Careers rarely go according to plan. In Job Hacks, we shake down experts for the insights they cultivated on their way to the top of their field.
This week, we spoke with Jeff Russo, Emmy-nominated composer of FX’s Fargo. Russo also scores Starz’s Power, HBO’s The Night Of, CBS’s American Gothic, and Spike’s Tut. He is also a founding member of the Grammy-nominated band Tonic.
Did you originally only want to be in a band and television scoring just came up? Or were both always on your radar?
I started out wanting to be in a band when I was a kid. I never really thought about what writing music for movies or films or television would be like. It never even occurred to me until I took a break from the band in 2005. I started trying to think of other things to do in terms of writing music, and I went to work for some friends of mine who were doing it for television and films at the time. So it was never really a thing that I planned on doing my whole life, but I’ve enjoyed music for narrative for a long time.
The shows you score are quite different. Is that something that you do on purpose to maintain a variety?
Musically I live in a dark, emotional place. The narratives I tend to gravitate toward are ones that have dark emotion and irony in them. With that said, I’ve been very lucky to have been asked to work on these shows.
Do you get a lot of freedom, or do the show’s creators usually tell you what they’re looking for?
Every producer and filmmaker has a different way of doing things. Sometimes they give me a lot of leeway and freedom to write, and sometimes what they’re looking for is a very specific sound. The process is more about reading the script and figuring out what the sound of that particular show is going to be. For the shows that have more of a narrative arc and not the more procedural type shows — like Fargo and The Night Of, I treated them like long movies. They had a singular narrative theme and plot, so I have the music evolve with the story. As the story changes, the music has to change. I look at it from an entire perspective as opposed to individual episodes.
Is there any one project that has surprised you in the process of making it?
I was surprised by Fargo because I had never written anything for an orchestra before. And when I went to write the music for that show and we decided that it had to be an orchestral score and I did that, I was surprised with myself that I was able to manage to pull that off.
What advice do you think you would give to a young person looking to get into the business?
It’s all about finding your own voice. It’s one thing to be really enamored of film and television music and listen to it because you love it, and it’s another to be listening to it to try to see what people are doing in order to try to emulate that, because that’s not what people want. In the end, the things that last are people who have a real, true, unique voice, and I think that’s important to keep in mind when trying to break into anything artistic: To have a unique voice and to not allow that voice to be shifted by what you think people are wanting.
And are there any television or film scores on you’ve seen recently that have stood out to you?
There definitely are a few. I love Penny Dreadful, the score is fantastic. And the score for Mr. Robot is great as well. In general television has taken a really wonderful turn and become so much better. It’s thrilling to be a part of that.
Is there any show you’re not currently working on that you’d love to work on in the future?
If there’s a show that I really like, then I think that that person who’s doing it is doing a great job and I wouldn’t want to hear it any other way. There are shows that employ multiple people, like Black Mirror which has a different composer and a different director for every episode. I’d love to do something like that.
Which upcoming project are you anticipating most?
I’m just starting back up on a show for FX called Legion, which is the sort of X-Men type thing. And then I’ll get right back into Fargo Season 3. I’m really looking forward to getting back into that.