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F44: Producers Lenny Waronker and Mitchell Froom on Working with Randy Newman

By Marty Sartini Garner on July 8, 2011

 

F44: Producers Lenny Waronker and Mitchell Froom on Working with Randy Newman

Just Remember What Your Old Pal Said with Lenny Waronker

Lenny Waronker produced Newman’s first nine records and is the former head of Warner Brothers Records and Dreamworks. He and Newman have been friends since childhood. 

You’re often credited with having pushed Randy in the direction of pop songwriting.

He says that. I think it was a shared enthusiasm by both of us. I think I influenced him some because I was exposed to a lot of stuff from my father’s label [Liberty Records] and some of the people who worked there. I knew at an early age that he was really great. We would always talk about who was doing what, and he could certainly do what some of the writers that were having success at that time were doing. It was like a game in a way. We had a lot of fun. It was an encouragement to him just because I believed in him, and because I was around it.

Is there any one moment where you stepped back and realized the immensity of his talent?

Well, just hearing every song and realizing that each song was better than the one before it was an indication. The songs kept getting better and people started to do them. That was part of it, but then later on he just shifted gears and became Randy Newman, and by that I mean he started to write songs and lyrics that were non-conventional, based on how he saw things, or how he was able to get into other people’s skin and be them. That was the major shift. I can remember it clearly; it was like something had clicked all of a sudden. He was always considered left-of-center because he was so musical, but when he shifted gears completely it was a gigantic moment.

People who have worked with Randy talk about his depth of knowledge. Mitchell Froom said that he sometimes feels like Randy is mentoring him. 

He has a vast musical vocabulary; sometimes it’s unbelievable. But it’s interesting, because he never wears it. Unless you’re around it, you wouldn’t know. He’s great that way. When you’re in with him, he’s incredibly funny and self-effacing. But he’s an incredible musician. 

As his producer, which of his records are you the most proud of?

I like Good Old Boys because it reminded me of a John Ford movie. It’s a slice of Americana that you could see. It wasn’t totally fulfilled—it started off as one thing and ended up being something else, but it didn’t matter, because there was such a strong line between the songs. It held together; it still came out as a solid piece of music that could be performed in its entirety. All the others are that way, but that one really has that quality.  


We Belong Together, as told by Mitchell Froom

Mitchell Froom produced Bad Love and Harps and Angels, as well as “We Belong Together” from Toy Story 3 and the songs for The Princess and the Frog. He has also produced for Paul McCartney, Elvis Costello, Crowded House, Indigo Girls and more.

I’d been a fan of Randy Newman since I heard Sail Away and Good Old Boys in the ’70s. I certainly was aware of him—it was hard not to be, really. I remember that I hadn’t heard his first few records. When I first heard Sail Away, everything about it was very unique to me, and the deep feeling of it was the thing that struck me the most. Then you listen to it more and hear the piano voicings, the lyrics—it’s just everything, you know? He’s a singular talent.

My job is a funny job, because I think that the highest level you can reach as a producer is to see where you’re needed and stay out of the way when you’re not, and that’s very different for different artists. A lot of times for artists, I work a lot on the harmonics of their songs, and the arrangements. For Randy, though, I stay out of that completely. To me, it’s more like working with someone like George Gershwin than a modern-day singer-songwriter. He’s so advanced musically. He’s a master arranger; in many ways, that’s what interests him the most. He oversees the sessions, the string and horn sessions. It’s really inspiring. In this stage of my career, he’s really the person that’s inspired me the most.

He works really hard at it, and he doesn’t settle. I’ve seen him working on movies where he’ll spend the whole day on 5-to-10 seconds of music. He takes it very seriously, and it just makes you feel that music is hard, even with someone as gifted as him. Music is hard, and if you want to raise the bar, you have to work; you have to dedicate yourself to it.

I’ve been very lucky with the people I’ve been able to work with. They’re all different, and they’re obviously all gifted in very different ways. But Randy’s musical knowledge is on a different level. I’m not saying he’s better than anyone, but, again, he’s more of a Gershwin character than he is The Beatles or Bob Dylan. They’re all good, but that comes from a more folk background in some ways. Pick up a guitar, work out some chords, that kind of thing. His skills are used in more of a fine-art way. My musical knowledge is usually greater than most of the people I work with. That’s what I’m looked to; to provide musical understanding where people haven’t thought it through. But in his case, it’s far beyond me. I feel lucky to be in the room.     F

This article is from FILTER Issue 44