‘Euphoria’: The Musical Magic That Came from Following What Felt Just Right

From Labrinth's score to music supervisor Jen Malone's hunt for era-spanning songs, the HBO show benefited from an organic musical approach.
Hunter Schafer and Zendaya in "Euphoria" HBO
Hunter Schafer and Zendaya in "Euphoria"
Eddy Chen/HBO

For a show that doesn’t look like anything else on TV, “Euphoria” still has a solid foundation. Through the eyes of one main character, the viewer gets to see a group of high school students dealing with all the challenges of modern teenage life.

It would make sense for the music of “Euphoria” to draw solely on what its characters would stream. Make a separate playlist for each student and pick from a giant soup of songs as each party or late-night battle with anxiety demands.

Instead, the music of “Euphoria” built its own cultural cachet largely because of the organic way it weaves through the series. Its songs draw from different eras and styles. The score introduces some playfulness and bounce amidst an encroaching uncertainty.

For music supervisor Jen Malone, searching for songs that would be a good fit for “Euphoria” wasn’t a regimented process. It came from a structure born more of mood than necessity, with a giant collaborative playlist private to the show’s creative team — including series creator Sam Levinson — becoming a catch-all guide to what the show could sound like. In turn, songs could still come to be a comfort for each character and each situation without coming from a rigid, formulaic approach.

“What Jules would be listening to would probably be different than what Rue would be listening to, but with them together? Having the Jozzy song when we first meet Jules in Episode 1, and then we had Rue listening to ‘Malamente,’ but when they were together in Episode 8, we had the Solange song playing,” Malone said in an interview with IndieWire. “I remember going through different ideas and Sam said, ‘You know, I want it to feel like they’re in a cocoon.’ So having that song there and creating that warm and safe space for both of them when Jules was putting on Rue’s makeup, it was such an intimate moment to have a song that just, you know, enveloped them.”

Some song ideas came from Levinson’s scripts, specific suggestions on the page that managed to make their way through the production process. But Adam Leber, also Emmy-nominated this year in the Music Supervisor category, explained that even without direct references, there was still a guiding force in those written words.

“He writes his scripts sort of melodically, with music tones in place, and with specific song ideas in mind as he scripts each episode. He’s got very distinct ideas, and moods and sounds for each sort of moment of the show,” Leber said.

Coupled with that spirit powering the vision of the show, “Euphoria” also benefited from not being afraid to follow what’s working, even if it’s unexpected. That comes across in the work of the show’s composer, Labrinth (the stage name of the London-based musician Timothy Lee McKenzie). After an increasingly prolific career as a producer and recording artist, scoring “Euphoria” was a task without a clear blueprint.

His original music for the show, in the handful of songs and the kaleidoscopic score that powers each backstory and a number of key confrontations, represents a distinct voice in multiple ways. In some of the demos for musical ideas that he would send to Levinson, Labrinth was surprised when some placeholder ideas ended up closer to the final version than he expected.

“I was using my voice just to kind of map out ideas. And then I would send it to [Sam] to be like, ‘Oh bro, what do you think? I’ll put someone else singing.’ And he was like, ‘No, no, no, you’re gonna sing through this score. We need this,'” Labrinth said. “When he found something that he loved, he’d just be like, ‘No, I’m using that.’ I love that approach. Because that’s kind of the way I work as a producer. If you dictate creativity, you can end up in a very dull place. And I feel like he allowed the energy to flow enough for it to become what it is.”

In a show brimming with thematic material, Labrinth’s voice really does become an unseen ethereal thread connecting all of the central figures in “Euphoria.”

“It’s almost like his voice was another character because his voice plays this haunting background role throughout the series. It’s a perfect way to weave it in and out of the original songs that actually include his voice as well,” Leber said.

Production demands meant that Labrinth was writing music in a more compressed time period. Rather than refine an album’s worth of songs down to its purest form, the process of making the show required him to trust his instincts and let his first impressions be a guide in a way he might not have otherwise.

Zendaya in "Euphoria" Season 1 HBO
Zendaya in “Euphoria”Eddy Chen/HBO

“A lot of the elements that came were just raw energy and very impulsive in terms of approach,” Labrinth said. “When I saw Rue’s character, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to get an old tape delay, and it’s going to sound wonky and dodgy, but I want that. That’s what our character has given me.’ And then I would put a vintage 1970s ARP 2600 through that delay, and then some Valhalla reverb over it and just experiment and see what lifted what I was visually seeing.”

That approach fits both the style of “Euphoria” and how Labrinth usually works. His experimentation with different soundscapes comes largely without a need to score what he’s writing on paper. Taking out that extra step of notation, it becomes more a process of calibrating until it gets to the right sound.

“It’s very much emotional and feeling-based, like with a lot of the stuff I do. I engineer a lot of the stuff I’m doing, so I’ll set up something in the room and have Royer R-121s or the KM 184s set up in the room, like pencil mics. And wherever they’re set, I was just recording the whole room while I’m playing the tambourine or playing drums. And I can turn those drums into a massive timpani or a Taiko sound if I wanted to. Sometimes I’ll sample what I have in the room. It was really fun because with pop it’s like, ‘Let’s get the chorus. Get it to the hook!’ I don’t always get the chance to explore the engineering or sound craft,” Labrinth said.

Those kind of emotional adjustments were also on display in the show’s party scenes. The ultimate goal wasn’t to simply comb through pop charts of 2018 and 2019 and pick out a few favorites. If these scenes were going to follow the individual emotional arcs unfolding among the alcohol shots and saturated evening lighting, there had to be a dynamic texture underneath.

“In Episode 6, the Halloween episode, that had so much music and it all took place at a party. What we had to do was not make it all trap or pop music. Your ears would just get tired and the music would just become white noise, and we never wanted that,” Malone said. “[We] used the song ‘Just Me and You’ by The Dreamliners, who were a Chicana girl group that were backup singers for pop stars in the ’60s, intercut with the JID song and xanprincess songs. There were definitely certain spots where we would try every decade, every style, and just see which one fit that puzzle.”

Another of the series’ centerpiece music sequences is the Episode 4 carnival scene. All the show’s major players converge on the midway, set against the bright lights on a dark backdrop. Aside from being a striking visual metaphor, Labrinth saw it as the perfect chance to represent that dissonance in music form, too.

“Gustave Rudman, who’s an amazing score writer also, did a lot of work on the carnival scene alongside me. When we started, it was more an orchestral piece and then I wanted that carnival wonkiness going on. I really enjoyed that almost oom-pah-pah, waltz stuff with the foggy farfisa sounds,” Labrinth said. “That kind of tone is horror next to happy. A lot of the energy of ‘Euphoria’ was very realistic, but there’s this magical, fantasy-type vibe to it. So I really liked finding sounds that feel magical, but have an element of sinister to it. A celeste very much sounds like magic, like glitter. And then on the other side I’ve got my MS-20 going through a distortion pedal. And that slimy, gnarly energy right next to joy, that’s the sweet spot for me of what ‘Euphoria’ was about.”

Part of what made “Euphoria” a cultural force is that the show doesn’t exist in an insular bubble. Even if someone’s never given a class presentation on very specific photo etiquette, there’s enough in Rue’s and Jules’ and Kat’s stories to latch on to. Sometimes, if it’s just a shared music taste, that’s enough to build that bridge.

As music from the soundtrack took off on various social platforms, the team had a tangible way to see how their choices were echoing outside of the world of the show.

“The song ‘Love Surrounds You’ by Ramsey, I got an email from the manager that said the song was holding steady after two years of release of three to five thousand streams a month. And after being added to the playlist and having that playlist featured in different magazines, we experienced nearly a quarter of a million more streams on Spotify and 100,000 streams on YouTube between all the sources over the same period,” Malone said. “The song at the end of [Episode 6] by the artist Dodger had something like 13,000 Shazams within the first 12 hours or something, which is insane. The best part of our job is when we when we get to introduce a song that’s great to a new audience or bring a catalog-type song to a new generation as well.”

Finding that synergistic energy between music and picture doesn’t happen by accident. The shifting nature of TV refinement meant that it was never one clear-cut task after another. Labrinth said work on the carnival sequence came while he was juggling 20 other cues. Clearing part of Pino Donaggio’s score from “Don’t Look Now” for the show’s breathtaking rotating bed scene meant that Malone had to make calls to Italy in the middle of the night on a 48-hour deadline.

It’s hard work, but it paid off. And everyone’s ready to do it again.

“I’m so excited to dig into Season 2 because I’m ready. I know what I’m going to go through. I’m mentally prepared for this one. I’m just I’m really sad that we’re not going to be able to do it again for a while,” Malone said.

“I kind of just explored ways that I could evolve sonically in things that I did on ‘Euphoria,'” Labrinth said. “How can I do this in a way that involves what I wanted to do, not necessarily whether it’s going to come across in the way that people expect it?’ For me, I’m just kind of surfing in the spiritual internet and seeing what I get from from the spiritual Google.”

“Euphoria” Season 1 is available to stream on HBO Max. 

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