By Marty Sartini Garner on July 7, 2011
Read the introduction and follow our week-long coverage of "Sixth Street, U.S.A.: Randy Newman's America."
A Conversation with Randy Newman, Part 2
[continued from Part 1]
Your songs are often about places. In addition to the South, you’ve written about Ohio, L.A., Baltimore. What is it about place that intrigues you?
If I’d been pushed, maybe I would have been a geographer, or something boring like a weatherman. It just excites me. Things that are different from where I’ve grown up have always appealed to me. And, if you don’t have love songs as your basic source in your repertoire, you have to look at things like city names. A lot of times it’s places you’ve never been or don’t know much about that interest you. I hadn’t been to Baltimore when I wrote “Baltimore.” That song is based on this National Geographic piece about the city. I saw it from a train, and it just looked different from any other town on the Eastern Seaboard to me. I’m real interested in U.S. regions and accents and geography. It doesn’t make me the best first date in the world, possibly, but it’s what I’m interested in. I’m the worst first date.
What’s your relationship with “I Love L.A.”?
It’s unofficially the song of the town. The baseball team plays it, the hockey team, the basketball team. You can’t write a Chamber of Commerce, uninflected, ra-ra-ra-for-our-city song for Los Angeles or any big American town. But it has the weather, and the cars, and Beach Boys thing that I love. And it’s got the bum and the other things that keep the song from being totally straightforward. People realize it, too, that it’s not “New York, New York.” I like it, I always have.
You started doing film scores with Cold Turkey. Is that something you were actively seeking out or did they approach you?
I’d turned down a few, but I thought I might have been turning them down because I was scared.
Scared of what?
Whatever I’m scared of now when I get an assignment and have to do it. Probably that I won’t be able to do it. I know that’s part of writing, but it’s screwed me up a bit.
Do you prefer pop songwriting or film work?
It’s the same feeling. I think the feeling of having written a song that I know is going to come out alright is about the best thing that happens to me. The best thing that happens, though, is working with the orchestra on the movies. But that’s not really creative work, it’s mostly just thinking on your feet.
You’ve said that you write differently when you write for different artists—that when you write for a different singer, it’s like writing for another instrument, like for an oboe or a bassoon.
It’s that plus the words. You’re not gonna have Sarah McLachlan say the N-word. And there are other things. The syntax is different, the vocabulary is different. There’s a small vocabulary in pop music; there are so many words that just don’t work. Sometimes, when a novelist gives an example of a song lyric from a group they’ve made up, they’ll often make that mistake. They’ll include a word you wouldn’t use, and not necessarily a four-dollar word. It doesn’t have to be fancy to be wrong.
You played at Fats Domino’s 80th birthday party in New Orleans a couple of years back, along with Allen Toussaint and Clarence “Frogman” Henry. These are people who, in that city, are absolute legends. But when you did “Louisiana 1927,” the crowd was absolutely reverential, completely silent. How has that song changed for you since Katrina?
In New Orleans, when people ask you how you feel, they really mean it, unlike the rest of the world. But there’s always a little sauce on everything, and things get dressed up, but that was so real, what happened down there, that there’s no way you can turn it into folklore. They’re sick of people who are trying to do that, turn it into something charming. “The brave heart of the Crescent City” and all that shit. It was an enormous thing that beat people up around the eyes. The song is, in a way, part of what happened. I don’t know what they think of it, whether they love it or not. I assume they’re tired of Spike Lee being down there making movies about it, and I assume they’re tired of me, too.
For people of the younger generation, you’re probably best known for “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Do you get parents and kids coming to the shows?
Yeah. Little kids come at festivals. Sometimes I’ll do “You’ve Got a Friend” early so that they can nap through “My Life Is Good.” It’s a long way from being a kids’ show. I’m grateful for it.
“You’ve Got a Friend in Me” is interesting because it’s nostalgic on its own, but its attachment to Toy Story has given it a deeper nostalgia, since a lot of people have grown up with those films. Do you have a lot of people in their mid-20s coming to your shows having just discovered you for the first time?
Recently, there have been more young guys there. They don’t seem to be there to hear “You’ve Got a Friend.” I don’t know where they’ve heard me, or why this is happening. I mean, it’s not like they’re waiting outside the hotel and screaming at me, but there has been an uptick somewhere. Men make up an unbelievable percentage of my audience. It’s like Rush. It’s a great place to meet guys, my shows. Whatever I did when I changed my writing style cut me off from the public that I wanted to reach! What am I performing for if not to be somebody’s worst first date? F
Stay tuned for our wrap up to "Randy Newman's America," with words from Newman's childhood friend and producer Lenny Waronker and producer Mitchell Froom.
This article is from FILTER Issue 44