Soundtracks, Satire And A Sense Of Place: A Conversation With Randy Newman

Aug 7, 2017
Originally published on March 27, 2018 1:03 pm

For the last few decades, Randy Newman has perhaps been best known for composing beloved children's film scores. He even won an Oscar for Toy Story 3. But his solo albums are unmistakable; take, for example, his 1977 hit "Short People," a biting satire about prejudice. His latest album, Dark Matter, is a return to acerbic, venomous form.

Newman was born in Los Angeles, while his father was away serving in World War II. His mother took him to New Orleans for the duration of the war, connecting him to the South in a way he's felt ever since.

After returning to LA, Newman met three uncles who all wrote Hollywood film scores. As a child, he'd often visit them at sound stages. His uncles would ask him to stay quiet on the set – a tough task for a six-year-old

"I don't think I heard the music," he says. "I was concentrating on not making a sound!"

But the experience inevitably influenced Newman's ability to write songs that feel tied to a specific location. And on Dark Matter, Newman again mixes current events with this sense of place. In one song, the place is Moscow, as he sings of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Newman started writing the song before Russia interfered in the U.S. election. He says he was inspired to write it when he saw pictures of the Russian president with his shirt off.

"I wondered — I mean, he's the richest man in the world, the most powerful man in the world. What did he want?" he says. "It dawned on me that he wants to be like a matinee idol, to use the old expression — you know, he wants to be Tom Cruise, too."

Newman settled in at a grand piano in an NPR studio to talk with Steve Inskeep and perform some original songs. You can hear the radio version of their conversation at the audio link, and hear the full conversation below.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

And I'm Ailsa Chang with the life of Randy Newman. You know his work. Newman has written film scores for decades. He won an Oscar for Toy Story 3.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE BELONG TOGETHER")

RANDY NEWMAN: (Singing) Don't you tell me that I don't care 'cause I do.

CHANG: And his solo albums are unmistakable. In the 1970s, he satirized prejudice in the song "Short People."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHORT PEOPLE")

NEWMAN: (Singing) Don't want no short people around here.

CHANG: Randy Newman brought new music by our studios. He sat at a grand piano to talk with our co-host Steve Inskeep.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: If you want to try out a few things...

NEWMAN: Bah bah dah bum - is that far from me?

INSKEEP: He's gray-haired, a little stooped, with thick glasses, ready to perform.

NEWMAN: (Singing, playing piano) I'd be lost out here without you.

INSKEEP: He was born in Los Angeles while his father was away serving in World War II. His mother took him to New Orleans for the duration of the war, connecting him to the South in a way that he's felt ever since.

NEWMAN: When my father saw me for the first time, I had a Southern accent...

INSKEEP: (Laughter).

NEWMAN: ...Which he was not crazy about, really. I said, I'm tired. That's what they said I said.

INSKEEP: Returning afterward to LA, he met three Newman uncles who all wrote Hollywood film scores.

NEWMAN: And I saw them at a young age - 5, 6 years old - I'd go to sound stage.

INSKEEP: You'd get to go to a sound stage and watch them work.

NEWMAN: Watch Alfred mainly in those days.

INSKEEP: How good were you, as a 6-year-old, being quiet on the sound stage?

NEWMAN: I mean, I tried to be very good because you couldn't creak if a board creaked you were sitting on. I don't think I heard the music. I was concentrating on not making a sound, you know (laughter)?

INSKEEP: When I learn about your connection with film scores, that seems natural to me. That sounds automatic. When I listen to your albums, you can kind of - you can hear that...

NEWMAN: Yeah.

INSKEEP: ...Even if it's not movie music.

NEWMAN: I think so. I mean, I have tried at various times to accompany the songs and try and get the place right. Linda Ronstadt used to call those kind of songs that I write plantation music.

INSKEEP: You mean like Stephen Foster stuff?

NEWMAN: Yes. I love those, you know - just, you know - (playing piano). That kind of thing - I never get tired of it. The public may, but I don't.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUISIANA 1927")

NEWMAN: (Singing) Louisiana. Louisiana. They're trying to wash us away.

INSKEEP: That's Newman's old song about the Mississippi River flood of 1927, a song some people recalled when New Orleans flooded in 2005. His new album called "Dark Matter" again mixes current events with a sense of place. In one song, the place is Moscow, as he sings of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

NEWMAN: (Singing, playing piano) Putin putting his pants on one leg at a time. You mean he's just like a regular fellow? He ain't nothing like a regular fellow. Putin putting his hat on - hat size number 9. You say Putin's getting big-headed. Putin's head is just fine.

INSKEEP: Newman started writing this song before Russia interfered in the U.S. election. He saw pictures of the Russian president with his shirt off.

NEWMAN: And I wondered - I mean, he's the richest man in the world, the most powerful man in the world. What did he want?

INSKEEP: Where are his clothes?

NEWMAN: Yeah. (Laughter) Where are his clothes? Can he afford a shirt? But, you know, why do it? And it dawned on me that he wants to be like a matinee idol, to use the old expression. You know, he wants to be Tom Cruise, too.

INSKEEP: In the song, Putin looks out over the Russian-dominated Black Sea.

NEWMAN: The great man looks across the water. The great man speaks. (Singing, playing piano) We fought a war for this? I'm almost ashamed. The Mediterranean - now, there's a resort worth fighting for.

INSKEEP: He finally talks in that song. And he's vaguely disappointed, actually.

NEWMAN: I like the idea of him looking at the Black Sea and realizing it's not the Mediterranean. You know, this is - we fought a war for this? I'm almost ashamed.

INSKEEP: What a dump - is basically what he's saying.

NEWMAN: (Laughter) Yeah, that's right. The Mediterranean - now, there's a resort worth fighting for.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: It's like a real person talking.

NEWMAN: I hope so. You try and get the people right.

(Singing, playing piano) You say I can't do it. I say I can. I can lead my people to the Promised Land because, God damn, I'm the Putin man.

INSKEEP: On "Dark Matter," the political songs rest alongside ones that feel more personal, the kind of song that he did not start out writing.

NEWMAN: I always tried to write myself out of songs.

INSKEEP: You mean that wasn't you denouncing short people all those years ago?

NEWMAN: That was.

INSKEEP: Oh, OK. OK.

NEWMAN: That was true.

INSKEEP: At least in that case, it was autobiographical. But go on.

NEWMAN: But no. You know, a guy like that - the guy in the "Short People" song - if I were that looney, I wouldn't admit it, you know? But I wanted to see if I could do it. And I did fairly satisfactorily. I sung like "Dixie Flyer."

(Singing, playing piano). I was born right here - November '43. My dad was a captain in the Army, fighting the Germans in Sicily. Anyway - and then ever since, some autobiographical stuff comes out.

INSKEEP: Is the song "She Chose Me" autobiographical?

NEWMAN: Well, both my wives were better looking than I am, I think - a little bit, yeah.

INSKEEP: Can I hear that song?

NEWMAN: Sure. (Playing piano).

INSKEEP: It's the song of an ordinary man who can't believe he's won the love of a beautiful woman.

NEWMAN: (Singing, playing piano) I'm not much to talk to. And I know how I look. What I know about life comes out of a book. But of all of the people there are in the world, she chose me.

INSKEEP: Here's the backstory of this song. It was a job assigned to him for a failed TV series called "Cop Rock." But it feels personal and sincere.

NEWMAN: It doesn't occur to me to try and write a beautiful vocal melody for myself. You know, here's how long I can hold a note. (Vocalizing) That's it.

(LAUGHTER)

NEWMAN: So, you know, I've got to keep moving.

INSKEEP: Well, what carries your voice, do you think? You've clearly had a chance to think about this.

NEWMAN: Blues. It's very blues.

INSKEEP: I want to use the word expression. There's expression in your voice. You get across a feeling, and it's not whether it's this kind of voice or another. It's that I feel it.

NEWMAN: Well, thank you. That is what music is supposed to do, period. (Singing, playing piano) Something in your voice makes my heart beat fast.

INSKEEP: Randy Newman in performance at NPR Studio 1. His new album is "Dark Matter."

NEWMAN: (Singing, playing piano) The rest of my life.

CHANG: That was our co-host Steve Inskeep. You can hear the whole interview at our website, nprmusic.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.