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To irony and beyond

Meeting the man behind the music for the “Toy Story” movies

Tim de Lisle | September/October 2015

A young songwriter is in a bar, being schmoozed by a record producer who has just heard her sing. Both have sorrows to drown, but he is excited by her talent. He tells her she has everything except the right look, which he can help with. She juts out her jaw and insists that music needs to be more authentic than that.

“Name me one artist”, he says, “that passes your authenticity test.”

“Dylan.”

“Dylan?! That is the most cultivated artist you could have thought of. His hair, his sunglasses – he changes his look every decade.”

“Randy Newman.”

OK, you got me on that.”

This is a scene from the film “Begin Again”, released last year, starring Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley (hence the jaw). It was written and directed by John Carney, author of “Once”, and you can tell he’s a music lover. Randy Newman has sustained a career for half a century dancing to nobody’s tune but his own. He is two musicians in one, both utterly distinctive. To those who know his name, he is one of the great living songwriters, with the ability to be himself – rumbling piano, yelping vocals, biting observations – while drawing deep from jazz, gospel and rock, tackling anything from American foreign policy to Korean parents, and deploying character, dialogue and irony like a novelist. In a golden generation of singer-songwriters, born in America or Canada in the Forties – Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Neil Diamond, Carole King – none writes songs with a stronger personality.

Plenty of people look blank when you say Randy Newman’s name, or confuse him with Randy Crawford, who is a woman. But they too know his work, from when he puts his other hat on, as a prolific composer of music for films. Twenty years ago this November, Pixar Animation Studios released its first full-length movie – “Toy Story”. It rapidly became a classic, a fixture in the faithful world of family entertainment. It opened with Newman yelping his way through “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”, which became a classic too, returning in each of the sequels. If you live in the Western world, and have either been a child or had one in the past 20 years, you know that tune.

It was this Randy Newman who found himself, one night last September, at the annual gala of an organisation called Hollywood in Vienna. A faintly surreal evening began with a pre-show reception at the Sofitel, a shiny high-rise hotel. The view from the rooftop bar was ravishing – nearby churches, distant hills, pastel streets – but only about 15 people were there to see it and most of them were on their phones, ignoring each other and the waiters bearing trays of chiselled canapés. In the room were three people who sing on stage for a living. Two were opera singers, looking polished and generic; the other, not generic at all, was a stooping figure in a black suit and open-necked shirt. Randy Newman had an air, as he often does, of mild discomfort, laced with wry humour.

I introduced myself as the journalist from London.

“Thank you for coming all this way.”

“Pleasure. Nice place you’ve got here.”

“This is where I have all my parties. Got to get in the car, see you afterwards.”

Ten minutes later, a white BMW deposits Newman on the red carpet outside the Konzerthaus. He poses for the photographers with David Newman, the conductor for the gala, who happens to be his first cousin. When it comes to film music, the Newmans are the Kennedys and the Bushes put together. Four of Randy’s cousins write film scores, including David, and so did three of his late uncles, including David’s father, Alfred, who won nine Oscars. (Randy’s father wrote songs too, for fun; he was a doctor, whose patients reportedly included the Rolling Stones.) If life was a film script, the cousins would all be at each other’s throats, but later Randy will say that what he liked best about the gala was working with David. He stands with his arm round him, radiating good cheer, and his foot taps at the red carpet, as if he can’t wait to reach the piano.

Time for a waltz: conducting the orchestra at the Hollywood in Vienna gala, 2014

First he has to be a member of the audience, which seems to be made up of Viennese high society, dressed as if for the opera. Randy sits there, both outsider and honoree, with his wife, Gretchen, as David Newman and the orchestra canter through a century of film-music history. A big screen shows clips to match, from Charlie Chaplin to Monty Python. The content has nothing to do with Austria, unless you count Chaplin as Hitler, gleefully bouncing the globe on his backside, but the atmosphere feels Viennese, mixing formality with a discreet fervour. “It’s a musical town,” Randy says. “They tell you they love music, and they do.” There’s more to the remark than meets the eye: “musical”, it turns out, is his highest form of praise.

After the interval, the music is all his. You see how steeped his early scores were in movies past (the uses of uncles). The orchestra plays his themes from grown-up films, “Parenthood”, “Avalon”, “Awakenings” and “The Natural”. They’re stronger than most, with crisp melodies and surging swells of brass, but they haven’t broken free of their parent pictures, unlike his songs for kids. As the opera singers ease into “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3”, “The Time of Your Life” from “A Bug’s Life” and “If I Didn’t Have You” from “Monsters, Inc.”, the stiffness of the occasion softens. The author of some of the most sophisticated songs ever written is wowing a highly sophisticated audience with an almost childlike simplicity.

By now Randy has taken the baton from David. He is comfortable with orchestras; for his “Desert Island Discs”, he chose Mahler and Stravinsky as well as Ray Charles and Uncle Alfred. He is also comfortable making a speech. The point of the gala is to present him with the Max Steiner Film Music Achievement Award, named after the Viennese boy who became the godfather of film music, scoring “Gone With the Wind” and “Casablanca”. “This year’s laureate”, says the chair of the gala, “has enriched both music and film with his touching compositions. Randy Newman creates the emotional arc through the world’s favourite movies. And I can say, as the mother of three children, his songs are the soundtrack to our household.”

After a thunderous ovation, Randy takes the microphone. His speaking voice, deep and soft, bears no relation to the celebrated yelp. “I’m thrilled to receive this,” he murmurs. “It means more to me than any other award I’ve received, in a number of ways...”

He thanks his cousin: “There probably is something that flows through the blood of the Newman family, other than whisky. You can write down a note, but you have to know what the music is. David and his father Alfred, they knew what the music was, and I hope I know that sometimes. It’s a great honour to get this award from a city that really knows what the music is. Hollywood is in Vienna briefly, but Vienna is really in Hollywood.” He lists some Austrian-American authors of film scores, lacing diplomacy with jokes. “Max Steiner was acknowledged to be one of the three or four great film composers. Five maybe – I just included myself.” He returns to Vienna, “the city that produced Gluck and Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert. And Strauss, Strauss, Strauss.”

He salutes the orchestra: “The greatest times of my life, and I’m including almost everything, have been with orchestras. I don’t play piano well enough to perform with people who have spent their lives alone in a room getting really good at something, much like snipers do. Only by writing do I have an excuse to play with them. It’s not a matter of power. It’s being part of a group that is so accomplished.” Then he plays “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”. And I find myself hoping that Glastonbury books him for its Sunday-teatime slot.

Newman’s muse roams far and wide, but the well she keeps going back to is New Orleans. The infant Randy spent summers there with his mother in the Forties, and the rhythms – bouncy, human, expressive, the polar opposite of electronic dance music – run through his whole oeuvre. “I don’t exactly know why, but it happened very early. I don’t remember any conscious listening to this music, maybe it got there by osmosis. There’s good music all over the town, even in those bad T-shirt places.”

So I went to see him play in New Orleans in January. A Randy Newman concert tends to be either solo or orchestral; this one is with the Louisiana Philharmonic. It proves his point about the town by taking place at the Mahalia Jackson Theatre of the Performing Arts, in the middle of Louis Armstrong Park.

He plays “Losing You”, a ballad from his last album, “Harps and Angels”. It pivots on a line which he sings as if it was a stanza: “Do you know/how much/you mean/to me?” Song lyrics, the singer and writer David Byrne said recently, are about how the words sound as much as what they say, and those nine words, monosyllables all, are simple but artful – a ripple of internal rhyme, a whiff of alliteration. With anybody, half of singing is timing; with Newman, it’s about three-quarters, whether he’s joking or not. Touching, telling, mannered but not maddening, this is the sort of singing Dylan could be doing, and isn’t.

Take it to the bridge: Newman in his hometown, LA, posing for the cover of “Little Criminals”, 1977

Pop, as these familiar names confirm, no longer belongs to the young, yet the arc of the stars’ careers still behaves as if it did – a steep ascent, a slow decline, and then, if they’re lucky, a long plateau. Newman, characteristically, captured this syndrome in a song. “This one’s about all the rock stars of my age who just keep going,” he tells the audience. “It’s called ‘I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)’.” He can afford to mock: all his well-loved tunes for the cinema, and quite a few of the rest, have come since he turned 50 (he is now 71). “It’s important to me, too important, that I’m still writing as well as I did,” he says. “It’s sort of rare in pop music. I’m not the best judge, but a lot of people do their best work before they’re 30 and I don’t think that’s necessarily true in my case. Maybe it’s because I did movies and stayed sharp in some way.”

Or maybe it’s simply because he was always a songwriter. A supplier to others from the age of 17, he didn’t make it as a singer till he was 27. He reached the British top 20, unseen and unheard, in 1965 with Cilla Black’s “I’ve Been Wrong Before” and made the top five in 1967 with Alan Price’s “Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear”. “Mama Told Me Not to Come”, which he wrote for Eric Burdon, became a Billboard number one in the hands of Three Dog Night. “You Can Leave Your Hat On”, from Newman’s third studio album “Sail Away”, was picked up and growled out by Joe Cocker. (It reached the charts after featuring in the Eighties sex-fest “9½ Weeks” – accompanying a striptease, which rather stripped it of its humour.) “Mama” and “Hat On” are now stomping staples of Sir Tom Jones’s live set. “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today”, a beautiful ache, written back in 1966 and sung then by Judy Collins, has been reinterpreted by everyone from Nina Simone to Norah Jones.

Most of these tracks, and about a hundred more, are gathered on a box set, “Guilty: 30 Years of Randy Newman”. If you upload it to your iTunes, the system doesn’t recognise it, so you have to type in the titles, which turns out to be a treat. You see the geography in his songs: “Baltimore”, “Birmingham”, “Miami”. You see the history: “1914”, “Going Home (1918)”, “Louisiana 1927”, “In Germany Before the War” – a title so pregnant, the lyrics hardly have to do a thing. You feel the pain: “What Have You Done to Me”, “I Want You to Hurt Like I Do”. You spot the irony: “Lonely at the Top, “It’s Money That I Love”, “God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)”. You hear the poetry: “Song for the Dead”, “Blue Shadows on the Trail”. You see the range: “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” sits next to a song called “Tartine de Merde”. You notice how themes recur, one above all – “I’ll Be Home”, “Old Kentucky Home”, “Don’t Ruin Our Happy Home”, “Feels Like Home”. These are the words of a man who still lives in the part of LA where he grew up, Pacific Palisades. So I ask to see him there.

My Uber draws up at a house that is handsome rather than showy. Gretchen answers the door with Randy just behind her, in a shirt that is a lively shade of melon. At their feet is a tiny dog, and at their hips a large one: a comedy duo, a canine penny farthing. The Newmans make sympathetic noises about the traffic and show me into the kitchen. Small talk before an interview can be sticky, but they’re good at it – considerate to me, gently sardonic to each other.

Randy wonders what kind of tea I’d like. “Green?”

“Like you’d know where that was,” says Gretchen.

She takes over tea duties and he retreats to the coffee machine. Through the window, on a lush lawn, is a large trampoline. “Is that for the grandchildren?”

“Is now,” Randy says. “Used to be for the kids.”

I say that I know his son Amos, from when he worked at a record company. “He’s the eldest, right?”

“Yes. Four more younger.”

“By two mothers,” says Gretchen, her tone matter-of-fact. “Three then two.”

“The youngest is 22 today,” Randy says. A large chocolate cake is on the worktop, awaiting its candles.

“Is she at college?”

“She’s upstairs. Just finished at Oberlin in Ohio.” This is Alice, who has four elder brothers. “If the girl had come first,” Randy once said, “I would have thought the boys were retarded.”

He asks if I’ve heard any good new music, and I mention Dawes, a young LA band. “I heard good things about them from Henley and Jackson Browne.” That’s Don Henley of the Eagles; Newman likes to refer to his peers by surname only, as if they were Beethoven or Brahms. “And those guys are tough judges.”

“The singer from Dawes”, I say, a little tentatively, “writes wonderful lyrics.”

“That’s the hardest thing of all.”

He leads the way across to the room where his own words and melodies are written. There’s a Steinway, filling the farther half of the room, but this is more of a study than a studio. Two walls are lined with books, and between two armchairs sits a copy of “The Men Who United the States” by Simon Winchester, along with a box set of “Game of Thrones”. The armchairs face a wall holding a hi-fi system, a flat-screen television, and high up, hard to spot at first, shelves of trophies. Among them are two Emmys, three Annies (for achievements in animation) and two Oscars. Newman’s first Oscar, for “If I Didn’t Have You” in 2002, both delighted his fans and disappointed them, as it put a stop to a favourite riff of his, about how he had been nominated 15 times and never won.

I heard that riff in an interview in 2000 in Amsterdam. He told me then that a film score would take him two months or so and pay “a couple hundred thousand” dollars. His own albums take longer and probably pay less. Since the Eighties, there have been two – “Bad Love” (1999) and “Harps and Angels” (2008), bullseyes both. Occasionally a single song slips out: in 2012 there was a free download, “I’m Dreaming”, after the Republicans’ horror of Obamacare inspired him to add to his collection of unreliable narrators, singing the unsayable. “I’m dreaming of a white president,” it went, “just like the ones we’ve always had.”

He loves to write in character and is now going a stage further. “I’ve written this song with two narrators,” he says. “Two brothers. It may be crazy, I don’t know.” He finds a CD and slots it in. It’s classic Newman, warmth colliding with wit, and he plays both brothers, adjusting his tone a little as they exchange some banter. One is called Jack, the other Bobby.

“I just realised who they are. Bit slow.”

“Plenty of people will be.”

Not content with Obama and the Kennedys, he has written a song about Vladimir Putin. “It goes, ‘Putin puttin’ his pants on,’” he says, rummaging in a drawer for the CD with a gleam of schoolboy mischief.

“When he takes his shirt off, it drives the ladies crazy,” his recorded voice sings. “When he takes his shirt off, makes me want to be a lady.”

He has another new song, less finished, with the working title “I’ll Take Jesus”. “It’s a guy who wants to answer these questions that are tearing the country apart, like dark matter, what is it, where is it and can we get some?” He sits at the piano and plays some gospel chords. The sound is immense. The sight is just as good: his fingers are dancing, with a mind of their own. He starts to sing, which is both a thrill and a frustration, as, with no microphone, the chords drown the words.

Soon we’re talking about New Orleans and he is pounding out a tune he remembers from his childhood.

“Sounds like Professor Longhair.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t know that. I bought, like, three or four singles in my life, as a kid. One of them was the Beatles, ‘From Me to You’.”

At the “Saturday Night Live” 40th-birthday reunion, he had the chance to say this to Paul McCartney. “It was the first time I’d talked to him. We were sitting on this couch, there were guards to keep the seat and all, and he jumped over the couch – look at him, he can jump over the couch, I would have needed a crane to get over it. I was talking about ‘From Me to You’ and he said, ‘when we wrote that’ – he said ‘we’, always ‘we’ – ‘when we wrote the bridge of that, I thought maybe we were going to go places.’ The fact that it’s a musical thing – he didn’t say this part, but I can see what he meant. He was very modest, very nice.”

This softer side also comes out in his music. He sugars the satire with ballads that come close to showing raw emotion. “Bad Love” contains a beauty, “I Miss You”, which he likes to introduce with a gag: “I wrote this about my first wife, while married to my second.”

“That’s almost true,” he says now. “I like the idea of someone who would do that. But I don’t play it in LA, because my kids and my wife don’t like it.”

On his last album, he was killing us softly with “Feels Like Home”, salvaged from the ill-fated stage musical “Faust” (he played the devil, who has all the best tunes). Since covered by Neil Diamond and Diana Krall, it is on its way to becoming a classic. “It’s a straight love song, and I think it’s my fans’ favourite song [of all]. I think everyone connected to me who cares would wish I wrote more of those songs.” On the next album, the big ballad looks like being “She Chose Me”, rescued from the TV series “Cop Rock”. He finds the disc and puts it on. It’s sparse and soulful and seems finished, but he’s fretting over one word. “‘Did’ or ‘done’? What do you think?”

The ballads are the adult cousins of the Pixar themes. As his thoughts turn to “Toy Story 4”, due in 2017, he seems prouder of the kids’ stuff. “They’re smart pictures, the best I’ve done in terms of quality. What’s important to Pixar is feeling, and that’s what music’s about: if it doesn’t have feeling of some kind, I don’t find it interesting. There’s a lot of humour in my stuff, but still you’ve got to feel it, or there’s no point.

“I learned a lot doing those pictures. Chris Montan, the head of music over there, is actually a good head of music. I always care about the laughs, ‘maybe it’s not funny enough’. But they would never worry about that. They would worry about whether it has heart.”

“And they’re right?”

“Yeah, they’re right.”


European tour Oct 10th to Nov 5th. Randy Newman Songbook Vol.3 coming soon. The Legacy Collection: Toy Story out now

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