The Music of Cascade

I didn’t set out to do it, but music is woven through Cascade like a spell. From Lucy’s opera to Ian’s fiddle, music is the backdrop of my characters’ lives—and of my own writing process.

I went from always listening to music when I wrote, to never listening to it, to a particular ritual during the pandemic where most of my drafting happened while listening to The Friday Night Parkdale Special. (At least the ending of Cascade was written to Motown, Tipper Gore’s Filthy 15, and hair metal. FNPS—and I— contain musical multitudes.) 

But there’s also the songs that I listen to when I’m imagining my world and my characters and the soundtrack to their story, and those are the songs I’m going to talk about in this post. I’ve put the whole playlist on Spotify, but I’ll share some highlights below.

“Casta Diva,” from Vincenzo Bellini’s Norma, sung by Maria Callas

Maria Callas sings “Casta Diva” (Bellini: Norma, Act 1)

Cascade began for me as a series of images, and one of them was an opera singer whose world had shifted with the advent of magic. When I was looking for an aria to frame Lucy’s character, I landed on this one. It’s technically brutal for the soprano—a challenge that Lucy relishes—but thematically, it fits her role as well. Tobias, her husband, is caught in a battle against the ruling party, and in particular, its precognitive civil servant, Ian. Tobias is convinced that the old ways are better. As a non-magician in an age where the MAI—Magic Affected Individuals—are able to harness primal forces to create worldchanging art, Lucy’s musical career is stagnating. But she’s also more a manipulator than a fighter, and Norma’s prayer to the Goddess to stop the Druids’ war against Rome is as much about conflicted love as it is a cry for peace.

“The Pamphleteer” by the Weakerthans

The Weakerthans- Pamphleteer (with lyrics)

I had to be very selective when deciding which Weakerthans song to include, because they’re definitely one of the strongest aesthetic influences on Cascade. They have so many songs about activism and alienation in gentrifying Canadian cities. “The Pamphleteer” is a cry of frustration from someone who believes in social and political transformation and has their passion met with apathy. I’m sure none of us can relate to this at all.

“The Riverflow” by the Levellers

The Riverflow (Remastered Version)

Just listen to that fiddle! It’ll be back in a bit. This is a song that sums up Ian and Jonah’s long, fraught friendship. It’s a push and pull relationship where both are in and out of each other’s lives, and torn in various ways between their imperfect ideals and their pragmatism and responsibilities. It’s a frenetic, chaotic tribute to the messiness of growing old and selling out.

“Illusion” by VNV Nation

VNV Nation – “Illusion” (Andy Huang)

This one might be a little on-the-nose for a song about Sujay, my illusionist, but it’s also a song that’s carried me through a lot of my own inner struggles. VNV Nation really nails the feeling of just being slightly off, held back by your own insecurities and anxieties, all while wanting more than the ordinary out of life. Sujay’s a wizard, but she’s also a racialized young woman trying to build a career in a very white, very male world, and as much as she’s told she’s meant for great things, she’s in a place where she can’t envision a way to get there.

“1000 Oceans” by Vienna Teng

Vienna Teng – 1,000 Oceans (Tori Amos cover)

This is originally a Tori Amos song—alas, I couldn’t find Vienna Teng’s cover on Spotify. I love both versions, but I prefer Teng’s rawer, stripped down version. It’s a song about grief, and complicated transitions. Blythe is a character who is marked by love and loss—for the end of the family life she’d envisioned for herself, but even more so by the ravages that humans have visited on the ocean. This is a song that speaks to that, and it gives me chills.

“Devil’s Waltz,” trad. Métis song, performed by Calvin Vollrath

Devil’s Waltz

I told you the fiddle would be back! Here’s another song that gets name-checked in the novel. I adore fiddle music, and both the Métis Nation, Jonah’s people, and Newfoundland, where Ian is from, have incredible fiddle traditions. I mentioned Jonah and Ian’s complicated relationship earlier—they both shy away from sentimentality and, in fact, anything resembling mature adult communication. In a pivotal scene towards the end, Ian plays this song for Jonah, using the unique cross-tuning and bow technique of his heritage. I won’t spoil it by telling you how that goes.

“Retribution,” Tanya Tagaq

Tanya Tagaq – Retribution

I think this one is probably self-explanatory once you’ve read the book. This haunting, mesmerizing song is about the violence we’ve visited on the planet, and the violence that the earth has in store for us in turn. Tagaq doesn’t just sing about the rage of an exploited dying earth—she embodies that pain in a sonic explosion. If the climate-change-induced return of magic to the world had a soundtrack, it would sound like this.

“The Sleep of Reason,” Billy Bragg

Billy Bragg – The Sleep Of Reason (Lyric Video)

When it came time to find a title for first the book, then the series, I struggled to find something that embodied all of its themes and general weirdness. And then, at a Billy Bragg concert, the answer came to me with all the subtlety of, well, a Billy Bragg song. I’ve always been a fan of Goya’s print and its layered, sometimes contradictory interpretations. Both Bragg’s warning that “there’s simply no guarantee / of a happy ending to history” and his trademark line that the greatest threat to democracy is not extremism but complacency pretty much sum of Cascade’s themes.

Too many songs helped inform this book to list here. But if you like what you hear, you can check out the rest of the playlist here!

And, of course, the book itself! You can buy it in ebook form here, or in paperback from Amazon here.

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