JEFF RUSSO
Computer Music|March 2021
Jeff Russo is one of the world’s leading film and TV composers, currently on a mission to boldly produce exceptional soundtracks for both Star Treks Discovery and Picard. For these critically-acclaimed soundtracks, he even had his own custom-built sample library co-developed with Orchestral Tools (now available for us all to use) complete with a Klingon Choir…
Jeff Russo never intended to be a leading film and television composer although that is certainly what he has become. After making his mark on the ground-breaking series Fargo he has now become synonymous with Star Trek, composing the scores to two of the latest and most successful incarnations of the brand: Discovery and Picard. However, it was the lure of rock ‘n’ roll that first drew Russo into music making and he originally found fortune as guitarist in the 90s alternative rock band Tonic with lead singer Emerson Hart. The band was successful enough to release several albums and tour extensively, but while on a break from the band, Russo hooked up with Wendy Melvoin from the duo Wendy & Lisa and ended up writing some cues for some of the television series that they were scoring. He was consequently bitten by the film-composing bug.

“Wendy asked me if I wanted to try my hand at writing a cue for them,” Russo recalls. “They gave me all their stuff, like their samples, and I tried writing a cue and they really liked it. I ended up writing a bunch of music for them as an additional writer for about a year on Crossing Jordan and The Bionic Woman.”

That was the start of Russo’s new career in media composition and although it would take him a couple of years to get a firm foothold in this new industry, he has now become one of the most in-demand composers in film and TV. So high is his profile that Berlin-based library developers Orchestral Tools even helped develop a special library for him to use in his Star Trek enterprises. Modus is now commercially available but was initially designed to offer Russo articulations and control over an orchestra that were not available in other libraries. And so successful was the result that before its public availability he used the library across both Discovery and Picard.

Over the following few pages we talk in depth with Russo about the business of film and TV composition, and while he admits that his success came from being in the right place at the right time and with the right music – and you won’t quite believe how he got the Star Trek gig – he has some solid advice for anyone wishing to gain a foothold in this exciting business. And then there’s the Klingon choir he recorded as part of Modus to discuss. Yes, the Star Trek geek in us has been waiting to do this kind of interview for some time…

cm: Congratulations on your success with Picard and Star Trek. We’re intrigued how you managed to make the step up from helping Wendy & Lisa out to making a name for yourself in TV and film?

JR: “There was basically a year and a half when I did nothing but I was lucky that I had the opportunity to do that because I’d been in a successful rock band and I had made enough money that I could devote all my time to just writing music and figuring out what I was doing.

“They say that success is a combination of being in the right place at the right time and being ready. You have to be presented with an opportunity and be ready to seize that opportunity and in 2008 I ran into a really good friend of mine [the actor] Jeremy Renner. He was doing a pilot and asked what I was doing and I was like ‘well I’m trying to get into this new space of music’ and he said ‘well let me see if they need a composer’. He asked the producer who asked me to send in a reel and a demo, so I wrote a demo and sent it in. Two months went by and I thought they’d given it to someone else, but then I got a phone call from the showrunner saying they’d really like to meet with me. He was in New York, I was in LA and so I literally drove to the airport and got a flight to New York! I went and met Noah Hawley who is the creator and producer of most of the things that I have worked on. He wrote and produced Fargo and Legion among many others.”

cm: And how did that first show with Noah pan out?

JR: “It was called The Unusuals which was cancelled after 10 episodes and then Noah and I did another show called My Generation which lasted two episodes, but then he called me three months after that and said ‘would you be interested in doing Fargo?’. I was like, ‘that’s one of my favourite movies of all time’, and that’s what changed my career and changed everything. I was nominated for an Emmy and it was in the television zeitgeist at the time and outside of what I was known to do. I was a guy from a 90s alternative rock band and I’d never done an orchestral score before, never even written a note of orchestral music.”

cm: Wow, so how did you manage to get that orchestral score together?

JR: “I just figured it out! I thought ‘well I know melody, I know harmony, so why can’t that be played on a violin and then the chords can be played on the cello and viola?’. So instead of a melody played on a guitar, it’s played on a flute or an oboe. I read a book about orchestrating and basically what that told me was ‘this instrument can play in this range and do this kind of thing’. The thing that I don’t know which an orchestrator has now helped me tons with is what the actual sound of the orchestra can be and having her there early on really helped me write all of the parts. But that took me out of my comfort zone and put me in a different class of composer. I could have stayed in a class where I do sort of pop/rock/dramatic music but I didn’t want to be known as the guy from the 90s rock band who now does television.”

cm: How did your career progress from there?

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