Rael Jones Delivers Electronic Music to the 18th Century With His Score for Hulu's 'Harlots': Interview

Ashley Jones
Rael Jones

A self-taught drummer and guitarist with formal training in classical piano and music production, London-based composer Rael (pronounced “rail”) Jones has a litany of high-level sonic accolades.

Specializing in composing film and television scores, his work on the film Suite Française and BBC’s hit drama Sherlock earned him three Primetime Emmy nominations in 2016 and 2017. Though best known for his classical arrangements, Jones recently forayed into the world of electronic music on Hulu’s series Harlots, which follows the women of two feuding brothels in 18th century London. The season finale of the show's third season goes live on the streaming platform this Wednesday, August 28.

Written, directed and produced entirely by women, Harlots features all the typical period piece accoutrements -- powdered wigs, European opulence, corsets, male chauvinism -- with the exception being its anachronistic soundtrack. Using grimy, bass-laden electronica and thrashing electric guitars, Jones delivers a soundtrack that could easily work on a warehouse dancefloor.

Here, Jones talks about about his life-long love affair with instruments and making bold musical choices in Harlots.

How did you first get involved with music?

I was a weird kid, but I was lucky I went to a good school. They had these music laboratories where they had keyboards plugged into sound modules. I spent every lunch time, every break time in there rather than playing with other kids on the playground. I was in there all the time making strange midi music as well as learning how to make electronic music—not taught, just working out how to use the equipment.

Then I discovered MTV, so I got a drum kit in my house and at the same time was learning classical piano. I got really into rock music and taught myself drums and guitar. So my childhood was spent moving between the piano and the drums and the guitar and my dad's vinyl collection.

Tony Andrews, the founder of Funktion-One speakers, often talks about the “audio moment” which he defines as “that point where you get really involved in the music and suddenly realize you’ve been transported.” Can you share one of your earliest audio moments?

Quite a few are coming to mind straight away. It's those moments, the ones that give you shivers down the spine, that make you care so passionately, almost religiously about music. Especially when you're young, because it seems so significant.

The first was when I was five or six. It's an animated film called Watership Down, and the soundtrack is astonishing. What's great is that even now, it's still good -- which made me realize that I had good taste even as a five-year-old. It was written by Angela Morley, who worked a lot with John Williams and has some similarities to the John Williams sound. It's beautifully orchestrated and uses slow, more advanced harmonies. It’s a beautiful but very heartbreaking film and quite dark for children, but I was very interested in death as a young kid. "I hope I die before you mummy" is apparently the first sentence I said. I've just always had a thing about death, but there's also been lots of tragedy in my life.

Has the tragedy you’ve experienced affected and/or influenced the way you compose music? 

Definitely. I've used music as a coping strategy, as therapy. As a young kid, it also increased my confidence and self-esteem because I had something I was good at -- I wasn't good at much else.

Your use of electronic music in Harlots is really striking. Why did you stray from a typical period-style soundtrack?

I think the reason I got the gig is because I said I didn’t want to make period music. The series had a lot of passion and guts, and so that's why I wrangled these more dark, bass-heavy, electronic, and in some cases, metal, tracks. Grime is probably the biggest electronic influence on Harlots but there's a lot of real instruments on there, even when you might not think there are. The vast majority of the drum is me playing a drum kit, but just heavily processed. I use a nyckelharpa and an octavharpa, which are these Scandinavian instruments and are a bit like a hurdy-gurdy and a violin or cello, if you bow it. Those are a big part of the soundtrack, and I use them in so many different ways even on the dancier tunes. I’m distorting them in a modern way but the instruments themselves are rustic.

I wanted to be modern and surprising and not predictable, because there's so many different characters and personalities on the show, and London is so vibrant and bustling. We're trying to put the audience in the mindset of the people in the series—for the characters it's present tense and modern and so the music is modern too.

What are some of your favorite sonic moments in Harlots?

The most bold, electronic-and-rock-influenced moments are about attitude and empowerment and strength, and that's what the music is trying to convey in those decadent, frivolous, sexy sequences. I mean, these women were renegades, and so are a lot of electronic artists. 

What also fascinated me is in many ways, the harlots had more agency than aristocratic women. If you are married to a rich man, though you had money, it wasn't your money and you were technically owned by your husband. However, if you were the owner of a humble brothel, all the money that came in, you were responsible for, which was unusual for women at that time. This is something that the series shows very well and the thing that stuck with me the most early on so that's why this bold, empowered, music stands out, because it reflects their attitudes. They don't mind that they're standing on the fringes of culture and society, and that's why the music does too.

A lot of soundtrack composers have gotten big festival plays, from S U R V I V E (who did Stranger Things) to horror film legend John Carpenter. Would you ever perform your electronic music as a solo artist, at a club or festival?

As a solo artist, the music I've mainly written has been classical. I've got an album [called Mother Echo] which I've basically finished and am releasing shortly which is all about my mum dying, cheerfully enough. It's purely string quartet and piano, all recorded live. I've always been in bands, and I'm still in a band called Thumpermonkey which is heavy, proggy cinematic craziness. But I tend to get bored, which is why I've ended up playing a lot of different instruments -- so my answer is absolutely, because I’m always open to doing something completely different.

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