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


Randy Newman and I have something in common - we share the same birthday - November 28th. “Really?” he says. “That’s amazing. I’ll be thinking about you on my birthday!”

It’s hard to know if Newman is taking the mickey – after all, he is still one of America’s pre-eminent song satirists, a writer who can keep his tongue in cheek while still packing a lyrical bite. When he released his hit single Short People in 1977, many thought he was having a pop against the vertically challenged. But though his lyrics are clever, dextrous, often deceptive little things, on the phone from LA he comes across as a straight-talking, nice guy – there’s no sense that he’s barely hiding his disdain or suffering fools glumly.

The singer/songwriter and composer of film soundtracks is turning 70 next November, so when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last April, it wasn’t a minute too soon. “I thought maybe I’d have to die first,” he told Rolling Stone magazine after his induction.

Newman, raised in New Orleans and LA, has been performing professionally since he was 16 – now, at 69, he’s finally being officially recognised as a great American treasure. Of course, we knew that already. We’ve been singing along with Randy Newman songs for the past five decades – some we didn’t even realise he had written: You Can Keep Your Hat On, Mama Told Me Not to Come, Simon Smith and His Amazing Dancing Bear, I Think It’s Gonna Rain. He’s written some timeless pop classics in his time, and in recent years, he has added classic children’s tunes to his repertoire, writing for such Pixar and Disney films as Toy Story, Cars and Monsters Inc. Your kids probably know more Randy Newman songs than you do.

On Monday, Newman is in Dublin to perform a date at Vicar Street – apparently, he’s repaying a debt he owes to his Irish fans.

“I’m coming back sooner than usual, cos I didn’t have any voice the last time, and I was gonna be in Europe to play Antwerp, so I asked if I could come and play Dublin again. I’ll do something special, maybe buy free drinks for everybody.”

Fans of the old Randy Newman, the curly-haired hipster whose music strutted between blues, rock, jazz, Dixieland and the Brill Building, will be happy to hear that he’s working on a suite of new songs, none of which has been commissioned by a movie studio. His busy soundtrack schedule meant that his personal songwriting has been sidelined in recent years – his last collection, Harps and Angels, was out five years ago, but now he’s ready to put together a new set of songs.

“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.

“Once I had a five-year-old heckler, he was at the side of the stage going, ‘You’ve got a friend, you’ve got a friend!’”

Newman’s movie work is not restricted to penning a pithy ditty about friendship between furry monsters or action figures. He also scores many movie soundtracks, which requires him to plug into another side of himself.

“It does, yeah, but even when you’re writing for the orchestra, I never forget that there are kids gonna be watching the picture. You know, it’s still a human thing.”

With such a busy film schedule – his soundtrack for Monsters University is currently blasting out of Dolby systems in cinema screens across the country – it is understandably hard to find time (or the inclination) to keep working on his own songs.

When his new collection comes out, however, probably next year, he’ll be keeping the faith with fans of his early 1970s cult albums such as 12 Songs, Sail Away or Good Old Boys.

“I’ve no ability to follow any kind of a schedule I set for myself. I’ve made lists and schedules since I was 18 and I’ve never adhered to one of them. I’ll see how I do with this next batch of songs. I’ll see what I think of them. If they’re good, and I execute them all right, I’ll know. If I see I’m getting appreciably worse, then I’ll stop doing it. But I think I’m all right.”

* Due to a reported bout with pneumonia, Randy Newman has cancelled his performances in Antwerp and Dublin (the latter scheduled for Vicar Street on Monday, August 19th next). A statement said Randy Newman "is very sorry not to be able to be there and hopes to be back soon.  Refunds will be available from point of purchase.  Aiken Promotions would like to apologise for any inconvenience caused."

* This story was edited at 8.40pm on Thursday, August 15th