In the world of “I May Destroy You,” the critically hailed HBO/BBC series written, co-directed by and starring Michaela Coel, few things are ever static. The show, like its central characters — young, exuberantly liberated but inherently vulnerable Black Britons navigating sex, power and friendship in a very recent London — is held together by the cumulative force of its apparent contradictions.
Those extend to the series’s inspired and frequently arresting soundtrack. As in many stylish, music-heavy coming-of-age dramas, from “The O.C.” to “Euphoria,” the music of “I May Destroy You” — a vibrant, mostly modern mix of hip-hop, electronic music, R&B and jazz, much of it made by members of the African diaspora — provides an appealing and useful foothold into the characters’ social and psychological universe.
But if most soundtracks create a closed experience for the viewer, driving home a set of emotions that the writer or director has prescribed, the most memorable music of “I May Destroy You” does precisely the opposite, opening up room for ambiguity and uncertainty.
Ciara Elwis, 27, a music supervisor based in London, was Coel’s partner in creating those moments — among more than 150 music cues across 12 25-minute episodes. Elwis, who works for the music supervision company Air Edel, previously worked on “The End of the _______ World,” “Sex Education” and Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir.” For “I May Destroy You,” she and a colleague, Matt Biffa, were tapped to expand and execute Coel’s unique musical vision.
I spoke to Elwis last week about how the music reflects the characters, why she doesn’t want to tell the audience what to think and which were the songs that almost got away. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
How did you come to work on “I May Destroy You”?
We were contacted by the producer and line producer to work on it — I think they’d seen stuff we’d worked on in the past and thought it might be a good fit. We went for a meeting with Michaela near the set in East London and, luckily, she seemed to like us. They were about halfway through the shoot.
Did she describe what she was looking for?
One of the main things she spoke about was this podcast Soulection, which she listens to. I think a lot of the music that she had in mind for the series came from that. She had also written a few songs into the script, like “Truffle Butter” [by Nicki Minaj, with Lil Wayne and Drake] for Arabella’s karaoke scene in the first episode. “Something About Us” by Daft Punk, “It’s Gonna Rain” [by Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers] and “Flowers” [by Sweet Female Action, the Sunship Radio edit], which is the song they all dance to in the bar, were also in there. There’s no score in the show — it’s all commercial tracks — so we needed a lot of music.
What was your process once the work began?
After our meeting, I read all of the scripts and we went out to all of our various sources for music — publishers and labels and things like that. They help us find a ton of music, and we listen to everything and put what we think might work into a massive playlist. Then we send that over to production, where the editors take different songs and try them out.
Before the lockdowns, we’d all get together for what we call music spots, where we’d sit down with Michaela, the producers, and the editors and go over each episode cue by cue. Later, we did it all by Google Hangout, which was a bit weird but we made it work. If we came across a cue that needed music, or where the music wasn’t working, I would pull five or six options for Michaela to make a final decision.
A lot of the conversation would be about what the character might be thinking in the scene, or what they might be listening to. With Arabella, she’s really upbeat and bubbly and full of life — regardless of these horrible things that seem to happen to her — so Michaela wanted a lot of female hip-hop and gospel and things like that for her character. With Kwame [Arabella’s friend, a gay aerobics instructor played by Paapa Essiedu] we used some L.G.B.T. artists that he might have an affinity for. It’s not meant to be reductive, but it was really important for all the characters to have songs representing them, including in the lyrics, and for that add to your understanding of who they are.
The show addresses sexual assault, trauma and other sensitive subjects with a lot of nuance. Things that we don’t fully understand in one moment, like what happens to Arabella at the end of the first episode, take on different meanings over time. How did you approach that ambiguity with the soundtrack?
I think it’s the main reason that early on they decided that they didn’t want to have a score. They were really keen that people be able to make up their own minds about how they felt about something, rather than having the music tell you, “This is sad, and you must feel sad now.” Because a lot of what happens is quite complicated. Characters that we’re supposed to feel sorry for in one episode go on to do horrible things to other characters in another. So with the music, we didn’t want it to be leading you too much in one direction.
A good example of that is at the end of Episode 2, where Terry’s crying and they just put Arabella to bed after coming back from the police station. Instead of having a sort of classic sad song there, you have “Nightmares” [by Easy Life], which has trumpets and a kind of upbeat groove to it. It takes you out of a place of being like, “Oh my God, I can’t believe what happened to her, this is awful,” and just creates some distance there for a different kind of release, which I think is really powerful.
What was the hardest song to get the rights to?
“It’s Gonna Rain,” which Michaela had chosen for a pivotal scene in the first episode. [Arabella stumbles out of a bar and blacks out. Later, we realize a drug had been slipped into her drink]. It was quite tricky, because it’s a gospel song and not only is the show not Christian, but the scenes where the song is used are quite intense. We wrote a letter to the rights holders explaining what the show was trying to do, and they ended up being wonderful about it. Daft Punk was another one that was really exciting, because they don’t say yes to much. And we almost couldn’t use “Pynk” by Janelle Monáe, not because of her, but because the song has an Aerosmith sample in it, and their approval didn’t come in until the last minute.
Do you have a favorite music moment from the show?
I would say “It’s Gonna Rain” is up there. It’s really one of the key tracks of the series. We hear it in the first episode and then again in a later episode in a completely different context, and what’s great about that is you feel the progression, the journey. There are about four or five different songs that are reprised at different times over the series, almost the way you would use a theme in a score. Each time you hear a reprisal, it’s like connecting the dots along with the characters.
Another one of my favorite moments is with the song “Cola” by Arlo Parks in Episode 7. We found the perfect moment for her in a Kwame scene toward the end of the episode. She writes really beautifully about depression and other difficult subjects, but she has this serene voice that kind of washes over you. I think it’s the perfect fit for the experience of the show, which can be beautiful and true and horrible all at the same time.