-by Tim Williams
If you only know songwriter Randy Newman as the man who does gleeful tunes for Pixar flicks, or from parodies of him on the Family Guy and Mad TV, you’d do yourself well to pick up the new CD, Harps and Angels. The current collection of Newman’s personal work (his first in nine years) proves he’s lost none of the acerbic wit that made him a wicked response to the sunny bellbottomed singer songwriters of the ’70s. With albums like 12 Songs, Sail Away, and Rednecks, Newman crafted perfect three-minute character studies that delved into the twisted lives of bigots, barflies, and blowhards, while later works like Little Criminals and Trouble in Paradise produced one huge hit, “Short People,” and a maddeningly catchy piece of anthem rock, “I Love L.A” (an early MTV favorite).
Today Newman earns the big bucks for memorable soundtracks like The Natural, Toy Story, and Leatherheads, but it’s the release of Angels that has longtime fans buzzing and Newman talking,
KP: The new album is great. I’ve often wondered if you put things aside when you’re working on movie soundtracks, that you want to keep for a personal project like Harps and Angels, or if you actually sit down and write a set of songs for an album…
NEWMAN: B - I go in there and say “I’m going to give ten weeks to writing songs for a record,” or whatever it ends up taking.
KP: Do you ever have song fragments that hang around?
NEWMAN: Yeah, sometimes. I’ve got a few things now that maybe I’ll finish, but usually when I don’t continue with a song I had some kind of reason, like because it wasn’t going anywhere.
KP: You think you’ll put out a new album quicker this time?
NEWMAN: I swear I will - I have to. There are people who like me a lot, and I know they have other things going on in their lives, but I haven’t done enough. I mean, it’s not like I’m working on Brahms’ First Symphony here - I don’t need 40 years to write 45 seconds.
KP: Do you have fun doing the soundtracks?
NEWMAN: Writing is work, unless it’s really going well. But it’s getting to be more of a chore, because all of the tools that are now allowed directors and editors, they have a temp track in their movie that they become wedded to. Directors are so used to being in charge, and telling everyone what to do, that they become the same way about the music. They want the music they want, and I want to give them that, but they don’t know as much about it as my uncle Al did, or Alex North, or John Williams. If anyone makes a movie and has John Williams doing it, they’d be better off leaving it alone and not saying anything, and I think the same is true with me. But you don’t want to do anything that’s completely what the director doesn’t want.
KP: Do ever get frustrated or have you ever walked out on a project?
NEWMAN: Toward the end of Seabiscuit, I couldn’t take it anymore. I redid things, but just couldn’t stand seeing my music hurting the picture, and I could see it happening. All you want to do is help it, no matter what it takes. You don’t want it to stick out - everything is subordinate to the picture. The director was slowing stuff down to the point where I couldn’t stand it…and it was costing a lot of money! It’s the only movie I could say was a bad score and I’m not proud of it. It’s got some music in it that I like, but he got someone else in there to re-record and it was mainly slowing stuff down. It was a pretty bad experience.
KP: Well, let’s go to the other end of things - what’s the best experience you’ve had on a film?
NEWMAN: Well, Barry Levinson is a good guy, and Jay Roach is really a good guy, and he’s shockingly modest and unassuming for a director, but I’m not sure if what I did made much difference on the two films of his that I did - Meet the Parents and Meet the Fokers. John Lasseter and the Pixar stuff has been a good experience and they have, to a great extent, left me alone, and when they’ve had problems with things I can see what they mean and I’m willing to change it - but I’d change it even if I didn’t understand what they were talking about.
KP: How was working with George Clooney on Leatherheads?
NEWMAN: He’s a good guy, but he’d never done a movie with a score before, and subjectively I disagreed with what he wanted to do and about not being true to the fact that it was in 1925 or ‘27, because he wanted to use things from the ’40s. He’s really a nice guy, and I like a lot of the stuff I did - I love those rags from that period, but he told me half way through he didn’t like jazz… How else are you going to do 1925? (laughs)
KP: What pop songwriters do you think are top of the line?
NEWMAN: Hmmm… pop songwriters….well, Neil Young, Prince, Stevie Wonder, and Dylan’s early stuff is about as good as lyrics ever got.
KP: Were Dylan and The Beatles big influences on you?
NEWMAN: Not really, not consciously, I couldn’t tell you what came next on Freewheeling Bob Dylan - I didn’t buy it or have it at home. I did have Sgt. Pepper, because that was the time when all of us in LA where waiting to hear what the Beatles would do next, and The Beatles were waiting to see what Brian [Wilson] would do next. Lennon told me that The Beatles had my demos and that McCartney carried around my first record. That really pleased me.
KP: Did you see Brian Wilson much during those days in Los Angeles?
NEWMAN: Very seldom. I’d see Van Dyke Parks, Ry Cooder, Don Henley - but I had a family and wasn’t really part of the scene, or the Troubadour thing.
KP: Where you close with Harry Nilsson?
NEWMAN: We were close, but then all of a sudden I didn’t see him much anymore, mostly my fault. When I started going through his stuff to pick something to do for his memorial album, I was amazed - I always knew he was good, but he was much better than I thought, and way better than he thought. I have a lot of self confidence - he had none. He was really hard on himself. He would always tell me how good I was, and he almost ruined his career doing an album of just my songs.
KP: What’s the worst cover of a Randy Newman song?
NEWMAN: Uh, let’s see… Leonard Nimoy did one of my songs, and all I’ll say is that it seemed well intentioned. Bobby Darin could sing, but he did “Sail Away” and, well… I don’t think he understood it. He did it like it was a happy song about coming to America.
KP: He didn’t get the slave trading elements…
NEWMAN: Uh, no…I don’t think so.
KP: Would you write a song for Justin Timberlake or some other pop artist of today?
NEWMAN: Yeah, I’d do that, but my stuff is so strange that people don’t want to cover it. People like straight love songs. “Feels Like Home”, from the new album, has been covered more than anything. That’s nice, but it doesn’t interest me as much as the character stuff I do.
KP: Is there anyone you’d like to work with?
NEWMAN: There are a lot of people that I admire, but I can’t think of anyone off hand I want to work with. Let’s see…you’ve got to remember you have to be in the same room with that person and they’d have to be in the same room with me…
KP: Which might be the harder part…
NEWMAN: You’re right! (laughs)
KP: Do you think you’re a happy person?
NEWMAN: No. I wish I were. I can’t figure out how to do it. I’m a workaholic that doesn’t make himself work enough.
KP: But you’ve done a lot of movie scores.
NEWMAN: Not like James Newton Howard or Hans Zimmer. My uncle Alfred did 200 films…I don’t know how many I’ve done. I have more free time than a person with a normal job, but I can never just sit back and enjoy something like the Olympics, I don’t get piece of mind like that. I’d like piece of mind, you know, where I’ve got everything done and the kids are all fine and I’m getting along with everybody…yeah, I’d like that sometime.
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