Songs in Ursa Major

Author: Emma Brodie

Publisher: HarperCollins

First Published: 24 June 2021

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

“She was adrift on a raft, and these songs, forming around her, were the constellations that would guide her onward.”

I will start by saying that I was given an ARC will start by saying that I was given an ARC copy in exchange for an honest review. These opinions are my own. Thank you so much to the teams over at HarperCollins and NetGalley for sending a copy my way.

The year is 1969, and the Bayleen Island Folk Fest is abuzz with one name: Jesse Reid. Tall and soft-spoken, with eyes blue as stone-washed denim, Jesse Reid’s intricate guitar riffs and supple baritone are poised to tip from fame to legend with this one headlining performance. That is, until his motorcycle crashes on the way to the show.

Jane Quinn is a Bayleen Island local whose music flows as naturally as her long blond hair. When she and her bandmates are asked to play in Jesse Reid’s place at the festival, it almost doesn’t seem real. But Jane plants her bare feet on the Main Stage and delivers the performance of a lifetime, stopping Jesse’s disappointed fans in their tracks: A star is born.

Jesse stays on the island to recover from his near-fatal accident and he strikes up a friendship with Jane, coaching her through the production of her first record. As Jane contends with the music industry’s sexism, Jesse becomes her advocate, and what starts as a shared calling soon becomes a passionate love affair. On tour with Jesse, Jane is so captivated by the giant stadiums, the late nights, the wild parties, and the media attention, that she is blind-sided when she stumbles on the dark secret beneath Jesse’s music. With nowhere to turn, Jane must reckon with the shadows of her own past; what follows is the birth of one of most iconic albums of all time.

Shot through with the lyrics, the icons, the lore, the adrenaline of the early 70s music scene, Songs in Ursa Major pulses with romantic longing and asks the question so many female artists must face: What are we willing to sacrifice for our dreams?

I was equal parts nervous and excited for this book. Excited because music in books is one of my all-time favourite things, especially when set in the 1960s and 70s. And nervous because I was worried it would be too much like Daisy Jones & the Six. Thankful I had no reason to worry. I adored Songs in Ursa Major.

Set in the backdrop of the last 1960s, early 70s folk movement and Jane Quinn’s rise to fame. Jane steps boldly onto the music scene after her band, The Breakers, is asked to replace the Folk Megastar, Jesse Reid, headline performance. Jesse is unable to perform due to a motorcycle accident. Jane steps barefoot onto the main stage and faces a restless and angry crowd. It is a rocky start. Jane does not just survive the show she manages to get noticed and land The Breaker’s a spot on Jesse’s upcoming tour.

I adore Jane Quinn with all my heart and soul. She is headstrong, fiercely talented and refuses to compromise her integrity, even at times to her detriment. I felt connected to her as we watched her find herself while navigating the bright lights and hidden toxicity of fame.

This story ultimately follows the creation of an album. While the main perspective comes from Jane and Jesse, we get additional points of view from the A&R reps, sound engineers, music journalists involved with the album. Sprinkled throughout the narrative are magazine articles, and we get lyrics that Jane and Jesse have written for each other. I loved this touch. I am a sucker for mixed media in my novels, and Emma Brodie pulls this off beautifully. 

The relationship between Jane and Jesse is loosely based on the real-life affair between James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. I do not know how closely Songs in Ursa Major follows their story, but it is a nice little easter egg. While the pair were musically a great couple, they were problematic long term. Jesse was very much the embodiment of sex, drugs and rock and roll. As the tour goes on, Jesse’s addiction to heroin is hard to hide. He needs a caretaker. He is moody and gone is the sweet soul Jane first fell in love with. Jane refuses to watch Jesse ruin his life and lose herself to take care of him. I am in awe of how Jane stuck to her decision to walk away even though it would be easier to stay, especially with their label wanting to capitalise on the media hype surrounding their relationship.

There are some powerful themes tackled in this novel – mental health, the sacrifices made for family, addiction, to name a few. All are handled beautifully and with a lot of respect. The theme I enjoyed exploring most was the double standards of the music industry. Brodie does not shy away from highlighting how Jane is treated compared to her male counterparts, which is the sad reality of the era. It does not matter that she is just as talented as Jesse. Jane’s interviews are littered with questions about what make-up she uses and how she dresses. You can feel her rage and frustration bleed through the page at every sexist remark thrown her way.

Songs in Ursa Major is the perfect summer read and a solid debut. While there is a heavy hit of nostalgia and deep explorations of the horror and darkness of mental health, addiction or the music industry, at the core, there is a sense of triumph, hope and love. If you are a fan of this era and reading books about the music industry, I’d recommend adding Songs in Ursa Major to your TBR!

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