“You have to tick every box for a piece of music to work in cinema or TV,” says DJ turned film composer David Holmes. “It can’t just almost work: it has to slot in perfectly.”
As post-episode surges towards song-seeking app Shazam testify, Holmes and music supervisor Catherine Grieves left no box unmarked with their BAFTA-winning music for Seasons 1 and 2 of BBC America’s Killing Eve. Adapted from Luke Jennings’ Codename Villanelle novellas by lead-writers Phoebe Waller-Bridge (S1) and Emerald Fennell (S2), the Emmy-winning spy series has established itself as a swaggering, slippery, playful and punchy thriller of cat/mouse obsession like no other. And it comes with killer soundtracks to match, modern classics of pick’n’mix curation cut from the cloth of cinematic style but tailored with a moody, mischievous vivacity of their own.
As Grieves tells the tale, it became clear during early talks that strong female voices, multiple artists and a great composer would be crucial ingredients of the show’s music. A music supervisor whose work has ranged from The Inbetweeners Movie to Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here via various TV hits (Wolf Hall, Collateral, The Casual Vacancy and beyond), Grieves already knew of the Belfast-born Holmes’ formidable CV. In between his work as a DJ, rock’n’soul remix artist and band-leader, Holmes’ screen output has ranged from music movies (Good Vibrations) and sundry retro-cool Steven Soderbergh pics (Out of Sight, the Ocean’s Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen trilogy and more) to various stylish TV dramas, among them London Spy.
A fan of Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, Holmes received scripts for Eve and quickly reported back to the producers: “One of the first things I said was, ‘I don’t know the sound of Killing Eve yet but I know it has to be the sound of Killing Eve.’ Let’s create that sound, rather than trying to kind of come up with the derivative of some other kind of score.”
In the kind of twist that seems like it was meant to be, Holmes had already, unwittingly found that sound. The story of the band Unloved begins in the mid-2010s, when Holmes DJ’d at The Rotary Club, a Hollywood music salon run by fellow soundtrack artist Keefus Ciancia (True Detective) and one-off singer Jade Vincent. Shared leanings towards “music inspired by Italian film music, French film music and French pop, but mixed with a ’60s girl-group sensibility” bonded the trio, who recorded 30-ish tracks in a year before releasing the albums Guilty of Love (2016) and Heartbreak (2019).
After sharing his “female-led” vision for the show with its creators, Holmes sent them a large folder of music to try. When he received episode 1 back, Grieves had woven in three Unloved tracks. “It became very obvious early on,” Holmes recalls, “that everyone had fallen in love with Unloved. It just seemed to fit like a glove.”
If Unloved’s dusky cool and dark romanticism became a goldmine, Holmes’ access to his band’s multitracks proved equally crucial. Instead of their songs popping up on-screen like afterthoughts, he was able to integrate the sound of Unloved at every level of the show, establishing a deep continuity: “There was a thread that linked everything because the music itself had a style, and an atmosphere, and a feeling.”
Style, atmosphere, feeling… These qualities ooze out of Unloved’s dynamic S1 songs. ‘Sigh’ reverberates with unresolved lust; ‘After Dinner’ and ‘Cry Baby Cry’ brim with swoony mystique; ‘This Is the Time’ comes on like a fever; and ‘Xpectations’ furnishes Killing Eve with a signature tune – music to spill kids’ ice cream to.
Along the way, Vincent’s phenomenally adaptable voice practically becomes Villanelle’s partner-in-crime. On ‘Crash Boom Bang’, the widescreen reach and lusty intimacy in her vocals give Bond’s themes a run for their money; elsewhere, the crepuscular ‘Bill’ and sassy ‘Danger’ echo Amy Winehouse’s raw authenticity. The playful menace of the voice melody on ‘If’, meanwhile, upholds the influence of Krzysztof Komeda’s slanted nursery-rhyme score to ’60s Satanic chiller Rosemary’s Baby on Holmes.
Grieves and Holmes went crate-digging for deep cuts elsewhere, with Villanelle’s character and her cine-styled global movements in mind. Unerringly on-point selections include ‘Roller Girl’, from the 1967 film Anna, where Anna Karina exults in a très Killing Eve-ian love of “Le danger immédiat et l’amour fiction!” Villanelle might similarly approve of Brigitte Bardot’s supremely unruffled ‘Contact’; likewise, the insouciant cool of ‘Killer Shangri-Lah’ – by Madrid’s Twin Peaks-fixated Pshycotic Beats – could have been made for Eve’s resident psychopath. Selections matching Villanelle’s taste for luxury include Cigarettes after Sex’s micro-detailed ‘K.’ and Cat’s Eyes’ plush ‘Girl in the Room’, while the sense that it pays to expect the unexpected from Villanelle is reflected by garage- and psych-rock eruptions from The Troggs and Etienne Daho.
With the show-runners’ faith banked, Holmes and Grieves went for broke on S2. While Unloved’s entries range from swaggering electro-rock and dramatic girl-group laments to the spook-song of ‘Tell Mama’, other band selections furnish the album with dreamy deep cuts and destabilising detours. French experimentalists Le Volume Courbe (featuring Noel Gallagher’s sometime scissor-player Charlotte Marionneau) contribute the experi-lush ‘Born to Lie’; off-piste psychedelic entries range from Ramases and Selket’s vintage freak-prog to Jane Weaver’s electro-dream pop. Elsewhere,’60s spouses The Poppy Family offer a fittingly unsettling coupling of a pastel-hued melody and dark lyrics on ‘Where Evil Grows’– a killer in a pink dress, if you like.
Further off-beat notes are struck by unusual covers of classic songs, including electro experimentalists Fireflies’ spooked twist on cult rockabilly cat Kip Tyler’s ‘She’s My Witch’ and Dutch singer Willeke Alberti’s ‘Vlinder van een Zomer’ (‘Angel of the Morning’). Retro-archivist girl-pop crate-diggers The Delmonas keep listeners frosty with the garage-rock workout of ‘Dangerous Charms’, while Holmes and Grieves’ trust in instinct over exactitude ushers in Bertrand Belin’s ‘Comment ça se Danse’. It might be a French song, with a male vocal, used to accompany a scene in Basildon. But if it feels emotionally right, then it’s in.
If both soundtracks testify to Holmes and Grieves’ taste and care, they also uphold the kind of intuitive emotional connections that make the best soundtracks sing. “It’s a feeling you have, you just know when something’s working,” says Holmes. “It was like that every time we dropped the needle on Killing Eve.” All the proof is, indeed, just a needle-drop away.
The Original Soundtracks for “Killing Eve” Seasons 1 and 2 are due for release 29 November via Heavenly Recordings and Sid Gentle Films LTD.