Creator Misha Green and music supervisor Liza Richardson explain how they mixed Cardi B, ‘For Colored Girls,’ James Baldwin and more.
Lovecraft Country, starring Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett, is HBO’s ambitious series adapted from the novel of the same name, flipping the horror genre and H.P. Lovecraft’s creations on its head. Helping to bring creator Misha Green’s vision about a Black community facing real-life horrors and supernatural beings in 1950s America to life onscreen is the anachronistic and stunning soundtrack, which she says was partly inspired by Beyoncé.
“What Beyoncé did on Lemonade, with bringing in the poems and taking us on this collage of a journey, that wasn’t just music and visuals. [It was] also words and really using those words as a score,” Green tells ET. While using modern music was something she did before on the WGN America slave drama Underground, mixing in spoken word and “found audio” was not something she had attempted before now. “I was like, ‘If we could do that, if we can make it work, that would be great.’”
In the first five episodes, Green and music supervisor Liza Richardson have done just that, mixing together the theme song from The Jeffersons, several Nina Simone classics, modern hits by Cardi B and Rihanna, Leiomy Maldonado’s voiceover from a Nike ad, Wunmi Mosaku performances in character as Ruby, Janet League performing a passage from “For Colored Girls,” Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” and a 1965 speech by James Baldwin to surprising effect. The unexpected collection of audio cues not only punctuate emotional moments experienced by the show’s main characters but also make those scenes resonate with viewers in unexpected ways.
“When you watch the show, you feel that it is, in a way, timeless,” Majors says. “Here we are in the 1950s and then you hear [Leikeli47] go off.”
The key thing it does for Lovecraft Country, Green explains, “is [that] it helps take it out of time.” The varied collection helps unstick the series from strictly being seen as a 1950s period piece and turns it into “a timeless document.” That allows it to speak to the show’s relevant themes, which includes everything from systemic racism in America to the recentering of Black or marginalized people’s experiences to how buried histories lead to people repeating the same tragedies over and over again.
“It’s this collage of Americana and it was fun to layer that stuff in and see how it resonates,” the creator adds.
In fact, the first piece of modern music heard on the series is roughly 15 minutes into the premiere, “Sundown,” when the 2019 song, “Clones” by Tierra Whack, is overheard as Atticus (Majors) walks through the streets of Chicago while looking for his father. “It’s a real jolt,” says Richardson, who has earned an Emmy nomination for her work on Watchmen and has also served as music supervisor on other HBO series like The Leftovers.
While she and Green collaborated on ideas and song selections, oftentimes what ended up in the episode, like Baldwin or Heron, was already noted in the script. When it comes to the use of “Dark Phrases,” an excerpt from Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” in episode five, “Strange Cases,” while Ruby (Mosaku) is exploring Chicago as her white, alter ego Hillary (Jamie Neumann), Richardson says writer Jonathan Kidd called to explain what they were looking for in the moment.
When he asked for a spoken word cue, Richardson got chills because prior to working as a music supervisor, she had a KCRW radio show called Man in the Moon, where she built deep knowledge and collection of spoken word and poetry. “So I spent the ‘90s collecting that stuff,” she says, revealing that she was able to dig deep to find the right recording and resurface it for the series.
Another standout moment comes at the end of the same episode, when Ruby and Hillary seduce their boss before attacking him with a high-heeled pump at the back of a department store. “Bodak Yellow,” the second of two Cardi B songs used in the episode, starts playing, giving literal meaning to the lyric, “these is bloody shoes.”
“The lyrics of that song are unbelievably perfect for the scene,” Richardson says. “Talk about on-the-nose lyrics that worked well and that were impossible to replace. We worked on other ideas in that scene -- we always like to see if there’s anything else out there -- so we kept looking but there was no way we could replace that. It was too perfect.”
While clearing contemporary music is typically a bit easier, Richardson reveals that there was one artist they weren’t able to secure for the series: Beyoncé herself. Despite having influenced the overall direction and flow of the show’s soundtrack, the artist pulled usage for one of her songs from a scene in episode three, “Holy Ghost,” when Leti (Smollett) takes a bat to her racist, white neighbors’ cars.
“At first, it was cleared. And then, at the last minute, there was something added to the scene,” Richardson says of the burning cross that appears in the front lawn of Leti’s house. “A couple of days before they shot it, they added it to the scene. So I had to go back and re-clear the song and she said no to the burning cross.” What’s heard instead is gospel singer Dorinda Clark-Cole's 2008 song, “Take It Back,” which Richardson ties in well with the spiritual nature of Leti's journey in the episode.
Looking ahead, however, Richardson teases that there are many more great music moments to come, including a sample of Josephine Baker as well as what’s heard in episode nine, “Rewind 1921.”
“That one has a cool spoken word piece,” Richardson says. “You know how you have to nominate yourself for awards? I hate doing it, but you have to. That’s going to be the episode that I nominate... I just can’t wait to see the reaction.”
--Additional reporting by Leanne Aguilera