British singer-songwriter Labrinth (née Timothy Lee McKenzie) has been having one of the biggest years of his nearly decade-long career, from the April release of his collaborative album with L.S.D. (a.k.a. Labrinth Sia & Diplo) to his starring role in the latest campaign for MINI, where he reinterprets Cole Porter’s cowboy classic “Don’t Fence Me In” for the Spotify generation.
His latest project finds him tackling his most ambitious role to date, as the lead composer for HBO’s controversial drama series “Euphoria” starring Zendaya and co-produced by Drake. Collaborating closely with series creator Sam Levinson, Labrinth performs original compositions throughout the gritty drama, which features graphic depictions of drugs, violence and sex involving teens.
The series’ second episode, which aired Sunday (June 23), features Labrinth’s latest single “Mount Everest,” one of several original tracks from the singer that will appear over the course of the series’ eight episodes. The song is a dynamic mix of “Yeezus”-esque hip-hop, Southern blues and classic soul – a “Nina Simone slash Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” hybrid, as Labrinth calls it.
Labrinth was first approached by Levinson to contribute music for the series during the creative process for his upcoming second solo album (and first since 2012’s “Electronic Earth”), expected later this year, and the series in turn helped influence the music Labrinth began writing for his own project.
The 30-year-old musician spoke with Variety’s Songs For Screens about the creative process, the show’s parallels to his own childhood growing up in London and which of the show’s characters most relates to himself. The interview has been condensed for length and clarity.
Variety: How did you first get involved with “Euphoria”?
Labrinth: Originally I spoke with [creator] Sam Levinson, I met him at a party in Hollywood. He had heard some of the music from my [upcoming] album from a friend, and he really felt like it was exactly what he needed for the show. … And so after we spoke, we went to dinner, it seemed like we were from the same family, like we were reading from the same hymn book. He got the way my brain works musically, and I understood the way his brain works musically. I didn’t even have to see the show before we started working together, he just got what I wanted to do musically and it just so happens it was for this crazy-ass, amazing HBO show.
How did the new music you’re working on influence the music you ended up composing for the score?
Sam heard a few of the records, and he literally was like “Lab, I’m going to need a hard drive of all this,” so I sent him loads of music I’ve made over the last year or so and he just said, “I love all of these songs” and we just kept talking from there. What I loved was the opportunity to do things in different genres. I’m an artist who’s a bit of a what you would call a schizophrenic creative. I like to work with classical scores along with hip-hop stuff, along with indie guitar music, so I think that’s what I like about the style.
And Sam explained to me when we first started that he was into Kanye’s “Yeezus” and that he loved “Edward Scissorhands,” which I’m a massive fan of [Danny Elfman’s] score. So when we started talking about all the musical influences, I was like, “I’m totally in.”
And ultimately, he made it easy for me to go as crazy as I wanted to with the score. He just said “Lab, just do you, don’t try to mimic other score writers, or try to be a perfect score writer.” That took a lot of the pressure off, because I’m a big fan of Hans Zimmer and I was just like, “Shit man, I’m in his world right now and I better get this right.”
Did any of the characters from the show influence the musical direction you took, or inspire songs or suites of their own?
There’s a record called “Still Don’t Know My Name” that I made literally when Sam started explaining ideas about characters to me. I remember Kat [played by Barbie Ferreira], one of the main characters on the show, she’s a bit of a geek, but a very clever geek. I wanted to make a record that almost expressed some of that energy of being the weirdo, the geek that nobody’s into but is semi-cool as well. A lot of stories and lyrics inspired my ideas for the tracks.
The show depicts American suburbia, but did you find any parallels to your own upbringing in London?
Yes, definitely. The show is definitely an American experience so of course the language and the approach to everything was different. I think the show is gonna resonate with a lot of people, especially 20-somethings who can remember what happened at that age in that world that nobody wants to talk about. It’s so amazing that the show is touching on those subjects. Some of the things are identical to what happens in the UK, especially with social media now. We’re all in the same country now.
Did working on the score for “Euphoria” have an inverse inspiration for the new music you’ve been making for your next album?
Yes, “Euphoria” has challenged me creatively like nothing I’ve made before in my life with genres I’ve never worked with before. It’s not that I thought I can’t do them, I just never thought to even venture in that direction. So this has been incredible for me to be literally a nomad just exploring the musical world and have someone challenging me. So the album’s got a broad range of styles and so many genres, I call it a bag of Skittles.
You’ve had a lot of experience lately of having your music licensed for commercials, film and TV. Which usage has meant the most to you as a musician?
I really enjoyed the MINI collaboration. We did a remake of “Don’t Fence Me In,” and I loved being able to be a Rat Pack crooner, and the process of mixing classic genres with modern music. My latest single on “Euphoria” called “Mount Everest,” that was kind of me doing a Nina Simone slash Screamin’ Jay Hawkins track, and I love things like that where you can merge different worlds and different eras.
Is there a character on the show you most identify with personally?
I think I really resonated with Zendaya’s character Rue the most. The anxiety thing, you can experience it even without drug use in so many different things, especially in the music industry. That’s a massive thing that I’ve experienced, even just having someone speak on mental health and depression all these things. It was really nice to see that perspective being represented on the screen.
Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by music experiential agency MAC Presents, based in NYC. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.