Songs For Screens: Raphael Saadiq on Creating HBO’s ‘Lovecraft Country’ Score (Over Zoom) and Upcoming Aretha Franklin Doc

HBO’s “Lovecraft Country” has already made history for its entirely online orchestral score, co-composed by Laura Karpman and Raphael Saadiq.

But for noted musical multitasker Saadiq – with a resume that includes a Grammy (and 15 nominations), a 2018 Oscar nom, nine studio albums (five as a solo act, four with previous group Tony! Toni! Toné!) and countless hits as a writer/producer for artists like D’Angelo, Solange, Mary J. Blige and John Legend — the creative challenge was par for the course.

Saadiq began working on the “Lovecraft” score with Karpman shortly after wrapping the majority of his work on Nat Geo’s upcoming “Genius: Aretha” series starring Cynthia Erivo as Aretha Franklin, which he also completed remotely. Saadiq arranged some of Franklin’s best-known songs from her Atlantic era as well as her gospel albums all from the road while touring his latest album, 2019’s “Jimmy Lee,” during the first two pre-pandemic months of 2020.

“I was double-dipping out there,” says Saadiq. “I can’t turn good work down.”

“Lovecraft Country” and “Genius: Aretha” are just the latest projects in an extensive musical filmography for Saadiq, whose recent work as a composer also includes HBO’s “Insecure” (which wrapped its fourth season in June), as well as his collaborations with Karpman on scores for Spectrum’s “L.A.’s Finest,” Sundance documentary “Step” and WGN’s “Underground” — the latter of which marked their first time working with “Lovecraft” showrunner Misha Green and star Jurnee Smollett.

Like the career arc of “Lovecraft”’s executive producer, Saadiq has established himself in recent years as the Jordan Peele of music — equally adept at creating some of his career-best work as a lead performer and producer as he is moonlighting for movies & TV. He executive produced Legend’s “A Bigger Love” album earlier this year, and has seen his original song dance card fill up after he and Mary J. Blige scored an Academy Award nod for 2017’s “Mighty River.” Up next on his slate? Finishing an original song with Andra Day that’s in contention to accompany her starring role in Lee Daniels’ upcoming biopic, “The United States Vs. Billie Holiday,” recently acquired by Paramount.

Songs For Screens caught up with Saadiq over the phone the morning after “Lovecraft” premiered to learn more about the unique creative process, revisiting the Aretha catalog and the silver sync lining that can come with writing songs that get passed over for film projects. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity, as Saadiq had just completed an unexpected wisdom tooth surgery prior to the call.

ow did you and Laura Karpman get involved with this score, and what type of tone did you want the score to take given the show’s blend of the 1950s early civil rights movement with supernatural elements?
We loved working with Misha [Green] on “Underground,” so when this came down the pipeline we were like, “Yeah, let’s go for it.” We saw some of the first episode and we could tell it was going to be a great thing to be a part of.

We really wanted to bring a lot of piano and analog equipment and basic guitar stuff mixed with strings and piano. And I know for myself, when I hear James Baldwin’s voice in anything, it triggers me off to something warm and something melodic. And as the show goes you’ll see more of that in little splices. It was different from working on “Underground,” which was more of a slave thriller, so you’d hear banjos and things like melodic piano, warm strings — some things you’d heard before some things you hadn’t heard before.

What was it about the unique scope of “Lovecraft Country” that spoke to you as a viewer?
I loved all the actors, everybody’s great on the team. It’s a Jordan Peele production too, and I’m a huge fan of his comedy. So going from comedy to this type of horror thing to get these actors to make this activism piece in the middle of everything going on, and to mix it with sci-fi is so good. There’s just something about this show. Being a black man, you have to know who the monsters are. That’s what I tell Laura: “You never know who the monsters are in this show.” And with this show you have to really watch it to keep up, and I like shows that are not predictable. Sometimes when we work on these shows it’s hard for me to remember what you did [as a composer] because I’m so into actually watching the show too. I’m privileged to get to watch these shows before they actually hit.

The premiere ended with Alice Smith covering Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman,” which you also produced. How did that come about?
Alice is a friend of mine, and Misha loves her. We used her in “Underground” too, so there’s an ongoing relationship with her. She’s amazing.

What did co-producing the first online orchestra for an entire series teach you about your own work ethic outside a traditional studio environment?
There were some hurdles in the beginning we had to address for sure. Luckily for me and Laura, we both self-engineer ourselves to record, which was something I had seen my friends like Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis do over the years. I had been pretty much a kept [musician], I’d always have engineers at my beck and call. But a few years ago I said, “This can’t work, I have to engineer myself. I know I can do it.” I just wanted to keep that part of my vessel for my creativity.

So I gave it a shot two years ago and it worked out perfectly. I find myself even more productive, and can engineer on my own with some good help from my engineer Alex Chang. Every time I have a problem I have to call him in the middle of the night or in the middle of the day and troubleshoot. But I’m getting pretty good in troubleshooting too. It’s been really good for that learning curve.

This is your latest of many projects working with Laura on a score. What’s your collaborative process together like?
Laura is more of the string arranger. I call her the professor. She knows all the players and kept things moving even when we couldn’t be in the room together. And she’s always working. Who is it in sports who likes to have the ball, to take the shot? That’s Laura. Our dynamic is always trying to diversify the sound of strings in music and mix analog with instruments like bass guitars. We use a lot of different effects so you don’t hear a guitar. It’s really flipped out to sound like something else, like a string.

What was it like working on the music for “Genius: Aretha,” and what can we expect?
That was amazing, to be able to be in the middle of both those shows and recreate all those Atlantic and gospel records with all those great musicians. I know so much about her dad, C.L. Franklin, preaching from growing up in a house of Baptist music and Baptist church, so this was right up my alley. Cynthia Erivo really studied for it and made it easy for us.

And I understand you have another song that might find its way into a movie this year?
It’s still early, but there’s a song Andra Day and I are writing for the Billie Holiday movie that I think is gonna make it. It’ll be a little updated [from Billie Holiday’s music], but it’s gonna have that feel with a little more oomph to it, a little bit of soul to it, little bit of bopping going on. We’re right in the incubator phase of it.

If it doesn’t end up in the movie it’ll end up on my next album. That happened the last time I did a song for this movie and they didn’t come back for it. I put it on my album “The Way I See It,” it was called “Keep Marchin’.” It was for a football movie — I forget the name of it but it had a montage with an Elvis Presley song on it and they wanted something more soulful and black. So I wrote “Keep Marchin’,” and they ended up going with something else. But that song was in like four Lebron commercials [for Samsung] and now it’s my most licensed song ever. So I love working on songs [for movies] — if they don’t make it, I’m sure I’ll use them.

Songs For Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Andrew on Twitter at @ahampp.