Randy Newman: leading role

In the latest issue of M magazine, Paul Sexton meets Randy Newman to decipher the songwriting nous of America’s most consistent creator.

Kyle Fisher
  • By Kyle Fisher
  • 18 Jun 2013
  • min read
Paul Sexton meets Randy Newman to decipher the songwriting nous of America's most consistent creator.

Randy Newman is musing on what might have happened if people had said no to him a little more often. The winner of this year’s PRS for Music Special International Award at The Ivors has spent four and a half decades delighting audiences with his brilliant juxtaposition of eternal melodies and mordant social observation. The dark sarcasm and devil’s advocacy of his characters have often put him among the most misunderstood of songwriters-and by his own measurement, that must mean he’s been doing something right.

But then Randy came to prominence during the days of dumbing up, when audiences were credited with the ability to tell when someone was being funny, or caustic, or sincere. He says it wouldn’t be the same if his self-titled debut album was released in 2013, not 1968.

‘I come from a discipline where I have no boss at all, both with my own songs and making records,’ he says. ‘The record company never told me what to do, ever. I know it’s different now, dramatically so. There are A&R departments that artists have to answer to. But no one ever told me anything, I did whatever I wanted.’

“I’d probably have been really successful if an A&R had said no to me. I might have been Elton John…”

Of course, years before his own recording debut, Randy was an established hit writer with such superior pop confections to his name as Gene Pitney’s Just One Look and Nobody Needs Your Love, Cilla Black’s I’ve Been Wrong Before and Alan Price’s version of Simon Smith and his Amazing Dancing Bear. His own first album included I Think It’s Going To Rain Today and the second Mama Told Me Not To Come.

So if an executive had sat in judgement with a yes or a no in those early years, Randy agrees that it would probably have been no a lot of the time. ‘I’d probably have been really successful,’ he laughs. ‘I might have been Elton John if someone had done that. But no, I wouldn’t have liked it.’

Instead, Randy set sail for an unparalleled career of ten studio albums, various live sets, the musical Faust and an extraordinary inventory of 24 complete feature film scores. Just before he crossed the Atlantic for The Ivors, he completed the latest of those, the soundtrack of Monsters University. That’s Pixar’s prequel to 2001’s Monsters, Inc, the movie that gave Randy his first Oscar for Best Original Song for If I Didn’t Have You, after 15 previous nominations.

The new picture — ‘they go away to college to become scary,’ as Randy describes it — has been the labour of love that his film work always is. ‘You can’t do anything until you see it,’ he explains of the process. ‘You can have plans, and think, “I’m going to do this, I know how to do this picture,” but then you see it, and everything may go out the window.

‘It’s entirely dependent on what’s on the screen. You don’t want to grandstand in any sense. It’s good for the ego. In the movie business, you have bosses, and you have temp tracks, music they’ve already written for it, to cut to. It’s a little different, it’s hard to get used to it.

‘When I see the movie, the full colour isn’t there yet. It’s always a bit of a surprise how fantastic these things end up looking. The amazing thing about them, in a lot of ways, is what these artists do in the background, the way they’ll draw 150 monsters just walking by in the background, it’s unbelievable.

‘Composers have to work hard on movie music, but animators, they do too. There’s things in the movie business you can kind of fake, there’s some who can mail their jobs in but boy, those guys can’t.’

Randy’s Ivors recognition came just after he was inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, an accolade that many would say was almost offensively overdue. ‘Twenty-five years ago, I would get nominated for a few years, then I thought I might get in,’ he says without rancor. ‘And then I didn’t think about it.’

When he picked up his Ivors accolade in London last month, he looked overwhelmed. ‘It’s amazing to be in same room as Ray Davies and Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie… Winning this award is a great honour; I’m touched,’ he told the audience.

Then, after his Rock ‘n’ Roll induction, he jammed on that night in Los Angeles with friends such as Tom Petty, John Fogerty and Jackson Browne - ‘they volunteered, it’s hardly a career move’ - and hung out with fellow inductees such as Rush, Heart and Public Enemy, reflecting the catholicism of the event.

‘It’s ridiculous to be rigid about music,’ he says. ‘“Oh, this is rock ‘n’ roll, this isn’t rock ‘n’ roll, we’re not going to let this go in, we’ve got to make sure this drummer is ok and they’re wearing the right stuff”. Because after 1954, and there’s some sort of a backbeat going on somewhere, whether it’s Andy Gibb or Black Flag, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll, more or less.’

No one is more amused than the composer himself to be having a kind of awards mini-season of his own. ‘It’s like I died, and it’s a memorial season for me,’ he says. ‘It’s not exactly like I’ve done anything recently!’

Apart from write the score of another major Hollywood release, that is, and complete a new song of his own, I’m Dreaming, released as a free download before the last US election. It was the latest reminder of his ability to adopt a character and express an unpalatable opinion that many others are thinking - in this case, those that were dreaming, last autumn, of a white President.

‘I’ve written a couple of songs like that recently. A Few Words in Defence of Our Country [from 2008’s Harps and Angels] was about the Bush administration, which I just thought was a real anomaly. The Obama thing, I thought someone needed to say it in some kind of way, real loud, that a lot of people just wanted a regular old white man.

‘They couldn’t exactly say it, but they were doing everything but say it. So I said it, as I’ve done before. But it’s a song that will go away, it’s not like Political Science, which will always be valid, unfortunately, or Rednecks.’

Political Science, from 1972’s Sail Away, was an early opportunity for Randy to be widely misunderstood, with its motif about ‘dropping the big one and see what happens.’ There were undoubtedly many right-wing political extremists who thought he really was advocating nuclear war, probably the same people who thought he was later denigrating short people. Old Lucifer has rarely had such an articulate advocate.

‘I’ve written about things that make me angry,’ he says, observing how his own role has evolved. ‘It’s funny, I think you have to be age-appropriate, in a way. With the last two records I made - even they’re a long time ago now — Harps and Angels and Bad Love, I was satisfied that they were age-appropriate. It sounds boring, but if you’re going to be the artist you’ve got to think of yourself as separate from the writer.

‘I know Jagger can do Brown Sugar, or maybe even write [new] stuff like that, but were I he, I couldn’t countenance myself doing it. “I’m going to ball all night long,” I wouldn’t do it - it’s the wrong thing for a 70-year-old. He’s one out of a billion, you know. Him and Steven Tyler.’

As he sets about planning a new studio album of his own, Randy is keen to avoid sinking into indifference about modern creativity. ‘A lot of people think music was better in the seventies, and there are so many people on the road from then. I don’t know that it was better. You’ve got to watch out for the “old crock” effect in yourself, where you think you’re getting old and there’s nothing today, because it’s not true.’

Despite being keenly aware of the controversial issues surrounding composer and performer remuneration, he’s also a Spotify enthusiast. ‘It’s unbelievable what you can get,’ he says. ‘You can hear a new conductor do Brahms’ Fourth, then you can hear another one in 1938 do it. Bessie Smith, everything she ever did, every Fats Domino thing you ever heard. What are you going to do, say no to that?’

‘I feel guilty, and I also feel that we’re sort of getting robbed, but it’s really hard to resist. Kids are growing up with the belief that music is sort of free, and it shouldn’t be, of course. I hope they figure out a way to monetise it to some extent, but it’s hard to go back.’

As for the minority among those kids that will have aspirations to follow the unmapped career path that Randy figured out, he sometimes issues the most gentle of advice. ‘You don’t have to tell them to show up every day, which is what I have to tell myself, because they do anyway. It’s to keep an open mind, don’t hate this kind of music or that kind of music. I tell them to hang in there.’