The HBO series “Insecure” excels at bringing seismic breakups to the screen, but season four’s Issa-Molly rancor took things to “the next level,” says music supervisor Kier Lehman, reflecting on the past 10 episodes. “I was like, ‘Okay, another season, how are they going to develop these storylines and keep it interesting,’ ” he recalls. “And as I started reading the scripts, I could see they were expanding the storylines and the emotions that we touched on in these stories, getting deeper into these characters.”
The same could be said of Lehman’s contributions to the most recent season. Among his creative strokes: mixing Latin music with the established sound of the show, which included producing an original tune in Spanish unofficially titled “the Mexican Thanksgiving song.” Even more ambitious: he planned Inglewood’s answer to Coachella: Issa’s block party. Inspired by Issa’s disastrous girls’ trip to Beychella last season — the episode titled “Beyonce or Bust” — Issa curated a celebration of local black culture in a neighborhood that’s rapidly gentrifying.
But it was actually up to Lehman to make it happen, and that included getting a buzz-y headliner — Vince Staples — on board. “We cast the festival, we wrangled the artists, we got everybody there, we curated the timing of when everyone would perform on stage and which song they’d sing and still had a full episode’s worth of songs as well,” he says. The overall goal? Ensuring that the block party didn’t look like a farmer’s market. Mission accomplished.
With the official season four soundtrack to “Insecure” just out via Atlantic Records, and featuring such tracks as Cautious Clay’s “Reaching” (Feat. Alex Isley) and Yung Baby Tate’s “Never Lonely” (Feat. Jozzy), Lehman looks back at his work on the series.
What were the biggest challenges of the block party episode for you? All of it?
The big challenges were casting the performers and making sure that everybody fit with our storyline about celebrating Inglewood and South L.A. and to make sure that we were presenting artists from that area. Issa approved all the artists and the songs that they were going to perform. We also had to make sure everybody looked the part: I had to [figure out] who was going to have a band on camera or are they going to have a DJ and what was their performance going to look like? I was on set a bunch of the days when they were shooting those scenes on the street and making sure that everything went smoothly on set. We had to schedule the performances around the time of day because that was important to the story.
Was the clearance process any more difficult because the songs were performed live?
It was tough because the deadlines were really tight. We had to make sure all of the music was cleared in advance since we committed to it on camera — there was no way to change it later. Most of the songs we used had never been cleared for film and TV before so the back-office negotiations hadn’t happened yet. They needed to rush to do all of that … and there were other songwriters involved or there were samples involved in some of the songs. It’s always something. So it did get hairy with those clearances but we got everything buttoned up and delivered in time.
How did you decide on Vince Staples for the headliner?
We put together a short list of artists with the stature of a headliner who would make sense for that audience and in the festival. I’ve worked with Vince before on many projects and he’s always great to deal with.
Vince also shared a funny scene with Issa’s character. Did you know he had comic timing? Or that he could even act?
No. This moment had always been in the script — Issa interacting with the headliner and having that typical artists-demanding-crazy-things-on-their-rider moment. I had to go back and forth with him and his team to figure out what those silly demands were going to be — what he wants to have in his backstage area. And then the writers took some liberties and made up some things that would be funny. He went with it and had a good time. He brought the energy to perform that song [“Fun”] — five or six times — and each time he had the same level of energy. The crowd loved it. They were extras but they had a really good time.
What kind of feedback have you received over the years from artists that you’ve exposed on the show and helped to break?
It’s definitely the most rewarding part of the job. When we go to them and start clearing the songs, they are very excited to be a part of it. And then once the show airs, I get notes from artists telling me about what changed in their careers or their fan bases. I love seeing them get more Twitter followers and people discovering their songs. Issa deserves a ton of the credit for creating a platform for all of these artists to have a place to expose their music, but also putting all of this music in the context of this show and the setting — the location helps to give a deeper connection for the fans.
Is it safe to assume that the clearance process is remarkably easier since season one thanks to the success of the show?
In season one, it was a lot of explaining what the show is about. People may have known Issa from “Awkward Black Girl,” but we had to work hard to get clearances. I would say in some ways it’s easier now in that we have defined a sound for the show and people submit music without us having to reach out a lot of times. That helps but it’s still a lot of work problem solving with the clearances even though people know the show.
Is hip-hop more challenging to clear because it so often involves samples?
Yes, exactly. It involves a lot of samples. Although with these pop and R&B songs, there are a lot of writers involved and that makes things tricky. If there are ten people we have to clear for one song and and they’re still negotiating the splits, we have to push them to finish.
It’s pretty groundbreaking for an actress to get her own label. What does that say about Issa Rae and the cultural impact of the show?
It says a lot about Issa’s connection with the audience and the way that we use music on the show — how it’s become such an integral and talked-about part — and the artists that have been exposed or gotten a boost through the show. There’s been a movement of modern alternative R&B music that we were able to champion and it all coincided [with making] the show a powerful place to come and discover that new music. The show is an outlet — a place to come if you like the sound that we’ve created. Labels and streaming companies need curators to give music context when it’s released and to help to bring in fans.
Why do you think TV shows like “Insecure” have taken over some of the roles that record labels and radio stations traditionally played?
You used to go to a certain record label because it was going to be a certain quality or genre. And now they’re bigger companies, so they have such a wider range. Radio stations are pretty homogenized these days and they’re not playing a lot of new music. And with streaming services, where do you start? Because there’s just so much music out there. So having a place where you can go and say, “Oh yeah, I love the music on ‘Insecure.’ Let me just go to that playlist.” You know what you’re going to get. People don’t have a lot of time to spend searching but they want music they can connect with.
How would you characterize the sound that you’ve created?
It’s West Coast-influenced and a strong female representation of life in — I was going to say in LA, but it is really just people who are in their twenties and thirties who are becoming grown-ups. It was intentional to feature a lot of female artists from the beginning. Issa and I talked about it as a platform for female artists, independent artists, Los Angeles artists, of course.
On the other hand, using Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” in a bar scene feels six months ago, no?
It was massive. And that’s partly why we used it. When that song comes on, everybody — white people, black people — sings along. We did look at some other songs and we went back and forth, but that was the most current and relevant [at that time]. … I will says that Lizzo is somebody we’ve used in the show before and then took off and blew up beyond anybody’s expectations. And so it was about: What is the song that’s going to come on and get everybody hyped — even the white people — but might be something that Issa and Lawrence are over. And they’re annoyed that everybody else is so excited.
Do you have any favorites from the season four soundtrack and why do you think they resonated with fans of the show?
Kirby has been submitting songs to the show for a little while but found her sound and her voice recently. We were able to feature her song “Kool-Aid” this season and she’s become one of those voices that is really connected to the show. And Baby Rose is an artist both Issa and I fell in love with over the past year. We’re both huge fans of the song “Show Me,” which plays when she and Lawrence have sex. It’s such an important scene and we were excited to be able to feature it in that moment. We were in contact with the artist about hoping that we could be the first place to use that song and so we are happy that they were able to hold it for us. And Young Baby Tate is somebody who Issa has become a fan of, and she ended up creating some new music for the show. Her music has a lot of energy, which we love, and lyrically, it’s a really blunt and honest take on relationships that obviously fits really well on our show.
Personally, I loved that the use of Mya’s “Case of the Ex.” What was your motive behind that decision?
We got a huge reaction from that online. People were hyped to hear that song. We’ve done that a little bit in the past and Issa wanted bring back those moments of a song that you have for this nostalgia but you haven’t heard in a little while and we put it in this new context. [“Case of the Ex”] helped you to know how process the moment you were watching because you’re seeing [Lawrence] reconnect with Issa and you’re not sure how to take it. But then you hear that song play and you’re like, “Oh no! Oh, shit. Something is going to go down.”
This was a super-sexy season overall but how do artists feel about being used as the soundtrack for sex scenes?
Nobody has ever had a problem with being featured in a sex scene, but I do have to explain and be upfront about it. The artists get it. They’re not necessarily as protective or as concerned with their song being played in a sex scene. But it’s definitely something that we’ve got to present honestly.
The protests against police violence that also raised awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement took place in L.A. as the season was airing. “Insecure” has always been a celebration of black love and black lives as well as black music. How does it feel to be a part of such an important show?
I love being a part of a project that presents black lives in their full range of reality. And it’s a platform to support a lot of black artists financially and to help them gain more fans and more exposure. That is rewarding for me in general, but especially now in this time when we can really help artists.
Do you think we’ll see a resurgence in political music and protest songs?
The tough part is [writing] something that transcends just being a protest song and goes beyond to connect with everybody emotionally or is something you want to sing along to. But I’m sure that people are going to be inspired by this moment and this time. And I look forward to all of the amazing art that is going to come out of it.