Interview with Jeff Russo

By • January 24, 2020

(photo by Jana Davidoff of Rhapsody PR)

Where Captain James T. Kirk’s original starship boldly went with rousingly thematic melody for “Star Trek,” his successor Jean-Luc Picard explored with a prime directive for muted music when “The Next Generation’s” Enterprise-D took flight decades later. But if this new “Trek” and the spin-offs that followed were commanded to tread lightly, leave it to a new leap for the galaxy of subscription TV to truly bring memorable scoring back to the franchise with “Discovery.” Piloting this work through Klingon war, A.I. menace and a mind-boggling propulsion stream through two seasons and counting has been Jeff Russo. A composer with seemingly infinite stylistic voyages into the small-screen medium with the likes of “CSI: Cyber,” “American Gothic,” “Waco,” “Santa Clarita Diet,” “Legion” and “Lucifer,” the passion of a career inspired by “Trek’s” tunefully unabashed soundtracks were more than heard in the sweepingly orchestral sound he brought to the show’s third lifespan – one that now splinters back to the future with “Picard.”

Where fans last saw a vital Captain given a new life by Data’s sacrifice at the end of 2002’s feature “Nemesis” we now catch up with a character far more reminiscent of star Patrick Stewart’s life-beaten turn as Professor Xavier in “Logan” – even if this former leader is far more in control of his senses. Put to vineyard pasture after walking from Starfleet due to a thwarted Romulan exodus and the banning of artificial life after a Mars terrorist attack, Picard finds a new spark upon being contacted by Dahj (Isa Briones). As a woman who holds Data’s legacy, it will be the quest to find her origins that will drive the first season of “Picard,” one that will have Picard encounter both new, and familiar faces in a re-energized Next Generation universe .

Where Russo’s work for “Discovery” took a more cosmic, and overt emotional viewpoint given its tonal shifts from the fury of battle to saving the universe itself among episodes of sacrifice and rebirth, “Picard” shifts warp to a far more introspective tone. It’s not that thrill of new adventure, or the instantly nostalgic call of iconic themes abound. But what’s most daring about Russo’s approach here is in fitting a still-commanding presence into civilian cloths of a man who’s now full of self-doubt about his place in the universe, and the good he might have done for it. It’s an insightful, lyrical approach that brings a new, movingly soulful voice to the often epic sound of the “Star Trek,” all while continuing Russo’s fresh, enthusiastic vibrancy for the shows that spring from sci-fi TV’s most famed show in a medium thirsting for content.

Pictured: Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Justin Lubin/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Of course, “Picard” is far from alone in Russo’s galaxy. Soon on his heels will be new adventures with the dysfunctional grown-up superheroes of “The Umbrella Academy” a re-spawn into the future noir of “Altered Carbon” (premiering February 27th) and a return to his Emmy-winning work on “Fargo” (premiering April 19th), which takes its most unpredictable, fatalistically eccentric trip to a race gangster war in 1950 Kansas City. All will reveal new voices in Russo’s repertoire, with each soundtrack distinguished by his singular quality in exploring characters with music that can be as cosmic as it is intimate.

Was it always a given that you’d be scoring “Picard?”

Star Trek producer Alex Kurtzman

Nothing in this business is ever given, so I don’t ever take anything like that for granted. I was at the Star Trek convention in Las Vegas where they announced the series. I was backstage with a bunch of people. Our Alex Kurtzman, the architect of the entire television Star Trek television world walked in and then Patrick Stewart walked in. I looked at Alex and I asked him what was happening. He told me to come out into the audience to watch. Then they announced the show was happening. I told Alex that The Next Generation was where I began my Star Trek fandom. That was my generation, and I had to do this show! He told me we’d talk about it. Eventually he called me and told me that he really wanted me to do the show, especially because of what he thought my music brought to the Star Trek franchise. But it was all an ongoing conversation, and never a foregone conclusion. I didn’t have to audition for it because my demo for them was my work on seasons one and two of “Star Trek: Discovery”

I did a number of versions of a main title theme. The melody basically stayed the same throughout the different iterations. One was a big sort of more swashbuckling thing, one sounded like a “space” show and one was a darker and more contemplative version. The one we ended up with was a more emotional and stirring take on a melodic theme for Picard.


How did the DNA-like visuals of the opening titles influence your scoring?

I had actually written the main title before there was ever a visual of it. They took the music I’d written and started building a title sequence around it. Then they sent me back the visuals which I then tailored my music around. Certain flourishes needed to be move around and certain passages needed to be repeated. So it was sort of a hand off that went back and forth. It wasn’t like “Here’s the visuals, now write a piece of music for it.”

Pictured: Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Matt Kennedy/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Now what’s really into, how would you describe the energy of this show being different than “Discovery’s?”

This is a really different show. This is a humanistic approach to telling the story of someone who wants to make amends to himself. Picard had this break with Starfleet because of their differences of opinion on The Romulans and an artificial human attack on Mars. That’s why he ended up leaving Starfleet. Now Picard wants to get to the bottom of the whole thing. So this isn’t a show about outward exploration. It’s about his inward exploration. It’s a more of a personal story really talking about his journey as opposed to a group of people’s.

Pictured (l-r): Harry Treadaway as Narek; Isa Briones of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Given that intimate approach, do you think that “Picard” highlights solo instruments more than “Discovery” does?

I wanted to take a more personalized approach, certainly for the first episode. I felt it would benefit from solo passages. There’s flute, because, I’m taking a lead from The Next Generation’s episode “The Inner Light” where Picard learned to play the Ressikan flute. So that seemed like a natural instrument to use. I tend to use cello a lot because it tells an emotional story that fills that same harmonic space as the human voice does. Then there’s some more sort of esoteric instruments used to give voice to certain characters in the following episodes.

Where the music of The Next Generation’s era had an amorphous approach, you’ve taken a much more forthrightly musical approach to your scoring of the new Star Trek. How difficult is to bring that non-obtrusive approach to Picard to make us recall his character’s past?

Pictured (l-r): Patrick Stewart as Picard; Michelle Hurd as Raffi of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The challenge is trying to figure out how to not utilize too much music. I think that what is interesting is that there’s probably more music in those TNG seasons then you remember. Those show’s directive was that they didn’t want the audience to know there was music there, even though they needed it. They needed something to help with the story, but they wanted music just to be wallpaper. That was the sort of directive that I’ve read about. I don’t tend to write music as just sort of wallpaper. If I’m writing something, then there’s usually some sort of melodic construction that is going to help tell the story. I rely on my own instinct to guide me with that.

I’m very aware of the, of the musical “cannon” of Star Trek, going back to the all of the series and all the films, except “Enterprise” which I didn’t see. I don’t really think of one approach versus the other in terms of Star Trek music then and now. Though I was a huge Next Generation fan, my true entryway into Star Trek was with “The Wrath of Khan.” It’s score by James Horner’s was very musical and also extremely atonal as well. There was a lot of both in that movie. That was the Star Trek music that I knew and loved. So I sort of take my lead in terms of the musical cannon from the films more than the television shows. Obviously, the original series has really interesting music that if you listen to it now, sounds kind of campy. But back then it was groundbreaking. I feel like that’s the way these stories were meant to be told now. So, in thinking about how to relate music to a character, with Jean-Luc Picard especially, it was really important to me to have there be a musical stamp on him – and have it not necessarily be what I’d done for “Discovery.” This show has a completely different feeling than it. So my challenge was how I could keep “Picard’s” music in the world of Star Trek while also making it sound different? I’m facing it even now as I’m writing for the series.

Pictured (l-r): Evan Evagora as Elnor; Patrick Stewart as Picard of the the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Trae Patton/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The first episode has a chase sequence that makes it clear that Picard isn’t going to be an action-oriented character running at top speed. How did his age weigh into the score?

I don’t really think about that consciously, but I think there’s a subconscious level of having to dig deeper into a musicality for him because there’s this experience, depth of character and gravitas to him. But you’re right. Patrick Stewart is playing a character that is past his physical prime. I think that if we were to try to play him where he has this ability to make those moves musically, it would feel disingenuous. I feel like it’s more about his presence in any situation that guides my musical direction.

Could you talk about Picard’s father-daughter like relationship with Dahj?

Pictured: Isa Briones of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: James Dimmock/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

She becomes the jumping off point for his quest through the series. His relationship to her is a a direct result of his relationship with Data. Because somewhere deep inside he feels responsible for Data’s sacrifice he feels duty bound to figure out the mystery of Dahj and how she’s connected to Data. Generally speaking, this kind of relationship makes this series more emotional than other Star Treks series because they haven’t really told a story as personal as this one.

How did you want to impactfully bring in Jerry Goldsmith’s “Next Generation” theme which now signifies Picard and his Enterprise, even though it was originally written for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture?”

(photo by Jana Davidoff of Rhapsody PR)

I think it was a great idea when that became the TV theme for The Next Generation. I’m able to utilize cannon thematic material in order to affect a certain emotional feeling. At the moment that I use it in episode one, it’s Picard, and it really does connect everything. The great thing about music is that you really can bring somebody from point A to point B on the turn of a dime with something as iconic as a theme like that. In the same way I can use Alexander Courage’s theme to evoke the idea of Star Trek in general. So I can connect the dots between Picard and The Next Generation. It’s not technically necessary, but it’s great to be able to pull on those heartstrings. God, it’s one of my favorite melodies that Goldsmith ever wrote. It’s very easy for me to be writing a cue and then, say, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice to just go “Bah-da-da-da-da-da-daa!” That tends to work, but I don’t ever want to overuse it, you know, just like I didn’t want to overuse Sandy Courage’s fanfare on “Discovery,” Yet, it is nice to know that the entirety of Star Trek’s musical cannon of the entire franchise can be used anywhere to tie it all together. It’s like how I could utilize the “Discovery” season one themes later in season two. It really does tie the whole thing together. But I don’t do use “Discovery” themes in “Picard,” because they are two separate things. But you never know.

When Picard does join his “crew” as such, you bring in some instruments like the guitar which we really haven’t heard on “Discovery.” How is it to jump into those new styles with “Picard?”

Pictured (l-r): Sir Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard; Jonathan Del Arco as Hugh of the CBS All Access series STAR TREK: PICARD. Photo Cr: Matt Kennedy/CBS ©2019 CBS Interactive, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Again, it’s like trying to give a little bit of a different flavor to the feeling of this show’s score and adding different things to it like a guitar, or voices for that matter, in order to effect a change – yet still trying to keep it all in the same sort of feeling. I did use the guitar on “Discover,” although it was kind of hidden. I use all the tools at my disposal. It wasn’t necessarily about me saying, “Oh, I’ll use the guitar for this character or voices for this character.” It was really just trying to utilize a different flavor in order to affect something different. I like my ability to be able to do that in this particular show because “Picard’s” storytelling is so different than “Discovery’s.”

Let’s talk about the upcoming season four of “Fargo,” which relocates to Kansas City in the 1950 for a war between black and white gangsters.

“Fargo” is something brand new every time. Every time we start a new season, I get to sit in a playground and basically just have fun. That’s one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever gotten from Noah Hawley is the ability to take what he’s asking for and throw off the entire pallet on the table and sort of just pick and choose the kinds of things I wanna I really want to do. He has a very specific direction and a very specific way he likes to do things and feel that he wants. A lot of it is throwing out the old and figuring out what the new thing is. In doing that over the last like six months on this season I’ve been having a lot of fun. I can’t really explain to you what the palette is for season four. There’s a little bit of everything and then of course there’s a very “Fargo” feeling to the score. because that’s, that’s what we’re doing. So there’s always a little bit of drums, there’s drama, big horns and a big orchestra playing these very dark emotional pieces. Then there’s a lot of fun as well. You’ll hear that in the first episode for sure,

Whether it’s the 60’s or the present day, your scoring has always reflected the time of the particular season. So given the 50’s, what can we musically expect for that period?

I think a lot of that is going to be in the rhythm and my use of brass, versus how I used it in season three. A lot of times we utilize songs to really put us in the place, and I think that we’ll be doing a lot of that for season four. You’ll definitely hear a lot of source that will put you right in that time period. I love scoring period pieces simply because they look so great, feel so great. Yet I’m not trying to make the score sound like it’s from the 50’s, because that would be disingenuous for me. I’m making a “Fargo” score, so the question is how do I thread that into the fact that this is a period piece. I’m not trying to make it sound old, but yet we are trying to tip our hat to that, so to speak.

You also did a beautiful, hypnotic score for Noah’s feature film “Lucy in the Sky,” which you could say is another science “fiction” piece about a flawed space voyager.

I think I’d call it “science drama.” It’s a human story, and there wasn’t a lot of science involved except for the fact that she’s an astronaut. It’s really about telling Lucy’s story. I would have been a lot happier if more people had gotten to see it. I’m super proud of the movie and super proud of the store. I think that people either understood it or they didn’t. That’s just the sort of way things happened

It’s also quite meta, now that Noah is set to do the new “Star Trek” movie, which means you could likely end up doing a whole other iteration of its music given that he wants a new crew.

Noah Hawley

I’m extremely excited about that possibility. We have had conversations about it. But again, nothing is ever a foregone conclusion in my mind. I cherish my work with Noah. I think that he has an incredibly, incredibly interesting story to tell with his version of “Star Trek. I think people will love it. But that’s only one person’s opinion who happens to write music. II hope that it works out like that.

What’s in store for your second season at Netflix’s “The Umbrella Academy,” even if it looks like the earth has been destroyed?

I can tell you that the kids are all alive and well. Season two does pick up where season one left off, which means that basically you don’t know where the hell they are or where they ended up. The thing that you can expect the most from season two is the same as you got from season one, which is a whole lot of fun and interesting stuff between the characters. For me, the best part about the show is the human aspect of it – the fact that all, all the kids, including the dead one, are flawed in a very human way despite their superhuman abilities. I really enjoy working on a project that allows that kind of latitude. I’m not writing “superhero” themes. I’m writing grounded and emotional music.

In the second season of Netflix’s “Altered Carbon,” you’ll have Anthony Mackie taking over the human “sleeve.” How will that affect your scoring for it?

For the second season of “Altered Carbon” I’m collaborating with Jordan Gagne, who used to be my assistant. I also collaborated with him on “Treadstone.” “Altered Carbon” is going to be even more insane as it deals with the rest of the story, and how the characters are dealing with their world. You get a little more into the history of how the whole thing began with the uploading of the consciousness to these chips and what it means to the people now. The show is really sort of an allegory for our time, except here the super wealthy are able to live forever while the people below them are not.

You’ve used a lot of surreal textures on “Altered Carbon” that’s very different than what you apply to the future of “Star Trek,” while complement “Carbon’s” “Blade Runner”-like atmosphere.

The one thing we didn’t want to do was make a score that felt like “Blade Runner” for season one because the show had a futuristic look of the same caliber. So as opposed to doing a completely synth score, we had an orchestral element that took it away from that, something that we continue in the new season. We have an unearthly-sounding piano and very effected strings in conjunction with some electronic stuff to give the score its own identity.

With Apple TV’s “For All Mankind,” you’ve scored a “real” approach to an alternate future where the Russians win the space race.

When they told me about the show, it was appealing to me on a number of levels. But beyond the Russians getting to the moon first, it really does dig into the whole sexism and racism of the time. I always tend to like to write music for projects that rely on emotional content in order to tell a story, not just action for action’s sake. Again, here was a human story that really interested me.

Now that “Star Trek: Discovery” has jetted ahead far into the future for its third season, what will that time period’s affect be on your score?

To be honest with you, I’ve absolutely no idea. The reason I say that is because I’ve only watched very few scenes in the process of doing some pre-recorded music for the show. I’ve read some scripts though. But I can’t imagine that my approach will be significantly different because we’re not changing the show. We’re just changing the timeframe under which they’re telling the story. The last thing I’m going to try is to sound even more futuristic because now we’re a thousand years past the future anyway. Season one had a darker take on the time, while season two had more of a swashbuckling energy. Now they think they’ve prevailed over evil and have made it away. But I’m sure that what awaits them there is another obstacle that they’ll need to overcome. And the music will definitely help tell that story.

Given how prolific you are, how do you maintain that quality with show after show?

I am a stickler for, for quality. If it’s not great, then why are we doing it? If it’s, it’s not great, give it up. I don’t let anything go. I have a small and very agile team of people who are with me every step of the way, triple, quadruple and quintuple checking everything so that it can be as good as it can be. That goes from my orchestrator to my assistants, my mixer, recording engineer and music editors. That’s especially important with “Star Trek” as we take it from spotting to the scoring stage and finally have it aired. It goes through so many iterations. There’s writing, mocking up, orchestrating, recording and mixing. There are so many things that have to happen before we’re able to get to the finish line. Every step of the way and needs to, needs to be great. If it’s not, everything grinds to a halt. I don’t know about how anybody else does it. But if it doesn’t sound great, then you’re failing, and I don’t want to fail in that way. I just want to do my best. That’s the ideology that I run everything by.

Many people will quite a given streaming service when their favorite show ends its season, and then sign back on when it returns. Given that, it now appears that CBS will eventually have any given “Star Trek” show running continuously so they don’t lose viewers. How would you be able to keep up with that given how busy you are?

(photo by Jana Davidoff of Rhapsody PR)

I’ve actually had that conversation with Alex Kurtzman, which was the main reason why I told him that I couldn’t do all of the Star Trek shorts this year. There was just literally not enough time for me to do them because they were all literally falling on top of my work for “Picard.” I was like, “If you want me to do one, then I can do one. But where’s this time going to come for me to do the rest of them?” So were brought in other composers, which I thought was a really great idea for the “Star Trek” shorts. But for the last one “Children of Mars,” Alex was very keen on me doing it because it ties into “Picard.” In terms of other “Star Trek” shows like “Section 31” or “Lower Decks” going on, if it’s not sort of staggered, then it might not be possible for me to do everything. I might have to oversee some, if that’s what they want. So I’m not sure exactly what’s going to happen when. Again, I always come back to nothing is ever a foregone conclusion.

How do you hope your musical legacy stands among the “canon” of “Star Trek” music?

I just try to bring honesty to my work. I try to be for real and helps tell the story in a grounded way. I don’t ever want to lead an audience around, even though sometimes I’m asked to do that. I think that the way we’re telling this particular Star Trek story of “Picard” is different than “Discovery,” which is very interesting to me. I think that we’ve tried to tell an honest story for him. That’s the thing that will always connect with an audience for me. If you try to tell the story with music the same way that a writer tries to tell the story with dialogue, then that’s usually a winning combination. I think that’s what we’re bringing to this new telling of Star Trek.

Watch “Picard” on CBS All Access, and listen to Jeff Russo’s Star Trek Discovery scores on Lakeshore Records HERE

Listen to Jeff Russo’s soundtracks HERE

Visit Jeff Russo’s web site HERE

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