murder.

To Be Free- Fontella Bass

The album Free is not Fontella Bass’s most well-known record, but the character Andrea Applegate talks about how it saves her life every time she listens to it. I chose the song “To Be Free” because when I think about the honest and vulnerable lyrics someone with the kind of mental-health struggles that Andrea has would need to hear, these are them.

Criminal Minded - Boogie Down Productions

This is one of the first rap songs I memorized all the words to. It is also the first song that we see Octavian recite to himself to help bring him out of a panic attack. When I hear that drum beat, it feels like a heart that can’t figure out which way it wants to go - which is what I imagine Octavian is feeling.

Whisper Not - Lee Morgan

Lee Morgan is hands down one of my favorite jazz musicians and I love the whole Lee Morgan Sextet album (horns and drums again). “Whisper Not” is a song that, regardless of my mood, makes me feel better. This is why Octavian puts it on after he’s made it through the panic attack he has after learning about Michael Brown.

Blackbird - Nina Simone

As much as I was yet another white girl obsessed with Nina Simone in college, I didn’t discover this song until later. With only Simone’s unparalleled voice and drums/clapping, “Blackbird” is about deeply struggling as a Black woman in our white supremacist society. It is one of the most haunting of her many haunting songs, and is the last song that the character Cordelia asks to listen to before she dies.

Quiet Storm - Smokey Robinson

Growing up in St. Louis, we listened to the Quiet Storm show on Majic 108 FM with religion. The show was a mix of slow jams from early Aretha Franklin to the newest Ready for the World single, but it always started with Smokey Robinson’s “Quiet Storm” at 9 pm. Those first stormy sounds and bass line were a signal to get on the phone with whoever you had a crush on. Mina was definitely listening to the Quiet Storm while she was on the phone late at night, and Octavian probably was, too.

Nasty (featuring Planet Asia) Guilty Simpson & Apollo Brown

As an old-school hip hop head, Octavian would absolutely be a fan of Guilty Simpson and Apollo Brown. Like Royce, the music coming out of Detroit has an amazing sound that speaks both to the old heads and the young ones as well. Plus the continuous breakdown in the song with the tambourines and gospel that goes into that headbanging beat is breathtaking. Try not to blow your speakers out on this one.

Smalltown Boy - Bronski Beat

The move from Guilty Simpson to Bronski Beat wasn’t intentional here, but it’s perfect. Bronski Beat is one of those '80s British synthpop, openly gay groups that this collection of characters would put on right after a hardcore hip hop song. Regardless of what kind of music they were resident “experts” in, they were always open to hearing something new and different.

Something in the Water (Does Not Compute) - Prince

This is the one Prince song I wanted to include in the original MixTape and didn’t. There is so much I love about this song - the hyperactive drumbeat (see, drums!), the spooky synthesizer, but it is Prince’s questioning and vulnerable lyrics that made it the perfect song for Octavian to put on when he’s frustrated about his inability to communicate how he feels to Mina.

Let it Loose - Rolling Stones

Mina is a much bigger Rolling Stones fan than she lets on, and this is such a quintessential Stones song. Exile on Main Street is one of the albums she and Octavian put on and listen to from beginning to end and this would definitely be her favorite song on that album. (Also, there are those heartbreaking horns.)

Human Nature - Michael Jackson

It would be incomplete to write about music in the '80s and not include Michael Jackson. Thriller was such a huge pop music explosion that none of the “real” music head characters would have been able to admit to liking it. However, the fact that Octavian and Francis can reminisce about their mom loving “Human Nature” allows them to love it, too. And I don’t care how cool you think are, there is no denying the beauty of this song.

Rule This Land - Bunny Wailer

I have very early memories of listening to the whole Bunny Wailer Sings the Wailers album and this song in particular. In the book, when things are really good for Octavian and Mina, they taste the lyrics of Bunny Wailer songs on each other’s lips. But this song is also such a youth anthem and speaks to the power that young people can have and feel sometimes. A power I imagine this group of young characters feeling when they are hanging out together.

The Bird - Jimmy McGriff

One of the greatest things about hip hop - especially from the “Golden Era” - is the amount of music it exposes listeners to through samples. For pre-internet music heads, figuring out a sample was not only a fun game but also a way of finding a gem of a song you never heard before. That Mina hears Cypress Hill’s “Hole in the Head” and thinks about Jimmy McGriff’s “The Bird” (which was later sampled by KRS-One, Ultramagnetic MCs, and House of Pain) means she’s pretty good at that game.

The Choice is Yours - Black Sheep

Since so much of this book is about two sides to the same city, about making a decision which will leave the characters unsatisfied in some way, I needed to include this song. Plus, even though their career did not last as long as others, Black Sheep was most definitely an important part of early '90s hip hop. And this is the first song I ever heard in a club where the DJ turned down the music and everyone in the crowd sang the lyrics (Engine, Engine, Number 9…).

Close to Me -The Cure

I went back and forth for a long time about using this song or New Edition’s “Can You Stand the Rain” as a title track. I wound up going with the New Edition song, but I am still on the fence as to whether or not that was the right decision. The melody of “Close to Me” is far too playful to fit the seriousness of that chapter, but at the same time, the lyrics couldn’t be more on point for what is happening for Mina and Octavian. I guess I’ll just lay my gratitude right here for Large Hearted Boy for giving me the option to now have both.

Five Years - David Bowie

The character Francis is a total Classic Rock head. However, after he and Octavian’s mother dies, he can’t listen to music. When he comes back from rehab and is succeeding in staying sober, he suddenly can again and this is the first song he and Octavian listen to together since their mother dies. Also, almost as much as I love drums and horns, I love songs that tell stories and there is nothing like the story this song tells.

I Get Lifted - KC & the Sunshine Band featuring George McCrae

While Mina prided herself on loving the original of a song better than a cover, she still loves the KC & the Sunshine Band cover of George McCrae’s “I Get Lifted” (talk about a song that has been sampled a lot) enough to have it be her favorite song to play on the jukebox. Next time you see it on a jukebox, put it on. It makes everyone around you happy.

Simon Says - Pharaoh Monch

When Octavian and Mina reconnect after many years, and Mina asks him what he’s listening to, he tells her, Pharaoh Monch. I went back and forth between “Calculated Amalgamation” (because, drums) or “Ass” (because growing up on Too Short and Akinyele) but finally settled on the headbanging classic “Simon Says” (because it’s my favorite - mostly because of that sample of Godzilla horns…).

Lass of the Low Country- Odetta

Throughout the book, Mina is noted as a folk music fan, and when Octavian asks Mina, after all those years, what she’s listening to, she tells him, Odetta. Unlike Pharaoh Monch, choosing this song was easy. It’s from Odetta’s second solo album that was recorded in 1957 (the same year that Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up” was number one). “Lass of the Low Country” showcases Odetta’s phenomenal guitar skills and it is haunting and sad but most importantly, it is about lost love.

Mathea Morais and There You Are links:

the author's website

Kirkus review
St. Louis Post-Dispatch review

Martha's Vineyard Times profile of 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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