Composing film scores pushes Randy Newman to produce some of his best work yet.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Randy Newman is not afraid to court controversy. The Oscar, Grammy and Emmy award-winning songwriter has offended many with songs including “Rednecks,” a biting track from his 1974 CD Good Old Boys that employs the N-word to ridicule both racist Southerners (and the less overt racism of Northerners), and “Short People,” a fairly obvious jab at the height-challenged population that became a left-field 1977 hit (legislators unsuccessfully attempted to ban the song from Maryland airwaves).
From a tour stop in Chicago, Newman explains that he was not surprised “Rednecks” generated a heated response, but he was amazed “Short People” ever garnered such attention. “You know [the reaction to] ‘Rednecks’ from both ends is predictable, because there is such rough language,” he says. “It was before rap and everything, so it was the roughest language you heard. ‘Short People’ is surprising because I didn’t know it would be a hit. I was surprised that anyone took it seriously– not many did, but they made a lot of noise. As short people will do.”
Newman’s latest CD, Harps and Angels, proves that the 65-year-old musician can still be a lightning rod for controversy. The country-tinged “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country” compares the Bush administration to Hitler and Stalin. It also calls Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito “tightasses.” Near the close of the number, Newman sings: “The end of an empire is messy at best/ And this empire is ending/ Like all the rest.”
The songwriter seems cautiously optimistic that the political landscape will change with the upcoming election.
“I’d like to see Obama win it,” he says. “I hope he does. I can’t imagine the country electing someone who is like the administration we’ve had. We have never done worse, and I don’t think we’ll ever do worse again.”
Even though Harps and Angels has other tracks that will clearly infuriate some, including “Korean Parents,” which suggests that we could make American students excel academically if they all had Korean parents, Newman insists his controversial songs are not the product of a confrontational personality. “Because I don’t write a lot of love songs, I just write about other subjects, and sometimes people disagree,” he says. “I don’t think it’s my personality. I don’t want to make people hate me. If the song is good, I don’t care.”
Another number, “A Piece of the Pie,” got the attention of fellow musicians by stating Jackson Browne was the only one who gave a s*** these days and joking that John Cougar Mellencamp, who sold one of his songs to be used in a General Motors commercial, would soon be selling tunes to Toyota. Newman says Browne was “honored” by the reference, while Mellencamp sent him a note. “Mellencamp understood that I was kidding about his part,” Newman says. “I’d done more commercials than he has. I was mainly talking about General Motors.”
While a lot of Newman’s past songs were told from the viewpoint of a fictional narrator– see “Sail Away,” which takes the perspective of a slave trader trying to attract slaves to America– the songwriter has been writing about his own life more since the release of 1988’s Land of Dreams. “I just wanted to see if I could do it, so I wrote ‘Dixie Flyer’ and some songs about growing up,” he says.
Newman says that Harps and Angels’ “Potholes”– a humorous song that relays personal stories about memories lost– “happened exactly the way I told it.”
“Now, maybe I’m more interested in myself,” he says of writing more biographical material. “That’s where the stuff is, so I’ll take it.”
In addition to his solo work, Newman has been composing scores for film consistently since 1981’s Ragtime. He has scored several Pixar movies including Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Cars and Monsters Inc., which won him an Oscar for the song “If I Didn’t Have You.”
Newman says his collaborations with the CGI (computer-generated imagery)animation production company began after he was approached by Pixar director John Lasseter earlier this decade. “I think he liked the music I’d written and the film scores,” he says. “But he also liked the fact that there was some kind of edge. The Pixar things are about grown-ups, really.”
Currently, Newman is scoring Disney film The Princess and the Frog, which is slated for release next year. He also hopes to find the time to do a new solo CD sooner than later. “I’d like to have one [album] out in the next couple of years,” he says. “It was nine years between records. I don’t have the time.”
While the sweet songs Newman has done for animated family features is a far cry from his biting solo work, the songwriter says doing soundtrack scores has influenced his songwriting. “It’s rare that people do their best work late in their careers, but I think my last two albums are my best two albums,” he says. “I think that’s because I stayed sharp making movies. Or I needed the money more than other people.”
RANDY NEWMAN plays 8pm Saturday, Oct. 15, at the Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $35-$85. 372-4555.