Vanessa Freebairn-Smith is arguably as integral to the sound of Empire as executive music producer Timbaland.
The first-chair cellist is the primary soloist on the 15 or so orchestral cues that composer Fil Eisler writes for each episode, some as long as five minutes and others as short as a five-note motif. And while each episode of Fox’s hit hip-hop soap opera unveils three or four new R&B or rap songs, the show has found its other musical side in an orchestra that is at times as large as 50 pieces, a rarity in series TV.
When Eisler was hired, executive producer Lee Daniels gave him instructions to push the score toward the 1980s drama Dynasty. They also discussed mobster movies like The Godfather.
“Lee said, ‘I want the score to be bold and operatic — I want it to be antithesis of the hip-hop stuff: People will expect wall-to-wall beats and I don’t want that. I want this to feel like a movie,’ ” recalls Eisler, 41, a former guitarist for Robbie Williams whose scoring career took off five years ago with ABC’s Revenge. “All of the episodes have their own flavor,” he continues. “[The March 11 installment] is basically ‘Empire goes to war,’ and they wanted it to sound like a war movie,” whereas the first half of the two-hour March 18 finale involves dream sequences that “allowed me to get into some weird dissonant stuff.”
Empire has been the surprise hit of the season, growing its audience weekly until March 4 when it hit a high of 14.3 million viewers, 7.4 million of whom are in the 18-49 demo, according to Nielsen. It also is finally seeing some of its songs gain chart traction. “Conqueror,” featuring Estelle and Jussie Smollett, and “You’re So Beautiful,” with Smollett and Yazz, have sold 94,000 and 127,000 copies (according to Nielsen Music) and reach Nos. 42 and 47 on the March 21 Billboard Hot 100, respectively. (A soundtrack album arrived March 10.)
In its final three episodes, the show features a litany of music stars — Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Rita Ora, Jennifer Hudson, Juicy J and Patti LaBelle — along with another dozen or so new songs produced by Timbaland.
“We wanted to populate the world of Empire with real artists,” says Geoff Bywater, Fox Television’s head of music. And while star power was part of the plan, Eisler “really brings the music to a different place,” adds Bywater. “There are a lot of different masters to serve on this one — the showrunners, the creators, Fox — and I love his instincts.”
This story originally appeared in the March 21st issue of Billboard.