RANDY NEWMAN: Humor With Character

Today Randy Newman’s at a place where he always seems most at home-commanding the keys of a grand piano, his chords crashing and cascading-in a spacious Hollywood recording studio, cutting tracks for what will be his first album in nine years, Harps and Angels.

Today Randy Newman’s at a place where he always seems most at home-commanding the keys of a grand piano, his chords crashing and cascading-in a spacious Hollywood recording studio, cutting tracks for what will be his first album in nine years, Harps and Angels. As those in the know know, this gap isn’t because he’s been lounging, but because he’s been busily and often furiously employed writing movie songs and scores, as his famous uncles, Alfred and Lionel Newman, did before him.

But today he’s back in the role where most of us have come to know him-as one of America’s most revered and iconoclastic songwriters, a man who has solitarily created an entire school of songwriting which others have attended but from which they’ve rarely graduated, the college of character-driven songwriting. With untrustworthy and often pinheaded narrators at the wheel of his songs, he’s not only inverted the conventionally direct methodology of singer/songwriters, he’s done so with a remarkable fusion of humor and pathos. He’s at once one of America’s most serious and hilarious songwriters. New masterpieces such as “Potholes” shine as brightly as his greatest songs, from “Political Science” and “Sail Away” to “The World Isn’t Fair,” all of which seem way too smart and funny for mass consumption, but for which he rejoice. There’s nobody like him, and never has been.

His music is as sophisticated as his lyrics-and even when he brings us the blues, as on the title song and others on the new album, he does it with richly dimensional orchestral arrangements that no other songwriter, with the notable exception of Van Dyke Parks, could singlehandedly create. Though his fans have long worried that his extensive film work would detract from his own songwriting, recent songs such as the “A Piece of the Pie” or “Korean Parents” suggest that the years spent in cinematic trenches have only expanded his musical expression. And they’ve also served to lessen his dread of the process-years ago he confessed to feeling like a student forever looking to the school clock when bound to the piano in songwriting mode. Now, freed from specific movie strictures, he’s liberated by the unchained possibilities.

Today he’s got not one, but two, legendary producers steering the session-his oldest friend Lenny Waronker, who produced many of his classic first albums-and Mitchell Froom, who was at the helm of Bad Love. Elvis Costello’s drummer Pete Thomas is at the skins today and Greg Cohen, best known for playing with Tom Waits, is on the acoustic bass. With Randy on piano, the three musicians are united in trying to lay down a basic track for “Laugh and Be Happy,” a song which advises a mindlessly mirthful escape from the turmoil of modern times. His music rarely requires a simple backbeat groove-far from it-and Pete is intricately repeating the complex and shifting rhythms of the song’s various sections, colored resonantly by his use of 1920s-era drum -heads. (“They’re leather or something,” Randy informs me.) As the trio tries repeatedly to nail down the track, Cohen’s having trouble hearing his acoustic bass, so Froom and the engineer swiftly construct a makeshift isolation booth around him out of baffles and tarp. When he’s then asked to play and offers no response, the engineer reasons that his headphones are off. Randy, ever the pragmatist, offers a less rosy conclusion: “I think Greg’s suffocated. Maybe he’s passed out.”

Later, over sandwiches during a break they talk of music which matters-Los Lobos, Latin Playboys, Pretenders-and Randy mentions that he considers Chrissie Hynde to be one of the best songwriters ever. “And I told her this,” he said, “and she just assumed I was joking.” It’s a theme that recurs in his life and in his thoughts-worrying if people know when he’s joking, and when he’s not. It’s a subject we came to during the following interview, conducted about a month after the album was complete. We also touched on his predilection for injecting content into songs that other songwriters never consider using, such as the subject of growing older, which is where our conversation begins.

All the songwriters of your generation are getting older, but rarely deal with the subject of aging. But in “Potholes” you do…
It was important to me that I deal with it. It’s a strange thing-even though I write character songs and songs in the third person, I didn’t want to lie. And write young guy songs like “You Can Leave Your Hat On.” And it’s interesting, getting older. And rock and roll can handle it-it’s just words and music. I wanted to do it. And both of these last albums, if not my best albums, are very close to being best.

You have brought content into your songs other songwriters would never consider using. “Potholes” is about being thankful for gaps in your memory. A thought I’ve never heard in a song.
Yeah. You don’t hear it anywhere.

Was that one in which you had that title first before writing the song?
I came up with it while I was writing it. I didn’t run up to something I had. Hard to believe, but as I recall, that’s the way it was.

You’re never write to a title, or think of a song idea apart from work?
No. I don’t. I’ve thought about keeping a pad. Because it’s too difficult the way I do it-to sit down with nothing in your head and try to write something.

That idea for “Losing You” I got from my brother, about a patient who died very young from cancer. His parents had been in concentration camps and survived, but their whole family had been murdered. Eventually they got over it-they never thought they would get over it, but they did. But losing their boy at their age, they were never gonna be able to live long enough to get over that one. That was it. The idea that you get to a certain age where you can’t get over something ever.

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