A few minutes into the pilot for Bridgerton, Netflix’s latest breakout series with all the lush trimmings of your classic Jane Austen adaptation, viewers with a discerning ear were given a treat: The delicate string plucks that soundtracked protagonist Daphne’s introduction into London’s cutthroat marriage market sounded just like the sparkling opening notes of Ariana Grande’s mega-hit “Thank U, Next.” Could it be?
The short answer: Yes. The cover was the work of the Vitamin String Quartet, the Los Angeles-based group famous for their classical covers of contemporary bangers. Bringing a touch of modernity to the classical arrangement is VSQ’s bread and butter, so it was no surprise Bridgerton music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas called upon the group to bring their vision to the Regency era. Alongside their rework of Grande’s effervescent hit, they also arranged classical versions of Billie Eilish’s seismic “bad guy,” Maroon 5’s “Girls Like You,” and more, elevating the songs to cinematic, timeless heights.
“We like to think we’re building something that people can use to literally soundtrack their day,” explains Vitamin String Orchestra brand manager Leo Flynn to NYLON. “Whether you’re looking for that intimate, romantic moment, like you get in Bridgerton, or you’re looking to calm or focus or relax and elevate. Whatever it is, you can build it in our world.” Their dream has been realized on a mainstream scale — the Vitamin String Quartet has seen a 350% increase in streams since Bridgerton’s Christmas Day debut.
Below, Flynn and Vitamin String Quartet’s A&R rep James Curtiss discuss the challenge of reinterpreting pop into classical covers, the intimacy of string instruments, and the songs that didn’t make it onto Bridgerton.
How did the Vitamin String Quartet get involved with Bridgerton?
James Curtiss: We were actually contacted directly by the music supervisors for the show who actually have a history with us. They’ve worked with us previously for one of the first big placements that we got, including an on-camera placement, for Gossip Girl. It was kind of a big deal. We were included both musically and on camera in Blair’s wedding episode, which was a big episode for the show. We did two songs, a Pat Benatar song and an INXS song. So we were actually pretty well-known by the group that was doing music supervisor work for Bridgerton. They were looking for something very specific that we kind of lead the charge in, which are these string quartet versions of modern music.
Bridgerton is set during England’s Regency era, which made me wonder if there was any research on your end that shapes the style of the music.
Curtiss: A lot of times that we get approached for shows like that, they’re using a catalog that already exists. The kind of nature of what we do, these chamber music-sort of baroque covers, fit the aesthetic for a lot of shows. With Bridgerton, you’ve obviously got a period setting, but they want to make it kind of modern and mildly anachronistic. Even though there was no directive for us to create the content directly for the show, when the brief came in about what the show was, we knew exactly what kind of music we had in our catalog that sort of fit that. It’s kind of the same thing with Westworld. When we got placed in Westworld, they’re looking for a vibe with modern but classical. Same kind of thing here. What we do tends to really fit with shows that have a particular aesthetic direction like that.
Leo Flynn: We’re very much fans of acoustic classical stringed instruments. They’re fascinating, there’s so much history in just one of these instruments alone. When someone plays it, all that comes out. You can hear the decades, if not centuries, in the instrument. James and I just really love the intimacy. And really, in a chamber setting, in a room where you’re really up close with the strings and you’re hearing all the detail and some of the physical bits, the roars and grinding across the middle of the string, all that detail goes a long way for us. And maybe it’s not an accident that it works for the show.
What are the challenges and the limitations that come with covering contemporary pop in a classical setting?
Curtiss: It really comes down to the music that you’re covering. There’s a[n] inherent challenge in covering some modern pop music because a lot of modern pop music tends to be a little less driven by a melody and is informed more by rhythm and mood. Most modern pop music has more of an influence from hip-hop and electronic [music] than it does the kind of classical melodic pop that people think of when they think of pop music. So that’s one of the more interesting challenges of late. You’d have to try to figure out how you make a vibe and a mood on an acoustic string instrument when you’re dealing with songs that were created using electronic processes, that use interesting sound effects rather than melodies, weird strange fills, which, for Leo and I, creates a fun challenge.
We sit around with the arranger, principally the arranger for these songs was Jim McMillan, who also produced the tracks. We get to sit down and figure out what voicing on the strings can create this kind of lead. Sometimes you’re literally dealing with a rap verse, which doesn’t have much of a melody, it’s kind of atonal. So how do you create a melody out of someone who’s speaking in pattern? How do you find those inflections that make the difference? So it’s a little bit more challenging with some pop music, but that’s kind of the fun of it. It becomes almost kind of experimental.
Flynn: I think it’s always a challenge of how to make something that’s not token. String versions of pop tunes wasn’t even new when we started doing it 20 years ago. But how do you make it greater than the sum of its parts? You come up with something that really changes how someone feels. That’s the goal, right? Because you’re going from an original piece of music where you may have a particular singer with a point of view, who’s telling a story or expressing something, and you’re even taking that away. So now I really get into, OK, why would a string quartet be playing this? Why would someone listen to a string quartet play this? I think that’s where we have to get into the story of the instruments and the performers and the song, and even the original artist by extension, and how do all those people and stories relate?
It’s also worth noting that our performers are special people. They’re artists in their own right. And they have very diverse careers and doing pop repertoire isn’t something that they just added on to their classical training. They’re native to it. As much work as we do on our end in picking the music and shaping it, the arrangements, production, mixing, all those things, they have to bring an interpretive skill to it. There’s no way for us to tell someone how to do that. To some degree they need to understand Ariana Grande or Radiohead or Lana Del Rey, and this is a special breed that do.
You mention Ariana Grande so let’s get into specifics, like the making of “Thank U, Next,” which plays during a crucial Bridgerton scene.
Curtiss: I think that with Ariana Grande, you’re looking for that sense of playfulness in the production, those sort of delicate moments that happen. She’s not a diva. You wouldn’t do what we do with, say, a Mariah Carey track, where it’s these gigantic moments.
You get into those kinds of things of “Where can the playful textures come from?” both in her voice and in the rhythms that are being created. You have to look at each track as its own thing. With Ariana, it’s this playful, delicate, vulnerable, but then there’s these moments that sort of shine through where you kind of crack through that vulnerable facade.
Flynn: James and I were just talking about this the other day, her music is surprisingly sophisticated. It’s the role of dance. She creates this intimate world to bring you in. But you need detail to do that. And it’s there. And that’s all stuff that we can unpack and bring to the quartet. And I think with “Thank U, Next” in particular, you really feel this moment in the show. You’re just transported right into this romantic, hushed, relaxing space.
Were there songs that you sent that didn’t make the cut?
Curtiss: Initially, I went a little bit more pseudo-cool indie feel; I hate trying to define genres nowadays. [Laughs] But we’ve done really successful records with Lana Del Rey, Björk, that kind of repertoire. We also sent them stuff that was almost a little too cool. We have this really great Sigur Rós record we love because it’s so cinematic. But then we also sent other pop stuff. We sent stuff like tracks by The Weeknd, Alessia Cara, and Tove Lo, and a lot of different kinds of repertoire that sort of fit the brief. And that was just a starting point for them.
How do you go about composing new additions to the catalog? Do you just hear a banger and decide to cover it?
Curtiss: There’s a couple of different tiers to the catalog for what it’s worth. This might be a bit cheeky, but we say we make these for the pop fans, but I think at the end of the day, sometimes we just make these for ourselves. A lot of the conversations start with: What kind of records do we want to put out within a calendar year? And a lot of it tends to be things I’m just enjoying myself. So I’ll create a track list, sit down with Leo, we’ll pull it apart. What does, and doesn’t work?
With regards to the hit stuff, yeah, there’s those bangers, but every year there are tracks that hit, but you sit there and you go, “I don’t know if this is going to stick around.” So you look for songs that you know are going to be evergreen, but I think of them as future perennials. You hear something like “bad guy” by Billie Eilish and you go, “This is awesome now, this is going to be awesome 10 years from now.” That’s kind of the criteria you try to stick with when you’re making these hits records. You want people to be able to go back to the time capsule 10 years from now and still feel it.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.