Imagine growing up knowing you want to make music. That’s your thing. But instead of choosing to master a single instrument—or maybe even two—you decide you need to learn all of them because you have so many ideas, sounds, and scores permeating your thoughts that it just seems counterproductive to do otherwise. Jeff Russo, rock musician turned Emmy-winning composer for television, film, and video games, had such a start.
“The desire to be a multi-instrumentalist came from the idea of wanting to be able to just affect everything I was hearing in my head in a quick manner,” Russo told me. “I don’t have a lot of patience when it comes to creating. I like to be able to hear what I’m thinking immediately.”
Russo’s music career—well, his first one—began when he cofounded rock group Tonic in the early 1990s. Tonic’s debut album, Lemon Parade, went platinum, and the group went on to have a good amount of success releasing more albums, touring, and earning Grammy nominations. Fast-forward to 2017, and Russo still has a foot in the rock-and-roll door but has also become a go-to composer for big projects, creating music for television shows such as Fargo, Legion, and Star Trek: Discovery. His start in composing for TV came from working with Wendy Melvoin and Lisa Coleman, who are perhaps best known for their days playing with Prince and the Revolution. Russo’s professional introduction to the duo, however, came by way of working on the show Crossing Jordan. “Wendy and Lisa gave me the start that I needed,” he said. “They took me into their studio and let me just watch them do their thing, and then put me to work for them. I learned how to do the job watching them.”
Having to balance a handful of simultaneous creative projects that all have distinct needs and are operating on different budgets and schedules can be a challenge, but it’s one that Russo keeps up with due to his strong work ethic and ability to adapt to the needs of his employers. “Every show and every project demands a different type of attention and a different attention amount—and at different times requires a different amount of attention,” he said. “So a lot of it is me hoping that schedules don’t get too conflicted, and it’s me basically putting on different hats every day, or every few hours.” While he’s found a way to make it all work to date, scheduling all of his commitments around each other has become increasingly difficult due to how TV has evolved and how shows are consumed.
A growing trend has been the rise of cable networks and streaming giants Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime creating and distributing original scripted shows, which they’ve gotten in the habit of releasing as limited series or shows with short runs of eight to 15 episodes rather than the traditional 22- or 24-episode seasons at the big networks. “I tend to work more in cable and streaming than I do in broadcast network television,” Russo said. “That, coupled with the video games and films that I do, it’s really an all year-long thing. This last summer I was working on a movie and a video game and also two television shows—one for Netflix and one for Starz. And then of course I started working on Star Trek: Discovery, which also started in the summer.” While this shift has complicated Russo’s schedule and made things more hectic in general, it’s also stimulated him as an artist to be able to focus on season-long story and character arcs rather than the needs of a specific episode. “Doing 8 or 10, or 12, or even 15—which is getting a little long—episode orders are easier to tell the story in a concise way. When you’re doing 22 episodes of a show, a lot of it is going to be filler. I prefer to work on projects that are a singular story that spans an entire series.”
With roots now firmly established in his second musical career, Russo is composing for properties that come with scores of fans who have been immersed in these worlds for years, if not generations. “In both cases of Fargo and Star Trek, it’s me walking in the shadow of giants. Fargo, the original movie score done by Carter Burwell, is a favorite of mine,” he said. “The idea there was to forge a new path in terms of our own identity; that was a big task. The same goes for Star Trek. With Star Trek, I’m now on the same page—and when I say page, I mean piece of paper that lists all of the composers for various Star Trek incarnations—I’m on that paper along with some of the greatest film composers of all time. Jerry Goldsmith is certainly one of the best ever.” Though Russo follows in the footsteps of these great composers who came before him, he also acknowledges that what he does needs to be its own thing: “The expectation is super high. The bar is super high. And that can be very daunting. At the same time, I kind of have to not look sideways at that and just do what I do, and hopefully, it can stand up. Hopefully it does the job in a way that’s meaningful to the fans.”
Both Star Trek and Fargo (the latter of which won Russo an Emmy this year and is now on hiatus after three seasons) have their share of passionate fans. But Legion, based on characters with ties to Marvel’s X-Men universe, has aired one season to date on FX and also brings its difficulties and appeal. “[Legion] definitely provided me an artistic palette that was basically unsurpassed. I got to write the type of music that I love to write, and write it to this very artistic show,” Russo said. “That kind of storytelling is what I really love to do—it’s like an eight-hour movie.” He also stated that some of what fits that appeal is his ability to record with an orchestra, something he’s also gotten to do with Fargo and with Star Trek: Discovery, which is midway through its first season on CBS All Access.
While Russo’s star in Hollywood continues to rise with his contributions to marquee shows and properties, it’s come at a cost: Tonic. He’s still involved with the band, and enjoys his time playing to live audiences with his friends, but he acknowledges he’s not able to participate as much as he’d like. “We did do a tour last summer that I was not a part of,” Russo noted. “If there are tours going on with the band, I’m—more likely than not—not going to be able to do it because I just don’t have the time to travel for six weeks. But when we do individual shows, on the weekend or whatever, I do tend to fly in and do those types of shows. I do still really enjoy playing with the band, but with my schedule the way it is now it’s very difficult to be able to manage that.”
As he continues working and juggling his various projects, Russo is excited for the February 2018 second-season premiere of Legion. “I just scored a band sequence. I’ve done a lot of new character-building in it. That’s a lot of fun,” he said. “There’s some new characters this season, which needed some thematic work. Overall, it’s just a fantastic show. It’s a fantastic season.”