HBO 'Insecure' Music Supervisor Shares His Process for Keeping the Show's Soundtrack Fresh

Kier Lehman gets paid to hang out with Issa Rae and Melina Matsoukas and talk about music, all to make the soundtrack for 'Insecure' great.

insecure issa rae season two

Image via HBO

insecure issa rae season two

Kier Lehman has a dope job. Not only does he get paid to hang out with Issa Rae and Melina Matsoukas, he has to talk with them about music, since he's the music supervisor for Insecure. He deals with labels, artists, publishers—the machinery of the music industry—to secure the rights for the show's soundtrack, in addition to rooting out songs that suit the show's style and sound.

Unlike a big, replicable network show like CSI, which Lehman worked on in the early 2000s, Insecure is as beloved for its musical choices as it is the romantic follies of its main characters. "Sometimes I’ll work on a show where you're dealing with producers who have a little idea of what they want and need a lot more guidance from me to find the sound of that project," Lehman told Complex over the phone. "But Issa and Melina have very strong opinions. It's very collaborative and that’s why [the results] are so good."

In the early episodes of the seconds season, which premieres on July 23, on HBO, Insecure strikes the same rich balance of indie artists and big, current names. You'll hear Playboi Carti (though not the song you might expect), Anderson .Paak, SZA, and others I won't spoil. And when you hear these songs, and they enhance the emotion of a scene, or make a party feel especially authentic to 2017, know that these decisions weren't always arrived at easily. "Issa drives a lot of those decisions," Lehman said, "but Melina is very vocal and integral too. She has very strong ideas and concepts for how she imagines the scene to play, and sometimes they don’t agree and we’ll have conversations about why certain things work versus other options. It’s a very involved process, more than most of the projects I’ve worked on."

But as any fan of the show knows, the work is worth it. For a peek at what season two has in store, Lehman spoke with Complex about the expanded budget, risky decisions, and new songs made especially for the soundtrack.

When did you wrap the music for season two? I ask because there are some pretty recent selections in the early episodes.
I’m in the middle of it right now. This season is even more tightly scheduled than the first season. Last time I think we finished all the episodes before the premiere aired, but this season we’re about to finish the third episode and it’s gonna start airing in two weeks. So we’re working on it as they’re airing. It’s kind of nice in that we can be that timely and current and fresh because we can get new music and have it in the show that’ll be airing in a few weeks. It’s a great way to be sure that we’re not using music other shows have used. But it also makes things a little more difficult in terms of getting clearances and licensing approvals in time to finish the shows.

Is it unusual to be working so close to the premiere?
It’s a little unusual for HBO. Usually their series are finished before they air. But on a network show, we’ll be working to finish a show that’ll air a few days later.

Helping independent artists get exposure is one of the biggest rewards of doing this. 

What’s your primary method of music discovery?
A lot of ways. I have relationships with the major labels, publishers, managers, artists, and agents who pitch music from independent artists. I get pitched music constantly, all day long, from everybody. I sift through what I get pitched and then I’m active on Twitter and even Instagram, following different sources, whether its Complex or Fader or FACT. I keep track of which artists people are talking about, which artists are getting reviewed and booked by magazines. I also have personal relationships and trusted sources for good, relevant music that I’ve built up over time who know what I’m looking for and how I work. Just keep my eye out for things that would make sense for the show. If I hear about a female rapper, I’m gonna be checking that out.

So you and I have the same life.
It’s very similar to being a writer in terms of the day-to-day of pitching and sifting to see what’s worth spending time with.

What’s the most unusual way a piece of music that you've used has come into your hands?
There’s a record label called Ninja Tune and one of their reps is a DJ with a club night in London called R & She. It plays all female R&B and hip-hop. We started talking and he told me that he has a set that’s all pussy songs and he plays “Broken Pussy” from Insecure during it. I thought that was hilarious and we started sharing artists and he sent me an artist, Princess V, who I think is hilarious and who I’ve been trying to get into this new season. She also goes by Princess Vitarah. I haven’t got her in yet but it’s something that’s very much along the lines of what we use.

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Is Solange still involved in the music selection process?
Solange is not involved in the second season. During the first season she was working on her album, so she was more sedentary then. Still traveling, but in studios and writing and producing the record, so I think she had a bit more time to help us with the music, by sending us ideas and playlists. But she’s on tour now and I don’t think she has as much time to help.

You talked about Kendrick working with you on budget to clear “Alright” for the start of last season—has the budget increased this season?
We have a little more money, but still the same kind of issues in terms of being able to afford the music we want. The show has a lot of music; we average ten songs an episode, and in the first couple episodes of this season we have even more than that. There are episodes with as many 15 or 20 songs. Higher budget, higher expectations—the second season we want to build on what we set up last season, as far as the sound and type of artist that we use. But we're definitely still leaning on indie artists and up-and-coming artists, which helps with the budget.

I love that the season two premiere opens with Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge’s “Scared Money.”
Yes. We’re all big .Paak fans, big Knxwledge fans, big fans of L.A. hip-hop, and that album [Yes Lawd!] was a great coming together of their sounds. We were trying to feature an important L.A. artist in that spot [to start the season], to try and compare or match the energy and resonance of that Kendrick use. We wanted to find what could stand next to that, something that’s connected to Los Angeles but feels exciting and new, and draws you into the show. We went through a bunch of tracks before that one become the favorite that we agreed on. We may have another one from them in the show, at some point.

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The show privileges R&B and rap, female artists, indie artists, L.A. artists—what are the other guiding principles of Insecure’s soundtrack?
We want it to sound fresh and unique, not like any other show on TV. A few years ago there weren’t many shows using hip-hop and R&B at all, so just having that music made it unique. But now there are shows getting a lot of attention for those styles, so we have to define our sound. Atlanta has Atlanta artists, and we definitely want to feature L.A. artists, and women, and indie, alternative R&B. An artist like Mocky, who we used last season, that's not a traditional R&B record, but it’s soulful and works for us.

SZA is a real emotional anchor in the early episodes of season two. How did her music become so integral?
We’re partnering with RCA for our soundtrack this season. (They also released our soundtrack for last season.) We were anticipating SZA’s new record and because of our relationship to RCA we were able to get tracks from her album early. I got those tracks and passed them on to Issa and Melina, and we all immediately loved them. They felt her music, the emotion of it, connected so well with the show and its storylines that we needed to have it.

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Will you have original music this season like you did last season?
Yeah, working on that right now. We’ve got some great music from artists we had in season one, like Kari Faux and TT the Artist, and we’re also expanding that with a few more artists who we’ll use repeatedly throughout the season because of how well their music connects.

What’s the riskiest song you’ve placed on the show? A song where you weren’t sure how it would fit or be received, but ended up working?
That’s a tough one. The process in finding the music is very thorough, with key people involved—[for last season, that was] the editors, the producers, me, Solange. We all weigh in and discuss it and when we decide this song is right for the scene, we all feel confident. I don’t think there are any moments where we’re wondering; we all feel strongly that this is the one.

I think that maybe the choices that are the most uncommon on TV are the more traditional sounding R&B songs. Like KING or Lianne La Havas. Having Lianne La Havas play when Issa has guilt sex with Lawrence, that, to me, was a little bit left of what we would normally do with a more alternative R&B or hip-hop sound. But then immediately following that is Kap G’s “Girlfriend,” which is a heavier, kinda aggressive rap song. Moving from the intimate, emotional, thoughtful moment to the more brash, “I just fucked your girlfriend” statement is something really cool about the show, this range we play with.

I check Twitter to see what people are saying after episodes air to get that feedback about what’s working, what doesn’t work, which artists got people excited, which songs they Shazam'd while they were watching. Even sometimes hearing from artists who post about hearing their songs on the show. Helping independent artists get exposure is one of the biggest rewards of doing this. It gives them inspiration and validation to keep doing what they’re doing. Even if a song doesn’t end up making it in, we’re still reaching out with interest. We liked it, you know?

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