Cai Emmons’ Playlist for Her Novel "Weather Woman"

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Weather Woman

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, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Cai Emmons’ novel Weather Woman is an enthralling eco-feminist fable.

Foreword Reviews wrote of the book:

“The novel may fit the definition of a work of magical realism, but its appeal lies in its deeper truths.”

In her own words, here is Cai Emmons’ Book Notes music playlist for her novel Weather Woman:

Since I began devising a playlist for Weather Woman, I have not been able to stop. I hear threads of relevance everywhere. The 20 tracks I have finally settled on speak to me in different ways, some primarily for the thematic content of their lyrics, some for their driving rhythms, some for their intense longing.

The novel is about a meteorologist, Bronwyn, who discovers she has the power to change the weather. But for that one fantastical element, it is a realistic novel that touches on issues to do with female empowerment, science vs. intuition, climate change. During the early part of the story Bronwyn is required to sing weather songs on air because her boss thinks she is too serious and doesn’t want her mentioning climate change. Some of those songs, mostly well-known catchy tunes, have been included here. Over the course of the book, as she comes to terms with her power and contemplates what do with it, she encounters thunder and lightning, hail, tornadoes, fire, and hibernal arctic temperatures—several songs have been chosen to address those encounters. Because weather in all its manifestations is frequently used in song lyrics—and other written work—as a metaphor for the vicissitudes of human emotions and relationships, I was overwhelmed with choices. I tried to avoid the schmaltzy, but didn’t always succeed.

1) “I am the Rain” Peter Doherty

I begin the list with this song to set the stage for a novel that incorporates an element of magical realism. It is one of the rare songs which refers to the natural forces—rain, wind, snow—on their own, not as metaphors for something else. The speaker is the rain: “I am the rain/ held in disdain/ The truth is I’m ruthless/ I can’t be contained.”

It is the perfect song to introduce my character, Bronwyn, who is unusually attuned to the natural world. I also love the metronomic rhythm of the song which is reminiscent of a downpour.

2) “Clouds” Newton Faulkner

Bronwyn’s deep connection with nature begins when she is a child looking up at the clouds, picturing things in them, and beginning to imagine herself orchestrating them. For this reason, I’ve included two cloud songs. The lyrics of this Newton Faulkner song are somewhat obscure, but what draws me to it is the refrain: “Stop looking at the ground/ Pick it out of the clouds…something’s bound to change.” For Bronwyn, everything changes at this point in her life.

I am also really enamored of the song’s opening instrumental section.

3) “Both Sides Now” Joni Mitchell

It’s impossible to think about cloud songs without thinking of this classic song from Joni Mitchell. She contemplates the dreamy idealized version of clouds (and love and life) alongside their darker aspects; none of them is wholly good or bad. “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now…” leading eventually to “I’ve looked at life from both sides now…”

Bronwyn embraces an even more radical point of view about weather—she does not judge any of it to be good or bad.

4) “Born to Run” Bruce Springsteen

I had to include a Springsteen song because Bronwyn hails from the same area in New Jersey—more or less—where Springsteen comes from. Bronwyn has a strong need to escape her background. She was raised by a single, anxious mother in a working class New Jersey town, and she escaped when she went to a classy college in the Boston area, but she remains haunted by her humble origins. “We gotta get out while we’re young/ ‘Cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

The next five selections are all songs that Bronwyn sings as part of her meteorological broadcast. Her boss has insisted she sing instead of talking about climate change which, he says, turns off their viewers. She chooses songs that are all fairly well-known and catchy, and easy for her to sing (or at least sing a few lines of).

5) “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” Bob Dylan

I like the ominous apocalyptic nature of this song. I doubt if Dylan was thinking about climate change when he wrote it, but he definitely had some kind of doomsday on his mind. “I heard the sound of a thunder/ it moved out a warnin’/ Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world…And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard/ And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.”

6) “Singin’ in the Rain” Gene Kelly

I had to include this because it’s the song Bronwyn uses for her cell’s ringtone. The song is about love, of course, but it’s also about a kind of impermeable happiness that even rain cannot pierce. The idea that you can be happy in the midst of a rainstorm is definitely an idea Bronwyn embraces. “I’m laughing at the clouds/ So dark up above…Just singin’, singin’, singin’ in the rain.”

7) “Here Comes the Sun” The Beatles

This is another song that underscores our emotional connection to weather. When the sun appears after a long stretch of rain or cloudy weather, who doesn’t feel a surge of happiness? The arrival of sun here addresses the speaker’s hope for the end of loneliness and the possible arrival of love.

8) “I Can See Clearly Now” Johnny Nash

Here is another song that makes the strong emotional connection between sun and happiness, clarity, and well-being: “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone/ I can see all obstacles in my way…”

9) “Soak Up the Sun” Sheryl Crow

I think of this as a sun song with an edge. There is a strong undercurrent of defiance here that echoes some of Bronwyn’s eventual defiance. The singer is not going to follow other people’s notions about what she should do. “I’m gonna soak up the sun/ I’m gonna tell everyone to lighten up…”

10) “Here Comes the Rain Again” Eurythmics

I like this song’s take on rain, and the natural elements in general. It posits rain as something not to be endured, but to be savored and explored. “Here comes the rain again/ Falling on my head like a memory/ Falling on my head like a new emotion/ I want to walk in the open wind…” These lines evoke a strong picture of someone outside in a downpour really trying to experience the multiple facets of rain—not unlike Bronwyn—and finding it cleansing. The song opens with a terrific nervous driving instrumental section.

I chose the next two songs because they speak to Matt’s experience of falling in love with Bronwyn. It would be a major challenge to negotiate a love affair with someone who can do the superhuman things Bronwyn can do—it is imperative for Matt to accept her power. He is writing for a tabloid when he meets Bronwyn, and is somewhat of a cynic, but goes from being a skeptic about her capabilities to being a believer and her advocate.

11) “You Sexy Thing” Hot Chocolate

“I believe in miracles/ Where you from / You sexy thing, sexy thing you / I believe in miracles/ Since you came along / You sexy thing.”

These lines sum up Matt’s experience perfectly.

12) “Now I’m a Believer” Smash Mouth

While it takes Matt more than seeing Bronwyn’s face to believe in her power, this song expresses what it feels like to suddenly come to believe in the value of another human being.

Tornadoes and fires figure prominently among the extreme forces Bronwyn tries to combat with her power. In song lyrics, tornados are almost always a metaphor for destruction, but fire has multiple metaphorical meanings including love, warmth, light, as well as destruction.

13) “Tornado” Little Big Town

This is a wonderful revenge song in which the speaker’s pain following rejection allows her to morph herself into a tornado. “Thought you’d change the weather/ Start a little storm, make a little rain/ But I’m gonna do one better/ Have the sun until you pray/ I’m a tornado/ Looking for a soul to take…” Then later: “But it’s the pain that brings my force of nature back to life…” And the refrain is: “I’m gonna lift this house, spin it all around/ Toss it in the air and put in in the ground…I’m a tornado and I’m coming after you.”

Bronwyn never behaves with this degree of animosity, but she certainly considers it, in particular when she is humiliated by a meteorologist in Tornado Alley who she has considered a mentor.

14) “Ring of Fire” Johnny Cash

This is another song that Bronwyn sings a few lines of on air. It is, as Johnny Cash sings it, a metaphor for falling in love. For Bronwyn it becomes not only a metaphor for love, but also a description of her actual encounters with fire, so indomitable she almost goes down.

15) “Burning Down the House” Talking Heads

Another incendiary song I’ve always loved. In terms of Weather Woman, the song has the same insurgent desire to upset the status quo that Bronwyn possesses at various points in the book. “Hold tight we’re in for nasty weather/ There has got to be a way/ Burning down the house.” Bronwyn would like to “burn down” what she sees as a prevailing rigidity and cruelty in the world.

The book concludes in the Siberian Arctic, in a small town called Tiksi. I wanted to include some music from groups who live in or have originated in the Arctic, because I think there is a distinct sensibility there that is not found in many other places, an awareness of living in an extremely remote place with a challenging climate.

16) “Little Talks” Of Monsters and Men

This song is from an Icelandic group. The lyrics are a little obscure, but I love the male/female interchange and the shouted “hey” that occurs throughout. Ultimately the song feels optimistic to me: “’Cause though the truth may vary/ This ship will carry our bodies safe to shore.” This sentiment matches the tone at the end of the book. Though Bronwyn and Diane’s truths are somewhat different, they have found a rapprochement that will help them go forward.

17) “We Are the Arctic” Small Time Giants

The group Small Time Giants is from Greenland, where I did some of my research for the book. This particular song was the official song of the 2016 Arctic Games, and while it is a bit schmaltzy, I like the way it portrays people in the Arctic as underdogs asserting themselves: “We are the Arctic/ the spark inside is wild.”

18) “Big Yellow Taxi” Joni Mitchell

I hesitated before putting a second Joni Mitchell song on the list, but this song, written over forty years ago, still feels emblematic of the destructive human impulse to colonize every bit of the earth, poisoning us and ruining the Earth’s beauty. “Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got / ‘til it’s gone/ They paved paradise/ And put up a parking lot.”

19) “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” Billy MacKenzie

I am moved by the Billy MacKenzie’s plaintive cover of this Sparks song, the message of which is front and center: “Never turn your back on Mother Earth.” This is exactly what Bronwyn would like to tell us.

20) “Adagio in G minor for Strings and Organ” Tomaso Albinoni

I chose this track as a requiem for the Earth. I didn’t mean to conclude the playlist on such a downbeat note, but I can’t help myself. Since researching and writing the book I’ve become fairly certain that the Earth will not be habitable for humans in the not-too-distant future; unless we learn to work collectively—which we seem very far from being able to do—we will make ourselves extinct. One of the saddest pieces of music I know is this Albinoni Adagio—it brings me to tears within the first few bars. I think others must feel that way too, as it has often been chosen by filmmakers to evoke or underscore melancholy.

Cai Emmons and Weather Woman links:

the author’s website

Foreword Reviews review
KLCC review

Aspen Public Radio interview with the author
CarolineLeavittville interview with the author interview with the author
J. G. Follansbee interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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