In Set List, we talk to veteran musicians about some of their most famous songs, learning about their lives and careers in the process, and maybe hearing a good backstage anecdote or two.
The musician: Although he’s perhaps best known these days as the funny-looking guy who regularly turns up on the Academy Awards broadcast singing cartoon songs, Randy Newman was a songwriter’s songwriter before he ever put notes in Buzz Lightyear’s mouth. Newman’s father was a doctor, but his paternal uncles Alfred, Lionel, and Emil were Hollywood film composers, and he sat in on orchestral recording sessions almost from the point where he was old enough to walk into them. He cut his first single while still in his teens and was briefly a member of a group that became Harpers Bizarre, but Newman didn’t look or sound like anyone’s idea of a pop star. It wasn’t until Harry Nilsson devoted the entirety of his 1970 album Nilsson Sings Newman to Newman’s songs that the industry began to take notice. Newman’s sardonic delivery and his penchant for deft, multivalent satire—“Rednecks” skewers Southern racists and condescending Yankees alike in under three minutes—have won him a passionate fan base, as well as legions of casual admirers who may not realize that the tipsy romantic behind “Marie” also penned the slavemaster’s romance “Sail Away.” On his new album, The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 2, Newman revisits his catalogue with only his piano for company, stripping songs old and new down to their bittersweet cores.
“Dayton, Ohio 1903” (from 1972’s Sail Away)
The A.V. Club: There’s a historical strain in your songwriting, going back almost to the very beginning. Is history a passion of yours?
Randy Newman: Yeah, it is. Particularly between about 1890 and 1914. Before World War I, it was looking like nothing bad was gonna happen. At least ideally, there was sort of an innocence in the world, where they didn’t really get a sense of how bad war was in terms of modern weapons churning people up. I do have an interest in it. I wrote it and Harry Nilsson was talking about it, he was gonna do it, and he said, “It’s just great, you know, ‘Dayton, Ohio, 1903,’” you know, that exact date. I went, “Oh, yeah, it’s the Wright brothers!” I hadn’t thought of it, but maybe it was, subconsciously, somewhere. I liked the sound of it. “Dayton.” It just seemed like trees and sprinklers, you know?
AVC: It sounds like a place where nothing of moment would be happening.
RN: There’s never a place really like that, but it just seemed like the place. And I’ve often written about places that are totally different from anything I know. Sometimes they turn out better.
“Dixie Flyer” (from 1988’s Land Of Dreams)
RN: When I started to do that record, I wanted, consciously, to try some sort of autobiographical writing, to look for that as a source. And so I did. It seemed I could do it, and I could. It didn’t seem to bother me that I’d do anything to get a song out there. I have no compunction about revealing these things from my old life.
AVC: It doesn’t play like a confessional song, necessarily.
RN: No, it’s not. It just tells the facts, more or less.
“Louisiana 1927” (from 1974’s Good Old Boys)
AVC: On the subject of that time period, “Louisiana 1927” has come back a lot in recent years, because of the Katrina fallout in New Orleans. It always had a pretty strong emotional current. Now there’s an added tragic component, because it’s clear how little has changed in almost a century.
RN: What’s happening now is more like what really happened. It was upstream in 1927, but Katrina was from elsewhere. But yeah, it did precede this.
AVC: Your songs live in the world alongside you. Some of them must change a lot for you over the years.
RN: Some of them do. Some of them don’t change much for me, but I think change for the audience. Songs like “Suzanne,” which was, I thought, horrible! Maybe I was wrong. But when I was a kid, it seemed like the guy… He’s not a very effective stalker, if that’s what he is. He’s gonna jump from the shadows, and what’s he gonna do? He’s gonna try and catch her eye. You know, that’s what I thought of it as. It was laughs. But now it feels like a genuine sort of stalker song. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s ’cause I’m old. The idea of me following someone to the movie theater is kind of spooky.
AVC: Is that part of the reason for going back and revisiting your material in the Songbook series? To take stock of where the songs have gone?
RN: No, I wouldn’t have done it. It wasn’t my idea to do these records. It was the idea of the record company, and they had something specific in mind. They thought they could sell records by pointing at me as a writer, you know, making it as if I was Irving Berlin or—God forgive me for mentioning these names—but Gershwin or Dylan or Joni Mitchell. People take them seriously as writers. And so that’s all there is. Just the songs and the piano accompaniment.
AVC: Are they mostly songs you’ve been performing consistently over the years?
RN: Mostly, but not all. A song like “Suzanne” or “Lucinda,” I haven’t played in years. We recorded about 50 things, and these are the ones that went together best at this time. The person at Nonesuch whose idea it was, Bob Hurwitz, we submitted a sequence and he said, “You know, let’s have some undiscovered ones—not the hits.” And I said, “The hits? What hits?” He’s talking, I think, about the people who know who I am, which is not a great number, but I think he means things like “Sail Away” or “Baltimore,” maybe, or a song like “Suzanne” or maybe “Same Girl” or something.
AVC: You’ve written a tremendous number of songs. Do you have to re-familiarize yourself with some of them?
RN: Yes. And I practice them all. I sing ’em better than I ever did. I wish I’d practiced harder earlier. I think I sing better than I do on [his 2008 album] Harps And Angels. A little better. I don’t know what the hell it is. Yoga? Something. Breathing? I stumbled into some kind of groove by mistake.
AVC: You’re singing between notes a lot on Songbook, pushing the pitch in different directions.
RN: Yeah. I’ve always done that, but I’m better at it for some reason. You do stuff enough, sometimes… You know, they say you can reduce genius to someone who spent 10,000 hours trying to get good at something. I’m not claiming either one of those. [Laughs.] I haven’t done anything for 10,000 hours but sleep. But you do stuff enough, you get better at it. Usually it’s a simple thing like that. Essentially, a brainless endeavor.
“Suzanne” (from 1970’s 12 Songs)
AVC: Were there songs you came back to either at your own instigation, or because someone else did a version that seemed better or different than you remember them being? That surprised you in some way?
RN: In general, I thought they held up better than I might’ve thought, that I hadn’t looked at for that amount of time. Like, “Suzanne,” I mean, it holds up the whole way! If you listen to it, it’ll hold you to the end. It does for me. But I didn’t notice an increase in quality or a decrease, particularly. It seems things I wrote 40 years ago, no better, no worse. And written by the same guy, you can tell.
AVC: You’ve never lacked for a distinctive voice in your songwriting.
RN: No. One particular thing I’ve done, I’ve written about a lot of different things, but the whole idea of writing for another character is unusual for pop music. I just figured you might as well say something. Most of the repertory is love songs, and most of mine isn’t. I don’t know if that’s a mental defect, or shyness, or what.
AVC: When you were coming up in the music industry, around the mid-1960s, it was shifting from a model in which professional songwriters wrote for professional singers to one in which musicians wrote and sang their own material.
RN: Absolutely. A pronounced shift, it was. I’m trying to think myself when it started.
AVC: People usually blame The Beatles.
RN: Oh yeah! That was it, about. ’67, ’68. You know, it was me, Van Dyke [Parks], Jackson Browne, the Eagles…
AVC: Carole King.
RN: But Carole King was the best assignment writer before. That stuff is tremendous. She was my hero. If I ever had one, it was her, who I admired without any qualifications. Really, really tops.
“Golden Gridiron Boy” (1962 single)
AVC: I found “Golden Gridiron Boy” on YouTube.
RN: Shit. [Laughs.] It should have been “Gridiron Golden Boy.” You know, I was so nervous or something, I even got the title wrong. Yeah, there it is. Pat Boone [who produced the single] was a patient of my dad’s. He sorta liked my voice before anyone else did. And I always had a bit of a hack in me. I mean, my father wrote songs all his life. You know, it’s summer, you write a summer song. Christmas, forget it. A friend of his wrote a song and took it to a publisher, about war. The publisher’s crying, said, “Play it again.” And he played it again. And the publisher said, “That’s just great.” “You want it?” “No, it’s the wrong war.” It was for the Korean War, and he just didn’t want it. That’s the way things were then. And I saw a little bit of that.
AVC: So that song was inspired by football season?
RN: Yeah. I was never really middle-of-the-road, you know, there’s a couple albums of my songs before I started recording myself. I don’t know who released them or what they’re out there for, but I’ve heard ’em. A lot of it’s very conventional. You know, even in 1961 or ’62.
AVC: Lyrically, it’s a little bit unusual to sing about someone else being the hero, and not you.
RN: It’s like thinking I’m in 1944 or something. When I was 15 and 16, my father would help me with lyrics. And he was helpful, too. But old-fashioned. I got led down the road a time or two. No, I’m willing to take the entire blame for that one.
“Vine Street” (from Van Dyke Parks’ 1968 Song Cycle)
RN: That was about him, a little bit. The Beethoven. The first record he ever made was based on Beethoven’s 9th. [Sings “Ode To Joy.”] I got that in there. I was really proud of that.
AVC: The way it appears on Song Cycle is unusual, with the excerpt of “Black Jack Davey” leading into it.
RN: Yeah, my version of it had a little tag song in the front of it. The whole period, it’s like we’d never heard The Rolling Stones or something. I don’t know what we thought pop music would become. It was like it was cheating to use a drum. And that’s what—not only pop music, but classical music, too, that’s what it’s all been about. Rhythm. I don’t know what we thought.
AVC: By slimming the songs down to voice and piano, the Songbook albums bring the rhythmic interplay between your voice and the music, or between right hand and left, to the fore. There’s that moment where “Dixie Flyer” stops on a dime to take stock of your mother’s status as a Jew in the deep South: “An American Christian—goddamn.” And you have those big open chords that automatically call up a vision of the plains.
RN: Yeah, there’s a traditional sort of Americana, Virgil Thomson or [Aaron] Copland, in my way. Every movie I’ve done that takes place in America, I’ve got something like that in there somewhere. I forget I’ve already written it. Twelve times.
AVC: The opening of “Louisiana 1927” is very much in that spirit.
RN: Linda Ronstadt used to call that “plantation music.” I love that stuff. I never get tired of it. Straight vanilla.
AVC: Do you remember a point where you went from recognizing that sound to understanding how it was done? Open fifths and octaves and the rest?
RN: It’s very simple. But not everyone can do it, I don’t think. I would think they could, but they don’t. I don’t remember when it happened. Certainly, I was doing it from almost the start, those kind of sounds.
AVC: You grew up watching your uncles conduct recording sessions for movie scores.
RN: My uncle [Alfred] did How The West Was Won, eventually. I was older. The Gunfighter, I think, had a score like that.
AVC: Were you as much struck by that sort of orchestral music as pop songs, growing up?
RN: I think I was. I was struck younger. I was 5, 6, 7 years old, first going on a soundstage and hearing All About Eve or whatever he was doing at the time. And it sounded great to me. It was a great orchestra. Even by studio orchestra standards, it was a great orchestra. So I had that in my ear. And when I heard “Shake, Rattle And Roll” and Big Joe Turner and stuff like that, I felt that same kind of, “I really like this.” I just did. Right away. It was like overnight, things changed for music people.
AVC: Much more so then than now, there was the viewpoint that rock ’n’ roll ruined music overnight, that you went from complex, sophisticated arrangements to this primal, brutal noise.
RN: Yeah. All the arrangers, musicians, in six weeks, everything they knew, all those B-flat 13th chords, goes out the window. Four chords and straight-ahead rhythms. No wonder they hated it so much. I never got over it.
AVC: Someone asked Quincy Jones last year what he thought of Kanye West, and he essentially said that producing is knowing how to arrange for 16 clarinets.
RN: Well, he knows better than that. It’s reducing down a rhythm section. There’s lo-fi stuff you hear, where it’s some crappy-sounding piano; that’s producing, too. And it works. He knows that, too. Better than anybody. My uncle Alfred really helped him when he started doing pictures. And he’s a good guy. He’s done a good job. [Laughs.]
“When She Loved Me” (from 1999’s Toy Story 2)
AVC: There are two kinds of people: People who weep during the “When She Loved Me” montage, and people who lie about it.
RN: You gotta hand it to Disney for having the courage to think that a bunch of 4- and 5-year-olds would stay quiet for that. They thought they would, and they did. I don’t know if I would have suggested trying this.
AVC: When you’re dealing with a moment like that, where the movie essentially stops and the music takes over, how specific is the assignment? Is it “There’s a two-and-a-half-minute piece that needs music,” or is it “Write us a song and we’ll—”
RN: “She’s gonna be telling about her life and her disappointment with her relationship with her owner as a child, and they grew up.” That was the assignment. I knew what the length of it was, and I knew a girl had to sing it.
AVC: Did they have a girl in mind at that point?
RN: Yeah. John Lasseter’s a tremendous fan of Sarah McLachlan. She was terrific. She did very well.
AVC: Do you write differently when you’re composing for a voice like that?
RN: Yeah. It’s like writing for a different instrument. I have a blues-oriented voice. That’s what I sound best on. She has a different kind of contralto, or whatever the hell she has. Soprano. It’s a voice that can hold notes, so I can write with that in mind. I think I can sing it, but it’s funny.
AVC: You include it on Songbook, Vol. 1, but only as an instrumental excerpt, just enough to remind people that you wrote it.
RN: I’m glad I get these kinds of assignments. Movies, in general, to get out of my own skin, but songs for other people, because it takes me places I wouldn’t have gone, for sure. I thought I was writing a duet on the last picture. “We Belong Together.” I thought they wanted to do that with two, with John Mayer and somebody. But sometimes I become even more of a hack than they are. They wanted me to do it. But I was writing with a couple in mind. It’s not really for me. They like to be consistent.