Jeff Russo on composing character-driven music for ‘Power’ and ‘The Returned’ (Podcast)

Composer Jeff Russo is a busy man: after reaping his first Emmy nomination for the miniseries “Fargo,” he’s back in the running this year with Starz’s drama series “Power” and A&E’s “The Returned,” two shows that couldn’t be more dissimilar in tone and style. “The thing that actually ties them together,” Russo says in our exclusive podcast interview, “is that they’re both really, deeply character pieces, and it gives me an opportunity to not just write with the narrative in mind, but write with these characters and their development over time in mind. (Listen our complete podcast with Russo below.)

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“It’s a way of writing that I actually really enjoy, because I get to develop themes over time, and both of these shows really do focus on the character development over the course of the season.” He continues, “Both shows are subtle musically, I would say. It’s really just about supporting the narrative as opposed to really trying to push it along, which is also something that I really enjoy doing as well.”

Power” tells the story of James “Ghost” St. Patrick (Omari Hardwick), a wealthy New York City nightclub owner leading a double-life as a drug kingpin. “With ‘Power,’ I’m already writing season two … and the way that the characters have developed from the beginning of season one until the end of season two has been really interesting to me because all these characters go through a really big metamorphosis, so that the themes had to grow and change with them.”

The Returned,” meanwhile, focuses on a small town that is thrown into upheaval when several locals, long presumed to be dead, reappear un-aged and unaware of their disappearance. “With ‘The Returned,’ these characters, as they realize that they’re actually dead, they also make somewhat of a transformation in terms of their understanding of their place in the world, and that was really thrilling and fun to write as well.”

The show also afforded Russo the opportunity to collaborate with fellow composer and cellist Zoe Keating. “She and I were able to develop these character themes using sounds and different melodic pieces that we would sort of put together, and then call each other on the phone and talk about them, start sending each other different files and melodies. It was actually a very thrilling way to work.”

In addition to “Power” and “The Returned,” Russo is also working on season two of “Fargo.” He admits to being both intimidated and inspired by Carter Burwell‘s score for the original 1996 film, but ultimately says, “the idea that I and our producer Noah [Hawley] had, was to really forge our own thematic moments and make it about our show, and not about wanting to sound or look or be like the movie. So I had to be able to live inside that world, and yet create a whole new musical identity for the show.”

He’s also working on “Tut,” an epic miniseries for Spike TV that chronicles the rise to power and death of the legendary Egyptian king. “It’s very broad,” he says. “It’s a very big score with a 70-piece orchestra. We talked about wanting to make it like a modern take on an epic, traditional score. It has elements of the big, sort of epic movies of yesterday, but wanting to make it sort of compositionally modern. I didn’t want to get stuck in the rule book of how film scores were made 30, 40 years ago, but using that as a jumping-off point, and feeling that sweeping sound that you hear when you see movies of this scope.”

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