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There's pretty good back-and-forth. I take as much information as I can from them — non-musical sort of terms. Any adjectives that describe it: happy, sad, very basic stuff. What they are trying to get across is pretty clear, but they'll put it down. For "You've Got a Friend" [from Toy Story], they said they wanted to emphasize the special kind of relationship, the friendship they have. So I just said "You've got a friend, you've got a friend, you've got a friend in me" three times. And it happens like that.
The most important thing, I think, to Pixar and to the music people I deal with at Disney, is that they feel something. It's most important to them when they put the picture together. The jokes, all that stuff — they worry less about that than they do if there's some kind of feeling behind things. If there's heart in it, is what they say. But that's what they care about with the songs.
And you have a knack for doing that. I think about the song "When She Loved Me" from Toy Story 2. It gets me every time, and even without being a fan of your music, it would have gotten me.
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Yeah, it's not me singing it. There's no presence in there. But it had to work. It's really a risk, I think. I've said it before, but you have five-year-olds, four-year-olds watching the thing. They have to stay quiet for it; they have to sit for it. And they do.
I can't think of another songwriter that has such a sharp divide between what you write for yourself and what you write for other people, what you write for movies.
That's probably true. No one ever tells me what to do when I write for myself. On very rare occasions, yeah, but no one's ever told me anything. But in a movie, you have the assignment. You can't write "Rednecks" for a Disney movie. You wouldn't want to. I'm grateful for the opportunity to get yanked into what passes as the middle of the road for me. Those songs are essentially benign. There's some range to them — The Princess and the Frog, James and the Giant Peach, stuff for Meet the Parents. It's what I feel most confident about that I can do — a song assignment.
It certainly hasn't softened your edge with your own stuff.
No, whoever I am, that's crystallized, and there it is.
In concert, are there songs that you really relish performing now?
It comes and goes. I'll get tired of "Birmingham," and then I'll like it again. There they are — I go around and go around, but the songs are whatever they are. They're still the same, but it just depends on what kind of mood you're in. I've always liked playing "Same Girl"; I don't do it all the time. But it feels good to do it.
Are there songs at this point that you've set aside and that you never revisit?
It's always a question whether to do "Rednecks" or not nowadays. Without some explanation, it's hard to drop it on people. You can't just assume that they all know who I am. People sound like they're surprised at "Political Science," which I always do. Kind of an indication that maybe they haven't seen me before or haven't heard me much.