If you were to think about the songs that fit the soundtrack of your love life, what would they be? That is a question for the HBO Max series, Love Life, now in its second season, regarding the playlist of songs. Selected by music supervisor Rob Lowry, they reflect book editor Marcus Watkins’ (William Jackson Harper) weekly quest forever-lasting love and the freedom to reveal his true self to “the one,” after his marriage falls apart. Since Love Life made its debut in May 2020, Lowry and creator Sam Boyd have been on the same musical page, creating an eclectic playlist for the show.
Lowry has become known for marrying the right songs with the various moods, genres, and time periods that evoke emotion or romance in a scene. His affinity for making a love connection with music began with making mixed tapes to express himself and continued professionally as he always knew he wanted to design playlists for movies and television. Some of those credits include Amazon‘s The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, Hulu‘s The Ultimate Playlist of Noise, Fox‘s The Big Leap, Gossip Girl reboot for HBO Max, and the upcoming features The Lost City of D, and Wendell and Wild for Netflix.
Below The Line spoke with Rob Lowry during an outdoor coffee break in Los Angeles about working closely with Sam Boyd on the musical choices and what informs the ultimate playlist. He talks about selecting from a wide range of artists with classic tunes from George Benson, Otis Redding, and Dionne Warwick meshed with more contemporary artists like Brian Eno, Vegyn, and The Ramones, to complement a scene and is organic to the character’s personal music tastes.
Below The Line: How would you compare the music choices for Season Two to the debut season?
Rob Lowry: Musically, Sam has some of the most eclectic and best taste of anyone I’ve ever worked with, which is great. Even in-between seasons, we’re always sharing music. We have so many playlists between the two of us that we’re sending back and forth. Obviously, the characters are different between Marcus and between Darby (from season one played by Anna Kendrick) which was the first step. William put together a playlist of stuff that he was listening to which is always really fun and a nice template. Of course, Sam’s taste and my taste.
BTL: What was on William Jackson Harper’s playlist, and how did it compare to yours?
Lowry: I don’t know that we used anything from his playlist but he’s got great taste. His playlist which is called “Shit I’ve Been Bumping This Year” has everything from Aretha Franklin, Mile High Club, “Drug Dealer” by Macklemore, Julia Holter, Big Thief. What’s great about his playlist and what’s great about Sam’s taste with the show is there’s a lot of different music with a lot of different genres and time periods. I think it’s fun to figure out how to make that all feel cohesive even if you’re pulling from different pockets.
BTL: What other factors play into the musical selections throughout the show’s episodes?
Lowry: Specifically, with this show, the time period is a really big character so, music from a certain era or a certain year. There’s a lot of heavy lifting in terms of putting you in a very specific time and place. It’s fun to play with the different years and was this song big this year because that puts you in a mindset during that time period. It’s a wide range of artists but feels true to the show and the characters.
BTL: What is the overall tone of the series that the music is trying to portray?
Lowry: I think there’s a bittersweet hopefulness. I think Dan Romer and Mike Tuccillo do a really good job with the score in grounding that. It’s like an aspirational romance where it’s reflective and very funny in a dry way and very romantic in a big way that doesn’t feel cheesy.
BTL: How does the music evoke the emotion in the scene?
Lowry: A lot of music is diegetic so, it’s stuff that one of the characters would be putting on and naturally feels tied to a character’s taste or a setting. One of my favorites I love at the end of episode 207, there was a song used that was one of the heavier moments of the season between Marcus and Mia (Jessica Williams). That song “Love Dog” by TV on The Radio feels like it is part of the world but it is more featured like kind of a score because they’re not listening to it in a diegetic way. I also love at the end of episode 208, there’s a song called “Spinning Away,” which is a Brian Eno and John Cale song. It’s so distinct sounding, and there were moments where Sam and I were like, “Is this perfect or not working at all?” (laughs) It was a fine line, but I think it’s really special and beautiful and does a good job of the scene between Marcus and his ex and there’s a tenderness, but the song doesn’t play too saccharin so, it never feels too sweet or too sentimental, but you do feel the weight of it. The song is so sweet that there’s a lightness to it that it doesn’t feel overbearing or overwhelming. The Aldous Harding song “Imagining My Man” when Becca (Leslie Bibb) shows up to tell Marcus that she’s pregnant.
BTL: What was the first song you decided on for the season?
Lowry: We used the Jai Paul song “Jasmine,” which is in the trailer at also at the end of episode 201. Sam and I love that song so much and to use it in the trailer is so much fun because, thematically and tonally, it really captures the vibe of the show. You’re telling the story of these different relationships that have different emotional tags to them. Whether it’s romantic or long-lasting love.
BTL: Love songs seem to be a theme throughout your career. When did you gain the reputation of the go-to love guy?
Lowry: Probably when I was a kid (laughs). Legitimately as a kid, I was always making mixed tapes and I was always drawn to romance, even in my favorite movies and TV shows. In film and TV, the romantic stuff I call swing for the fences moments where you get to indulge these really big emotions and those are when you have the most visceral response from an audience. You can see those swells and those kinds of mountains and valleys. I love coming-of-age stuff and romance because I feel you get to play puppeteer and pull those strings a bit in terms of telling people how to feel with the music.
BTL: What was your hardest song to get on the series?
Lowry: We’re still working on getting it, to be honest! There’s a lot of bigger artists. There’s an Otis Redding song “Merry Christmas Baby” in the finale. One of the harder songs was in episode 209 during the wedding reception called “We Will Always Love You” by The Avalanches* and Blood Orange. The Avalanches are amazing and use a lot of samples so, that kind of clearance becomes a little complicated in terms of tracking ownership, master recordings, publishing; that was one of the more difficult ones to get this year. (*Note: The Avalanches song was replaced by Vegyn‘s “Debold.”)
BTL: What was the thinking behind using The Ramones’ Christmas song “Merry Christmas (I Don’t Want To Fight Tonight)”?
Lowry: We felt the Ramones song really embodies and emulates the melancholy / joyful paradox of Christmas music in general — a generally warm feeling but also that hint of sadness and unrest. It’s a Christmas classic, but in a very non-traditional way, and mirrors the way Sam’s writing and character arcs tell a traditional love story in new, unexpected ways. So it was fun to highlight one of our all-time favorite Christmas songs that is a classic, but maybe not thought of as a Christmas classic.
BTL: What’s your background in terms of music that led to your career?
Lowry: I always wanted to do this since I was a kid. At first in middle school, I thought I wanted to be a director so, I started making movies. But then I look back in hindsight because I was making silent films to put music to. When I graduated I moved out to L.A. knowing I wanted to be a music supervisor and became a P.A. on Friday Night Lights and Parenthood and really figured out how I can do this. I offered my services for free to editors and writers and learned to do it that way. In the writer’s room, I was literally reading scripts and giving them mixed CDs. I would tell people unabashedly that this is what I wanted to do. It’s not lost on me how lucky I am. I knew what I wanted to do and I’m very much living that dream.
BTL: Out of the 55 songs, what mood does this playlist fit best?
Lowry: It feels like a playlist that you would listen to early on in the relationship or early on in dating where you’re not in an exclusive relationship yet. You’re cooking dinner on a weekend night late afternoon or early evening and you’re cooking, vibing, having fun, very casual. The playlist feels in many ways like the beginning of something big, like a blossoming or the calm before the storm. It’s the moments you know you’ll look back on as the precursor to whatever we evolve into. I think that’s the feeling we’re trying to capture with the soundtrack.
All 10 episodes of the first season of Love Life are available on HBO Max, with the second season premiering on October 28. All images courtesy HBO, unless otherwise stated.