ENTERTAINMENT
05/10/2018 15:02 BST | Updated 08/10/2018 15:17 BST

'I'm Living The Dream': 'Killing Eve' Music Director David Holmes On Scoring The Spy Thriller

'It was like winning a musical lottery.'

David Holmes is too busy to take every project that comes his way – there are only so many hours in the day after all. But when the first episode of ‘Killing Eve’ landed in his inbox, he knew he couldn’t pass it up.

It’s the show that everyone’s been talking about, from Twitter, to the dinner table, to your phone conversations with your parents. ‘Killing Eve’, the spy series that packs a feminist punch, has captured something interesting in the middle of a huge venn diagram of audiences. It’s got thrills, drama, romance, sex, death, and emotion all in one. David, a composer and DJ since the age of 15, was approached to do the music for the show last year.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge will tell you, after the first episode I called her up and said ‘this is going to be absolutely huge’,” David says. And he wasn’t wrong.

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The show has scooped a Metacritic score of 'universal acclaim'

The average watcher might not think much about the music that underscores a TV series or film, and as a result, we might not always give due credit to the composers and producers behind it. But David has been booked up since the late 90′s with projects like the Ocean’s franchise and Steve McQueen’s ′Hunger’. 

With ‘Killing Eve’, the sell was Phoebe, the now widely-acclaimed creator of the show, as well as ‘Fleabag’, whose writing is commonly praised for crafting strong female roles.

David says: “I was a huge fan of ‘Fleabag’ and she was a really fresh exciting new writer. I’m always looking for things that have an edge, somebody saying something differently.”

So David went for it, and although every constituent part of the show was ambitious, he had a back catalogue that stood him in good stead for the task.

Collaborative Coincidences

The sound of the show is so distinct, you’d never guess that a large chunk of the never-before-heard music in it actually consists of tracks that were made half a decade ago, under the collective name of ‘Unloved’.

David and long-time friend, Keefus Ciancia, made these tracks together with vocals from Keefus’ partner, Jade Vincent, but lots of the content they produced was never released: “We had this huge library of work that nobody really knew about.”

When ‘Killing Eve’ came along, David was sent full episodes of the show to experiment with musically, and he decided to see how the songs matched up with the tone of the drama. The makers were sure that they wanted a strong female voice, and Unloved fit the bill.

“When you start cutting them into the drama you think ‘holy shit’, this song was made for this drama...a lot of the music that we’d created five or six years earlier was actually fitting the series like a glove...It was like winning a musical lottery,” David says.

And with that, something unique was born.

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Mapping Europe Through Music

The musical tapestry of the show is all about Europe. As Villanelle and Eve go on their cat-and-mouse chase across the continent, we go on a musical road trip everywhere from France to Germany to Italy to Russia. With precision and an eye to exactly what side of each country he wanted to portray, David carefully curated the right playlist for the journey. 

“The more you learn what’s working, the more ideas that you get. It just evolves very naturally,” he says.

Most of the music is from the mid-60′s to mid-70′s, and David reels off a platter of singers and composers included: Françoise Hardy, Anna Karina, Pierre Cavalli, Ennio Morricone.

But there’s also modern touches, for example the club sequence in Germany. “I’ve got a friend called Phil Kieran who’s an international superstar techno DJ, and he’d play at Berghain all the time in Berlin, and he was giving me stuff for the club scene.”

The result? A whirlwind tour of the continent that illustrates the drama, culture, luxury, control, danger, and flirtatiousness of Villanelle’s life and character.

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Working With Waller-Bridge

Alongside Colin Ratten, the other producer, Phoebe gave David full reign. “She was such a huge inspiration,” David says. “They were like...if you have an idea, let us hear it.”

The first episode required the most planning musically – it was crucial to nail down the core sound that would thread through the series. David says there were more notes for episode one than in the seven that followed, but following that, Phoebe was sold.

It seems unsurprising that the intelligence and wit we see in her onscreen creations is also visible in her personality. “I think Phoebe is a fucking genius, she’s an amazing talent and a really wonderful person. I had so many great phone conversations with her,” he says.

David adds that the collaboration was one of his favourite parts of the process: “It’s a real honour to be working with her, her writing is so fresh.”

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An Adventurous Take

Being adventurous was central to the ethos of the show, and the music wasn’t going to be an exception.

There’s a phrase David says over and over when discussing how audiences have reacted to the show: “People aren’t stupid.” By this, he means that people know when they’re watching something that’s doing something really different – and using this logic, the show’s success is not a surprise.

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Challenging what people have seen in the past is crucial to how Killing Eve’s sound developed.

David explains: “[Audiences] don’t want the same old shit they’ve been hit with...they have seen it all before and they’ve heard it all before.”

So what haven’t they heard?

At any given time in the show, the music is usually doing the opposite of what you’d expect it to. But it would have been all too easy to go down a more predictable route – telling audiences exactly what to think and feel, or “Action, action! Drama, drama!” as David describes it.

“We weren’t being like ‘cry!’ ‘get excited!’ – a lot of films fall down because of that. The audience just get bored,” he notes.

“They didn’t want it to just be another TV drama score.”

Instead of the bang-bang of action and drama, the tone often goes “slow, moody, psychedelic and weird” at climatic peaks.

“A lot of composers in certain sequences within the series would’ve gone for a much more kitchen sink, full-on drama. And what we were doing was actually turning that on its head...they had a very adventurous take on it,” he says.

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The vocals you’ll recognise in the show are sung by Jade. As the show lays its plot’s foundations in the early episodes, David says Jade’s vocals were used both subtly and minimally – a signature sound that you could pick out from a crowd but wouldn’t necessarily notice at first.

Initially, it functions as a continuity device that ties together the show’s music, but then it became something greater.

“It just grew and grew and grew, until the last few episodes, where her voice was just all over it,” he says.

The Season To Come

Moving on from the crescendo of tension and drama we saw at the end of series one (no spoilers), one has to wonder what surprises the next instalment will bring. David’s one of the lucky few who knows.

“We’re beginning to start the second series – I just watched the first two episodes which are fantastic. They’ve kept it at such a high standard,” he teases.

Through the lens of music, it’s also about upping the ante.

David says: “Now that we’ve done the first series, then the second series it’s kind of like, well, how can we take this even further?”

“Sally [the show’s producer] is like: ‘let’s make series two weirder!’”

Thinking about the pages of notes for episode one, and the firm success of the first series, you might assume its makers think they’ve cracked the right formula, and will stick to it. But David says it’s set to keep pushing and challenging itself: “The more you do, the more you learn, the more you learn, the more ideas you get, the more ideas you get, the more it evolves.”

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Living The Dream

David, born and raised in Belfast, doesn’t take his success in his work life for granted. “Sometimes you just gotta be happy for what you got,” he says.

“As a child of the troubles in Northern Ireland, half the time I wasn’t even allowed to go out. So I spent my time listening to music and watching films when I wasn’t allowed out on the street because there was a civil war going on.”

“I am living the dream. I really am,” David says. Alongside the second season of ‘Killing Eve’, he’s now working on ‘Normal People’, starring Liam Neeson and Lesley Manville.

“I always pinch myself and go ‘this is happening, don’t fuck it up’, and work myself silly to make it the best it can be.”

Upon witnessing the bold subversiveness that underpins this show, it’s safe to say he’s doing a good job of not fucking it up so far.

CLARIFICATION: This story has been updated to include the first name of Phil Kieran.