How This Music Supervisor Landed Her Biggest Gig Yet With ‘I May Destroy You’

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Laura Radford/HBO

Coel as Arabella in 'I May Destroy You.'

Ciara Elwis grew up in Scotland, singing along in the car to The Beatles and obsessing over Disney’s Fantasia. “I used to watch it three times a week,” she says of her earliest memory putting music to picture. As a teen, she discovered American indie bands on One Tree Hill and Gossip Girl, later studying music at university in Edinburgh.

In her final year, she worked as a brand manager at Spotify, making event and genre-specific playlists, and soon after took an office assistant job at London-based music company Air-Edel. “I was reading how music supervision is one of the things they did and was like, ‘I cannot believe this is a real job,’ ” recalls Elwis, 27. “I started bothering Matt Biffa, the supervisor I worked with on [Netflix dramedy] Sex Education, and helped more and more until I got my own [assignments].”

Recently, Elwis landed her buzziest project to date, BBC One/HBO’s acclaimed I May Destroy You, and is now finishing Katherine Ryan’s upcoming Netflix sitcom, The Duchess (“There’s a lot of BFE: big female energy”). Elwis says notoriously tight budgets compared with the U.S. industry force creativity: “Who’s this person, but newer — and going to be big in five years?”

A producer on I May Destroy You approached Air-Edel in 2019 while show creator/star Michaela Coel (left) was still writing the script, based on real events, for the affecting series about a young woman’s sexual assault. “We met with Michaela on set in East London; she was literally running to see us between takes,” recalls Elwis. They initially discussed Coel’s taste in music — she’s a fan of Soulection Radio, which highlights lesser-known talent and now airs on Apple Music — and bonded over U.K. R&B/hip-hop acts like Shakka, Kojey Radical and Little Simz. “We discussed not wanting the music to lead people to feel anything in particular about a certain sequence,” says Elwis. “It’s a powerful approach.”

Before After Life producer Charlie Hanson tapped Air-Edel for the show, Elwis first met its star and creator, Ricky Gervais (left), in 2016 while manning Air-Edel’s reception desk. She says Gervais is “superinvolved with the music to the point where he essentially just tells us what he wants,” she says. “And our main task is making it happen.” As a result, two career wins came from season two of the Netflix dark dramedy: landing The Carpenters’ “Top of the World,” which she says Richard Carpenter cleared himself (after reviewing its use in the show), and placing David Bowie’s “Can You Hear Me” in a later episode. “I’ve never cleared a Bowie track before — and I don’t know if I will again.”

Elwis says serving as music supervisor for this 2019 Netflix reality show, spearheaded by Charli XCX (above) and focused on an emerging pop quartet, was “quite scary” considering she was not only pitching artists to another artist — but to one with great taste. “She was obviously so involved with the music side, but was very happy for me to just pitch tracks for her to pick,” says Elwis, adding that they had cleared a Lizzo song, though that scene was unfortunately cut. Plus, says Elwis: “I remember Charli saying, ‘I think she’ll be massive by the time this comes out,’ and she was absolutely right. Lizzo was literally everywhere when the show ran.”

This article originally appeared in the July 25, 2020 issue of Billboard.

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