In his four-decade career as a singer and songwriter, Randy Newman has given voice to everyone from slave traders to yuppie scum to con artists to children's toys, with a democratic spirit that reflects a quintessentially American sensibility. Newman learned to see the world from different perspectives early in life, as his childhood was divided between Los Angeles and New Orleans. Born into a family with a rich music tradition–his uncles Alfred, Emil, and Lionel Newman were successful film composers–Newman caught the tail end of the songwriter-for-hire era in the '60s, and contributed songs to albums by Dusty Springfield, among others. He made his own debut as a recording artist in 1968, with a lush self-titled record that met with critical praise and commercial indifference. That established a pattern for Newman's career, although with his sophomore album, 1970's masterful 12 Songs, he began to gather a following beyond critics and fellow songwriters. Combining dark humor with deeply felt emotion in sometimes uncomfortable configurations, 12 Songs captured Newman coming into his own, a process he continued with 1972's Sail Away, as well as 1974's Good Old Boys, a richly textured, warts-and-all song cycle about the American South. Newman finally had a hit in 1977 with "Short People," which used a ridiculous prejudice to condemn intolerance in general, though the joke flew over many indignant listeners' heads. More fine albums and semi-hits followed, and in the '80s, Newman turned film scoring into a second career, composing music for Ragtime, The Natural, and many others. Apart from a musical adaptation of Faust, film work took up most of Newman's time in the '90s (though he made a memorable return to pop songs in 1999 with Bad Love), and, after many nominations, he finally won an Oscar for "If I Didn't Have You" from 2001's Monsters, Inc. Currently, Newman's work can be heard in the movie Seabiscuit and on The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1, Newman's Nonesuch debut, and the first of three albums revisiting his past. Newman recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about geographical songwriting, humor that never goes out of style, and entertaining children.
The Onion: The Randy Newman Songbook forced you to spend a lot of time with your old songs. Were there any surprises when you looked at them?
Randy Newman: Well, you know, I was surprised at the consistency. Whether good or bad, there were no real jumps in quality or drop-offs that I could tell when I listened to it. Born Again is kind of an odd album, but they're not bad songs. I was surprised. There were things I wrote for the last record that could have been on 12 Songs. Maybe the last album is a little better. Things held up pretty well. There was nothing completely ridiculous.
O: That would probably count as a pleasant surprise.
RN: Yeah, it was. There were no real bad surprises. Some things I would have… A lot of things I would have done differently, in terms of tempo or arrangement. I did "Rednecks" a little square, maybe. I was just listening for what I wanted to do, really. I wasn't super-critical. I did about 30 of them, and [producer] Mitchell Froom and I took the ones that sequenced best. Not the best songs, necessarily, but the ones that felt best together.
O: Did you expect to stick with your concert repertoire more than you did?
RN: No, I didn't. I would have figured that "Feels Like Home" would have been on there. Or "Old Man," maybe. That's one of my better songs. Or "Short People." Is "I Love L.A." on there? No. I recorded them, but they didn't seem to fit as well as a song like "Let Me Go," which is not a great song, or "Living Without You," but they felt right on there. It's sort of an ugly Norah Jones record. You can put it on and eat potato chips and drink Pepsi to it, unlike my other records.
O: The title echoes Ella Fitzgerald's great songbook albums. Aren't you kind of inviting accusations of hubris by doing this yourself?
RN: Yeah, if it were my idea. But who's going to know it's not? Yeah, of course, it's like Gershwin or Irving Berlin, but it's not. I mean, I know. I know I'm not Gershwin, but I think that the record company, the people at Nonesuch, wanted me to get looked at in that kind of way, as a serious songwriter who's important to some degree.
O: Well, it's not a crazy idea, is it?
RN: No. Uh-uh. It might be a very good idea.
O: You started writing songs at 16. How would you describe your early efforts?
RN: Pretty pedestrian. Love songs. I was really trying to… Not trying to be Carole King, but trying to be as good as she was. And trying to write follow-ups for people like Bobby Vee and Brenda Lee and The Shirelles, but never succeeding in getting a record. The early stuff is somewhat interesting musically. It would indicate that the person would have some talent for music.
O: What kept you from being as good as Carole King when you were working in that mold?
RN: That's like… She's a tremendously gifted songwriter. You could tell from her chords that she knew Berlin and Gershwin and all that stuff. She just was better than anyone. If I'd gone to New York and been in a cubicle next to Neil Sedaka and Barry Mann and Carole King and Gerry Goffin, I probably would have gotten better than I was at writing pop songs like that, but I might not have felt the need to change. I got bored with writing lyrics that were "You love me, I love you, I don't love you, you don't love me." Around 1965, I changed.
O: You write about places a lot. What about geography works for you?
RN: I'm interested in geography and weather and things like that, and if you don't write love songs, you've gotta go somewhere. I did a lot of it because that's what else there was. I had to stop myself from writing more of them.
O: Land Of Dreams is in part about New Orleans, so you have a personal connection to what you're writing about, but is that also true of Gainesville or Dayton?
RN: No. Sometimes places you haven't been add… I've been in Gainesville and Dayton, but I hadn't been when I wrote about them. There's a Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill show about Chicago that's all about gangsters, and it's all wrong, but it's interesting. It's an interesting view of the place. Like "Baltimore," my song: All I'd seen of Baltimore was when I rode through it on a train, but I wrote a song because I saw something about it in National Geographic, all these backyard porches and brick fronts and marble staircases. Sometimes, the places you haven't been evoke some kind of romantic response, and turn out to be more interesting than they would be from a purely journalistic angle.
O: Many of your songs cover dark topics from the perspective of shady characters and immoral people…
RN: Sometimes, yeah.
O: When you write songs like that, do you feel it seeps into your personal life, or do you have a professional distance from it?
RN: I've got a distance. More of my songs are intended to be funny than almost anyone else, outside of "Weird Al" Yankovic. Sometimes maybe it cheers me up a bit. Yeah, I've got a distance from it. Sometimes what I'm writing is more important to me than the rest of my life. It's more important to me that I'm writing well than anything else.
O: With a lot of music that employs humor, the jokes grow old after the first listen. How do you avoid that?
RN: It is a little surprising in some ways that it works. I remember when you used to listen to Jonathan Winters or Lenny Bruce, you could laugh at it every time it went by. I don't know how it works. The best of my songs are more than just a joke. There's something else going on–a character, or it's not just a plain joke. "Political Science," when I wrote it, I thought, "Well, all that is a joke." But that kind of ignorance and arrogance and jingoism is actually out there, to some extent.
O: You wrote in the liner notes to your box set that that song is "never out of date, unfortunately." Is it fair to say that it's less out of date now than it has been in a while?
RN: I would say "ever," in terms of people being clumsy in what they say. Saying "old Europe." [Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was widely criticized after using that phrase to downplay France and Germany's importance to an Iraq decision-making coalition. –ed.] Who would have ever dreamed that anyone would say that in public? God knows what they've said in private, or what was done, like with [assassinated Chilean president Salvador] Allende. Secret stuff that you find out 20 years later. But they're keeping it right out in front now. Since we became one world power, we've been acting like Rome.
O: When your first album came out in '68, it sounded like nothing else coming out at the time, even Van Dyke Parks' albums. There was so much rock music in the air at the time. How did you avoid its influence?
RN: I don't know. It's like I'd never heard The Rolling Stones. I know what I thought: I thought you could move things along just with the orchestra, that it was somehow cheating to use drums. What Van Dyke and I–and Harry Nilsson, to some degree–were doing, it was like a branch of homo sapiens that didn't become homo sapiens. Homo erectus. It just died out. On my second album, I had drums, and that's what I did, but there, I thought an orchestra would do it.
O: How do you choose the films you work on?
RN: By how important the music is going to be to it. But I've done comedy, too, and it seldom seems to be important in that. Also, whether the director is someone I can work with. In fact, I would flip it: I would make sure that the director and I were on the same page first.
O: "Lonely At The Top" was written for Frank Sinatra and rejected. Any other famous rejections?
RN: Barbra Streisand rejected that, too. Michael Jackson. He called me to write a couple of songs for him. "Every Time It Rains" from Bad Love was for him, but I never heard from him. There must be more of them.
O: When you're done with this project, will it be 11 years before you produce another pop album?
RN: I'd sure like to write some new songs. I haven't tried yet. I've sort of been busy recently.
O: You don't write songs on a daily basis, then?
RN: No. I have to put time aside and go in there every day and sit until something happens.
O: Some people can't seem to stop. Is it fair to say that you don't have a lot of unused demos laying around?
RN: I've met those people. I wish I were one of them. There are fewer and fewer of them as they get older. Maybe there's more of that when people are young.
O: After writing "I'm Dead (But I Don't Know It)" [a song about clueless, aging rock stars] for Bad Love, did you worry about staying sharp as you get older?
RN: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I looked at it. Before I started Bad Love, I wasn't exactly sure I could do a rock 'n' roll record at 65, or however old I was. But I was satisfied that it was a good record. Maybe my best record. But I don't know whether I would be the one that'd know it. No one knows when they're shit. No one taps you on the shoulder and says "Stop the fight." I think I'd stop if I didn't think this was something you could get better and better at.
O: It seems like you're cultivating a new audience with your work for Pixar, kind of breeding a new generation of Randy Newman fans.
RN: Well, it's one song, and I don't go too deep with them. Once I get done with "You've Got A Friend In Me" and "Short People" and the thing from Monsters, Inc., they have to be taken home.
O: Do kids show up at your shows?
RN: Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes they make it all the way and like it. When I see there's a number of them out there, I watch my language the best I can.