How ‘I May Destroy You’ Got Its Stunning Soundtrack

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.

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.

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