Music and memory are deeply tangled in Michaela Coel’s corrosive series I May Destroy You. Across 12 episodes, the fragments of one traumatic event are pieced together through flashbacks, everyday investigations and white-hot surges of remembrance.
A vibrant, often familiar while always playful, soundtrack punctuates key scenes. There are moments of tenderness and vulnerability, as Coel’s character Arabella wrestles with her inner demons; flashes of euphoria on a night out with her best friend Terry; scenes of rage, of freedom and strength as secrets bubble to the surface.
Little Simz, The Prodigy, Sons of Kemet, Arlo Parks, and Daft Punk are just a few of the artists, old and new, contributing to the show’s brilliance – Music Supervisor Ciara Elwis talks us through club classics, scoring the city of London, Desert Island discs and more.
What were the first tracks that came up in conversation with Michaela?
Only five or six tracks were already scripted, which would be priorities. We had ‘Something About Us’ by Daft Punk, ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ by Rev. Milton Brunson and the Thompson Community Singers, and ‘Flowers’ by Sweet Female Attitude from the start.
It’s such an eclectic playlist, did you have any one mood or genre to be guided by?
We had a playlist full of very initial ideas, based on our first conversation with Michaela. There was some R&B, neo-soul, afrobeats, some electronic stuff. It was always going to be varied, because it was always going to be character-led.The show is also obviously so London-centric, which lends itself well to an eclectic playlist because of the multicultural vibe of the city.
A few tracks by Sons of Kemet and Comet is Coming have a specific London energy to them. Tell me about those choices
The instrumentals lend themselves really well to it because of the lack of composer. They’re used in score moments, although they still have so much London Town personality to them. Particularly when we used ‘My Queen Is Albertina Sisulu’ by Sons of Kemet which has this amazing sax solo, when Arabella is walking through the streets of Soho. It’s really serene and beautiful, it reminds me of walking home or walking to the club in the middle of the night in London – that amazing calm in the middle of the storm.
You also span a lot of eras – there’s a handful of 2000s club classics like DJ Luck & MC Neat’s ‘A Little Bit of Luck’ or ‘Flowers’, while the show is clearly set in the present-day.
My personal reaction when reading ‘Flowers’ in the script was that it was absolutely perfect. When it comes on in a club everyone just does go mad! There’s also a lot of garage because we have a lot of flashbacks – it’s a very easy way to be like, “It’s 2002 now because Craig David is playing!”
In terms of contemporary tracks, there’s some gorgeous bittersweet tracks by female artists – particularly ‘Pynk’ by Janelle Monae and ‘Cola’ by Arlo Parks. Why did you use these songs by such strong, galvanising women in really fragile moments?
Because of the nuance of what we’re seeing on screen, it made sense to have songs that can feel really beautiful but also very sad at the same time. We said that we didn’t want to lead the viewer to feel one thing or another too strongly – so these really show the duplicity of the moment.
There’s also several Little Simz tracks which work perfectly. How important was it to showcase Black artists?
It felt very organic. A good way of making characters feel whole and believable is by showcasing their musical tastes, it’s so personal. Particularly the Tierra Whack and Little Simz tracks quite early on – both artists are passionate and funny with their lyrics, which suits Arabella. She’s fun-loving and full of life, but also won’t take any shit. Those tracks also sometimes play against the more intense mood of the show, and help you stay with the characters. Rather than it being hypothetical doom and gloom and horrific statistics – this is real life.
One of the most intense moments comes from using ‘Firestarter’ by The Prodigy. How did that come to be?
That was always in the script. It’s aggressive, very high-octane energy, but given what’s going on it’s absolutely perfect. You’re psyching yourself up to do something pretty fucking unpleasant! I can’t speak for Michaela but it was my favourite musical moment – the way it’s shot and edited just plays like a music video. It also plays with the dream aspect of that episode, because it’s so different to everything else we’ve heard.
What do you think Arabella’s Desert Island Discs might be?
A lot of the tracks were chosen by Michaela because of her direct experiences. If you were doing your Desert Island Discs and any of this happened to you, would you pick any of those songs? I think it’s a really good question. Maybe ‘It’s Gonna Rain’ because it feels quite triumphant, but I don’t think you’re picking the Daft Punk song, to remind you of your Italian boyfriend… he is not coming to the island. I wonder whether you’d probably just want to draw a line under it all. But I’d really like to reflect on it! I lost a lot of hours of sleeping thinking about mine…