Author Playlists

Donnaldson Brown’s Playlist for Her Novel “Because I Loved You”

“Music has always been a companion, and often an inspiration. As I was writing Because I Loved You, I discovered that most of the characters had their own soundtrack.”

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, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Donnaldson Brown’s novel Because I Loved You is a moving and intimate debut.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“The story is a compelling one, with Leni and Cal’s relationship at its core. The two come across as fully realized characters, not just star-crossed lovers. Brown brings both the Texas and New York settings to life, and complex secondary characters, especially Foy and Hank, add to the novel’s richness….a page-turning story that will keep readers invested.”

In her own words, here is Donnaldson Brown’s Book Notes music playlist for her debut novel Because I Loved You:

I remember the scene clearly, though I was only five years old. Standing on the landing in my childhood home, I was talking excitedly, arms waving, when my father emerged from my parents’ bedroom. He was brought up short, curious maybe concerned, and watched as I conversed with what he must have assumed was the air. In fact, I was talking with my imaginary friends, the Beatles. It was 1965. Embarrassed, after that I kept those conversations tucked safely inside my own head.

Music has always been a companion, and often an inspiration. As I was writing Because I Loved You, I discovered that most of the characters had their own soundtrack. There were times, if I was in a jam or just wanting to go deeper, I’d inquire what they might be listening to, not necessarily in that moment in the story, but around that time in their life. It gave me a look under the hood, into their preoccupations, their desires and frustrations.

The novel takes place in three distinct time periods. It opens in Texas in 1972, as my main characters, Leni and Caleb, are teenagers. It moves to downtown New York City in 1986 amid the burgeoning downtown art scene and the city’s financial boom, and concludes in the pre-pandemic present day. My characters, therefore, had lots of great music to choose from, and their tastes evolved over time, just as they did.

“Path 17 (Before the Ending of Daylight) – Pt. 2” – Mac Richter

While I often imagine a soundtrack for my characters, I only sometimes listen to music while I’m writing. And never music with lyrics. This time around, especially as I was pulling the story together, I listened to a lot of Max Richter and Ludovico Einaudi because of the way they can take me into my heart. A good place to receive my characters.

“Can’t You See” – The Marshall Tucker Band

1972 is often referred to as the year that music changed everything. Iconic artists, like The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Joni Mitchell, and the list goes on, released songs. While most of the other girls at Leni’s high school in her small ranching town in northeast Texas were listening to Tanya Tucker’s “Delta Dawn,” or swooning to “Maggie” and “Your Song,” Leni and her older brother, Foy, would listen to a rock station out of Dallas, when they could get it, on his palm-sized transistor radio and sing along while doing chores around their small farm. One of Leni’s favorites was The Marshall Tucker Band. One of Foy’s favorite songs was The Guess Who’s “American Woman.” He’d sing along, playing air drums and crashing silent cymbals.

“Who’s Going to Mow Your Grass” – Buck Owens and the Buckaroos

Foy also had a sense of humor. And a big heart. One of his gifts was the ability to smooth over rough patches and lighten the mood. Conflict often just sort of dissolved when he was around. He knew all the words to this Buck Owens tune and sang it with a false sincerity that made Leni cringe (and laugh).

“Ain’t No Sunshine” Bill Withers

Once his brother was drafted, the only music Caleb really heard was what the cowboys were listening to as they worked in the machine barn. Once he made his own ham radio, though, which he kept stashed in his room, at night, he could catch one or two Mexican stations, and a station out of Houston that played the Billboard hits. He liked Neil Young. He also liked Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Since he was at the whim of the radio, never knowing when the song may come on, there was an anticipation, which only increased its power. What Cal liked especially was the steady chord progression, the way it led into a melancholy, or a longing, that he didn’t yet (as a teenager) know, but that somehow felt real, the way – especially when you’re young – you can be drawn by your imagination into experience.

“Good Vibrations” – The Beach Boys

Flirtatious and pretty, Leni’s older sister, Marguerite, was secure in her place in the family, as the oldest, and in school. She wasn’t predisposed to absorbing the change going on around her, in the culture or in the family.  Loretta Lynn’s “Coalminer’s Daughter” was a favorite. But The Beach Boys did start to grab her attention. “Good Vibrations” was on the airwaves. I have to say I learned something from Marguerite here. When I was her age, I thought the Beach Boys were akin to bubblegum pop. Talking Heads, Genesis, Bowie, Paul Winter, and Bonnie Raitt were my jam. Now, though, I really appreciate the complexity, the harmonies and the rhythms.

“Ball of Confusion” – The Temptations

When Caleb’s brother, Hank Junior, returns from Vietnam, “Ball of Confusion” – a psychedelic social commentary – pretty much sums up his frame of mind. The arrangement is tight, almost grating. The frustration is palpable. Hank drives around in his old pickup, windows down, radio blaring. He would have liked the Clash, if they’d been recording in 1972, but they weren’t. The Stones’, “Paint it Black,” was another kind of anthem for him.

“How Far Is Heaven” – Kitty Wells

Leni’s mother was a French war bride, desperate to leave the dreck of the war behind. She was a sucker for Patsy Cline and Tanya Tucker. She liked the fiddle in country music, different from the way the fiddle was used in the Breton music she would have been familiar with, coming from France’s northwest coast. And the tempo of these songs was such that she could understand the words. The songs actually helped her with her English. Having lost too much of her own family, Kitty Wells’ “How Far Is Heaven,” was especially meaningful to Ludevigne.

“Somebody to Love” – Jefferson Airplane

By the end of 1972, Marguerite’s tastes have changed. She’s ditched her pressed blouses for peasant shirts and hip-huggers. The accompaniment to her bra-burning and sudden aversion to authority is Jefferson Airplane’s, “Somebody to Love.” While Leni at this point, after all her family’s been through, will listen alone at night, with Foy’s hand-sized transistor radio pressed to her ear and the volume very low, to Jim Croce’s “Operator.”

“Vocalise” (Anna Moffo) – Rachmaninoff

There’s an important transitional section to the novel, and Anna Moffo’s recording of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise” captures the depth and meaning of this section for me. The first time I heard this recording, a friend orchestrated the experience. We were lying on the roof of his apartment building in Caracas, Venezuela. It was a spectacularly clear day. Bathed in the warm sun, he instructed us (one other friend was there) to close our eyes and not open them till she’d sung her last note. The experience was one of being transported to another realm, and it’s in my cells still. It is this liminal place where Cal lives, for a time.

“Close to Me” – The Cure

The novel resumes in the mid-1980s. Leni’s living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, not far from CBGB’s, the iconic downtown club where Talking Heads, Blondie, The Ramones played. She really likes The Cure. She likes Robert Smith’s hesitant, quavery wail. The way he sounds both vulnerable and a devout loner. I picked their song, “Close to Me.”

“Mad About You” Belinda Carlisle

Caleb’s working in NYC at this point, too. In the mid-1980s, Wall Street and real estate were booming and there was money to burn. Cal was no stranger to the club scene, a good way to burn off the stress of his work in real estate finance. “Mad About You” is an upbeat song with a good bass and synch, the kind of electronica that’s good for dancing.  

“Sous le Ciel de Paris” – Yves Montand

Leni’s mother returns to France. While she’s retained her affection for American country music. Curiously, by the early 2000s, U.S. country music has become very popular and hip in France. Her nieces are impressed with Ludevigne’s ability to sing along with her favorites. She does, however, regain some affection for the French crooners, especially Yves Montand. She and I share a favorite, “Sous le Ciel de Paris.”

“Eau Rouge, Pt. 1” Gelka

By 2017, Leni is a working artist, and teacher. Working in her studio, she’ll often listen to a kind of down tempo electronica, like the Budapest duo, Gelka, with its languorous tempo and enough melody to soothe her thoughts and help her hand glide along the canvas.

“Be Patient with My Love” – Lady Antebellum

Hank Junior’s had quite a journey since returning from Vietnam. In his 60s at this point, he’s found his way back in a way to his roots, to some of the “new” country music like Lady Antebellum. “Be Patient with my Love” captures his regret and what he’s left behind.

“Harvest Moon” – The Brothers Comatose, with AJ Lee’s cover

And this cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” lets Hank Junior bask – when he’s in the mood – in the life he’s created for himself.

“Our Town Suite” – Aaron Copeland

In the novel’s last section, Caleb’s tastes have turned to classical, and contemporary classical. Aaron Copeland is a favorite for its nostalgia, bursts of passion, and its undertones of optimism. I’ll pick Copeland’s “Our Town Suite.”

“Primavera” – Ludovico Einaudi

Caleb also likes Ludovico Einaudi, as do I, for the way his deceptively simple patterns can bore so deep. Something about his music is both soothing and emboldening.

 “On the Nature of Daylight” – Mac Richter

I’ll conclude my playlist with this from Max Richter. This piece for strings, with its slow and relatively simple harmonies, seems the perfect way to wrap up the tale of love – romantic love and family love – a tale of loss and secrets, of resolution and healing. It reminds me that in all we carry and experience as humans, there is enough beauty and connection and comfort to carry us.

Donnaldson Brown grew up riding horses across the Texas plains. An attorney and former screenwriter, she’s performed her spoken word pieces in and around New York, including for the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Deep Listening Institute. Her personal essay “Spell Breaking” was published in the anthology Spell Breaking: Listening to the Dreaming Heart. She is a current fellow of Craigardan Arts Colony and past fellow of the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. She divides her time between Brooklyn, New York, and the Berkshires in western Massachusetts.

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