sun 21/07/2024

Hats off to Randy Newman | reviews, news & interviews

Hats off to Randy Newman

Hats off to Randy Newman

The thoughts of popular music's bravest songwriter on his 68th birthday

Randy Newman: 'Irony is how I feel most comfortable expressing myself'

There are many reasons to love the music of Randy Newman, who turns 68 today. For starters he’s a renowned ironist and a caustic wit who is nevertheless capable of being as emotionally straight as any heart-on-sleeve singer-songwriter. The man who wrote “I Think it’s Going to Rain Today”, now a bona fide American standard, “I Miss You” and “Real Emotional Girl” could hardly be said to be all surface and no feeling.

What else? He is a cool, scholarly musician's musician yet also a master wordsmith, a combination far rarer than it might seem. He is the Grammy and Oscar-winning composer of a multitude of movie scores, spanning everything from Monsters Inc to Awakenings to, perhaps most famously, the three Toy Story movies, the first of which included the inescapably affecting “You‘ve Got a Friend in Me“. And yet he can also turn his hand to the kind of loose, lascivious grooves that have become huge hits for other acts, be they Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not to Come” or Joe Cocker‘s “You Can Leave Your Hat on”.

Really, I picked the wrong medium to do this kind of thing. When you’re driving in the car listening to the radio you’re not going to say, 'Oh, What-ho! Irony!'

In the 1970s he looked a little like Woody Allen crossbred with Gene Wilder, and even though nowadays he has a more distinguished air he can still be as funny as both used to be. I love him for all those reasons but mostly because I can’t think of another songwriter who dares to be so utterly, irredeemably dislikeable in the honourable pursuit of snaring human nature at its truest and grubbiest. There is a kind of grasping neediness in almost all writers and performers that Newman simply doesn’t possess. Few other artists have displayed the strength of purpose to inhabit the skins of the kind of characters who people songs such as “Rednecks”, “Short People” and, more recently, “A Few Words in Defence of Our Country“ and “Korean Students".   

Watch Randy Newman performing "Rednecks"

A new album released this month, Live in London, confirms not just the staggering quality of his songbook but also what a unique catalogue it is. It's no fluke. A couple of years ago I spoke to Newman at length about his motivations when writing songs. He began by saying that he "figured out a long time ago that 95 per cent of the popular music repertory is love songs. I thought, well, you could say other stuff. The kinds of ideas you find in songs of mine like 'The World Isn’t Fair' or 'Great Nations of Europe' don’t get covered much, but I don’t sit down and think consciously about big subject matters. It’s always more personal, about individuals rather than issues. That applies even to something like 'God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)'. I’m an atheist, though not a militant one, but religion is enormously important and I take it seriously. I’ve written about it a few times but there’s nothing conscious about it. In fact I was surprised that I knew all that stuff about Cain, Abel and Seth: I didn’t look it up or anything, it just turned up".

Watch Randy Newman performing "God's Song"

I also asked him whether he was comfortable with the fact that almost everything he had ever done was perceived to be shrouded in irony, subverting the implication of emotional "authenticity" (whatever that is) which traditionally accompanies the work of the singer-songwriter. He shrugged. "Irony is how I feel most comfortable expressing myself," he said. "The protagonists in my songs are often wrong, or they’re lying to us. Most songwriters aren’t willing to do that because they want people to see them in a certain way, but I will write about anything. I will take anything – it’s too important to me to write well. You deliver the message straight so the singer of the song is very rarely in on the joke, but the audience are supposed to recognise that there’s something wrong with this guy and the way he sees the world. It’s a good way of talking about big subjects. I don’t know whether you could do it in a straight way, like shouting WAR IS BAD. I don’t think that works, trying to inform or lecture to people, because mostly we know all that stuff.

I’m not as bad as the guy in 'Old Man', but when my father died I thought a lot about that song

"Your personal views on the big stuff always end up in there somewhere anyway. 'Old Man' is about a son who was raised a certain way, without faith or without warmth, and that’s how he responds when his father dies. I’ve always liked it but it’s a real cold song. In fact, it’s so rough that I don’t even play it live because I can’t get the audience back. I can’t get ’em to like me after I do it. I’m not as bad as the guy in Old Man', but when my father died I thought a lot about that song. I was sitting there by the bed and I wanted to pat him and kiss him and tell him everything was all right, but… it kinda wasn’t there. The stuff of mine that I like best is where you can see the character in the song and – in the best of them – see other people, too, but really, I picked the wrong medium to do this kind of thing. Lot’s of people don’t get it. When you’re driving in the car listening to the radio you’re not going to say, 'Oh, What-ho! Irony!' You just want to tap along. But, you know, that knowledge doesn’t stop me." For which we should be thankful.

Watch Randy Newman performing "I Think it's Going to Rain Today"

I will write about anything. I’ll take anything – it’s too important to me to write well

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