Ask The Composer: Jeff Russo Goes Back In Time With “Fargo”

Jeff Russo is hard to pin down. He’s literally a rock star, having just celebrated the 20th anniversary of his band Tonic’s first album, as well as a composer for television, his latest work being the original score for the FX thriller Fargo (2014 - ) ScreenPrism caught up with Russo to talk about Fargo, his ability to switch gears creatively, and the genius that is the Sanford and Son theme song.

ScreenPrism: Tell me a little bit about your background.

Jeff Russo: It’s an interesting one. I started and have been in and continue to play with my band Tonic for the last twenty some odd years. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the release of our first record this year. It’s quite a feat.

I’ve been doing that, and then about 10 years ago we took somewhat of a break and I was trying to figure out what it was I was going to do. A good friend, Wendy Melvoin, asked me if I wanted to hang out in the studio while she and her partner, Lisa, were working on a show called Heroes (2006 - 2010) and a show called Crossing Jordan (2001 - 2007).

SP: When you say “Wendy and Lisa,” do you mean the Wendy and Lisa?

JR: Yes, indeed I do. Wendy is one of my very close friends and she invited me to hang out with them and then asked me to work for her. I started working for them like 10 years ago. After that I sort of got the bug writing for narrative media. Ever since then it has become the focus of the music that I’ve been writing. I continue to keep writing and recording and touring with my band, but my focus has been way more on writing this type of music: scores, themes and that kind of thing.

Jeff Russo

SP: That’s certainly more interesting than “I went to Berklee and then I got a job.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

JR: No. In fact I never went to school to study anything at all. I think that that kind of study can be beneficial and it can also hinder. Educationally it works really well for some people and not as well for others. For me, I write and play music by ear. I never really studied any instruments. When I was in the fourth grade they made me choose an instrument, and I took violin lessons for a while. In fifth grade I got sick of it so I went to clarinet and in sixth grade I got sick of it and I went to play the drums. And then I sort of started playing drums for a while and then I got into a band when I was like 14 or 15 and I said, “I want to do what that guy is doing,” and I pointed to the guitar player. So I picked up a guitar and started playing a guitar, and that was that.

Melodies and harmonies are just melodies and harmonies. They can be played by any instrument in any situation. When you apply that logic to strings and wind instruments and the cello and the basses, it just seems to work out in my mind. I don’t really know how that works, but it does.

SP: With Fargo, the score feels very different from scene to scene and episode to episode. How do you maintain the diversity that comes through in your work?

JR: I set out at the beginning of the season reading a bunch of scripts and writing a bunch of themes for characters and places. Once that is completed, I could go out and apply that to any different type of sound. We didn’t want to be locked into a specific type of thing. In Season 2 we decided we needed to write all new themes because the characters were so different. Really the only thing that could transition from Season 1 to 2 was the main theme.

Martin Freeman as Lester Nyaard and Allison Tolman as Molly Solverson in Fargo Season 1

In terms of Season 2, we really rely heavily on songs. It changed the feel of the show and I think that was very meaningful because we went back to 1979. The songs had such a powerful way of defining time. When you start playing with songs from then and start mixing it up with the score, you really get this sense of time and space. The music was made to make you feel like you were where you were supposed to be. That’s something that I had to keep in mind the whole time.

SP: When you work on a period piece like Season 2, are you always thinking of that history and era?

JR: Yeah, I think that the best way to define the time in that way is to use music. It’s not [about] always trying to sound old-timey but using it in a way that defines it and defines the show’s identity as well. I had to be able to continue to define the identity of the show but put it in the context of 1979. So I didn’t want the score to sound like it was old music from 1979 – we used songs from 1979 that put you there – but then the score has a timeless feel to it. It doesn’t sound old-timey but it doesn’t sound completely modern. There’s a little bit of everything.

Kirsten Dunst as Peggy Blumquist and Jesse Plemons as Ed Blumquist in Fargo Season 2

SP: How do you handle the transition from project to project?

JR: The process does change, but it really does depend on the project. The good thing for me is that when I get to work on several different things at once, it really shakes it up for me creatively. Like if I’m writing for Fargo and I sort of start to get stuck or blocked, I can switch to something else and sort of shake the cobwebs out of my brain sometimes.

That’s the upside. The downside is that it can be confusing sometimes. But in the end it is just melodies and harmonies and rhythms. And as you’re doing that you just have to be very aware that you’re not sharing those things with the different projects. As I transition from one project to another, it’s just a question of getting my head into the right space. This question has been asked of me a number of times and I do get to work on a lot of different projects –—the one thing I haven’t done is dramatic science fiction.

To me, a traditional sci-fi action thriller sounds so good to me and I love that kind of movie that kind of show. Those are the things that I love to watch. So I’m interested in doing something like that.

SP: Television has changed so much, but just about everyone has a favorite TV theme song. What is yours?

So that means it has to have a lyric, right? I have a number of them. I thought the CHiPs (1977 - 1983) theme was fantastic. I thought the All in the Family (1971 - 1979) theme was amazing – but, oh my gosh, Sanford and Son (1972 - 1977) had such an incredible theme. Quincy Jones wrote that and it just was fantastic.