Music on “Euphoria” can come down to the wire. The HBO show’s composer Labrinth, working on a Season 1 soundtrack that’s only gotten more popular the longer it’s been released, put the finishing touches on the score with precious little time to spare.
“Literally, the songs ‘Forever’ and ‘Still Don’t Know My Name,’ I finished them a few days before the score came out. It was like, ‘Bam, send it to mix.’ And it was done. Most of the records, I finished them that way,” Labrinth said, speaking from a booth in Los Angeles where he’s finalizing the Season 2 album.
The first season of “Euphoria” established a musical foundation for the show, but one that Labrinth was hesitant to rely on. Although there are faint echoes of character themes sprinkled in throughout Season 2 — Rue (Zendaya), Nate (Jacob Elordi), and Maddy (Alexa Demie) all get refracted versions of the music that helped introduce key sides of their personality — the particular synth textures that made up so much of the original melodic DNA gave way to something else. Through conversations with series writer-director Sam Levinson, Labrinth arrived at a sound both grander and more grounded.
“We spoke about using organs because of a lot of the religious influences in the show, especially with Rue. We wanted a lot of the sounds edging towards a religious sound. And because I love both Pentecostal and Catholic sounds, I kind of was like trying to merge them both together,” Labrinth said. “‘All for Us’ kind of has both with the choral sound and the Pentecostal Black church sound mixed together. But with this one, we’ve got the organs which is very much a Catholic sound. I wanted to use those as our tension-builder in this in this season, and I think Sam enjoyed that.”
The church idea reverberates loudest in maybe the season’s most memorable moment. While caught in a memory of her late father, Rue walks through church doors, passing by an entire congregation. There at the front stands Labrinth himself, singing the words of “I’m Tired,” a song he co-wrote with Zendaya and Levinson.
It’s a song that’s as full and rich as it is plaintive, one that Labrinth performed live on the day of filming. Hopping between full-voiced belting and his distinct falsetto, it’s also one of the more challenging songs to sing that he’s written for the show so far. Fortunately, amid the emotion of the day, the Southern California environment and the presence of key cast members added to the impact of the moment.
“I don’t know what it is about this side of the world. But my voice feels fine over here. I can sing for ages. Maybe it’s the dust in the air? We did a lot of times, but I just zoned in. I was like, ‘Even if your voice cracks, and you fall to pieces and you go out of tune, just sing it like you mean it.’ That’s all I focused on.” Labrinth said. “Also, I knew what Rue was going through. Being in a church, it felt spiritual. Zendaya was crying. I was crying. We had Hunter [Schafer] and Dom[inic Fike] and everyone could feel the vibe there was different. And definitely I think having a B-3 there as well. Because a B-3 Hammond always takes your heart to somewhere.”
Considering the amount of music refining that happens on the show after principal photography is finished, Labrinth now had a fresh opportunity to incorporate that direct experience with the show and help focus his work on the rest of the season.
“There was a time where we didn’t see each other in the pandemic, and I was in London, and I think maybe I was sonically missing the mark of what Sam wanted to do. So when I got on set, he was like, ‘This is what I needed to say to you.’ And he just vomited all these ideas out on me. And then I was like, ‘I get it.’ That’s when ‘I’m Tired’ and quite a few of the records came from,” Labrinth said. “Me and Zendaya started writing a lot together. I think it was me being around her energy and Sam’s energy and us talking about religion and gospel. I had Kurt Franklin in my head, I had Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra. And then I had the Catholic Church, the Pentecostal church, and then Kanye, and hip hop in my head. Those things were inspiring the way I would harmonically move. The melody on ‘I’m Tired’ was definitely that approach. I wanted the chords to feel like pushing and pulling, minor to major, confusion and clarity all at once. And then this moment where it’s just like, ‘OK, I’m going off to the heavens.’”
In addition to the show’s well-established currents of heartbreak, loss, and addiction, Season 2 adds some addition weight. Writing music for death threats, physical assaults, and any number of lives in complete free fall doesn’t exactly make for an easy headspace to occupy. In combining the show’s more extreme moments with its gentler ones, Labrinth said that his instinct was to continue the operatic expansiveness of Season 1. Levinson envisioned the Season 2 music as more contained and tethered. Conversations between the two resulted in an opportunity for Labrinth to add sound layers that kept the music in sync with the show’s ambitions.
Eddy Chen / HBO
“I’ve gone bonkers and lost my mind on granular synthesis. And I love wavetable synthesis and modular synthesis as well. I did it a bit on Season 1, but it was usually just one sound by itself. I messed around with the MS-20, which is a semi-modular synth. And so on this one, I wanted to mess around with all of them, sample approaches to synthesis, and mix them with the organs,” Labrinth said. “Especially on this score, I used a lot of vinyl static and I really love the sound of it. And I kind of wanted to use it like you would use a chime bell in a higher register. When you put it in a granular synth, it kind of starts to jitter and kind of break up this static sound into something that’s otherworldly. I love the prickliness and gnarliness of ‘Euphoria’ and this season was like Season 1 on steroids. So I wanted to make sure the tension was heavy, and for it to feel quite rich and layered.”
Part of the reason for that lengthening and expansion is the online response to the show’s music. Even before a proper Season 2 album release, you can find 10-hour loops of music taken straight from the show itself. Add in the show’s fanbase footprint on everything from TikTok to Spotify — where Labrinth is the 84th-ranked artist in the world, before the Season 2 soundtrack and his upcoming third solo album might send him even higher — and there’s a healthy appetite for extended versions of the melodies and soundscapes that pop up in “Euphoria.”
“All of those songs became three-minute songs when the fans went crazy over the music. ‘Still Don’t Know My Name’ was literally a beat. Like it wasn’t even the stuff. The track that starts with me singing in the first verse was literally just an MS-20 sound and some reverb. It kind of sounds arrogant of me, but I was like, ‘They’re kind of like pop songs. People might just like fall in love with them.’ Then, a week after the show aired, people were trying to find them,” Labrinth said. “This time around. I made longer cues. If Sam wanted to use more parts, or he wanted them to make transitions in between scenes, I thought it would probably help. So I just finished them in that way. It was like, ‘Let’s just write a record.’”
There’s a spontaneity and impulsiveness that’s helped realize some of the show’s music, an idea that extends throughout the editing process.
“Sometimes when overthinking gets into it, you can you can kind of ruin the rawness of what you’re about to share,” Labrinth said. “Sam would sit in the editing room with the editors, with the music, and it would almost be like watching DJ Premier or J Dilla sitting in the studio. Like, ‘Yo, let’s edit this part! Let’s put that over there!’ He’s that skilled in terms of knowing what elevates a scene.”
Regardless of what final version this music takes, it’s hard to stay locked into one thing. Labrinth said that he didn’t go back and listen to Season 1 music, mainly because there’s always a slight change he can hear. (“That hi-hat panned to the right! I need more of that!”) Whatever a potential Season 3 score might bring, there are many real experiences woven into this most recent music that might be hard to listen to for other reasons.
“While working on the show, life definitely happened. There were a lot of moments where, in my own internal, personal life, there was just madness. I went to the hospital for stuff happening [with] my family and like loads of crazy things. And then of course, moving to LA was a bit of an intense one,” Labrinth said. “I think that made it more difficult to have my head in two spaces. But writing music, I just feel like I’ve been doing it for so long. The only time I feel fear is when I feel scared to make music. So I make sure that I don’t feel that fear. It’s my Mr. Miyagi thing that I have to constantly practice.”
“Euphoria” Season 2 is available to stream on HBO Max.