How do you account for a career like Randy Newman’s, other than to say he’s some kind of skewed genius? For nearly 50 years, he’s been releasing deeply quirky cult-favorite albums of mordant wit and moving melodies. In the process he’s developed a songbook of material that one could imagine both delighting (and rankling) listeners a hundred years ago and a hundred years from now. And since 1981, Newman has led a parallel career as a film composer, earning 20 Academy Award nominations and winning two.
At the risk of sounding too much like a fanboy — actually, who am I kidding? — Randy Newman is an American musical treasure, and one whose legacy will only be enhanced by the upcoming (and excellent) Dark Matter, his first new studio album in nine years. As it turns out, the 73-year-old is almost as good a talker as he is a musician. A few weeks before the album’s August 4 release date, the Los Angeles native spoke about his career over a cheeseburger and fries at his Manhattan hotel.
Your new album has a song on it called “Putin.” Did you ever toy with writing about Trump?
I did write about him. But the language was too vulgar. It felt too easy. The song was “My dick’s bigger than your dick / It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true / My dick’s bigger than your dick / I can prove it too / There it is! There’s my dick / Isn’t that a wonderful sight? / Run to the village, to town, to the countryside / Tell the people what you’ve seen here tonight.”
How’d the chorus go?
The hook was “What a dick!” Duh-duh-duh. “What a dick!” But I just didn’t want to add to the problem of how ugly the conversation we’re all having is, so I didn’t put it out.
Why was it easier to sing about Putin?
I don’t know. The funny thing was that the song I ended up writing wasn’t even that hard on him, despite the fact he’s a terrible person.
It’s been so long since you released a new album. It’s almost like you were thinking, The country’s definitively gone to hell. Now’s the perfect time for me to put something out.
No, no. It’s just now was the time. The truth is that I just never liked the work. When I don’t have a picture to work on, when there aren’t deadlines from without, recording music is not what I gravitate towards. I don’t say, “Hey, let’s have some fun. I’ll go in and play.” I once was at a recording session for a score for a TV show, and the piano player was behind a baffle. The producer of the show said, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You can’t see the conductor.” And the player says, “I’ve seen it before.” That’s how I feel about recording: I’ve been in that room before. I don’t need to do it again. But I know that, in some ways, making records is the most important thing I’m doing. I know intrinsically it’s not that significant, but to me it is very much so. It’s how I judge myself.
How’s the judgment looking right now?
Pretty good. I think that the record doesn’t show much sign of skill decay. I can think of ways you could criticize it: There’s maybe too much indirection. Maybe some of the complexity of the songs are not justified by the material. I can always think of reasons why the work is not as good as it should be. But this time it so happens that I don’t agree with any of those reasons.
Back in the ’70s, when you were working on albums like Sail Away and Good Old Boys, it seemed like there were other people doing satirical songwriting: Warren Zevon, Loudon Wainwright, Harry Nilsson. Now satire has almost disappeared from pop. Why do you think that is?
Yeah, those guys were doing it, too. You don’t hear that kind of lighthearted thing from a band anymore. Maybe it’s just that those people you mentioned happened to be around at the same time and with a similar sensibility. I was always a little surprised that more people didn’t do what I was doing, at least occasionally. Don Henley — I know him real well — he’ll do it a little bit, but I understand why he can’t do satire more often. He’s in the Eagles. People don’t want to hear him be the bad guy in a song. I can get away with it.
Whenever I hear a song like “Rider in the Rain” or “Rednecks,” I can never wrap my head around the fact that the Eagles are singing backup for you. The Eagles feel like a band that Randy Newman would hate.
No, they’re really good at what they do. Those records are good. I mean, they’re worked on. If there’s a guitar fill on an Eagles record, you can’t tell that it’s worked on, but it is worked on — the guitar rhythms and stuff, too. Look, the Eagles found that sort of mystique with the California-ooh-the-danger and all that crap. It’s not something I’m gonna do, and I might make fun of it, but I admired their stuff. When you get that big you’re doing something right. And often the thing you’re doing has a mythic quality. Like Springsteen — that whole thing surrounding him about summer nights and the girls and the cars. If you can fill one of those mythic roles, you’ve hit the mother lode. I’m still looking for my myth. “Lower East Side wise-guy” doesn’t have that high of a commercial ceiling.
Do you think there’s anything distinctly L.A. about the music you — or Nilsson or Zevon — were making in the ’70s?
Not really. It was a nuts time. There was a lot of drugs around, which doesn’t help with cynicism. I never liked the feeling of being in Long Beach at four in the morning and you’ve got all that way to get home and all the brightness is gone from the night. Harry [Nilsson] was such a sweet guy, though. He and I would play a lot of Ping-Pong. I could beat him even though he was better than me. He had some kind of psychological block against beating me. I would say, “Harry, it’s okay. You can beat me.” Really, he was so sweet. He was someone who in his life should have had more confidence in himself.
Have you ever felt culturally in step with the music happening around you?
Look at my first album. It was like I hadn’t heard the Rolling Stones.
So that’s a “no.”
A “no” in every way. Even just getting around and doing things, like opening a cracker package — I feel like I’m not so good at it. I mean that, and I don’t like how it makes me feel. It bothers me that other people see things that I don’t see. Look, I don’t know whether I’ve told anyone this before or not: I was doing the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame thing. Me and everybody else were doing “I Love L.A.” Tom Petty; Henley I think was there; Jeff Lynne; Jackson Browne. I was singing that song with the band they had there, playing bum-bum-bum-bum and things were falling apart. The drummer’s looking at me like, “It’s funny. Randy’s joking around.” I wasn’t. Then I did it again — 12, 16 bars and I’m out ahead. And I’m thinking, Am I gonna get thrown out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because I can’t fuckin’ play in time? I can conduct in time pretty well. If you tell me you want four beats at ninety-six to a bar I can not mess it up too bad. But playing in time is hard for me. I would like the feeling of being in a band. It sounds like fun. But I just can’t do it.
Is it harder to write a heartbreaking song like “In Germany Before the War” or a satirical one like “Putin”?
The comedy ones are harder, because you have to keep the comedy going. There are jokes in the front of it and a joke in the middle and then you have to have a funny finish. I remember once — God, I’m turning into John Prine, an old storyteller — but I remember going to hear a symphony. It was either Mahler or Shostakovich. It ended [hums quietly] bum, bum, bum-bum. I saw it with an orchestrator, and after that ending he said, “you always have to end with a ta-da!” This is a guy who named his boat Ta-Da. But that’s the thing: You have to find endings for the comedy songs in a way that you don’t for the other ones. It’s hard. I don’t know why I do it. Songwriting is not a medium that’s used much for laughter. Even fans of mine: I think they like it best when I do straight ballads like “Feels Like Home” or “She Chose Me” on the new album. But that’s not what I like best.
Your satirical songs can be so dark. I’m thinking of “Political Science” or “Dark Matter.” Are you ever concerned that your satire isn’t tipping over into total cynicism?
I have to be careful. I have to watch that my stuff doesn’t seem like I’m sneering all the time. What helps is that I’m actually not that cynical. I’ve got a song on this record, “It’s a Jungle Out There.” And I don’t think that; I don’t think it’s a jungle out there. I don’t think things are that bad. I think they’re very bad politically, but not otherwise.
What makes you optimistic?
People as individuals. In general, I’ve found that if you sit next to somebody and start talking they’ll be pretty good. I’ve had no reason to feel differently.
Are there songs of yours that you think were too nasty? Born Again sometimes gets held up as an overly sour album.
Yeah, people thought that one was too much. I didn’t, but in retrospect, it’s about a small subject. It’s about show business. I had a thing called “Mr. Sheep” on that record. What I meant to do was make fun of that kind of bullying rock-and-roll voice. People thought I was just making fun of businessmen. Sometimes maybe my execution is off and people don’t get what I’m aiming at. Born Again is really an aberrant record. I’d had a shitty novelty hit before that in “Short People” and then was on the cover of Born Again wearing KISS makeup with dollar signs painted over my eyes. The joke only worked if people knew who the hell I was. They didn’t.
You famously — or infamously, I guess — used the N-word in “Rednecks.” You also used it in “Christmas in Cape Town.” If you were sitting down to write those songs today, would you touch that word?
Maybe I wouldn’t. There may be no justification for a white man to use that word. I thought I had a really solid reason to on “Rednecks.” I was trying to get the character of the song right and use the words that he might use.
And being in character feels like sufficient moral justification?
I just try and get the character’s syntax and vocabulary accurate. I can only do the best I can do. I think about this stuff real hard. I will occasionally ask people, “Is that too rough?” I have blind spots.
There’s the idea that the N-word is not your your word to use.
I understand it. It’s like the idea that only Jewish people should make jokes about Jews being good with money. I don’t agree with that argument, but it’s the only legitimate one I can think of. It gives you pause. It’s a tough argument to refute.
Have you ever had a person of color ask you about your using that word?
Yeah, one. It was after he’d gone to a show in Lafayette, Louisiana. This person wrote me a letter and said, “How do you think I felt? I’m the one black person in an audience of 1,500.” I saw him later and talked to him. He said, “I don’t know where you’re coming from.” I said, “Well, I would have thought that if you listen to the song you could tell where I’m coming from.” I always do an intro to the song where I preface it by apologizing. But yeah, I can feel what he was saying. I don’t regret anything I’ve ever written, but he had a real case.
Your songwriting is built so heavily on irony and ambiguity, which are two qualities that film scores almost never have. Is it easy to switch between songwriting and film composing?
It’s using two different parts of my brain. Film composing is trying to serve the picture — whatever you have to do in order to do that. I’m not judging the picture when I’m working on it. If there’s a love scene that’s embarrassing, you’ve got to try and help it and that’s all. There’s no irony there. But film composing has been beneficial to me. I’m glad to get off the box of not always having to serve my songs up left-handed.
Is it annoying to get notes from directors who don’t know anything about music?
Here’s the kind of thing that happens: I was doing a movie about horse racing. For a scene of an important race, I was playing the action — the horse coming around the far turn. He’s behind. He comes on into the stretch. I’m playing some kind of we-don’t-know-what’s-gonna-happen thing. And then something affirmative happened, so I played it. The director said, “No, don’t do that.” He wanted an elegiac thing behind it. And I said, “Why? We don’t know who won the Louisiana Derby in 1922” or whatever the hell it was. And he says, “No, no. This movie’s not about the horse.” And I said, “It isn’t?!”
How do you feel about the current state of film scoring?
It’s not very good.
I think ultimately there are too many guys making music who don’t come from music. By that I mean they come from music just in the hands as opposed to being able to write it down or knowing the compositional rules. Following rules seems like bullshit, but they’re not nothing. If you’re doing straight vanilla and it’s supposed to sound good and have one chord follow another — it’s better if you don’t have a parallel fifth. There’s a reason those rules are there. I don’t know what the reason is, but they have value.
What’s the last good score you heard?
The BBC Masterpiece shows are really professionally done. They’re pretty good, mostly. And anything John Williams does is still gonna be pretty good.
It must’ve felt good to stick it to your co-nominee Sting when you finally won an Oscar. That guy’s got everything.
Ah, he was very nice. We were all watching the announcement backstage on a monitor. I could barely see what was going on. It was me, Faith Hill, Sting, and Paul McCartney, maybe. They announced the winner and Faith Hill said, “You won.” I said, “I did?” And she said, “Yeah, go on up.” So I went out there and I looked down and the orchestra musicians were standing up. I was so touched by that I thought I was gonna cry. Then I thought, Jesus Christ! You can’t cry at this third-rate vaudeville show here. Seeing that the orchestra respected what I do was one of the nicest things that’s happened in my life. Coming up as a kid — I never believed in God, but the orchestra musicians were the high people.
What work do you most want to do next?
I wouldn’t mind doing a movie where someone just looks up at the sky for 45 seconds and I can take it easy. If that doesn’t happen, I imagine I’ll do Toy Story 4, whenever that comes. And this new record is encouraging to me. I don’t know how it’s gonna be received in general, by the public or by critics, but it makes me want write more songs. I sent the record to Henley and he said, “It looks like you’ve got the makings of a musical here.” That’s not an impossible idea.
At this point in your life, do you ever have legacy thoughts?
No. I only know that if my obituary doesn’t start with something like “Newman broke a hip in January” it’ll start with “the composer of ‘Short People.’” That’s the way it goes.
This interview has been edited and condensed.