When Randy Newman rolls into St. Augustine this weekend, he’ll bring with him a half-century’s worth of some of the most humorous and poignant songs in the pantheon of contemporary music. Considered by many to be the greatest songwriter of his generation, Newman’s work has been covered by, among others, Ray Charles, Harry Nilsson, Joe Cocker, Nina Simone and Norah Jones.
Unlike his peers of the late ’60s and early ’70s who focused on an overly confessional-style of songwriting, Newman’s songs are driven by a kind of sardonic fiction and blunt realism; sometimes delivered with biting social satire, other times with tender compassion. Bigots, deadbeat dads, wallflowers and other weary outcasts walk through his tunes, carried along by Newman’s singularly melodic approach that runs the gamut from a rolling New Orleans stride to somber balladry.
In recent years, Newman has focused more on composing for film soundtracks. Over the years, his efforts have rightfully garnered him a shelf full of Oscars, Grammys and Emmys.
Newman granted Folio Weekly an exclusive interview, in which he talked about his new songs, an ongoing fear of writing and the worst thing he’s ever said.
Folio Weekly: Off of the top of my head, I know of three friends who seem like examples of devout fans of your work — a baby boomer, a 40something experimental musician and a 20something filmmaker. That’s just one small faction, but you are known for having this diverse and rabid following. Do your fans tell you directly why your music is so affecting to them?
Randy Newman: Yeah, they tell me. It’s for different reasons, and different songs they’re enthusiastic about. I just talked to a reporter who sort of read back these things that affected his daughter, like the Pixar stuff. Sometimes that the songs are about things rather than the common repertoire; it’s not “Do you love me? I don’t love you anymore, why do you love me?” And a lot of times, even with big fans of mine, it’s songs that could be written by someone else, like “Feels Like Home” or “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” — like straight love songs, which really surprised me. It varies, really.
Your last studio album was released six years ago. When’s the new album coming out?
Next year. I’m writing for it now. I think I’ve got the songs. They’re a little odd. I think I have one that’s new to play. I never play anything until it’s done, but I may play something that’s close to finished. I’ve got one done about [Vladimir] Putin.
Is that right? Is it a celebration of that mighty leader?
Well, yeah. In a way. [Laughs.] It’s kind of fantastic. It’s got a good line in it that says, “When he takes his shirt off/drives the ladies crazy/when he takes his shirt off/makes me wanna be a lady.” [Laughs.] Then I have these big guys, like from the Prince record “If I Was Your Girlfriend”: “When you take your shirt off, wanna make us be a lady!” Just nuts. That kind of teenage affectation. The world leader with power. I’ll play it when I get down there.
Even though you’ve been composing for decades, you’ve said you really don’t feel that confident when you start to write a song. Why do you think there’s still that kind of doubt lurking about?
I have the wrong attitude. You know, I just don’t have confidence that even though I’ve done it, I can do it again. Even when I do it, I’ll, like, foul on things until I play it for somebody and they say, “Oh, that’s great! That’s great!” I’m better than I was when I was a kid or even 15, 20 years ago. You know if you’re a writer, you have to go with initial impressions sometimes. You run around and say, “Jesus, I thought this was pretty good,” and sometimes you’re right — but you’ll know. You go up and down on a thing. That’s why the Buddhists and all these gurus say, “Don’t be judgmental.” But how in the hell can you write and not be a little judgmental? I don’t know. Writers famously are drunks and troubled folk. I don’t think you have to be. I don’t think you have to roll around on the floor, live in a garret and that kind of crap. But I’ll tell ya, I never enjoyed doing it particularly; maybe occasionally. I’m better now than I was […] but maybe I’m not writing as well, I don’t know. I’ve always worried about it. I mean, I can tell myself, “C’mon, you believe in statistics, you believe in numbers, you’ve done it a hundred times. The odds are you’ll do something that’s all right.” It’s goddamned hard.
But you’ve been writing for so long. During that time have you discovered these kinds of recurring elements that seem to produce a better song?
No. I really haven’t learned any formula at all. I’ve learned I can go faster if I’m pretending to write something for someone else. For me to write a straight song like “Feels Like Home” or “Losing You,” I’d be writing it for someone else. Writing myself a straight love song, one that’s a straight ahead profession of love — it just doesn’t interest me. I’ll change it in some way. I’ll have a really great tune that possibly more than 28 people will like and I’ll make it about death.