A chart-topping singer-songwriter, rapper and record producer who has built a remarkable career for himself by the age of 31, Labrinth recently set out to tackle his first TV score with HBO’s Euphoria.
Created by Sam Levinson, the cinematic teen drama centers on Rue Bennett (Zendaya), a 17-year-old recovering drug addict struggling to find her place in the world, following her and her high school peers through turbulent experiences with sex, drugs, relationships, identity and trauma.
First collaborating with Levinson on the 2018 film Assassination Nation, Labrinth had palpable chemistry with the Euphoria creator from their very first meeting, as he explains in the latest installment of Deadline’s Production Value video series. “My manager had invited me to a dinner while I was in Los Angeles. Sam was there, and we just had this great conversation about music, and music in film, and some of our ideas about how to go about creating a score differently,” he says, “how to just have fun with it, and almost create this hip-hop/electronic score, with all these different kind of influences.”
When Levinson first spoke with Labrinth about Euphoria, he had a clear sense of how the series should sound. “He said, ‘I can hear Kanye [West’s] Yeezus meets Danny Elfman on Edward Scissorhands, meets Kraftwerk’—meets all these incredible musicians and magical bands that I was massively in love with,” Labrinth shares. “From there, I didn’t even know what he was working on. I was just like, ‘I’m in. I don’t care. I just want to do it.’”
Subsequently, the multifaceted musical artist learned of the pedigree of the first show for which he’d compose music. “When he came back to me with what was going on, and my management heard about it, and went into detail, it was like, ‘Oh, yeah. Zendaya’s the lead, and it’s for HBO.’ And I was like, ‘Oh s**t. What have I got myself into?’” he laughs. “But at the same time, it was really exciting, because it was something I’ve always wanted to do.”
The same night that Levinson and Labrinth discussed the series, the musician set out in his work on the show, without ever seeing a frame of it. “I’m massively into experimenting, so I buy a synth every other week. Weirdly enough, I use this Nord Stage 2 [keyboard], and I can get just the right things out of it. It’s kind of like a mix station, a basic outline of all different kinds of tones that you might need,” Labrinth says, detailing the early stages of his musical process. “I can get pretty cool stuff out of this keyboard, so I just mess around with that. Then, I would just put it through preamps, and use some of my guitar pedal delays, and go down the rabbit hole.”
When Labrinth regrouped with Levinson to screen the pilot episode of Euphoria, he was stunned by the degree to which his music—created based on instinct, alone—jelled with the show as a whole. “I was like, ‘This feels right. It feels like we were supposed to be together,’” he says. “I wanted to put the ring on his finger instantly.”
From Labrinth’s perspective, the tone of the series, and his music for it, was defined by a distinctive blend of elements. “With Euphoria, there was this energy of magic. It kind of felt like a fantasy world with this really dark, gnarly side to it, and I really enjoyed the contrast of those two things next to each other,” he says. “When I see gnarly right next to something pretty, I just feel like they’re the best of friends, sonically. So, Euphoria was instantly inspiring, because I love working with those two energies.”
Fully embodying the energy of magic and fantasy was the character of Jules (played by Hunter Schafer), a transgender girl who befriends Rue after moving into town, and strikes up a relationship with her. “Jules really inspired that energy, where she kind of feels like she’s not real. There’s a lot of people that I know, even some of my friends, that are just kind of [otherworldly]. It’s like, does this person actually exist?” Labrinth says. “They almost feel like this weird creature, and I loved Jules’ character because she was so sparkly, so magical, multicolored.”
For Labrinth, the task of scoring Euphoria was made easier by the fact that each character in the show leaped off the page, taking on even more dimensions through the performances of the cast. “All the characters in the show were so refined in what they were,” he says, “so that’s why it was like I just had instant ideas, when I saw these characters.”
As a singer-songwriter and composer, one of Labrinth’s trademarks is the use of his voice as an instrument—one that he samples and layers to potent effect, in much of his work. “Originally, when I was working on the [Euphoria] score, I was using my voice because it was the easiest thing to go to, and it would help me articulate what I wanted for the scene. And when I would send it to Sam, he’s just like, ‘Mate, we’re using your voice through the show,’” the musician recalls. “I was like, ‘Why?’ And he was just like, ‘No, I love it.’ It just worked so well.
“I use my voice a lot in my own productions, not even with words—and that’s one of my favorite things to do. Even with one of the records I worked on, called ‘Forever,’ that was literally just me singing this melody in almost choirboy style,” he adds. “It’s just this magical, euphoric and heavenly energy, and once you get this kind of heavenly, choral, choirboy sound that feels very spiritual, and you put hip-hop drums that add this punch, or this knock underneath it, this juxtaposition starts to create this feel for me.”
An original song penned by Labrinth prior to Euphoria, which was later adapted for the show, “All For Us” is perhaps the greatest example of how the artist uses his voice in his work.
Submitted for Emmy consideration this season, alongside Labrinth’s score, the song started its life as one of many different ideas the artist had sitting around. “I had a seed of an idea, in terms of it being this song about saying to the people that you love that you’re my motivation. I’ll take the world for you, and I’ll go and become whoever I’m supposed to become for you. So, I just got this hook in my head, and when I get an idea, it will almost be like, ‘I hear Queen, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ I hear a Gregorian chant, or choral energy meets Pentecostal gospel,’” Labrinth explains. “All of those things will be in my head while I’m doing this intro, and I wanted it to be dramatic, like big vocals. I imagined just sitting in this great hall, and this choir, all of a sudden, out of silence, just sings this massive chorus.”
After hammering out the “All For Us” intro, Labrinth thought, “What if I was Kanye West? I would f**king sample that s**t,” he says. “Then, I would just put it in my MPC [music workstation] and trigger it, and turn it into this almost remixed version of the intro. And it just started to develop from there.”
As reinterpreted for Euphoria, “All For Us” would feature vocals by Zendaya, the sound of a marching band, as well as a new middle eight. “Once I saw Sam, he was just like, ‘I love this record, and I want to use it for the end of Euphoria. It says everything I want to say,’” Labrinth recalls. “‘But you just need to finish the song.’”
Telling the story of Rue’s difficult emotional journey through the series, the middle eight was naturally reconfigured around the story and voice of this character. “It was like, she wants to make the changes that she needs to for Jules, and she wants to do it for her family. She wants to become a better person, and be the better version of herself, but she just can’t help the urge to go back to the darkness,” Labrinth says. “So, the middle eight kind of leaves it open-ended, where it’s like, ‘I thought I was doing this for us, but really, I’m doing it for me.’”
Once Labrinth penned the lyrics for the middle eight, he needed to work on the sound of this passage in the song. “I love The Beach Boys, and I love James Jamerson, so I wanted this kind of knocky, precision bass-y sound, [with] the tone of fender jazz. So, I started doing this chorus that still follows the chord progression from the record, but just moves it into a different world,” he says. “We’ve kind of gone from the ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ Pentecostal church moment, to this knocking, electronic kind of hip-hop beat, to gospel choir, and then to a Beach Boys precision bass and tambourine. I just kind of felt like that’s the magic I needed for this middle eight.”
A rigorous and fast-paced process, composing the Euphoria score and its set of original songs certainly presented a learning curve for the artist. “When I’m producing music, I have a lot of time on my hands. Everything’s on me. But when there’s this heavy deadline, and it’s not to do with my own career as an artist, I’m working for somebody, so I’ve got to deliver. So, it forces to me to be intensely organized,” he says. “I never save any of my sounds. I just remake them. [Generally] I don’t need to write down all of the notes of how to get back to a sound. But on this stuff, I was like, ‘Well, I need to be prepared.’
“So, I had logbooks, and sheets all over the wall, and stuff like that, and it was really nice, because it’s helped me with my own my own music, in terms of being organized,” Labrinth adds. “Learning as I go was definitely a task, but it was enjoyable to dabble in uncharted territory.”
While composing for TV required Labrinth to learn a new set of skills, the work he’d done as a record producer prior to the show also gave him a unique kind of preparation for the job. “One thing I’ve noticed with a lot of composers, especially ones that have been to school, is that there’s a kind of sound palette that they go for, and a style that they go for. It kind of feels like they have their own community, and they’re all trying to impress each other. So, when you’ve produced music, you kind of get forced to go in lanes that are not traditional to you,” he says. “Especially if you have to mold something to an artist’s vision, you end up having to mess around with a lot of stuff that isn’t traditional to you. So, I feel like it gives you an angle, as a producer, to add some things that are not usual in the scoring world.”
Born Timothy Lee McKenzie, Labrinth grew up in a very musical household, with nine brothers and sisters, all of whom were immersed in the sound of American gospel music. “We were listening to artists like Kirk Franklin, Hezekiah Walker, Fred Hammond and all of these great gospel musicians. Then, my brother is a drummer, so he brought home a lot of jazz musicians like Weather Report, Yellowjackets, and of course, Prince. So, I kind of had a bit of everything in each part of the house,” he recalls. “My sisters would be bringing home Aretha Franklin and ’90s R&B, like Jagged Edge and H-Town. So, it was just like a melting pot of different areas of, I would say, Black music from that area.”
Learning to use his voice while singing in his aunt’s gospel choir, Labrinth wasn’t all that interested in music growing up, but soon found himself drawn to it, due to the influence of his older brother. “I remember my brother bringing in an MPC and cue-based light when it first came out, and I lost my s**t. I was like, ‘I think this is what I need to be doing with my life,’” he says. “Him and his friends used to do rap ciphers in his room, and I kind of got the music bug, or definitely the hip-hop bug, from that experience. So, I had a lot to be a sponge to, if we put it like that.”
As with any creative, Labrinth found his musical voice through an abundance of trial and error. “When I first started, I just wanted to imitate everything I heard. Then, eventually, out of messing around and trying to sound like these guys, I started to figure out what I liked and didn’t like,” he says. “It was almost like making my own little scrapbook, just cutting out pieces of different bits of music that I loved.”
Creating music constantly since the age of 13, Labrinth eventually met a number of mentors who helped him take his career to another level, while shaping his understanding of music. “I had a manager who was a producer himself in the ’90s. He did a lot of dance music, acid house, jungle, drum and bass. In those genres, there’s a lot of sampling—chopping bits, and finding snares, and stuff like that—so you end up having this breadth of music that you can listen to. I literally had unlimited access to his record collection, which was so vast, so I just kept on listening until I found something I loved,” the musician recalls. “It was like being able to go to a candy shop and eat every type of sweet you could find, and that really helped me broaden my musical horizons.”
At age 17, Labrinth started producing music for a “quirky, indie rap artist” named Master Shortie, which brought him ample attention from publishers and labels, leading his career to take off.
A self-described obsessive who is incredibly passionate about music, Labrinth finds little not to like about the work he does. “I believe that musicians, composers, creatives have the pleasure and the incredible gift and privilege of being able to transmit life and turn it into music,” he says. “I always believe that music is the sound of life, the frequency of life. So, to be able to have a job that allows you to articulate this incredible energy called life, and turn it into sound, is mind-blowing.
For more from our conversation with the Euphoria composer, click on the video above. To experience the euphoric energy of the artist’s “All For Us” redux, take a look below.
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