Profile: Just don’t leave Randy Newman alone with his music

 Rosalie Higson  The Austrailian  07/12/11

IN the early 1970s young people lived or died by their record collections. If you wanted to be a serious contender in the contemporary music stakes you would have had a couple of LPs from a bespectacled young Californian singer-songwriter stacked alongside your Stones, Beatles and Dylan.

12 Songs and Sail Away introduced the public to Randy Newman, whose edgy, narrative-rich songs were part of an explosion of youthful talent bursting from the US west coast.

So much music from the era has been forgotten but Newman is still going strong. Now 68, he has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, has had an impressive 20 Academy Award nominations – and two wins – for his film scores, and on the shelf in his study are six Grammys and three Emmys.

In his first visit to Australia since the mid 80s, Newman will appear with symphony orchestras in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in concerts featuring his most popular songs and film music.

He’s long been acknowledged as a master songwriter: critics applaud the musical depth, edge and literary quality of his lyrics. And while he didn’t make a dent in the pop charts with his early performances, his songs have been embraced by singers working in jazz, folk and rock.

Three Dog Night had a pop hit with Mama Told Me (Not to Come), as did Joe Cocker with the ever popular You Can Leave Your Hat On. Many of Newman’s songs became instant classics, including the melancholy I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, which has been covered by dozens of artists from Judy Collins to Peter Gabriel. His breakthrough hit was the humorous Short People, from the 1977 film Little Criminals.

Songwriting was in his genes. Born in Los Angeles in 1943, Newman comes from a family of composers and was encouraged into the craft by his father.

“When I had some little talent, he was like, ‘Oh, look what he can do, look at that, he can play a third,’ ” Newman says.

“He was a doctor, but he thought his brothers – three of whom were composers – were the greatest thing ever. I think he wanted me to do what they did.

“They wrote specifically for film, and when I started songwriting when I was 17 he would say, ‘When are you doing a picture?’ And when I did one,

he’d say, ‘When are you doing another picture?’ ”

In part because of Newman’s aversion to sitting alone at a piano, he has worked in film, generally a much more sociable arrangement, since the 80s.

In 1983, his work on Ragtime garnered his first Oscar nomination, and he has since composed for some of the biggest animated films: A Bug’s Life, all three Toy Story films, Cars and Monsters Inc for Disney/Pixar.

But Hollywood has changed over the past 20 years: the importance of a movie’s musical score has been underestimated, and movies are the poorer for it, he says.

“To put it simply, it’s got worse,” he says. “There’s less movement and less response to the picture; maybe it’s a matter of style. Some of the finest directors think that using music is somehow cheating – as if editing wasn’t – but they grew up listening to pop songs that [lasted] two or three minutes, and that’s the kind of score they want, even when it hurts the picture.”

And action films – which often need all the help they can get – are worse off because music isn’t used as well as it could be.

“A lot of [music] just sits there low down, and it hurts the scenes really. In The Bourne Identity and those [other] Bourne pictures, that guy’s moving along pretty good and the music keeps pace with it and doesn’t slow the movie down at all. But you look at some of the other stuff – and I’ve looked at these for the music since I was a kid – and they are getting hurt a little bit. It could be that I’m old and grumpy, but I think I’ve got a case about that.”

Newman – genial and gently self-deprecating rather than grumpy – maintains he has terrible work habits, and it once took a reminder from his wife that he was broke and had better write something to make him go into the studio.

One record company put a minder at his door to keep him hard at it. “I could have made more records, it is just 12 in 40 years,” he says. “But I don’t like to write, I don’t want to be in a room by myself when I’m banging on a piano, so unless I have to I don’t do it. I don’t think I’m ever going to reach a point where I just can’t wait to get in there,” he says.

“Movies, you have no choice. There’s a deadline, you have to make it, you have to show up every day and work. But with songs, Warner Bros would put somebody on the door, a kind of guard really, somebody I knew had to be in the room. Why I’m that way I don’t understand to this day.

“It’s hurt me, because when you take a vacation from writing and go back to it, it’s not like you are all fresh and everything, it just makes it harder. People say, ‘Oh, you’ll be fine.’ I never believe that. You’re not going to be fine,” he says with a sigh and a chuckle.

But he loves performing and, really, he’s not complaining. “To have earned your living in this business is something to be grateful for, it really is,” he says. “It’s not like a job.”

One aspect of Newman’s music that has always been strong is his satirical social comment, in songs such as Political Science (aka “Let’s Drop the Big One”) and A Few Words in Defence of our Country, which he introduced at a concert with the words: “I was recently in Europe, and they don’t like us, they don’t respect us, after all we’ve done for them.”

He’s not afraid to ridicule racism, Supreme Court judges, US foreign policy, elitism. He’s planning another album, and although the details are vague, he knows what one or two his songs will address.

“I’m concerned about the fact the rich are getting richer and the poor getting poorer,” he says.

“We’ve been complaining since the 60s about corporate America and how we’re in the hands of a plutocracy, but it’s really truer now than it ever has been. Banks and those people with tremendous economic weight are in control; they were able to do all this illegal kind of stuff, even for example selling stocks they knew were bad to clients. And they’re fine, better off than they were.

“It doesn’t seem right. So that seems like there will be some kind of song. I’ve written about it before, but I’m still angry.”

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