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Two Oscars, seven Grammys, one hit: The strange career of Randy Newman

Randy Newman. Illustration/Weef

As he heads to New Zealand for his first tour, Randy Newman looks back at his double career — as a movie composer and a sardonic singer-songwriter — while Martin Phillipps of the Chills sings his praises.

He’s scored dozens of movies and released just as many albums from his other life as a sardonic, satirical storytelling singer-songwriter.

Among two Oscars (from 20 nominations) and seven Grammys, he’s had one non-movie hit – Short People from 1977 album Little Criminals – but plenty of other singers have ridden his songs into the charts since the 1960s.

Randy Newman is best known these days as the sound of the Toy Story movies, although he’s just featured on 5 Year Plan, a highlight from Chance the Rapper’s new album, The Big Day.

He’s also a contradictory figure, a Los Angeles-born artist seemingly destined to be in the movie-music business, like many of his extended family, but he’s also a rock-music cult hero for his solo work and his status as a songwriter’s songwriter.

On his 1992 LA-recorded album, Soft Bomb, The Chills’ Martin Phillipps offered Song for Randy Newman etc, which bracketed him with Brian Wilson and others in the musical tribute (see below).

Now, at age 75, Newman is on his way to play a series of solo shows in New Zealand for the first time.

You haven’t performed here before, but you have visited …

Yes, I ruined some fishing rods that were owned by New Zealanders. And even that time, it was more an attempt at fishing than actual fishing. You have a beautiful country.

Thank you. People keep telling us that …

I know. You get used to it.

We really must tidy it up sometime. You are doing quite a lot of touring in the new year. Why?

Because I haven’t done it. I had some stuff scheduled and got sick [Newman had a knee replacement] and I couldn’t do it. I just did a couple of movies and that took a long time. So, I’m going out.

In 2011 with his Oscar for Best Original Song. Photo/Getty

Your most recent movies were Toy Story 4 and Noah Baumbach’s indie drama Marriage Story. Are the Pixar movies harder because, as cartoons, you have to fill in all the gaps?

I think they’re harder just simply because of the amount of notes that are required. You know when Tom Hanks’ Woody falls out of a drawer in Toy Story? I have to go badum-badum-badum. In one of his own movies, you don’t have to do that.

Given your family’s involvement in the business, was it inevitable you would end up making music for the movies?

Maybe. When I was a kid, I think my father wanted me to do that. It’s what his brothers did and he thought it was great. Then the singer-songwriter thing came up. Songwriter and then singer-songwriter. It delayed it, but maybe it was inevitable for me.

How did creating movie music affect your songwriting?

It’s a different and wider harmonic vocabulary. Rock‘n’roll can sometimes just be three chords, five or six chords and words and it’s all right, too. I’ve written my share of those. I like it. But I like being able to do something else, and then it improves the songwriting a little bit.

Is doing movie music working on a big canvas and songs working in miniature?

In a way, but movie music is a sequence of miniatures. You’re trying to write one minute 14 seconds in one day, if you’re lucky. And it’s detailed. The songwriting, it’s a bigger thing in some ways. The way I do it, it can be almost anything.

It must take a certain discipline to focus on that one minute 14 seconds over and over again.

It’s a really difficult discipline. To do it well is really hard. To do it badly is not so hard, as I well know. I always worry about things and sometimes really simple things where you think, “Oh my God, is anyone else worrying about this?”

With the work you’ve done for Pixar, you’ve basically become the sound of that whole studio.

In a way. But there are other guys who’ve done just as many. My cousin Tom has done Finding Nemo and Finding Dory and Wall-E and a bunch of others. But, yeah, I went to Disneyland a while back and I’m all over the place. It was a big surprise. Considering the type of songs I write, I never would have thought that I would end up in Disneyland.

In 1988. Photo/Getty Images

Still, your songs, even some of the more pointed ones, have been hits for other people. What are your favourite versions by others?

What comes to mind is Etta James doing God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind), which is sort of an anti-religion song, and she did a great version of it. And Ray Charles doing Sail Away. I love him so much. I don’t like the record so much, but I like him. Joe Cocker’s stuff is always good.

Ray Charles doing Sail Away, which is delivered in the voice of a slave-ship captain, that must have been something to hear the first time.

Yeah, he understood the song, absolutely. I can’t remember what bothered me about it. Years ago, I made a record with Barbra Streisand. I played piano and she sang I Think It’s Going to Rain Today. I didn’t think it was much good. I didn’t think it was right for the song, but I heard it recently and it was really good. Really good.

Talking of your name popping up on other people’s records, have you heard of a New Zealand band called The Chills, who did a track called Song for Randy Newman etc in the early 90s? They were on a Warner subsidiary label and worked with Van Dyke Parks, so you may have been made aware of it.

Yeah, I can’t remember what the nature of the song was, but I think I heard that song. [Shouts to manager Cathy Kerr] “Hey, Cathy, do we remember Song for Randy Newman by a New Zealand band?” Yeah, I did. I heard it. I meant to call him and thank him … or get angry. I can’t remember which.

The song also mentioned Brian Wilson, Scott Walker and Nick Drake. So, quite the Mt Rushmore of songwriting.

Oh, that’s nice. Cathy says, “Tell him we bless him.”

You’ve written about other musicians, too, such as The Story of a Rock and Roll Band and its satire of ELO. Did you ever encounter Jeff Lynn in later years?

Yeah, frequently. At first, he was angry at me, then someone told them that I was a big fan of theirs, which is true. I love those ELO records and the records he’s made since, as a matter of fact. He produced a song called Falling in Love on a record of mine [1988’s Land of Dreams], and we had a lot of fun making it. So, he ended up forgiving me for that. I mean, it wasn’t really critical of them. It was just sort of making fun of a fan who got everything wrong.

And, on your most recent album, there’s a song called Putin. Have you heard from Mr Putin’s office?

Not yet. We are expecting to hear from him any day now.

I’d be worried it might be a man with a rather sharp umbrella.

I think I’ll play that song when I’m out on tour.

You should.

I will.

You’ve often done political figures in your songs, such as the one about George W Bush, A Few Words in Defense of Our Country. You don’t seem to have done any Trump songs yet.

People have asked me about that, but I haven’t thought about it. I don’t know why. I mean, I wrote a song called I’m Dreaming of a White President. But, with him, I don’t know. It’s so bad, I don’t have the heart for it, maybe.

Both your view on politics and your piano style have been influenced by the American South, and you’ve set quite a few of your songs there.

I think part of it was the fact that my mother was from there and I loved the music that came out of it. America does have this great original sin – slavery – and the South was intimately involved in that. I’ve always had an interest in the behaviour of the South and the Southerners and the attitude of the rest of the country towards the South. It’s complicated and interesting and a big deal.

And your playing?

When I was 10 or 11 and hearing stuff for the first time, it was Fats Domino that I liked more than anyone else.

It’s served you well, that style, all the way through to Toy Story’s You’ve Got a Friend in Me, which might be about cartoon toys and kids, but is arguably your biggest song and one that has taken on a life of its own. Any idea why?

I think it’s because it doesn’t write down to children or anything. At Pixar, [Toy Story director] John Lasseter told me our characters are adults. So, it’s adult emotions you are dealing with and I always remember that.

The song suggests a long-lasting friendship, not one between seven-year-olds.

As a matter of fact, Woody is an adult, which also makes it a bit of a perversion if you think about it.

No, you don’t want to over-think that. It could lose its charm quite quickly. Still, it was a hit and you haven’t had many.

You’d think that, just by having it fall on me, I’d have had more hits than I’ve had. Just by accident. But I think there’s something about what I do that doesn’t lend itself to being a hit. It’s the whole character thing. The way I’ve always written. I think it’s not the best thing for the medium. I think the medium is designed for “I love you/ you love me” direct kind of emoting and it’s not what I do.

Would you have had your career any other way?

No, I wouldn’t have. People who do what I do for a living admire me, usually. And that has meant a lot to me. It seems like I got what I wanted. I wanted people who know music to like it and think I was good. I got that.

An Evening with Randy Newman is at Auckland’s Civic Theatre on February 9, Wellington’s Opera House on February 11 and Christchurch’s Isaac Theatre Royal on February 13.

Martin Phillipps. Photo/Supplied

More than meets the eye

Longtime Randy Newman fan Martin Phillipps of The Chills writes about his affection for the singer-songwriter he once named a song after.

If the world knew The Beatles only as “that English band who did Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, then it would make more sense that Randy Newman is still largely known as “that guy who sang that rude song about dwarves and now writes kids’ music for Disney”. And, in a world where some people still hotly debate whether Bob Dylan can actually claim to be a singer, Newman’s vocal approach doesn’t stand a chance.

Yet he is an excellent and recognisable singer and, more importantly, he is one of the greatest living American songwriters. It was In Germany Before the War [from the same album as Short People – 1977’s Little Criminals] with its dark and disturbingly multi-levelled tale based on the true case of Peter Kürten, the “Vampire of Düsseldorf”, which first drew me into his extraordinary catalogue. There, I discovered song after song filled with astute observations and wonderfully human tales, often a little twisted or acerbic, but always with that underlying sense of the despairing yet loving eye that was observing and noting it all.

At best, they were like short stories incorporating a unique mixture of the likes of Mark Twain, WC Fields, William Faulkner and Charles Bukowski – all set to an ageless, music-hall style and generally clocking in at three minutes or less.

I have been fortunate to see Newman perform twice – solo in London on each occasion – and after the second show, in 1988, I got to meet him.

It was not a fan’s finest moment. A friend and I had found our way, unchallenged, backstage. We stood in the doorway of a small green room containing half a dozen people including Newman, Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits and a couple of others. After a while, Newman became aware of the two nervous fans by the door and he advanced across the room towards us.

No one had warned me that he was nearly nine feet tall. No one had thought to mention that, like Harry Potter’s “Mad Eye” Moody, Newman has a magical eye that moves of its own accord – constantly observing and seeking fresh material for his songs.

That eye suddenly swivelled towards the corridor as Alan Price, one-time Animals keyboardist (whose later Alan Price Set had a hit with Newman’s Simon Smith and The Amazing Dancing Bear) walked past.

“Hey, Randy.”

“Hi, Alan.”

By now any pre-planned lines of mine were gone. I stuttered out a few phrases of gratitude and only later realised that I essentially told him that his show would have been better if the sound wasn’t shit and what a shame there weren’t more hip young people in the audience. He looked suitably befuddled but remained polite.

Some years later, I unintentionally ripped off the riff for his beautiful and tragic song about slavery, Sail Away, then I crammed some disparate lyrics together under some vague theme about the frustrations of artistic endeavour and called it Song for Randy Newman etc. It appeared on The Chills’ 1992 album Soft Bomb.

I have only recently learnt that he has been aware of the song for some time.

So, now I am nervous. I feel “Mad Eye” Newman’s magical gaze is seeking me, seeking me. I hope to see him perform in Christchurch, but I will be disguised.

This article was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.