Randy Newman: from curly-haired hipster to Hollywood’s top scorer
Randy Newman puts his Disney songs early in his set for his (very) young fans – and older fans have a new suite of songs to look forward to
“I’ve got ideas, and partials, and I’m working away and I’ll get there. To me, the most important thing I do has been the albums. It’s what I think I will probably be remembered for. I work just as hard or harder on the movie music, you know; it’s writing for orchestra, and it’s totally different in some ways. But the film music is in service of something else. It’s always subordinate to the movie, but the albums are all me.”
A Christmas song in the making
Ask him what’s inspiring him to write songs these days, and his answer is as obtuse as it is intriguing.
“I heard this old Irish song – not a real Irish song, but one of those ersatz, tin pan alley-type Irish songs – a very old one, called Where’s My Wandering Boy Tonight? That idea of having a son – a kid – who is gone. And he’s like one of the homeless people you see here in town, and you don’t know where he is, and you want to hear from him, and where is he? That kind of idea just gets to me. You know, whenever anything gets to you that badly and you find yourself tearing up at just the thought of it, it’s about yourself, if it’s that strong. And I’ve been trying to write about it, and it’s difficult. The idea itself is a maudlin idea, but it’s a Christmas song in the making.”
Many of Newman’s best songs are written from a flawed perspective – the protagonist has it wrong, and he’s the only one who doesn’t realise how off the mark he is. “I think there has to be something deficient in the understanding of the narrator. He’s got to not see something that maybe we can see, but he can’t figure it out.”
He’s also at his best when writing with a child’s eye – a talent that has earned him two Oscars – in 2002 for If I Didn’t Have You, from Monsters Inc; and in 2011 for We Belong Together, from Toy Story 3. Add in nominations for That’ll Do from Babe: Pig in the City, You’ve Got a Friend in Me from Toy Story, and Almost There from The Princess and the Frog, and you suspect that Newman has a direct line to the child inside.
“Well, yeah, I do. I definitely have that. I think when an adult loses the sense of play, he loses something.”
Audience getting younger
In the 1970s, his audiences would have been hipsters, beatniks and English professors – since he started writing for movies, however, the age demographic at his concerts has noticeably gone down to single figures. With that in mind, he makes sure to put the Toy Story and Monsters Inc stuff early in his set, just so it doesn’t get past the kids’ bedtime.