Lovecraft Country
Film & TV Music

Raphael Saadiq and Laura Karpman Create Gothic R&B for ‘Lovecraft Country’

When Raphael Saadiq was given the first parts of Lovecraft Country to score he had one problem. The Oscar-nominated, Grammy-winning musician kept getting caught up in the show itself. “You’re supposed to be studying the show to put music to it, but I’m already just watching it, enjoying it,” he tells American Songwriter. “That’s not a bad problem to have,” chimes in co-composer Laura Karpman, who recently won an Emmy for scoring the documentary series Why We Hate. Saadiq and Karpman, who first worked together in 2013,  teamed up again, to put music to the monsters and myths of the HBO sci-fi series, based on the popular Matt Ruff novel.

Saadiq, who’s honed his decades in the music industry through solo and super-group work, with both Tony! Toni! Toné! and Lucy Pearl, started parlaying his talent into composing for the screen about 7 years ago, with Black Nativity. Although his songs have been featured in many a film, this was the first one he worked on as a composer-arranger, and he had Karpman, who’s long-spanning career covers film, TV, video games and concerts, to help guide him. “Laura kind of walked in with her glasses on and all that style. And I was like, she must know something. Her fashion was up to par,” he chuckles. “I never would have known the depth of what she knew. It made it an easier process for me.” 

For Karpman, Saadiq’s virtuosity as a musician meant his shift to composing for the screen was seamless. “A lot of artists coming from the music production side — pop and rock and R&B — the transition to film music is difficult, because they have an idea of how music goes. And Raphael doesn’t. He’s not devoted to a four bar phrase,” she says. “He’s not on his albums. His albums are cinematic. That’s just how he thinks about and makes music. He thinks about a story as a songwriter.” 

Lovecraft Country showrunner Misha Green, known for being a writer who sometimes builds song suggestions into her scripts, tasked Saadiq and Karpman with drawing out the genre elements of the series. “Every single episode has a thing to it,” says Karpman. “So episode three is the haunted house, episode five is kind of horror but there’s kind of a transformation like nothing you’ve ever seen, episode six is war movie. So every episode has its genre vibe, and you have to connect the episodes to each other thematically. That’s perhaps the biggest challenge.” 

It was a challenge they embraced — even though they have had to work remotely on account of the pandemic that hit and lockdowns that ensued. Saadiq says he was blown away by Karpman’s ability to create a long-distance orchestra out of 30 players. “It’s the thing that stands out to me most,” he says. “To have players at home and send an engineer to somebody’s house, or to give them instructions on how to mic up their instruments,” he says. “I still want to see footage of that. When I’m listening to the score, I’m thinking about how she did all that.”

The process for Lovecraft has been very different to the way they usually operate — sitting in the same room, with instruments, throwing around ideas, figuring out what might work, what might not work. “Sometimes I’ll start a cue and Ray will come over and play on it. Sometimes he’ll start one and then I’ll orchestrate it,” says Karpman. “We weren’t able to be together this time, so it was more like, ‘okay, you handle this, send it over to me, I’ll add orchestra’ or ‘can you play on this?’ or he’ll start with something and then send it to me. And so it was more of passing it around, like Exquisite Corpse, rather than synergy-in-the-room type of thing.”

Still, it’s worked. Together, they have created themes for the shows main characters and the fictional town of Ardham. “I love the Ardham theme. That and the ‘love’ theme,” says Karpman, referring to the relationship that develops between Atticus, aka ‘Tic’, played by Jonathan Majors, and Leti, played by Jurnee Smollett, which took some time to develop. Tic and Leti’s relationship progresses as they travel on a road trip to find Tic’s missing father. Karpman says Green’s note about them being they old friends helped shape the sound they created for the two lead characters and their blossoming, caught-in-the-fire love. 

“The Ardham theme, out of all of them, is the real representation of that idea of gothic R&B, where you’ve got like a really groovy vibe that’s kind of like Twilight Zone, that’s kind of like characters-with-attitude, and that there’s a classicism to it, which I added in with the orchestra,” says Karpman. There’s a counterpoint between the bass and guitar that exists within the theme, which she and Saadiq use in a number of different ways — sometimes separated, sometimes together — throughout the episodes. 

As the show builds to its 10th episode, and with the music deftly accompanying it, Lovecraft allows Black characters to be seen on TV in a way that previously didn’t exist. Saadiq, who earned an Oscar for the song ‘Mighty River’ from 2017’s Mudbound and worked on Green’s previous project, Underground, continues to study the series even as he works on it. “It’s been very eye-opening to me,” he says. “To see sci-fi, some type of religion, and Gothic and music. There are a lot of places you can go. I think we did a great job of pinpointing where the music needed to be, with all these different things going on. But for me, now, I get a chance to look at the whole picture.”