'Be true to your own voice' Emmy-winning Fargo composer Jeff Russo on making TV music and succeeding
Jeff Russo is an Emmy-winning composer known for hit TV shows Fargo, Legion, Lucifer and Star Trek: Discovery. Here he tells Mandy News how he started out in the industry, his process of writing music for television and what aspiring TV composers can do to get noticed.
Jeff, please tell us how you first got into the world of music? How did that lead to you getting into the film industry later in life?
I’ve been into music and playing music since I was a kid. I wanted to be in high school rock bands and cover bands and the like. When I left high school, I came to LA with those dreams of being in a band and did just that. I started a band, we got a record deal, made a few records and toured for a while. That was about 20 years of my life. About 10 years ago, which overlaps with that, I wanted to to figure out what the next thing could be for me. So a friend of mine named Wendy Melvin invited me to her studio where her and her partner Lisa were scoring a show called Heroes and also scoring Crossing Jordan.
I just ended up loving it and what they were doing. Eventually, they asked if I wanted to assist them and work around the studio and I ended up writing some cues for them too. Once I had a taste of that, I wanted to jump into it fully. I started doing demos and trying to get jobs and worked my way to getting my first gig. It all began from there.
You’ve worked on some of the biggest shows around. How did you move into working on Fargo, Star Trek: Discovery and The Night Of?
It’s all inter-connected. The person who hired me for my first gig, a show I did on my own called The Unusuals for ABC in 2009, was Noah Hawley who created that show. He and I have gone on to have a long-term collaboration. He did another show after that called My Generation and after that developed and created the TV series Fargo and he asked me to do it. With the success of that show, put me in the mind of Steve Zaillian who is the writer and director of The Night Of. We met up and he liked what I did on Fargo and asked me to do his show.
That led to a meeting with Alex Kurtzman who was an executive producer on Star Trek: Discovery. As you meet one person, you meet another who enjoys something you’ve done prior and it rolls and becomes a snowball effect. It’s an incredible journey from one great project to the next, especially with the kind of impact they have on viewers.
What are the challenges and differences between working on a movie like Mile 22 and something like Star Trek: Discovery?
From a purely logistical standpoint, the main challenge and difference is the scheduling. You tend to do more work on the same thing in a film than you do on a TV show, where you do work more on different things. For example, I have had to look at the same scenes several times on a film as the edit keep changing and I have to adjust whereas on a TV show, they just don’t have the time for that. They have to put together an edit and that’s what you get to work on. Thematically and musically, I try to treat it all in the same way by applying something meaningful to help tell the story.
What is your process? Do you meet with the director first?
Once I’ve been hired, the first step is reading the script and getting familiar with the material. Understanding what the characters are going to be doing and their tones and feelings. Then, it’s sketching some thematic ideas and running that by the filmmaker whether it’s TV or film. With Star Trek: Discovery, I worked on a couple of character themes but mainly the main title theme which helps to shape the overall sound palette for the series.
With Mile 22, I’ve written a few 10 minute-long suites of music and a number of palette examples for the director and then he’s been giving me feedback. Now we’re starting to see pictures coming in, we start putting them into the movie to see how things work and what’s going to work where as well as what I’m going to score.
What equipment do you use mainly, both in and out the box?
It all depends on the project. With Star Trek, I write everything in the box and then we record everything with a 50-60 piece orchestra every week. With Mile 22, I’m doing a lot of work with synthesisers and live percussion. So I’ll do a lot of that work, then I’ll play a bunch of percussion and then get my friend Pete to come in and play some other percussion. Then I’ll write some other thematic material with my computer and see how that plays into it. Eventually, I’ll then score it with big string and woodwind sections. In the box, I mainly use Pro Tools for all my sequencing and I use Vienna Ensemble Pro for hosting all of my instruments.
What else are you currently working on at the moment?
I’m currently finishing up season two of Legion for FX. I am deep into Mile 22. Star Trek won’t start again until the summer. Counterpart, which is another show I started last year, is going to be starting again. There is a new piece for Netflix called The Umbrella Academy which I am currently working on too. Only slightly at the moment, so a theme here and a theme there. They’re still in the middle of shooting their first episode.
When you are in between projects, do you still create music for yourself? Whether it’s for fun or for commercials, etc?
I was just asked to do a big fanfare theme for a commercial I just did. That was kind of fun. In terms of making music for myself, everything I do, I basically write for myself. It’s in service of someone else’s art but we’re all artists and filmmakers. It’s a very collaborative effort. When I sit down to write a piece of music, I write for me as well as for the narrative. In that way, I get true fulfilment from that. I haven’t sat down to write a song in a little while but I do still enjoy that and hope to do that before the end of the year.
What plans do you have for the future?
Sometime in July, I am playing a few concerts at a film music festival in Malaga, Spain. That should be a lot of fun. I’m starting another film in the summer with Noah Hawley; he’s directing the film. I’m actually looking forward to taking a bit of a break in Spain too.
What advice would you give to someone trying to follow in your footsteps?
When you’re any one of those things: actor, writer, creator, music supervisor or composer. On all levels, we are all collaborators. The most important thing though is to be true to your own voice. Your voice is the only thing that you have so being true to that and wanting to emote that side of yourself is very important. Don’t try to be someone else. Be yourself.
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