A couple of weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of chatting with the iconic Randy Newman, who will be performing this evening at the Aladdin Theater. Due to the bitter struggle to get a giant two-page spread in the physical magazine, my rundown of all things Newman was shrunk to 350 words. Not that I'm angry about it; them's the breaks. But I'd be remiss if I didn't post a transcription of the entire interview here for all you blogger looky-loos to drool over. Or, for you over-50 ex-hippie washouts who may actually know what the Internet is. Or for my mother. Fine, fine; I'm posting this for my mother. But you can read it too. Enjoy!
Harps and Angels came out in August. How do you see your songwriting and lyric writing progressing since your last release of new material about nine years ago?
I think they're the best two records I ever made. And if they're not, they're close to it, for which I'm gratified; that at the age I am I can still write. That's not the norm in this business. Most people do their best work at 20 or 30. I'm arranging better and I think I'm singing better – that I'm positive of. I'm happy with both of them. Funny mix on Bad Love; sounds like there's a lid on it.
Are you happier with the new one?
The engineer is tremendous on the new one. I'd have to listen to Bad Love again., It's really hard to judge yourself. I know there's people who are always gonna love Sail Away and Good Old Boys because that was the time, but I don't like them better. I like these two better.
In the meantime you've put out a couple anthologies and film score work. Have the film scores been as satisfying for you creatively as your personal albums?
No, not all in all because there'll be moments in the movies where we make a sound in the orchestra that you hope would really work well and it does and supports the scene. But it's always subordinate; it isn't like it's your movie. You always try to make someone appear smarter, more beautiful, the action tighter, things like that. That's what music can do. A lot of directors think it's cheating to use music, but it's not like you're supposed to notice it. The famous story attributed to my uncle is [with] Lifeboat with Alfred Hitchkock. It's just two people in a boat and my uncle's on the soundstage with 60, 70 guys and each guy says, "Alfred, where does the music come from?" And he says, "It comes from the same place the cameras came from." So, there you are.
For over a year or so, the song "A Few Words" has been getting considerable attention. Are you concerned at all when the public clings on to one song like that, when they could be missing songs you may have invested more time in?
It's been that way forever. Someone will have a hit single and that's it, and they'll buy the album and won't pay too much attention to other songs. Now it's even easier to do. You can get Lil Wayne and get one thing and you got what you want. But no, I don't care how they like it. I work as hard on each track, so it's not like, "Oh, this is the hit," 'cause I don't know if I have any hits…whatever that may be now. It's weird. It's really changed. Stores are gone, bookstores are gone; it's incredible. There's good things about it, but things get lost…you forget. Things got lost when we left vinyl. It's such a pain in the ass that it's almost not worth it to listen to vinyl. I don’t. What do you think about that?
I have very few records.
I got 'em I just don't play 'em.
I tend to listen to CDs, and I tend to not download things.
That's too big a decline. They are working hard to fix that. I'm hoping they will.
Take a song like "Political Science" that's been around for over 30 years and still remains relevant. When you're writing a song are you searching for that timeless or prophetic element?
No. You don’t wanna rule yourself out. Maybe "A Few Words" will have a life just because it's funny. But I wouldn't count on having another administration to which it will apply. We've never had one, and this one's gonna go away. What if McCain wins? He’s more like Bush than I thought the more I see of him. He reminds me of a little Irish bantamweight sometimes; an ex-fighter.
Have you been watching the debates? What’s been your take?
I think Obama won that [first] debate. Somehow he doesn't have the fire he had, maybe that's the advice… The other one, she's [Palin] an insult to the people and in particular to the Republican Party. There's guys who've been there 30 years, and she may be a very nice person but you keep jerking things back to…ya know, I hear myself talking like this and I think about Warren Beatty and all the nice liberals — Dustin Hoffman and Streissand — who, even though I believe exactly the same thing, I didn't listen to them. I wouldn't believe them if they told me the sky was blue, and now I'm doing it. It's amazing what happens when you get older. Anyway, I don’t think she's equipped to be President of the United States. In fact, I would make a better president. And…I was gonna say I know less than she does, but I don't think I do. And I'd be shitty as vice president! I'd rank down there with Lincoln's vice president, Johnson. Agnew. I hope someone would give me some money.
I watched a television interview where you were discussing what you estimated your total number of Randy Newman fans in the world to be. The number was somewhere around 200,000. I'd imagine you'd like to reach as many people as possible. How do you go about doing that in your career, or are you at the point where that doesn't matter as much to you?
It doesn't matter as much, because it's not gonna happen. I reach hundreds of millions of people with the movies, and with "You’ve Got A Friend" or whatever songs were in those. But for myself, it's not gonna happen. What's there is there, or left. I wouldn't change my writing to try and do it. I couldn't. Maybe if I did an album of love songs and they were good, songs like "Feels Like Home," which people like, I'd pick up another 12,000. I'm all right with it, but I always wanted to sell records from the beginning, as weird as that sounds considering the type of stuff I did. Van Dyke [Parks, producer] and I were working in some session and we were real happy about some strange thing, and this guy says, "You know, it sounds like you guys have never heard The Rolling Stones." We said, "Christ, you're right!" That was in the air then, like there would be another species of rock 'n' roll, that it would go in a different direction, but it didn't.
You do write from a character's point of view, and rarely if ever your own. How closely guarded is that approach for you?
Harps and Angels could be me, if I believed in anything. I think it's closest the last two records. I take songs where I find them. How I started might have been some kind of reticence, but I would use anything from my life or anything about myself if I could get a song out of it. I did find it more interesting to make up these characters and let the audience hear what they had to say, and let the audience realize that they know more about the person than the person knows themselves. That's a big deal with songs like that — most of these people don't know themselves very well.
Are you not concerned whether or not any sort of messages you're trying to get across are lost in that immediate reaction to the song?
If you do it right, most people get it. Well, I don’t know about most people, because they never hear it. People get irony now. The Simpsons is out there, so it's a better time for it, but it's not the best way to use the medium. If my son wanted to go into it, I'd say make it first-person. But I'm very happy and lucky that I've done as well as I have, considering it's like falling in love with the wrong woman. Short stories is nothing but that. It's not like there's a school of that kind of writing. Sometimes Neil Young does it, sometimes Dylan does it.
Are those two people that you drew influence from at all?
No, not going in this direction. That wasn’t the main thing about Dylan, and I hadn't heard the Neil Young "Union Man," songs like that where he plays dumber than he is. Dylan is the best lyricist this kind of music has ever had. Apparently in some paper I gave a disparaging quote or something, which I regret. But I mean, ya know, his first 10 years were better than his next 30. But, kind of, so what? Almost everyone's are. Not mine. Or Neil Young. [James] Taylor, too. And the writers who write for other people, the old standard writers. I mean Irving Berlin wrote hits from 1908-1954. I think if you're writing for yourself it's somehow hard to keep it going.
And you were writing for other people when you started out, right?
Yeah, but I was competing with people like Barry Mann and Carole King, and Bacharach and they were winning!
Which one of your albums, even a film score, might you say you're most proud of and why?
Either this one, in terms of records, or Faust. I haven't listened to Faust in a little while, but there's some stuff I'm very proud of on there. For the movies, music it's hard to say. The one I think I helped most was Bug’s Life. It needed it. Toy Story 2 was pretty good too. And Awakenings; it was a lot of slow music, but it helped the picture.
The Moore Theatre, is that where I'm playing or is that gone?
You're playing at the Aladdin Theater.
My audiences up there really vary. I mean I've gone up there and bombed and drawn 400 people. And then drawn like 13, 14 [thousand].
You’ve lived in LA most of your life. How big an impact has Southern California culture had on your music, if any at all?
I think it's had a big one. It's hard to explain; there's not that sort of jazz edge to me like there is to a lot of the top New York people. Carole King knew the whole repertoire, ya know, the Broadway hits and all that stuff, and I sort of did. I think living sort of wide open, where you can see a long way… Fagan and Beck are great writers. They sound like New York writers somehow. It's interesting. In ways I liked the Beach Boys better than the Beatles for a little while. All in all, I think I sound like an LA writer. I don't know how to explain it; Jackson Browne certainly is one. I don't know whether Henley is. He sounds like Texas trying to get in. "Hotel California," like, "you can never leave…" There's that weird mystic aura around it. To me it's just "here it is."
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