On the eve of the Oscars and his St. Louis appearance, songwriting guru Randy Newman opens up

Feb 24, 2011 at 4:00 am

It's safe to say that no one else has had the kind of musical career that Randy Newman has. He began as a behind-the-scenes songwriter, penning hits for singers such as Jerry Butler and Irma Thomas. Despite unassuming looks, a froggy, drawling delivery and a penchant for featuring reprehensible characters in his songs, Newman found success in the '70s and '80s as a singer-songwriter. But in the past fifteen years, his work as a film soundtrack composer has brought him a different kind of exposure, acclaim and audience, as films such as the Toy Story franchise brought Newman's work to a broader, pintsize audience. He recently received his twentieth Oscar nomination, for the Toy Story 3 song "We Belong Together," which he'll perform at the awards ceremony on February 27.

Newman's Hollywood success hasn't sidetracked his own songwriting, which retains the satire, sarcasm and button-pushing misanthropy of his most famous work. 2008's Harps and Angels was a welcome return to form, and this year he'll release The Randy Newman Songbook, Volume 2, which features modern recordings of old and new favorites. Reached by phone in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Newman talked about the difference between writing for himself and writing for the big screen, as well as how he looks back on his own long and varied songbook.

RFT: I see that your next Songbook collection is coming out soon, and you start it off with "Dixie Flyer," which always seemed like one of your most autobiographical songs.

Randy Newman: It is — there are maybe a couple lies in it, but not much. My mom and I did move to Louisiana; I was born in Los Angeles and then went right away to New Orleans, where her family was.

Do you ever dip back into your personal life or biography with your songs?

I'm beginning to think that maybe some songs were more autobiographical than I thought, and then on the last album it all could have come from someone my age, at least. It was sort of age-sensitive. I don't know how exciting a commercial prospect that is, but what am I gonna say? I'm gonna rock & roll all night?

I was thinking about that with the title track, "Harps and Angels." There is some pretty sharp gallows humor in there. I wonder if you have ever entertained thoughts of retiring at this point.

I think about it. I think, "What if I can't do it anymore?" You must have found this yourself. If you don't write for a while, or you stay away from it for whatever reason — specifically songs; movies [scores] are different — I always wonder if I can still do it. I know the evidence — if there was someone else telling me that, I would say the evidence is, "You can do it; you've been doing it since you were sixteen." But you don't know that. I don't know it. So you entertain thoughts of, "Why beat myself up over this and just quit?" But I don't think I could. I don't think I could do it financially.

I wonder what that divide is for you now, doing film work, which seems to be the bulk of your work, versus doing albums like Harps and Angels, your more singer-songwriter material.

It's the bulk of my work because once you get an assignment, six weeks, eight weeks, ten weeks later, you have to do it. You have to work while you're awake. There's no, "Oh, maybe I won't go in today, my foot hurts." You can't do it. So you produce a good deal of work. And you know what you're writing about, basically. If it's a romantic scene, or Woody [from Toy Story] falls out of a tree — I know at least the parameters of what I have to write. But the songs, I have no idea.

How much input are you given in those films? The last time you were in St. Louis, you played some songs from The Princess and the Frog and talked about how an early version of the film had scenes of blacks and whites dining together, and you told the producers that wouldn't have happened in 1920s New Orleans.

I asked them if it was science fiction. They didn't laugh, either. [Laughs] And they changed it. I had to rewrite things a couple times, as you might for a director or producer. But they changed her name from what it was to Tiana. And I had stopped wising off about things by this point, but I wonder if you looked in a phonebook of 1925 New Orleans — or now — you're not gonna find too many Tianas.

You have to wonder what division of Disney came up with that name.

Well, the toy division, maybe. Which did phenomenally well. It's not a big deal, but I don't know. Some things you maybe wanna get right.

You're obviously the first call for these Pixar films and a lot of the Disney ones. Are they giving you a lot of freedom, or is there much back-and-forth as you're writing these songs?

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.

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.