The popular Starz series Power has sucked viewers into its complex drug world, one dramatic scene at a time. From the show’s opening theme song (50 Cent‘s “Big Rich Town”) to its gritty soundtrack, hip-hop serves as a major backdrop. But what also sets the tone is its rich musical score.
As the show’s composer, Jeff Russo has the tough, discrete job of packing scenes with the right emotional intensity, scoring some of Power‘s most pivotal moments. When drug lord James “Ghost” St. Patrick (the main character played by Omari Hardwick) murders a friend in cold blood in season one, it’s Russo’s score that adds a cathartic gut punch.
In an interview with Billboard, Russo discussed composing music for the hit series (recently renewed for a third season), what makes a great TV score, and how he helps make Power one of the most addictive shows on television.
Billboard: As far as music selection, can you talk about your creative process and how you approach each episode?
Jeff Russo: There’s two parts to the music for the show. There are the songs we use, which I’m not involved with and not involved with choosing the songs, and then there’s the score that creates the emotional content and vibe of the show. So we watch each episode, and by the time I get to it, the songs have already been chosen by [executive producer] Courtney [Kemp] and our other executive producer David and our music supervisor. My job is to figure out the characters, their intent, their feeling and their vibe. A lot of times, I try to play against what you see on scene, so it’s not leading the audience. I’m trying to underscore the intent and vibe of what you’re seeing. The score of the show really is what a lot of the heart and emotional content is. We use score to accentuate those moments because there are these sudden bursts of violence and bursts of things that are not pretty. Because life in this world is not a pretty sight sometimes. There’s some ugliness and I try to play against that and really give the show some heart.
Can you give an example of a scene from the first season where you had to play against it?
Yeah, I remember writing music for a scene when Ghost kills Rolla. This was a difficult scene to score because he was sent there by Kanan to kill him, which was a rouse. Rolla wasn’t the guy who had turned on Ghost. It was in fact Kanan. This was someone who was very near and dear to Ghost’s heart. So playing against the scene was what I felt was necessary, because I felt like Ghost was playing against what his own heart was telling him. His heart was telling him that he was wrong. So I played it from an emotional point of view — from Ghost’s emotional point of view, not the point of view of what was about to happen. It was pretty intense, but I didn’t play intense music. I played more heart and emotional music for Ghost. And I think that made it even more intense.
In that scene, Rolla says something like, “I’m your friend…”
Right, when Rolla looks at him and says, “No, I’m your friend,” that really resonated, in my opinion, with Ghost and I played up on that. I felt like it was a really emotional scene and then he stood up and shot him. Then I chose to take the music out and have Ghost be played in his head by himself. I thought that was pretty effective.
Are there scenes that are better off silent? Are there moments when music is called for initially and you change your mind about whether to add a score?
I think music is only as powerful as it can be when there’s silence. So when you have too much music, the music becomes less important. And yeah, there are times when we’ll look at a scene and say, “Let’s put music here.” And then when I’m writing [the score] or even after I’ve written it and we go to the dub stage, we’ll say something like, “Let’s see how this plays dry.” It can be way more intense without any music and that has happened on many occasions.
How do you work with the music supervisor as far as choosing whether a scene will be scored or whether there’s a song attached to the moment?
Usually, Courtney, who’s our showrunner and creator of the show, she’ll have already chosen places for songs versus score. So when we go to spot episodes, songs are already chosen. I think she may even have that in mind when she’s writing script.
Is that unusual for a show or is that standard?
It’s not unusual, but it doesn’t always go that way. We happen to use a lot of songs because the world that we’re in, with Ghost having a club, there’s always going to be music in the club. That sort of echoes everywhere he is, so I think our use of songs is the way we echo that. We echo his “other life.” We echo this life of him being this club owner with these songs. It’s also a very effective use of songs, not just to fill the space.
Right, I remember with The Wire — I forgot what the actual term is — they would only use music if it was really playing in the scene.
They only use it as source. You would only ever hear music if the characters were actually hearing music in the scene.
You guys have both of those elements, with the club scenes and when songs are played for effect.
Right, we will use songs for score as well as source, so when a character’s hearing music, we use it and when it’s hyperreality and the characters are not hearing the music, we also use it.
This seems like a fun job, but what’s the biggest challenge for you in this position?
Time management is always a challenge. Sometimes, I’ll get an episode and I’ll have to be done with it in three days. Sometimes, it’s a lot of music and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes, that’s not as difficult as it is other times. But I think that’s usually the most challenging thing: trying to get things done in a timely manner. Working in television, the turnaround can be pretty fast. With Power, because we’re on a premium cable network, we have a little more leeway in terms of our scheduling. So if things need to get pushed because something hasn’t been done, that is more likely to be able to happen than on a broadcast network, where the turnarounds are super tight.
For season two, is there a particular storyline that you got attached to and got really excited scoring?
It’s interesting, as I watched the new season, you see these relationships develop over the course of the first eight episodes. Really honing in on the relationship between Ghost and Kanan has been interesting because as he realizes that Kanan was the person who’s actually running against him and accepting that; you see the change in Ghost, and what he feels he needs to do to be able to keep his promise to Angela. It’s a very complicated web he’s weaving and seeing him navigate that and be in control then feel like he’s out of control is very interesting. I think that’s the relationship that’s the most appealing to me, in terms of being interesting to write for. I’ve been really enthralled with the storyline, so it makes writing the music for it way more fun.
How did you land this opportunity?
It was one of those things where they were looking at a couple of composers and I was called and asked to put together some music for the show. They sent me some video and I wrote a piece of music, but they didn’t give me any direction. They didn’t tell me where in the scene they wanted music. They said, “You decide how you would like to put music in here,” and I did it. And apparently, Courtney saw it and thought that of all the ones they’d seen, I really hit the nail on the head in how to use music in the scene and where to put music in the scene and how it made the scene feel. There were just a couple people they were looking at and we wrote some music for it and they really liked what I did.
You also do the score for Fargo. How does your process differ?
The actual creative process is pretty much the same. It’s not creatively the same, but to sit and look at an episode and decide how to best support what’s going on on the screen and to draw out the emotion — whether that emotion is tension or fear or anger or whatever it is — the process in deciding how to do that is the same. What I do for each show is very unique. What I do for Fargo is unique to Fargo. With Power, my palette of sounds is very different from Fargo, where I use a big orchestra. In Power, it’s way more subtle and electronic. But also, I chose to use some live instruments as well, but in a way that’s very unique to the show. Like, I use a muted trumpet and I use some strings that I have really effected in a way that makes it sound a lot more gritty and dirty like what the city feels like in the show.
Gritty and dark and grim.
I mean, it’s a dark show. The show itself and the characters and their relationships are pretty dark. So I have to be able to score that without becoming too heavy.
Which TV shows, past or present, do you think have a really great score?
It’s funny, in general television music is getting so much better. It’s really taken a big turn, especially with cable and premium cable shows. That’s the thing about our show and a lot of other cable shows, where the producers and the network really allow for the show to develop. They have patience and it allows the viewer also to have patience. Our entire first season developed over eight episodes, and the network and producers really allowed me as a writer to treat it with patience and let the story develop and not try to hit everybody over the head with what we’re trying to make you feel, which is sometimes the mistake made in some broadcast network television.
Working in cable, we have a lot more of an ability to treat it with a subtle touch. With that said, one of my favorite scores on television is Homeland, which my friend Sean Callery does. When I first saw the first season, I was very enamored with the music, and the way he made it sound and the way he was able to weave in music and not have it be this big score. He also did 24. But in this case, again, it was treated with patience and a slow development process, which was really great. It allowed the score to build and the show to build in a way that was very unique. I feel like I’m the luckiest guy in the world ’cause I have such a great job. I get to sit around and write music and make the things that I see on picture have an effect on how that feels. Really, it’s an amazing job.