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How music underscores the nuanced depth of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You

© BBC

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Though Michaela Coel’s newest television show I May Destroy You has only recently hit our screens, it’s already being hailed as a brilliantly complex series by viewers worldwide.

And it’s for good reason; her latest self-headed project and the follow up 2015’s Chewing Gum, the series is a sharp comedy-drama detailing the experiences of Arabella (portrayed by Coel) as she navigates the aftermath of experiencing a drug-facilitated sexual assault. True to form, Coel’s series is harrowing in its coverage of trauma whilst simultaneously managing to use humour while navigating weighty topics, providing both comic relief and a necessary statement on the realities of processing such an ordeal.

Music plays a vital role in the series, both in pacing the project and drawing us closer into the character’s worlds, with tracks from the likes of Little Simz, Tierra Whack, Rosalía and Sons of Kemet all making an appearance. Music supervisor Ciara Elwis provides seasoned expertise to the soundtrack selection having worked on smash-hit shows such as Sex Education, The End of the F***ing World and Derry Girls among others. We caught up with her to discuss her process working on the show, the role music plays on the project and more.

Firstly, introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
I’m Ciara Elwis and I’m a music supervisor at Air-Edel – a music production company based in London. My previous projects include Aisling Bea’s This Way Up, Ricky Gervais’ After Life and Charli XCX’s I’m with the band: Nasty Cherry. I also worked on Sex Education and The End of the F***ing World with fellow supervisor Matt Biffa.

What attracted you to working on the project?
We were approached when they were about halfway through the shoot and from the first meeting, you could tell it was going to be a really interesting and important series. The storylines it explores are uncomfortable but are an unfortunate reality of the world we live in, so it’s been really rewarding to be part of the process of bringing the project to life.

When putting together the music for the show, how much input was there from writers, directors or other crew? Was there a brief given beforehand? Did you get any specific guidance from Michaela Coel?
It’s always a team effort and with this series in particular – given the personal nature of the story – Michaela had written some tracks into the scripts, so those were decided even before we came on to the project. In our first meeting about the music, we had a good chat about the sort of music they had in mind for the series – naming podcasts such as Soulection as influences. We used these references as a jump-off point to provide ideas to the editors that would work within that context, with a few surprises thrown in that we thought would complement the character of the show!

© BBC

Do you have a general process when you’re supervising a project?
It depends at what stage we come on to a project, but usually we’ll start with a meeting with the producer and director where we’ll discuss the musical vision for the show plus any scripted moments that will require clearances of named tracks, or a certain style of music (for example we have a couple of forays into the past and over to Italy in this series). We then crack on with sourcing music that we think will work within the brief. We usually cast the net quite wide as until you see what the series looks like it can be hard to tell what definitely will or won’t work with those visuals. From there it’s just a process of elimination and addition while we work out exactly what works and what doesn’t – that usually becomes easier the further into the series you get but it’s definitely not an exact science!

Whilst the show deals with a serious subject matter, there’s also a lot of humour present. What’s your method in keeping the soundtrack fitting between multiple themes?
One of the first things we discussed was how the device of music was going to be used in the show, as both Sam the director and Michaela were really keen that the music didn’t lead the viewer too strongly in one direction or another emotionally. Some of the scenes we see in the series are really traumatic and intense, so approaching the music in this way worked really well (I think!), as it left the viewer to decide how they felt about a situation, rather than spelling it out for them too clearly. There is so much nuance in every scene that might have been lost by whacking a sad song in over an objectively ‘sad’ moment. Instead, the music features more as a representation of the characters themselves and adds an extra layer of understanding these characters and their story.

Some of the best musical moments come when we’re hearing Arabella’s playlists. How do you decide a character’s music taste when working on projects?
So as I mentioned, there were a few scripted tracks which were great starting points and we also discussed the music in detail with Michaela and the editors as it was important for the this to reflect Arabella’s fun, bubbly character, rather than playing to the darker side of what is going on in the story. Some characters are quicker to ‘get’ than others, but I feel like Michaela’s performance is so full of life that you get a handle on who Arabella is and the sort of music she would listen to pretty quickly.

Whilst the soundtrack features international artists, it still represents the vibe of London as a city. How did you select songs to fit the story location?
The songs we selected are almost always driven by the characters we are seeing on screen, and I think this helped build the very London sound of the series. We wanted the soundtrack to be realistic to the music they would be listening to and the artists/bands they would go see (before lockdown of course!). That said, the addition of international artists was also really important – London is an incredibly multicultural city, so you can’t represent it musically without the influences that have inspired the people who grew up or live here.

The show has particularly focussed the experiences of black women and black LGBTQ+ people in its story and similarly the soundtrack features black artists and genres throughout. Was this a conscious effort in line with the experiences represented on the show?
As mentioned above, the soundtrack functions to mirror and accentuate the voices of the people we see on screen, so when choosing tracks one of our main focusses was to make sure the songs felt truthful to those characters. We all know what a deeply personal thing music is and so using it in this character-specific way can be a great device for giving further insight into their lives.

With Kwame for example, we often find him listening to music by queer artists because he would likely find affinity and comfort in the lyrics, especially during the huge internal struggles we see him process throughout the series. I think the variety of backgrounds of the artists we hear on the show (be that their race/gender/sexual orientation) is integral to the music in the series sounding authentic – we see characters of all descriptions on-screen and reflecting this in the music is what makes the show’s soundtrack cohesive even in its variety. I think that’s what London sounds like too, so I guess that leads back to your previous question!

How has working on the show differed from your other projects?
Well every project is different – that’s one of the highlights of working as a music supervisor, with every project you get to immerse yourself in a whole different world and try to decide what that place sounds like. The less emotive approach to track selection isn’t something we perhaps do as often, but from a musical perspective, it was actually really freeing. It always interesting to not do the obvious thing and ironically I think this approach can end up having a stronger emotional impact on the viewer, as they try and make up their own minds about a particular sequence.

Though we’re not yet halfway through the series, the show is already being hailed by critics and viewers alike. How have you found the response to the programme so far?
Yes, it’s been quite overwhelmingly positive which has been amazing. At 12 episodes, it’s been a bit of a marathon and one of the problems with working on something for so long is that you get too close to it, so it can be pretty much impossible to gauge how other people will react. I’m delighted for everyone who has worked so hard on the production that it’s getting the praise it deserves and very proud to have been part of that.

Why do you think the show is resonating with viewers in the way it is?
For me, the show just feels really honest. I think the way the characters deal with and process what happens to them holds true to how we actually do act and respond when things go wrong, rather than a dramatised version. They are warm and caring and confused but they also act out and make mistakes and snap at each other and these nuances make them much more believable as humans. I also think the way the series focusses on the minutiae of every day with as much clarity as it does the life-altering events of 22 January is quite transfixing in its familiarity. This really helps make the story and its characters feel real and therefore we feel empathy for the people we see on screen and care what happens to them.

Are there any specific musical moments you’re especially proud of?
In terms of specific sequences, there were a few clearances which were quite difficult to get over the line due to the nature of what was going on in the scene but were hugely powerful moments. Those are probably the ones I feel most ‘proud’ of when watching as I know all the effort was worth the end result!

The series has also provided a great opportunity to showcase some brilliant artists from London and beyond, which is always one of the best bits about this job. Acts like Subculture, Ria Boss, Hawa, Sampa the Great, Kojey Radical, Easy Life, Greentea Peng, Shakka, Paigey Cakey, Raffertie and the incredible London-based future-jazz groups Sons of Kemet and Comet is Coming, all add a unique tone to the scenes they score and it’s been wonderful to be able to include such a diverse range of talent on the soundtrack.

I May Destroy You is available on BBC iPlayer now.

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