Although you may not be familiar with Jeff Russo’s name, you have definitely heard his music. The two-time Grammy nominee and Emmy winning composer has scored a diverse range of projects for film, television, and video games. His work on the FX series Fargo earned him a coveted Emmy award, while his performances with rock band “Tonic” led the band to two Grammy nominations. Russo has also scored a multitude of other exciting projects, including Star Trek: Discovery, Legion, and Altered Carbon. Recently, his work was heard by attendees at the Sundance Film Festival, where his latest project, Lizzie, premiered last week.
Following Lizzie‘s release, Blast Magazine spoke with Russo about his journey from member of a Grammy-nominated rock band to award-winning film and television composer.
Blast Magazine: You began your professional music career as a founding member of the rock band Tonic. How do you think that your experiences with the group helped mold you into the composer you are today?
Jeff Russo: Writing songs had an effect on the way I approach writing a score. I was used to writing pieces of music based on what a lyric might be. I told a story in that way and I’ve always been a storyteller. In the band, we would just write songs and the lyric and melody were king. I applied that knowledge to composing and it worked itself out. The transition was just about me being in the right place at the right time. It was a happy semi-orchestrated accident. I went to a good friend’s studio and I checked out what she was doing. I took a liking to the idea of writing music for someone else’s story and underscoring the emotional core of a story. I then tried to get my own gigs and met some people who had the same music ideas as I did in terms of what could be used to help tell a story.
Blast Magazine: Since then, you have had the opportunity to write music for a variety of television shows and films. One of your more recent projects was scoring the first two seasons of the FX Networks show, Legion. Legion tells the story of a man’s battle between reality and schizophrenia. Was it challenging to write music for the main character, David Haller, given that he is continuously unsure of what actually makes up the world around him?
Russo: Every project has its own challenges. In this particular case, we wanted to invite the audience to experience things in the same way as the character. We didn’t want the music to tip one way or the other and give away whether David’s experiences were real or not. We carried that same ethic into season 2. We play music when it has an emotional reason to be there. We’re not trying to play trippy music in a psychotropic scene and hit the nail on the head. The music shouldn’t give anything away but it also needs to support the narrative, which makes it more complicated but also more fun.
Blast Magazine: You also entered the world of science-fiction media when you scored the television series Star Trek: Discovery. For that project, were you influenced by the music from past Star Trek iterations?
Russo: I really do my own thing. I write the way that I write. With Star Trek: Discovery, it already had a sound that I wanted to apply my music to. It had a big orchestra sound with lots of brass and big fanatic melodies and I wanted to put my stamp on that sound. I was influenced by the Star Trek franchise, but I didn’t go back and listen to scores or take inspiration from them. Those scores of past Star Trek iterations were a part of my DNA growing up and are always a part of my subconscious. The only time I went back was for the original series’ main theme. I nodded to Alexander Courage’s main fanfare in the new main title and throughout the new series. I wanted to connect to something and show where we were going, as this show takes place 10 years prior. There is nothing like evoking that feeling.
Blast Magazine: When working on projects like Fargo and Legion, which have so many strong characters, do you first focus on creating music for the overall story or do you decide on the character themes first?
Russo: Each project is different, so I treat each story differently. When I need to break it down for characters, I do. When it needs to be broad, I try to tell the story from 30,000 feet. I’ve done both for Fargo and Legion. For season 1 of Fargo, it was more of a 30,000 foot look down on the entire story. There were character cues and themes, but it was all tied together. For season 2, there is more of a focus on the individual story and that continues into season 3. For Legion, I try to do a little of both. I try to tell the story of David and Syd, which is a love story for the ages, and how that love overcomes everything. It’s important to stay in touch with that aspect of the story while also telling this much grander good vs. evil story.
Blast Magazine: With all of the projects that you’ve worked on, have you ever been faced with one that you just couldn’t find the right sound for? What did you do when that happened?
Russo: 25 years ago, a really good friend of mine said to “write, write, write, keep writing, write more, and then ruthlessly edit what you have done.” I just continue to work forward and then go backwards to try to edit away the things I don’t like. Most of the time, the sound is already found, but it’s a question of me mining through the story and pictures. I don’t have to find anything but I must figure out how to dig it out from what’s inside this story. I haven’t yet been in a place where I’ve tried to think of a melodic motif and thought it was garbage. In terms of finding something, it usually finds me.
Blast Magazine: Your most recent project, Lizzie, premiered last week at Sundance Film Festival. Watching the story of Lizzie Borden play out was such an intense and emotional journey for the audience. What was your experience like scoring such a dramatic piece?
Russo: I talked a lot with Craig Macneill [the director] about wanting to use a bit of silence to underscore the tension. I used a lot of silence in the middle of musical pieces. I wrote cord string swells with five or ten seconds of silence, which underscored the emotional connection between the two characters and the tension bearing down on both of them. It was lots of fun for me. Weaving melodies and themes out of that framework was interesting. The film performances were so great and didn’t need any help, which made my job a lot easier.
Blast Magazine: Although you must feel relieved and overjoyed to finish each of your projects, which one has brought you the most happiness upon completion?
Russo: I’ve taken joy in every project that I’ve done. Every time I do something, I really do feel so great and fulfilled. Lizzie was particularly fulfilling since I hadn’t written a score that sounded like that before. I was also particularly fond of Star Trek: Discovery since I had never written a big sci-fi action score for television. I loved working on Legion because it was filled with music that I love to play and write.
Blast Magazine: Now that you have completed so many wonderful projects, what would be your dream television show or film to score?
Russo: I try to never look backwards or sideways. There are so many great pieces of film and television music. My dream was to work on Star Trek and I’ve now been able to score the return of the first season to television. When I found out, I literally lost my mind and freaked out. I felt like a kid in a candy store. I love making music for emotionally driven and interesting storytelling. I’ve had the opportunity to write music for really well told stories and that’s the dream.