In the span of a year, the British musician Labrinth has oscillated between the motivating and melancholy: He’s scored the adolescent angst of HBO’s Euphoria, and written the live-action Lion King’s new Beyoncé song, “Spirit.” His wails — like on “Mount Everest” and the as-yet-unreleased “Still Don’t Know My Name” — cut through the teenage confusion, as if they were written and produced by the character’s insecurities, and perhaps everyone else’s, too. His Lion King song (could it net Beyoncé her first Oscar nomination?), was written for Simba’s moment of indecision: “I’ve seen the original millions of times,” Labrinth says over the phone from Europe. “I was instantly like, We need to write that song that represents him going back to the kingdom, and feeling the power in his chest to go and take back his throne. As far as Beyoncé singing it, I liked the idea of Nala singing that to Simba.” Labrinth talks through his process of writing for Bey, Euphoria’s teens, and why, alas, even he doesn’t know when “Still Don’t Know My Name” is coming out.
I read that for Euphoria you were inspired by Danny Elfman’s score for Edward Scissorhands and by Yeezus. Is that true?
Me and [Euphoria creator Sam Levinson] were talking, and that’s literally how he intro’d it: “Yeah, I wanna make a score that feels like Yeezus, Edward Scissorhands, you, Depeche Mode, and all these mad inspirations!” I was like, “Okay, I’ll try as best as I can.” But he said he feels like my music already has these vibes. Once I started working on it, I didn’t think about those references consciously because those things already inspire me, so it’s going to be in the music some way.
Can you tell me more about the first conversation you had with him? What kind of direction did he give you?
The incredible thing about Sam is that his first approach was to push me to be myself. He was like, “I love the way you do things, I don’t want to get in the way of that, and I don’t want to push you to be a score writer or to be a character that you’re not.” It’s really beautiful because most people you work with in this industry kind of have a specific thing in mind, they ask you not to be yourself. It made it pretty easy for me to just go, What would I do musically, if I were going to orchestrate this scene or create an energy? It was pretty incredible.
Your music fits the series so perfectly.
That’s all praise to Sam, really. He’s just got a really great mind and knows what will work together. He really just saw my music fitting with the show. Of course, there were definitely some challenges because I’d never written a score before, for a show. Finding out that it was HBO, I was like, “Ohhhh shit!” It’s my first composing gig and it’s really big. I’m a massive fan of a lot of HBO shows as well, so I was like, This better be good.
What’s your favorite HBO show?
I’ve got three: Sopranos. Game of Thrones — but without the ending. We can delete season six. And The Wire.
What can you tell me about setting the tone for Euphoria? Your music really feels and sounds like adolescence.
When Sam told me about the show and Zendaya’s character, that she was a recovering drug addict, he explained that it was about teenage life. I looked back on my experience as a teen, and all the craziness that went on when I was a kid. I’ve met some people in L.A. who are part of that New Agey, millennial scene. I just felt like I knew what to say or sing about these experiences. One specific record that I wrote for the show was “When I R.I.P.” I was just like, I have the exact lyrics for [Rue’s] experience. And I wanted the score to feel like it wasn’t just instrumentation, that I could use my voice as one of the instruments as well.
What exactly is the overlap between what you were working on for your own album and the Euphoria score?
I think we ended up using maybe four or five songs from my album. Sam really loved those records. I recently released one called “Mount Everest” that was in the second episode. That was based on the Nate character, who’s masculine, aggressive, a guy that can’t really admit that he’s homosexual, but he’s trying to be a cool jock at the same time. He’s very conflicted as a character, and “Mount Everest” really felt like the perfect record for him because it’s a record where the point is about being a winner, but really behind the mask, I’m a mess.
It also sounds like there are some gospel and electronic influences in the music as well. Was that intentional?
A lot of my music, and a lot of the latest music I’ve released, like my latest single “Miracle,” was very much influenced by Depeche Mode and, on the other side, Kirk Franklin, James Cleveland, James Brown — all these different mixes of gospel, soul, and electronic music. I’m a massive fan of electronic music. Hip-hop is in the middle. Once you put all those things together, that’s pretty much what gets created.
I grew up listening to “Stomp” in the car every morning with my parents; we were a big Kirk Franklin house.
Kirk Franklin was a staple in my house! Literally. We grew up on the whole Kirk Franklin experience. The choir, the harmonies — I’ve always gotten inspired by that classic gospel, and of course traditional gospel as well.
Tell me about “Still Don’t Know My Name.”
I did that halfway through doing the score. I remember seeing Barbie [Ferreira]’s character in the third episode. Online she’s kind of famous, but in school nobody knows her name, she’s a total geek, nobody gives a shit about her life. If she were to tell them how many Instagram followers she has, they would lose their minds. I liked the idea of writing a song that expresses that experience of being so powerful but invisible to the people that matter. There are a lot of experiences like that throughout the show. Rue, Zendaya’s character, and her experiences with Jules — another example of someone feeling sort of neglected. I just kind of wanted to write something that felt like a millennial teen’s way of saying, “If you could just notice me, it would mean the world.”
A lot of being a teenager is feeling misunderstood, feeling unseen.
Exactly that. When Sam was speaking to me about it, the song really came easy. You just instantly go back to that time in your life.
Were you writing lots of music when you were a teenager?
I’ve been writing music since I was 13. I’ve got a lot of music. Maybe too much.
How do you look back on that material now?
It was really free. I’ve always been a very free creative, always had millions of ideas. I love loads of different genres. I’m a bit of a nomad when it comes to creating music. One day I want to be in the classical realm, and the next day I want to be in the rock realm. That, for me, is really inspiring.
When will “Still Don’t Know My Name” come out? Will it be on your album?
Well, it’s up to HBO to release it. Once you score, it’s owned by the show. If HBO wants to release it, they’ll do it.
Everyone on the internet is obsessed with it! It’s all I see.
I know! [Laughs.] Everyone’s on my case! I literally put up a post on my Instagram today about Beyoncé, working with her on “Spirit” for The Lion King. People comment back to me, like, “Where is ‘Still Don’t Know My Name?’” [Laughs] Like, I just posted about writing a song for Beyoncé, but they’re asking me about this Euphoria song! We’d better figure something out.
What is it like sending music to Beyoncé? Were you nervous?
No, because I’ve been writing music for so long. But you never really know with these things. I don’t usually pitch music to artists. I just write my own songs and if they vibe, it just happens out of the blue. This was one of those moments where I was like, We’re definitely not going to get this; she’s not going to like the song. I should just go and finish my own album. But then I got the call saying Beyoncé loves the record. I was like, “Really?” They’re like, “Yeah, we’re going to release it.” I’m like, “Really?” It was incredible.
How did you start working on the movie?
Me and [Ilya Salmanzadeh], who’s a really good friend of mine and an amazing producer, ended up writing something for The Lion King. He suggested that we do it. I instantly started thinking about the moment when Simba is kind of lost in the jungle. He’s run away from home because he thinks he’s killed his father. He gets inspired by Nala to come back and claim his place in the kingdom. I got started writing a song that represented that moment. Once we had a bit of a song together, we sent it to Beyoncé, and she was like, “I love the record.” We just started working — me, Ilya, Beyoncé, and Hans Zimmer — and I was like, What the hell? How am I working with all these incredible people? What happened? It was definitely a cool moment.
There’s a bit of a Beyoncé-Euphoria crossover in the show’s music cues. What do you think of all the needle drops?
Oh, man, it’s so sick! I just think they were really good at picking records that elevate the scenes. Even the first episode where they use Beyoncé’s “Hold Up,” when I was working on it in my studio I was literally like [extremely excited, extremely Beyhive yell] in the air when they’re playing it. It almost feels like a DJ set when they’re playing the soundtrack. My head came off when I heard that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.