Last summer, Liza Richardson read the script for the first episode of Lovecraft Country, and she tried to wrap her head around how she might choose music for the show.
“I could tell how unique it was,” the veteran music supervisor says. The series, which is set in 1955, stars Jonathan Majors as Atticus Freeman. In the first episode, he — along with Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) and his childhood friend Leti (Jurnee Smollett) — takes a journey across Jim Crow America in search of his father, uncovering monsters both fictional and very real. “It’s sci-fi and it’s horror, and it’s like Raiders of the Lost Ark. I mean, to be honest, it was hard for me to imagine how it was all going to come together.”
But it did. Lovecraft Country, created by Misha Green and adapted from the novel by Matt Ruff, has become one of HBO’s most critically acclaimed shows. And the music is a huge part of it. As TV critic Alan Sepinwall wrote in his review of the series: “Sometimes, the soundtrack is era-specific, but get used to the likes of Cardi B or Frank Ocean or The Jeffersons theme accompanying the action — or, in a bold break from cinematic tradition, for some montages to be accompanied not by songs, but by monologues, such as an excerpt from James Baldwin’s famous 1965 debate about racism with conservative pundit William F. Buckley.”
Richardson was the right person for the job; her audition tape featured everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Tierra Whack, and that anachronistic soundtrack is what brings the series to life each week. The first episode not only mixes Nina Simone classics, modern hits by Cardi B and Rihanna, and Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon,” it also contains Leiomy Maldonado’s voiceover from a Nike ad, Wunmi Mosaku performing in character as Ruby, Janet League reciting a passage from Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf.
“I personally am more of a nerd, where I’m really more interested in [music] discovery than I am in hearing the same song I’ve heard a million times,” Richardson explains. She says she began hosting a long-running Saturday night radio show on KCRW in 1991 and also hosted a show dedicated to spoken-word material in the Nineties, which came in handy on Lovecraft. “I have an extensive collection of spoken-word that I’m really proud of, on both vinyl and CD. I just collected so much at that time. I was super obsessed, and I really didn’t do anything else but focus on that. So when one of the writers of Lovecraft called me and said, ‘Hey, would you do some research on some cool spoken-word,’ I practically flipped.”
Richardson and her Mad Doll music team — which has music supervised shows like Friday Night Lights, The Leftovers, Watchmen, and Narcos: Mexico — went deep in scouring the period music coming out of Chicago in 1955 for Lovecraft Country. “If you lived in Chicago 1954, ’55, it’s not all Chicago artists by any means,” Richardson says. “There was a lot going on in terms of straight jazz in Chicago, blues. And even just these big bands like Tommy Dorsey and stuff that would play at the country clubs, and all the fancy places. So I was really interested in learning about what all the different cultures were listening to in the Chicago area in that year.”
But it’s the way the music is varied that helps “unstick” the series and make it feel “timeless.” For example, in Episode Five — which also contains “Tonight, You Belong to Me,” by Patience & Prudence; “Return to Love,” by Black Atlass; “Money,” by Cardi B; “Bad Religion” by Frank Ocean (to accompany Montrose and Sammy’s sex scene); “Please Give Your Love To Me,” by Robin Robinson; both the Pat Boone and Little Richard versions of “Tutti Frutti” — we witness Ruby and Hillary seduce their boss and attack him with a high-heeled shoe — when Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow,” starts to play. It gives a new, literal meaning. to the lyric, “these is bloody shoes.”
But it’s the 1950s-era music that is at its heart. “I love the music of this period. I can’t even tell you what a great collection I have,” Richardson admits, adding that a lot of that music she discovered did not make it into the show. Then she had an idea: “I should probably do a playlist of just Lovecraft-inspired music. I could do a Fifties playlist of some of those cool discoveries I found.”
That’s what she did. Check out Richardson’s playlist here, which she made exclusively for Rolling Stone, highlighting the tracks she found while researching Lovecraft Country. There’s Sun Ra (“He was living in Chicago. And that was the beginning of his career though, so he wasn’t even near his spiritual weirdness yet”), Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown (“Everything about it the way it’s recorded, the loneliness, the beauty, the tenderness, it’s just magical”) plus Ray Charles, the Drifters, blues harmonica pioneer Little Walter, Chuck Berry, Ruth Brown and more.
Richardson usually hosts premiere parties at her place when a series she worked on hits the air. Due to Covid, that wasn’t possible. But she still had a good time, and was floored by the results. “Everything in Misha’s vision totally comes together,” she says. “She’s got it in her mind from the beginning; she can visualize it — she knows what it’s going to look like. But until you get to see that at the very end, you know, it’s a real revelation.”