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Drama Period. Interview with Jeff Russo



Richard Buxton talks with composer Jeff Russo about his foray into writing music for television, balancing his career between composing for film and TV with his band-work, how he came to write the score for the first season of Fargo and more.

RB -   Having started your career in rock music, how did you find yourself composing for visual media, and was it a path you had considered taking before being presented with the opportunity?

JR - I was asked to play guitar on a score for a movie back in 2000. I really loved working to picture, so I thought "This is something I would love to do!" About 5 years later, when Tonic was on hiatus, I was talking to Wendy Melvoin about it, and she asked if I wanted to come into their (Wendy and Lisa's) studio to watch what they were doing. Soon after, I started working for them on various projects. That was my introduction to writing music for visual media. I had always loved film music, but this was the first time I thought about it as something I would like to do long term.

RB -  The last few years has seen a dramatic increase in the amount of scores being written by musicians who have a professional musical background outside film music. What do you think that such composers can offer that those who have worked solely in film scoring perhaps cannot?

JR - It's just a different perspective. When you come from a completely different background than a classically trained composer, you'll have a totally different musical point of view. That's the thing that is so attractive about it.

RB -  You are currently a member of the two-time Grammy Award nominated rock band Tonic, having founded it in 1993. How do you go about balancing your band career and TV/Film scoring career?

JR - It's been pretty uncomplicated. Most of the shows and films I've been working on have started in the fall and gone through the winter and spring with the summers off. The summer is usually the time that Tonic does the most shows, so it works out pretty nicely. It's really great, actually. I love doing both and am very lucky that I've been able to continue to do both.

RB -  Are there any noticeable differences in what it takes to succeed in film scoring compared to your experience when performing in a band?

JR - Interestingly, it's completely different and yet similar at the same time. With Film and TV, relationships with the filmmakers are very important, and making those relationships takes getting out there and meeting people and getting your music in front of those people. With being an artist or band, the same hold true but you are trying to get your music in front of people and creating fans.

RB -  What are some film and television scores from the past that you would consider to be your favorites or particularly inspiring to you?

JR - Since I'm primarily a guitar player, I have an affinity for those types of scores. Brokeback Mountain is one of my favorite scores of all time, along with The Shawshank Redemption, and Inception…

RB -  Can you tell us about your current studio setup?

JR - I have a combination of a composer's set up in a traditional recording studio environment. I like to play live instruments on any score that I write, so I have to be able to record it right at a moment's notice, as well as have players come in and record. My composing rig is a 3 computer set up with Pro tool 10 as my main sequencer (and the machine I record any live instruments to), a sample playback rig (running logic and Vienna Ensemble) and a stem recorder/Video playback machine. I also have to be able to record artists and my band when needed. I am installing an analog console to really get that traditional recording studio vibe (which I love).

RB -  You’ve already covered a number of film and television genres with the likes of Fargo, Power, and My Generation. Is there a genre that you feel most comfortable working in?

JR - I find that I am most comfortable working on things that take me outside of what I'm totally comfortable with!


RB -  How did you go about composing the main theme for Fargo?

JR - The day that Noah (Hawley, creator/showrunner) told me about the show, I went back to my studio and picked up my guitar and wrote main melody for that theme. It really grew from there. That was a good 6 months before we started shooting. I just took that melody and expanded on it, with putting it on Viola and Violin and Harp. Then added the big crescendo of the whole orchestra. The other bits and pieces came later the next day.

RB -  A lot of Fargo is thick with atmosphere and tension, but avoids pitfalls that many scores for similar shows succumb to, to become a consistently compelling listen. How do you ensure the less thematic and emotive sequences remain riveting?

JR - With Silence. It's pretty important to let moments be moments. If there is too much music, then music becomes way less effective. In Fargo, everything was done so well that it allowed us to use music very specifically and allow the tension to rise in silence...That way when the music does enter, it's way more powerful and effective.

RB -  Is it a challenge to balance Fargo’s combination of darkly comical and intensely dramatic sequences?

JR - We didn't really play music for the funny bits. Those things live on their own. There is a lighter side of the score, because there is a lighter side of life. Mainly I played into the emotional side and beauty of the scenery.

RB -  Are you a fan of the original Coen Brothers feature film, and in what ways did you take inspiration from it?

JR - Huge fan of the film and of the Coen Brothers. The inspiration is in the world that they created. The juxtaposition of light and dark.

RB -  How long does it normally take for you to write a single episode of music?

JR - It really depends on the show. With Fargo it ranged from 4 days to 2 weeks...But Most of the themes were created before we ever started shooting, giving me the opportunity to write forward. While we were working on episode 2 and 3, I was already writing 6 and 7 and 8. Under normal circumstances, it takes about 3-5 days to turn around an episode of television, but I have had to do that in 2 as well.

RB -  You recently completed scoring the upcoming thriller The Surface. What can we expect to hear from you in the film?

JR - I had such a great time working on that one. I really was able to watch the movie with my guitar in hand and sketch the whole thing. Then go back and add other bits and pieces to what I had already come up with thematically.

RB -  Tell us about your work with the ballet company Cedar Lake. What challenges were you presented with that you had not faced in film scoring?

JR - That was a great project. I was able to write from the choreography backwards. Jen Ballard (choreographer) had already come up with most of the choreography for the dance, and asked for music to be written to it. That posed a huge challenge. I hadn't written to people dancing before. We flew to NY and sat with the Dance company for 3 days of rehearsals while video taping the sections. Then took all that back to LA and got to work. We would send pieces to Jen as they were getting close to being finished for tweaks and notes, and then put them all together to form the 22 minutes of music... It was really fun!

You can find out more about Jeff Russo and his current projects at his OFFICIAL SITE



Fargo (TV Soundtrack) by Jeff Russo








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