Written & Photographed by PAUL ZOLLO
Today he’s at a place where he always seems most at home: the keys of a grand piano, his chords crashing and cascading, in a spacious Hollywood recording studio, cutting tracks for what is 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 we 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 the soft voice of his 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.”
Like many musicians, his thoughts are musical as often as they are verbal. When we talk about his songs, he frequently starts playing and singing to make a point. And his playing is always quite astounding – intricate, sometimes thundering, complex arrangements set against beautiful melodies. (Though he often jokes that he isn’t much a melodist, in fact he’s one of the best. But he says: “Linda [Ronstadt] used to always say, ‘If you wanna hear Randy’s melodies, listen to the strings.'” Truth be told, there is a multitude of voluptuous melodiciscm in his work, in the vocal lines, the horns, the strings. All of it.)
A whole different scene, now – Randy in public. Today we’re sharing the stage at the annual ASCAP Songwriter’s Expo, where it’s my fortuitous mission to interview him onstage for a vast audience of fans and songwriters. He’s onstage, doing a soundcheck at a baby grand. We’re at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel, now ritzy but once a funky Holiday Inn where this writer was known to pool-crash on occasion back in the day. Later, during the event, I am introduced to the crowd, and then I, in turn, introduce Randy, as the crowd spontaneously erupts into a standing ovation. While the mass public might not understand the full score of his greatness, songwriters get it.
We talk – Randy is in show-biz mode, making lots of jokes to great gusts of laughter – and he bursts frequently into song – “Political Science,” “Sail Away,” “Marie,” “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It),” “The World Isn’t Fair,” “Great Nations of Europe,” “Davy The Fat Boy,” “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear, ” “I Love L.A.,” and others are all performed for the spell-bound crowd.
Hate New York City, it’s cold and it’s damp
And all the people dress like monkeys
Let’s leave Chicago to the eskimoes
That town’s a little too rugged, for you and me, you bad girl…”
From “I Love L.A.”
By Randy Newman
How does one introduce Randy Newman? It’s not easy, cause there’s a lot to say, and it’s easy to get overblown. But unafraid as always of unchained hyperbole, I said something quite close to this: Some human beings are way more talented than most. It’s true. You think of someone like Michelangelo for example. He was not only a pretty great sculptor, but also a great painter, and a poet. George Gershwin was a great songwriter, composer and pianist but also an accomplished photographer. And Randy is one of these people.
He’s one of the most important American songwriters now or ever. He’s defined an entire school of songwriting – so often in the press we see songs referred to as “like a Randy Newman song” – because his work is really on a level all its own. He’s defined the art of writing songs in character. Musically & lyrically he has created a world no one else exists in – some try – but nobody else does it like he does. Randy’s songs are sophisticated, brilliant, often hilarious, often historical, timeless – and endlessly relevant. And musically they are compelling and beautiful. If he was only a melodist – a composer – he would be one of the best. But he’s also one of the greatest living lyricists there is – despite Stephen Sondheim’s problem with Randy’s inclination to rhyme ‘girl’ with ‘world.’ Sondheim never wrote “Louisiana” or “The World Isn’t Fair.” Or “Potholes.” Nobody but Randy could possibly have written any of those songs.
Video: Just the song, “Potholes.” Listen.
But there’s more – since Randy’s heartbreakingly beautiful score for the Milos Forman’s Ragtime in 1981, he’s become one of the world’s foremost film composers. Other songwriters have written scores – and other film scorers have written songs – but never in the history of the cinema has there been a serious songwriter who is also an accomplished and experienced and great film composer. Usually people are good at one or the other – but not both. Randy is a seriously great film scorer – as the scores to Ragtime, The Natural, Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., Cars, Meet The Fokkers, Avalon and so many others attests. And unlike others in the field – he isn’t a “hummer” – he writes and conducts full orchestral scores that stand up to repeated listenings, as I know well, having a nine-year old who loves nothing more than to watch Monsters Inc., for example, thousands and thousands of times.
That was pretty much all of my introduction, before I brought Randy to the stage. And I don’t know if he heard it, but I know if he did, he’d bristle at the comparisons to Gershwin or Michelangelo. He’s extremely self-critical. When told, for example, of the exceeding genius exhibited in a song like “Great Nations of Europe,” which miraculously condenses the brutality of 16th century European history into a single hilarious and pointed song, he remarks on the one line in it he felt wasn’t perfect. He is the type to focus not what on what’s right in his work – or in the world, for that matter – but what is wrong.
VIDEO: “Great Nations of Europe”
Yet it’s this yearning for perfection that makes him the artist he is. It’s the “divine dissatisfaction” that Martha Graham spoke of years ago, that quality in all great artists that is never satisfied, because art is always human, never perfect, and yet they strive for the absolute. And it’s that drive that compels him to ever expand his range and his expression musically and lyrically, and results in a new album every few years or so that is as great or greater as his previous masterpieces. Unlike so many of his peers who peaked decades ago, Randy Newman is still at it, still writing songs in his sixties that match the level of the masterpieces he wrote in his twenties.
Broken windows and empty hallways,
A pale dead moon in a sky streaked with grey.
Human kindness is overflowing,
And I think it’s going to rain today.
From “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today.”
By Randy Newman
When asked about his ability to maintain quality throughout all these years, he’s answered, on more than one occasion, that it’s because songwriting has always been a matter of “life or death” for him. Which is not to say he enjoys the process of writing songs. He doesn’t. (Maybe because he’s created such a formidable creative challenge in his life – matching the level of previous Randy Newman songs, no easy feat.) But he thinks about this – this pattern of popular songwriters peaking early in life. He received many laughs at the Expo by saying that although most pop songwriters did their best work in their 20s, none of them have retired. He then sent the crowd into hysterics with a song he wrote, featured on Bad Love, about this very subject – continuing to do it when you have nothing left to do – called “I’m Dead, But I Don’t Know It.”
I have nothing left to say
But I’m gonna say it anyway
Thirty years upon the stage
I hear the people say
Why won’t he go away?
From “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It).”
By Randy Newman
He’s capable of writing songs on subjects other songwriters don’t even dream of approaching. He’s written about racism in America, small-mindedness and prejudice better than any other songwriter ever. Though slavery in America and the genocide of Native Americans are momentous chapters of not so distant American history, our greatest songwriters have never broached either topics. Yes, Dylan does refer to the “ghosts of slavery ships” in “Blind Willie McTell,” but that’s about it. Whereas Randy wrote one of the most poignant and telling songs ever about slavery – “Sail Away” (written in the character of a slave trader luring young black men to his boat) – and on his last album, Bad Love, he succeeded in entailing the twisted history of Columbus and his effect on this land and others in “Great Nations of Europe.”
Columbus sailed for India found Salvador instead
He shook hands with some Indians and soon they all were dead
They got TB and typhoid and athletes foot, diptheria and the flu
‘scuse me great nations comin through…
From “Great Nations of Europe”
By Randy Newman
Randy’s songs contain solid content. Whereas so many songs we hear are sadly devoid of content, Randy’s are always about something – about a person, a place, an event, or a bit of history. His use of history – which he started years prior to the Google-era of instant history – is widespread throughout his work – from the landmark “Louisiana 1927” about the great flood that decimated the state (and which was the most poignant of all songs sung after the horrors of Katrina) to “Sail Away” to “Kingfish,” written about Huey “Every Man A King” Long, who was elected Governor of Lousiana in 1928, to the masterful “Great Nations of Europe.” And in the remarkable “The World Isn’t Fair,” from Bad Love, he somehow succeeds in connecting the history of Karl Marx to the modern tale of rich “froggish” men with young beautiful wives to crystallize the inequality in the world. It’s a song only Randy could write, and he did.
Oh Karl the world isn’t fair
It isn’t and never will be
They tried out your plan
It brought misery instead
If you’d seen how they worked it
you’d be glad you were dead
just like I’m glad I’m living in the land of the
where the rich just get richer
and the poor you don’t ever have to see
It would depress us, Karl
Because we care
that the world still isn’t fair
From “The World Isn’t Fair”
By Randy Newman
Video: Randy Performs “The World Isn’t Fair” with the London Symphony Orchestra
Many years ago, when Saturday Night Live was still new, Paul Simon was the host, and to introduce his friend Randy Newman, he played the first verse of Randy’s beautiful love song, “Marie.” Of all of Simon’s appearances on the show, it’s the only time he performed a song he didn’t write, with the exception of his duet on “Here Comes The Sun” with George Harrison. His performance of “Marie,” which is perhaps the ultimate love song, was momentous. Here was one of the world’s greatest songwriters letting us in on what was still somewhat of a secret back then in 1974 – that Randy Newman was among us. “Marie” remains remarkable in Randy’s work, because it is not only heartbreakingly beautiful, but because it’s such a straight-ahead love song, something Randy has always said he wished he could write, but rarely did, because his voice wasn’t made for outright declarations of ardor. But to get around that problem, he put the song in character, and employed an unprecedented technique – having the narrator get drunk enough to spill out emotions he’d never be able to express sober:
I’m drunk right now baby, but I’ve got to be
or I never could tell you what you mean to me
I loved you the first time I saw you
and I always will love you, Marie.
By Randy Newman
Simon, of course, isn’t the only famous songwriter to sing Randy’s praises. When I interviewed Dylan in 1993, he spoke of the greatness of legendary songwriters Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. And when I asked him to cite a living songwriter who was great, the first that came to his mind was Randy. “There aren’t many songwriters in Randy’s league,” he said. “He knows music. A song like `Lousiana’ or `Cross Charleston Bay,’ [`Sail Away’] it just doesn’t get any better than that.”
Back at the recording studio: Over deli sandwiches during a break (he chooses egg salad on wheat, curiously ) the talk turns to 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.
BLUERAILROAD: All the songwriters of your generation are getting older, but rarely deal with the subject of aging. But in “Potholes” you do…
RANDY NEWMAN: 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.
I assumed, incorrectly, that was a song about yourself. But like most of your songs, it’s about a character. What brought you to writing character song?
I don’t know. It might be a psychological defect. I don’t want to stand up there and say, “I love you…” I don’t feel like it. It doesn’t interest me. Or I’m afraid of it. It seems much more interesting to get inside of someone else’s heads.
What I did for years was I tried to be Carole King. It was at Metric music, in Hollywood. Jackie DeShannon and Leon Russell were there. When I started at 16, Carole King was just the greatest, I thought. And I still do. And so when Gene McDaniels would need a follow-up, or the Chiffons, she would always beat us. Occasionally Jackie got a record.
The first song I wrote I was writing for Frank Sinatra, Jr. Who, in combination with his father, makes a very good Harry Connick, Jr. [Laughter] So I was writing a song, and I couldn’t take it. So I wrote this [plays “Simon Smith and the Amazing Dancing Bear.”] I think that was the first one. And then I justified it since by saying why shouldn’t songwriters have the latitude that a short-story writer, like John Updike, has. When he writes a short story or a novel, it doesn’t have to be he who is the protagonist.
What was the reaction of people to that kind of song? Did anyone say, Randy, this is not what you should do?
They already said that to me when I thought I had a great follow-up for Bobby Vee. Carole had “Take Good Care Of My Baby” and I’d come in with this [plays a slow shuffle.] That’s not bad.[Sings] “I know someday I’ll find a boy who’ll softly say, little girl, can I take you away…” Oops, I just modulated without meaning to. [Laughter] I wrote that when I was very young. For The Ventures. That was called “Take Me Away.” I don’t know if anyone ever recorded it.
“Davy, The Fat Boy” was among your first character songs—
Yeah. Originally it was totally different. Using the orchestra was so important to me, coming from the family I did, that I would tear up songs just so I could use the orchestra and get the place right. It was one of the first things I ever conducted. And when you conduct a whole orchestra, it’s like this weight. They slow you down, unless you do certain tricks that I don’t know. [Laughter]. So it’s like building a mountain that you can’t climb. [Sings dramatic intro at a very slow tempo.] So I did arrangements for myself that I couldn’t sing. And you’d see, it was right in the mainstream of what pop was doing at that time. [Laughter]
A thing about “Davy The Fat Boy,” like so many of your songs, is that their relevance hasn’t diminished at all—
And the income hasn’t increased. I think that made four cents, that song. Some of my songs with a good deal more shittiness to them earned a lot more. Like this one [sings “I’ll Be Home.”] “I’ll be home, I’ll be home, when your nights are troubled and you’re all alone/when you’re feeling down and need some sympathy/there’s no one else around to keep you company/remember baby, you can always count on me/I’ll be home, I’ll be home, I’ll be home.” That song earns more than others. Wrote it for Mary Hopkin. But I mean it’s songs like that, that if I’d gone down that road, I’d be oil painting in Kawai today. [Laughs] I’ve been very lucky, considering the type of writing I’ve done. People who are fans of mine, I think their favorite songs of mine are the ballads, the ones that are when I’m closer to the mainstream than, say, “Davy the Fat Boy.”
“Davy” seems more fitting now that ever, in this era of “American Idol” when people get a lot of entertainment out of ridiculing others.
The song is about the narrator, who is so callous, he tells Davy’s mother and father that he’s gonna be a pal to Davy and then he puts him in the circus. I find that funny for that reason. That degree of meanness. It’s not like a cautionary tale or anything. None of us are that bad, or if we are, we don’t admit it. I’ve written songs about people who are worse.
Many of your songs are about ignorant, prejudiced people. You called your song “Yellow Man” a “pinhead’s view of China.” How do you connect so well with pinheads?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I think the people in my songs are generally exaggerations. They’re worse and stupider than people actually are-for the most part. Though the more you see TV shows, you actually see people who are that stupid. Specifically, for that song I read the first Will Durant book of history of civilization, Our Oriental Heritage. It is consigning six thousand years of Chinese history into our Oriental heritage. It’s a great book. That’s where I got the idea. It was a little Jimmy Cagney, Shanghai Lil production number where they do this offensive, coolie kind of stuff.
Now on this album you have song about Asians, “Korean Parents,” which both musically and lyrically is amazing.
It worries me. That people might find it offensive, because it’s pretty close to being a stereotype. But it’s true that Koreans kids do better in school. It’s a close call. And there are things in there nobody understand-the line “Never forget who sent Fido to the farm” was meant to be about regret. But people took it that I was talking about Koreans eating dogs.
Even your greatest love songs, such as “Marie,” are written in character. It’s like you trick yourself into writing a great love song that way.
I wrote that one to explain the character of the guy in “Rednecks” and “Birmingham.” It’s probably some deficiency that I require a character, like an actor does. Otherwise I never would have written that.
And on the new album you have “Feel Like Home,” which almost seems like a straight-up love song, but you wrote that for your musical Faust.
People really like it, so I wanted to do my version of it. It’s such an odd, convoluted process when I write a love song. That was a song she was supposed to sing to the devil, to trick him, into making him think that she loved him. And she breaks the devil’s heart. Which a 19-year-old girl, I imagine, can do. “Losing You,” as I said, is about reaching an age when, if something happens to you, you don’t get over it. “Miss You” is a love song to my first wife. They’re love songs, but not straight love song ideas. You know, if I had written just love songs, well, I don’t know if I would have been an artist. But I think I would have made more money.
Maybe, but great songwriting doesn’t always equal hit songwriting.
But I’ll tell you something: It’s better than any art form, in terms of good stuff being rewarded. Think of it. Broadway is absolutely dreadful. Movies, for the most part, are dreadful and some really bad stuff gets rewarded. The fiction Top Ten is absolutely the worst. That’s the biggest disparity of all. But when we listen to hits of the past-like one of those Motown records-man, that’s pretty good. This is a field where merit is rewarded. Pop music, what’s being remembered, isn’t some old guy squirreled away in an attic writing songs. It’s “Stop In The Name of Love.”
In “Piece of the Pie,” you describe the world going to hell, and no one really caring about it. Except Jackson Browne.
And I mentioned John Mellencamp doing commercials. And the truth is I do more commercials then he does. So that worried me. I didn’t want to offend him.
It’s surprising that you worry so often about being offensive, because you’re Randy Newman-you’re known for being a humorist.
Yeah, but there’s a line. If you’re offensive and it isn’t clear that you’re joking or it isn’t clear that you know what you’re doing, you lose the audience. People in my audiences at shows know I’m joking. But a lot of people don’t get the joke.
In “Korean Parents” and other songs, like “The World Isn’t Fair,” you have an old-fashioned introduction-the way songs always used to start.
In “The World Isn’t Fair,” that’s all that goddamn thing is. It never gets to the hook. It’s a series of intros. But it’s about the best song I ever wrote. It’s a giant subject in as few words as could be done.
It’s one of those songs that requires active listening -it’s brilliant, and yet I don’t think many people give songs that kind of attention.
I have a friend who told me he tries to get people to listen to it. He’ll say, “Sit down, it will take three minutes, it’s not hard and it will make you laugh.” And he couldn’t get them to do it. It’s not the right medium for the type of stuff I do. Cause people are doing something else when they listen to music. They’re driving or watching television, they’re talking. It’s for Norah Jones, it isn’t for me. It’s like falling in love with someone not your type.
Your first album came out 40 years ago. After all these years do you have a better sense of how to connect with your source of creativity, to make songs happen?
My first advice would be to be tough enough to hang in there. And fight it. A lot of it is stamina and toughness. And don’t let the critic become bigger than the creator. Don’t let it strangle you. Go ahead and write “I saw this girl/she was the best girl in the world…” Let it go. Put a string of stuff together. Go ahead. And then-and I don’t always follow this advice myself-then futz with it, make something happen. Write something down…do something. And stay there; stay there three hours, four hours. And good things will happen. Some days you get things that are gifts. A song will happen and it will go all the way through to the end. You can see to the end of it right from the beginning.
You once said your greatest challenge was to live up to the standard of your past work.
It’s not that I think it’s so great. I mean, it’s a bit of a fringe operation. I just don’t want to get worse.
Now on this album you have song about Asians, “Korean Parents,” which both musically and lyrically is amazing.
It worries me. That people might find it offensive, because it’s pretty close to being a stereotype. But it’s true that Koreans kids do better in school. It’s a close call. And there are things in there nobody understand-the line “Never forget who sent Fido to the farm” was meant to be about regret. But people took it that I was talking about Koreans eating dogs.
Leonard Cohen told me, “If I knew where the good songs came from, I would go there more often.
Yeah, I’m so tired. I’m even tired of hearing myself say that; I’m tired of hearing myself whine about it. So I’m stuck now, with saying nothing. But it’s true. It’s not easy. I talked to Henley and he said, “I haven’t written anything in five years.” But he was fighting that war.
Do you find it ever gets easier?
It’s always easy for me when I have an assignment, a movie assignment. Everything I’ve ever written for a movie has come relatively easy. And once you get started on something, for yourself, sometimes that will go quickly. But starting can be difficult. I haven’t learned anything that I didn’t know before. The real secret to that, like so much else, is stamina. Hanging in there. And showing up every day. With a movie deadline, you have no choice. And what it does is – for motion picture composers, a lot of them – when you don’t have to do anything, after having to do something every day, every day, every day – James Newton Howard just did King Kong in four weeks – so when you don’t have to do anything, you don’t want to do anything. I mean, there ain’t nothing I want to do. Not much past brushing your teeth. At least, that’s the way I feel about it. It’s not healthy.
So you haven’t been working on any songs for yourself?
I got a few. But it’s coming funny. Usually I write a really simple kind of Country song to start with, and I have done that. Pretty much so, yeah. But I’m leaving them. I’m not a good finisher anymore. I’m not finishing off the three or four that I have. I’m hoping that I’ll have a better idea.
When you say you need stamina, some songwriters have said their best ideas come all at once, words and music. Does that happen to you?
But it takes stamina to stick with it?
It takes stamina to go in there and sit, and work at it, unless you’re optimistic about a final result. Which I haven’t learned. I’ll start and it will sound terrible to me, absolutely terrible. I never think I’m gonna get anywhere with what I’m playing, where things are taking me. No plan. So it makes you want to quit, and do something else. Particularly when you don’t exactly have to do it. The world isn’t waiting for the next Randy Newman record – like, you’ve got to have this record. Those days are gone for the whole record business.
I saw Paul Simon play at some special memorial kind of thing, and I also heard James Taylor – on the last picture I did, he sang a song (“Our Town,” from Cars) – and both those guys (Simon did “Bridge Over Troubled Water” but he was playing different kind of chords with it – when I get a song, I don’t mess with it, I leave it alone), but I admire both those guys, for looking for chords other than I-IV-V-I. It’s not easy. They’re trying to find something better, not just taking what comes. Sometimes you just take what comes, and that’s the best thing to do. Not revise.
Simon is one of the few guitar-based songwriters who has consistently written wonderfully complex chord progressions with great melodies –
Taylor, too – that’s pretty fancy, that stuff –
Yeah, he’ll use an augmented chord and stuff like that—
Sting will, too. But it’s slightly different. It’s jazz oriented.
Do you find the use of the guitar in songwriting has diminished the harmonic range of popular songs?
Well, in rock and roll, itself, from 1953 or 1954, the beat itself did a lot to diminish harmonic invention, and to narrow the harmonic vocabulary and make it small. When something is beating behind you, I-IV-V just sounds great. “Louie, Louie,” I like it. And I love a lot of that stuff. Carole King, early on, knew the repertory. It’s obvious she knew Irving Berlin, Rodgers, and all that stuff, and there’ll be some of that stuff in her work. But it really did do that, and you can see why the old dinosaurs – they’re too good to be called dinosaurs, actually – but arrangers who did the Big Band stuff, and people who knew that music and loved it, they would just hate rock and roll. They just would never get over it, how really simple and primitive it would sound to them. And their attempts at it were terrible. You would see sometimes in movies when some composer had to do a rock and roll thing, it would be just embarrassingly bad. They just had no feel for it. It’s not often that people can do both.
Do you think the piano is inherently a better instrument for writing inventive harmonic music?
Well, I can’t think of too many major composers, except Berlioz, who played guitar. But he got places. If you’re a tremendous musician, it doesn’t matter much.
Such as the Beatles—
Yeah. And they get the piano, easily. When I tried to play guitar, I never got past the F chord. It hurt my fingers. I didn’t have the stamina for that. But, no, not necessarily. And it’s hard for me to say, I haven’t listened close to what’s going on, but in Rap, sometimes it’s harmonically fancy. Or Heavy Metal – I remember hearing Megadeath, and they sometimes go to odd places. Maybe it’s just things bumping into each other, but it sounds like they’re trying to do something. It’s not simple. Jimmy Page, it wasn’t simple what he did, and that’s guitar. What with layering now, and synthesizers, you can get to those places. And there’s nothing wrong with a straight diatonic approach in a pop song. I’ve done it most of the time.
Simon, like you, is a rare example of someone whose words are as inspired and inventive as the music. There aren’t many songwriters – even Tin Pan Alley writers – whose words were as good as their music.
No. It’s the rarest commodity in pop music. Because it’s not really wanted that much. And the beat, the groove, is an overpowering thing. [Sings part of “Staying Alive,” by The Bee Gees.] Like I say, these are ancient references, because I haven’t paid attention to [laughs] anything current. It’s the music that does it. When I first started hearing Rap, it was straight Rap. There was no melody. I knew in general, they would have to get some hooks in there. The public is never gonna put up with something they can’t sing along with. I knew at some point that would change. And now some of those guys like 50 Cent are singing the fifth. And Eminem is too. And they’re getting music in the middle of things.
Do either words or music come more easily to you than the other?
[Pause] I think words that interest me are a little more difficult. I’m not so sure that I wouldn’t have been more comfortable in a world of words. If I hadn’t had music in my family and all, I’m not so sure that I would have been a musician. If I wasn’t pushed in that direction, if I didn’t just have to make music. But words I may have had a gift for. I probably don’t anymore. When I try to write a letter, I can’t find the right word to use.
When you approach songs, do you finish a melody before you finish a lyric?
Sometimes. Never the obverse. Or I’ll finish the form of it, and know where it’s got to go.
Do you ever come up with ideas for songs when you’re not working at the piano?
Very rarely. More so recently. I’ve started carrying a notebook around. Because I have gotten ideas apart from the piano. I got one the other day that I liked. But usually it was always when I was sitting there. It always was when I was compelled to, when I had to. When I didn’t, I didn’t think about it. Or ‘that would make a good song’ hasn’t occurred to me too much. Sometimes when I’ve read something, or seen something on television, I might get an idea. There was more of that in the last record, I think, than there has been.
What was that topic you came up with?
I’d like to see if I could write about the big change in Europe and America, where – it’s not news – that we’re drifting apart, and that it’s to our detriment that they’re doing a little better than we are in terms of education, in terms of higher taxes and getting the programs that are really better, better phone reception, better roads, less poverty. And they want to pull away. Naturally, the mass culture is still McDonald’s, and the [American] movies, and Starbuck’s and things like that. That’s our big hit everywhere. But in general they don’t want to be like us. They always protested that they didn’t want to be like us, but they did. And now they really don’t. And we should emulate them in some ways. That’s a change, and it’s a good one. But it’s not very singable. But I can do it, probably.
You’ve taken so many subjects that might not seem ostensibly singable, but you’ve pulled it off –
Yeah, that’s true.
Has there ever been a subject you couldn’t make into a song?
No. Oh yeah, there have been a bunch of things I couldn’t do for whatever reason, but I can’t think of anything that you couldn’t deal with. Music isn’t great for transmitting a lot of information. You can tell a lot about character by what you have him say. I sometimes forget that that’s what I like best about some of the stuff that I’ve written, that it reveals more about the narrator than he knows about himself.
On the last record I made, which was too long ago, was Bad Love, and I did want to see if could legitimately do pop music at the age of 55 or whatever age I was then. And write from that perspective. And not an old croc perspective, necessarily, but where you could legitimately do it and still be doing that kind of music. All that talk about ‘we’re not doing this when we’re thirty,’ or ‘we’re not doing this when we’re forty,’ there’s some validity to it, and everyone forgot about it, you know, because they just went on. You know, ‘here we are, we’re still doing it.’ But some of the stuff doesn’t work anymore, because they’re too old.
But I’m satisfied that I succeeded in doing that, and those songs, as a bunch of songs, aren’t inferior to what I’ve been doing. I think they’re just as good as any batch of songs that I’ve written for any record. But I don’t want to write from that perspective all the time. I don’t always want to be an old guy chasing a young girl, and that kind of thing. I don’t want to have to do that. I don’t want to have to be in my songs, I never have.
Occasionally you are in your songs, as in “I Miss You,” or “Dixie Flyer.”
Yeah, but it’s not exactly true. They’re about me, yeah. In fact, they’re all about me – as I’ve said to you before – you can guess more about what I’m like and what I think from my stuff than you could about people who are ostensibly self-revelatory in what they’re doing. If you had to guess what I think about this, that, or the other, you’d probably be right.
Bad Love certainly isn’t inferior to your past work. Which is unusual – most songwriters wrote their best work in their twenties –
90% of them.
And there are few who haven’t.
Have you ever written about that?
Yeah. I spoke to Simon about that.
What does he think? He’s done it, Neil Young has—
He said, “I can do it, because I’m still as interested in it as ever.”
And really focused.
How do you explain your ability to do it?
Well, it’s always been life or death to me, like it is to him. And also I think doing the movies has kept me in shape. Able to do it. I care a lot about it, but that’s not to say other people don’t. The thing about it is, that’s interesting to me, is why. Why during that period of time did Lennon & McCartney, Carole King – and why not later? And I think some of it – some of it is focus – but some of it is competitive. When Lennon was with McCartney, and they were writing not with but against each other [laughs], in a way, when you’re in the middle of it, when you’re in Aldon Music or you’re in a group, and there’s other people writing all around you, that’s when people did that great work. The great songwriters of the period right before it, they stayed, they were doing it for thirty years, forty years. They were writing for other people, they weren’t up there themselves, performing and making tons of money, and being warped by fame and fortune.
Take Rod Stewart. Rod Stewart is not taken seriously as a songwriter the way he should be. I don’t know whether he was serious himself about his abilities.
I once talked to Chrissie Hynde. I had never met her, and I saw her at a recording studio a couple of years ago. And I said, “Geez, I’m really a fan of your writing. I think you’re one of the best writers ever in pop music.” And it was like she didn’t know what I was talking about. She thought I was kidding her or something. It’s like she didn’t feel that way about herself.
But it isn’t like classical music, in which people get better and better. People do their best work before they’re 27 quite often in rock and roll. Much more often than not.
Many songwriters I’ve spoken to, like Simon or Petty, seem to really enjoy the process—
I don’t. I hate it.
And yet you continue to grow in your work.
I don’t know whether Simon enjoys the process. He never told me he enjoys it. Petty might. It certainly is a saner way to go about things, to look forward to it, to love writing. Stevie Nicks used to love writing, she would write hundreds of songs. But Henley and I always hated it. [Laughs] But you know the old saying: “Only a fool would write for anything other than money.” That’s one of the sayings. Another one is, “Writing can be very difficult, but having written something is great.”
Yeah, you’ve said in the past that when you get something going, then you enjoy it.
Yeah, when something’s working. The first flush is good. You might get down on it the next day or something. But that first thing is the reason for going through hours of dead time.
When you are working on something that is going well, do you always finish it?
I’ve had things lately that I’ve put aside, but I used to finish them. I might be faking. I’ll think, “Oh, I’m happy enough with that,” and go watch television. It’s like I’m getting lazy or something. And also, it’s all pretty simple harmonically. It’s bothering me. Blues-oriented stuff. I get better and better over the years at writing for my voice. And it’s limiting. If I’m writing for assignment, like “When She Loves Me” for Sarah McLachlan, or a different song for James Taylor, which I just wrote for Cars, I write differently. It’s like if I’m writing for an oboe or a bassoon.
You once said you were pushed into being a singer of your own songs –
Never thought of it. But I would like the way I did them better than the way people were doing them. So I wasn’t quite pushed. But I never thought of it.
Did you think you would be a songwriter for other people?
I thought I was gonna be a movie composer. But then Lenny Waronker suggested that I try to write some songs. And like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, he went around pushing me. So I remember playing for Lou Adler. And I would play the melody along with myself. (Later he called me ‘Lenny’s Robot.’) I was 17. And he said, “You know, Carole King, she plays something different when she sings.” And I thought she was the greatest at the time. And I was right. So I did.
And then we went to see Leiber & Stoller out in New York. And Leiber said I should move out there. He said, “You’d be one of the top people in five years.” I was real young, real young.
And that didn’t appeal to you, the idea of moving to New York?
No, I was still going to school, I think. But Leiber is certainly one of the best pop lyricists of the century. In my opinion. He’s right up there with anybody. Those lyrics he wrote, a ton of those things, are really great. It’s funny stuff. It’s remarkable.
Was it at age 17 that you wrote your first song?
16. The very first song was called “Don’t Tell On Me.” [Sings plodding melody.] And the next one was “They Tell Me It’s Summer,” which was recorded by The Fleetwoods.
Was it writing for yourself that shaped your songwriting approach?
Yes. If I’d had a voice like Simon or Sting, or a voice that I saw as seductive in some kind of way, or like a romantic hero, maybe I’d have written that kind of thing. Though I’ll tell you, I’m not sure it would have interested me. I remember I changed before I started recording. I changed with “Simon Smith (And His Amazing Dancing Bear) in ’65. That was the one. Because I couldn’t stand it, what I was doing. Maybe I couldn’t do it as well as Goffin & King, or Mann & Weil. But there are millions of ways of saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I don’t love you,’ and that’s what 95% of the repertory is. But I just didn’t want to do it. And I was writing for Frank Sinatra, Jr. About some girl named Susie. [Sings simple tune.] But I just said, ‘Jesus Christ.’ I just wasn’t interested. I didn’t care what I rhymed with what. So I changed.
Was it a conscious choice to start writing from a character’s point of view?
No. Not conscious. But once I did it, I liked it. The song being slightly oblique. The song is about some guy who has some kind of gimmick, and uses it, and is kind of cynical. It isn’t as if a lot of people followed me down that road. Or that there’s been a lot of people before me doing it. I can think of almost no one. There isn’t much of it. Because the medium is made to be more direct, so people can put themselves in it. They’re not used to hearing irony. More so with Rap, when people are characters more often. But you’re not used to it on the radio.
Yeah, but maybe because people can’t do it. There are people who have tried, but haven’t been able to pull it off like you have.
That may be. You have to get the diction right. You have to have the vocabulary that the person you’re writing about would have. And you have to have it not be you. But I mean, if I could write “I Love You Just The Way You Are,” I’d have been happy to have done it. But I would have written the whole thing, and at the end, I’d have gone, “you stupid bitch,” and blown my chances.
There are songwriters like Sondheim who have pulled it off, but he has the context of theater.
Yeah, he’s writing for shows. He said that if he didn’t have an assignment, or some reason to write a song, he doesn’t know how he’d do it. He did a good job writing that song for Madonna (from Dick Tracy.).
Yeah, and she could even sing it.
It would seem, though God knows what everybody went through for that.
One of the best pieces of advice you gave me about songwriting is “Don’t let the critic become bigger than the creator.”
Yeah, it’ll kill you. But I’m not able to do it. Not always. It’ll shut you down. Sometimes I just won’t let it go. Like I say, now all this stuff I’m writing is so blues-oriented, so simple, that I’m a little dissatisfied in a sense. But I could be wrong, and I may end up finishing these songs.
This reminds me of the first time I met Leiber. I talked to him about songwriting, and I was writing all these songs with straight eighth-note accompaniment. I was doing that before the Beatles did it. I did it really early, for some reason. And I complained to him about the fact that that was what I was doing, and he said, “If that happens, you just write yourself out of it. You let yourself do it, and eventually you’ll get tired of it, and think of something else.” And that’s very good advice, and I’ve thought of it often. You make yourself just finish them off, and do it, and you will move on. It may be even more likely when I was twenty, than now, but I am pretty sure that that’s the case.
I’m surprised you’re writing mostly bluesy stuff – you have written many great bluesy songs, such as “Lucinda” – but you’re also one of the few who writes really harmonically complex songs.
Sometimes my songs become a little bit more complex when I have to think about the chords, and write them down, and move the voices around. But, yeah, it surprised me, too, that it isn’t more complex. The Kurt Weill harmonic vocabulary is something I could sing to. But it is something that I think about. In fact, I’m thinking about it too much. You know, you can find substitutes for the blues. When I say bluesy, I mean this: (goes to piano, and plays a cavalcade of moving chords, far beyond a standard blues). I mean, I’m including that kind of shuffling around.
You’ve been playing for so many years – do your hands go to the same patterns?
Yeah. [Laughs] They go to shuffles. I have to not do that. Rock and roll players are really used to straight time. And I like shuffles, too. That’s what I love. I have to force myself not to do it.
Do you consciously experiment with chords you’ve never played before?
Yeah, all the time. In movies, for sure. And in songs, yeah. You can do it to the detriment of what you’re working on. I’ve torn songs apart, just so I can do something with the orchestra. But I’ve stopped doing it. Because I thought I was hurting the song, slowing it down.
Do you generate your melodies from chords, or do you think of melody lines separate from chords?
I’ll sing it against what I’m playing. Though I’ll tell you, what movies do, and have done to me, in part – when you write for an orchestra, you’ve sort of got to move the right ways. The rules of harmony apply; it sounds better if you follow these stupid basic things. Like contrary motion, and no parallel fifths, and things like that. And it just sounds better to me, and it works better, voicings and stuff. So then when I’m playing songs when I’m not even thinking about it, I’ll do things that I wouldn’t ordinarily do. My hands will go to the right place, but it’s the wrong place for the song. And then when you have to write a melody down, to dodge it, when you do an arrangement, it changes things. Some of the things I sing, when my ear’s in shape, they sound out to me. They didn’t bother me when I did them, and they don’t bother me, ultimately. But I probably could have done it differently. It’s a different kind of writing.
You said your film work keeps you in shape for songwriting—
I would think so, because you’re doing creative work everyday, and you’re forced to do it, and it’s harmonically, certainly, more complicated than songs. The harmonic vocabulary is bigger than what it is in a song.
You write full orchestral scores. Is that because you think an orchestra is the best medium for a movie?
For the ones I’ve been given. I would think there are some movies where a straight rock and roll would be best for it. A movie about young people, or modern life urban style stuff. I love an orchestra and in what I’ve done, I’ve thought it was the right thing. As did the director, or I would have done something else.
Do you write a movie score by watching an entire movie first, and then thinking of melodic motifs that will carry through?
They haven’t been that kind of picture. Sometimes you’ll get part of reel three, or reel four. I think maybe I could have done more than that. Like the Harry Potter theme, which is used in many different ways. I’ve done it.
In Monsters, Inc. you have a beautiful motif whenever the character of Boo is onscreen.
Yeah, but she’s late in the picture. In Monsters, nothing really good happens to them for a long time. There isn’t a consonant, straight-out chord, for a long time. There is for some establishing stuff, but then they’re in danger for a long time. But I might be able to unify things more if I did do something like that, but sometimes I’ll write themes that are related, but it isn’t motific development. Sometimes it will be a sound more than a melodic motif. Like the pizzicato on “Desperate Housewives” is a sound, irrespective of the notes they’re playing. I’ve done that for pictures.
Do you always compose on piano for movies?
No. I used to, of course, before the synths were around. But I’ll write on a synth, and then put it down on paper. If it’s an action scene, nothing’s gonna make enough noise for you, usually, but brass. It just won’t. There just isn’t anything else besides brass and percussion. Woodwinds are just not gonna do it. So you play a brass figure [on synth] or something. I come from a background and a family that would have hated that. You get used to any modality. There are people who write everything at a piano. And write it down, and that’s it. No synth involved. I was always scared – more scared when it was just a piano – and you’d write an oboe solo, and you’d worry about a million different things. With a synth, it isn’t accurate, particularly, especially in my versions. I’m not good at it, using a synth. But I’ll listen to it. And I’ll still put it on paper so I can see it. And I won’t do all the parts on synth. I’ll just do an outline of it. And I think it helps. It’s helped me. Orchestrators, the guys I’ve used, they use synths, but it’s all on piano.
When you’re composing for a movie, do you do it while watching the images, or do you watch a scene first and then go to the instrument?
It varies. Sometimes you’ll have it broken down in certain scenes. It used to be that you couldn’t look at it. You couldn’t get the video; you’d just work from a cue sheet. That’s the way it was the first seven years or so I worked on films. But now you can look at it, and lock in the place you’re gonna start, and the place you’re gonna end, and fiddle about with this and that. So, yeah, you look at it. And there’s a little silent movie type stuff you’ll do, where you’re playing along with it. But you don’t do the real writing when it’s on.
Your Uncle Alfred wrote 300 movies scores –
He did. He worked all the time, every day. That I ever knew him.
And you were sometimes there on the soundstage, watching him work?
I did. Since the time I was five years old.
Did you watch him when he composed, too, or just conduct?
I would go visit him when he was working, and he’d ask me what I thought. I mean, I might have inherited some of this, my attitude about composing, from my uncle. Because here was this guy who was the best movie composer there was. And he was asking me, when I was eight years old, what do you think of this? And he looked worried. And if he was worried, maybe I thought, subconsciously, because I didn’t want this to happen to me, “Oh God, maybe I should be worried, too. And maybe I should suffer, and live in a garret.” I’ve yet to be able to stride confidently into the room where I’m gonna be working, without thinking optimistic thoughts.
On a movie sometimes, yeah, if things are going well, sometimes you know where you’re going the next day. But then the next cue’ll come up, and you’ve got that empty page stuff. And I don’t even like to hear myself say it. But it’s not unique to me. Johnny Williams feels the same way, accomplished as he is. James Newton Howard feels the same way when he starts a picture. As many as he’s done, and as fast as he can do them. I was talking to him once, and I said, “I really hope that I get hit by a car, or something, and get out of this. I don’t want to die, or anything… And I know that’s hard to believe.” And he said, “No, I feel the same way.” It’s ridiculous. It’s really ridiculous and laughable to look at things that way, and harmful to yourself, and harmful to anyone who heard you, who aspires to be something like you, and thinks you’re great, and wonders why you wouldn’t have confidence in what you’re doing after all you’ve done in the past. Wouldn’t you just figure that the numbers would just favor you? What’s the worst that could happen to you in there? You know, you can go to a psychiatrist for years, and they tell you a simple thing, this is what’s wrong with you, and then they would tell you again and tell you again, and apparently that’s the way they work. But you can’t always change. Though it’s stupid and nonproductive.
You once said that Alfred was a depressed person and would drink every night—
He did drink every night. At 5. But I don’t know whether he was a depressed person. I saw him in funny instances. There are other people who knew him differently Which is another idea for a song: I was at a funeral. It was actually for Al’s wife, Tom and David’s mother, who just died. And you think you know a person, and you’ve known them ever since you were born. But you’d hear stories from her friends, or people who saw her in a different way, and it was like you were talking about a person I didn’t even know. It’s interesting. People have written short stories about that. But it’s an interesting thing to write a song about.
You mentioned that James Newton Howard had only four weeks to write the score for King Kong. Is that uncommon?
No, it’s not uncommon. But I wouldn’t do it. I would never do it for anyone I didn’t really love. [Laughs] Cause it’s just not enough time. The first thing that I try and get is as much time as I can. To do the job right. You’re working all the time, anyway, but it’s nice to get eight weeks. It used to be more. Ten, or whatever you could get. But now it’s more common that someone would get four weeks, or three weeks. TV, it’s nothing, it’s a week. And guys do amazing stuff. You know, Alf Clausen, Michael Ciccino, those CSI guys. TV music, in general, is in a higher state than film music is. Cause they leave people alone a little bit. They’re not bound to temp tracks. And temp tracks are often monochromatic. They’re a necessity, because they’re pieced together from this, and they’re pieced together from that. A little bit of Balto here, and a little bit of Pirates of the Caribbean here, and Crimson Tide. So it’s kind of flat and it doesn’t go anywhere, and sometimes that’ll end up being what the director ends up wanting, even though it’s hurting it, and they don’t know it.
Is eight weeks a sufficient time to do a good score?
It’s a sufficient amount of time to hope for if you’ve got forty minutes to write music for. I think James must have had an hour and a half, an hour and 45 minutes or more to do. It’s a three hour movie. He plays very well. And he can do synth stuff with real facility and write five to seven minutes a day. I can’t write five minutes a day. I have written two minutes a day.
Do you work on a film score all day long?
Yeah. I can’t do that with songs. But film scores, from morning till night.
Do you always work on individual scenes, or do you ever come up with melodic ideas separate from a scene?
If you’ve got time beforehand, you might come up with melodic ideas. But it usually gets down to a scramble, where you’re writing specific scenes. You have to. And that’s what you’ve got. You’ve got to do a certain amount every day. You can’t have too many bad days. It isn’t like, oh no, I’ll throw that out.
Do you have any say about where music goes in a film?
Yeah. Starts and stops. Not like what composers used to have, where you’d decide yourself. The director often wasn’t there when you spotted a film. I don’t think [Milos] Forman was there when I did Ragtime. But when Al used to do a picture, sometimes the director didn’t even show up. And now they come from rock & roll. They’ve listened to it all their lives, and they know what they like. And the problem with that is that it’s a very arcane business. I’m not saying it’s exalted. It’s not like small particle physics. But it’s odd. I once saw a scene from a Cary Grant movie without music. And he was moving around, and there he was. And then the put the music in. And they would have music for little things that he did – not like a cartoon, it didn’t catch everything – and it made him look graceful. It did something for him. You can give somebody more intelligence than they might be indicating they’ve got. Jerry Goldsmith has said this before, that in Basic Instinct, that Sharon Stone was supposed to be a writer. And she’s really a good actress and everything, but there’s nothing to indicate she’s a writer. The fact that she’s a writer is a little odd. [Laughs] But [Goldsmith] wrote her a kind of sophisticated, slinky, nasty tune that did it a little bit, and made it seem she could be a writer. And you can do that. I mean, if you’re Goldsmith or Johnny Williams. And you can do lots of stuff for action. But it’s like they want to hold it still sometimes. There’s a very big difference between the kind of action music that Johnny Williams write and the kind that Howard Shore writes. And maybe they both work, but they’re very different.
Scorsese has said how he’ll edit movies to the rhythms of songs. Do you try to match editing or rhythms in the movie?
Yeah. Oh yeah. Cuts. Not ostentatiously. But you try. It’s movement, or the end of lines, the end of dialogue. On the cue sheet, they give you EAL, so you might start something there, rather than play right over a line.
It’s changed a bit, in that a lot of time in action movies, they’ll just dial you down. It used to be that you’d get down, and then people would say stuff, and you’d come up again.
Yeah, there’s a hundred little things you can do for a picture. That makes the picture better. It’s all supposed to do that. That’s all that music is for in a movie. Pride and Prejudice, if it’s supposed to make you tear up a little bit, music can help do it. Or make someone look smoother than they are, or cooler than they are, or just as cool as you possibly can. You can’t make a bad movie look like a good movie, but you can make a good movie look like a really classy, great movie.
Do you write to match a character, or are you thinking more of action and emotion?
All of it. But often it’s movement rather than words, what they’re saying, where things will work. Little things. Little stops, little starts. There’s no way that a director’s gonna know that kind of odd stuff. He shouldn’t have to. You hire someone who’s sort of an expert, who’s watching for that his whole life, that sort of stuff. And you kind of let him do it. And you can tell from what their temp track is, kind of what they want. It’s their medium, it’s their picture. And if I write something that the director doesn’t like, I change it.
Does that happen a lot, where you have to rewrite stuff?
Not a lot, but it happens, yeah. And stuff gets thrown out, moved around. The odds are that the music guy will be right more often than the director will be right. But [the director] is right because it’s their picture, so they know presumably exactly what they want it to be like.
Do you choose your projects based on scripts that you read?
Who I’m gonna be working with. And, I haven’t done it lately, because of the nature of things, but I think of what kind of musical opportunity it is. Like Seabiscuit. That looked like a big opportunity for music to really help something out, to do something. Certainly Avalon did, and things way back. The things I’ve been doing lately, the Pixar things, Bug’s Life needed things – I could help it. Monsters, too, with the kid and some of the other stuff. And maybe I helped them all. But doing comedy – Meet The Fokkers, Meet The Parents – I mean, maybe I made them $320 extra. [Laughs] I don’t know what I did for them. But the second thing I look for is who I’m gonna be working for, to see if I can deal with the guy. Lot of composers can’t be that fussy about it, and if they’re offered something, they take it. But I don’t want to work for someone whose gonna make me write things four different times, and not know why.
You mentioned Seabiscuit, and you said once that you weren’t happy with that score, because you weren’t allowed to do what you knew to be right.
No. I wasn’t. I didn’t think. But I’m not sure what [Gary Ross, the director] wanted it to do. I did what I thought was right, and also what I thought he wanted. He ended up changing what I did in lots of cases, after the fact, and brought someone else in to adapt things. That kind of hurt my feelings, and I think it hurt the picture. I think the picture will seem a little short if I’m not allowed to do it at the pace I wanted. Horses are racing. You don’t necessarily do the horse race, but you do the doubt about the horse race. And I think he felt that everyone knew what was gonna happen. But it isn’t like everyone knows the history of Seabiscuit. Not the whole world read that book. Even if they had, you play fair with them. You don’t give away surprises with music. I hate it when that happens. When you know that, Oh Jesus Christ, this is gonna happen now.
Like when you suddenly hear spooky music.
Yeah. You know, those are the kind of movies that get helped most by music. Think of some of that stuff without the spooky music. James Newton Howard really helped those Night Shimalyan movies to be scary.
I saw this movie on TV the other night – I don’t know who did it – it was The Crush with Alicia Silverstone. And some of it was synth, where you hear the cheap synth. But they did a good job, it spooked you out. And music’s really important in films [laughs], it’s amazing.
In a movie like Monsters, Inc., which is computer animation, your music adds so much depth.
If you can do that, you’ve done what you’re supposed to do. I don’t want them listening to me instead of looking at the movie ever. But you want to count for something. When they’re running down the hallway, write something that runs them down the hallway and increases the heartbeat of someone in the audience.
But you never want your music to draw attention to itself?
No. No, no.
In Monsters, just for an example, I have noticed certain melodies you’ve used, because they’re so nice, but it doesn’t take away from the image.
Yeah, I don’t think that takes away from the image. That brings up an interesting point. I told you how temp tracks often don’t go anywhere. I had a composer, a friend of mine, who said, “[Directors] don’t want it to go anywhere. They don’t want anyone to shine, but what they’re doing.” But I can’t believe that. It’s such a miniscule part of the whole, the music. They’ve actually succeeded in making music more important than it actually is, by having people rewrite things and throwing out scores. They turn it down to a level where you can’t hear it anyway. Like in Bug’s Life, the dragonfly and all that stuff sounds like a B-29. I can’t hear what I did. But they’re giving it too much credit. So I feel if you can go somewhere, you might as well go somewhere. You might as well write a melody. Sometimes you don’t want it. But in most cases, like the scenes with Boo, she’s got a little tune for her that isn’t just aimless wandering. You know, why not do it?
It seems that might be why people come to you – to bring the kind of melodic movement a songwriter would compose.
Yeah, but you know, I’ve been offered nothing but comedies. It’s like I’ve been typecast. Five Pixar movies, and Meet The Fokkers, and Meet The Parents. You know what I do best, probably, would be a movie like Pride and Prejudice or Brokeback Mountain or Cinderella Man, something where if they want that kind of stuff, I can do it. But in doing this other action kind of stuff, which is goddamn hard, these Pixar movies. When Tommy [Newman], my cousin did a Disney film, he said, “I don’t know how you did four of those.” I think he’s gonna do another one. But he said he would never do another one. I think he will. But I don’t know if I will. Man, they’re hard. The last one wasn’t quite so hard, Cars, because they didn’t have feet. Like Tommy lucked out in that his [Finding Nemo] was underwater. Monsters was really hard because they’re running around. And Bug’s Life was like three times the size of the average score, because they’re really moving. And it doesn’t look right if you don’t move with them.
There’s a school of thought that says, no, you don’t have to [move with them]. But in an animated picture, you do. I don’t think there’s any way around it. You don’t always have to move when a grasshopper is flying after an ant, or something. But it doesn’t look right to me if you don’t.
With Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story, your music brings a human warmth to a movie which has no humans on the screen. Is that a challenge?
That’s exactly what they wanted when they did Toy Story. And exactly what they were worried about. I don’t think [their worry]is justified, because even if you’d done it and it sounded computer-like, I don’t think it would look that way. Maybe the early one would have. But that’s what you always try to do. The characters in those pictures are adults. It’s a kid’s movie, but their emotions, you take them seriously, all their stuff. When Woody feels left out. They’re grown-ups. So you take it seriously. All of them.
You’ve said it’s easy for you to write scores on deadline—
Not scores, movie songs. I show up for the scores, but I find it difficult. Very difficult. Oh yeah. Because it’s writing for orchestra, and it’s being in the right place at the right time, and doing the right thing. It’s very different from songwriting, though I don’t find it easy. You just have to do it. There’s no way out. The only easy part about it is writing the songs for assignments.
When you are writing a score on deadline, are there times when you find you can’t move forward, and nothing’s coming?
Yeah. For as long as you can afford it. I do.
How do you make it happen?
You just do. You have to. You can’t have bad days, too many of them. You can’t have two in a row, so you just don’t. And maybe what you end up with is not the best thing that you could have thought of. Maybe you’re never satisfied with it completely. But most of the time it turns out okay.
Did your Uncle Alfred ever give you any advice on how best to score a film?
He did say never be afraid of melody. But nowadays I think you have to be wary of them because [directors] might not want it.
[Alfred] said not to worry about things going too slow musically. But I do. Sometimes you can’t. I’m not sure in what context he said that. He said don’t work at night. But he said that, mainly, because he was loaded, and he’d go in there and look at it, and not like it. But I try not to [work at night.]
Do you take the weekends off?
No. Not usually. Unless I’ve got time. And the Pixar people are good about time. They give me enough, to where I can take Sundays off.
By working every day, does it help you get on a creative roll that makes it any easier?
Yes. It makes it easier to get in there and work. It’s the beginnings that are the most difficult. Getting started, knowing what to do. Cars is a movie about cars. That’s who populates the world. So you go out there and you start. And that NASCAR, it’s always rock & roll. 100% metal. When they show NASCAR races. But [Pixar] didn’t want that. They had a temp track from Pirates of the Caribbean taking the guy around the track in the first race. Yeah, because it repeats over and over and over. They knew didn’t want that. So they wanted orchestra. I might have done it the way they do the NASCAR races, with straight rock & roll the whole way. For about a third of it, I did do rock & roll. But the NASCAR highlights, they look good with Heavy Metal. There’s a song by Sheryl Crow that runs them around for a little while. Then I come in with guitars. But I didn’t exactly know what to do.
Do you compose a score from the beginning of a film to the end?
No, no. I wish. You get different parts of it. With the Pixar stuff, you really get different parts of it. They’re finished with this, and then you get it. They’re never finished, exactly. It used to be that they’d finish a picture and then give it to you. Sound and music were the last thing done. But with an animated picture it comes in different parts. It makes it difficult somewhat. Because you don’t get to set anything. You can write something you can use all right. Like, in Cars, I did the last race better than I did the first. In my opinion.
It’s really little, boring stuff like that, that you end up thinking about. You realize that you’re talking about taking enormously seriously an ant and a grasshopper. But it’s because the studio succeeds in doing it, so you have to figure out what music would look good with an evil grasshopper.
But I really kind of like writing music for movies. I like it because I love working with the orchestra. I love the sound an orchestra makes, and I love the guys and the women in the orchestra. And I feel very comfortable doing it and it makes it worth it, almost, the process.
Do you always get a temp track?
They do now, yeah. Not only that, but I don’t think any composer is gonna come up again, ever, where they don’t have to demo everything they do. Where they’re not adept at synths, or have someone who can do synths for them. It’s gonna be oriented that way. TV is 98% synths right now. Straight synth, no orch. Simulated orch. But there’s no young guy who’s gonna come up, like Horner, or Johnny, or me, who doesn’t have to demo everything for them. I can play it on piano or something. John doesn’t use synthesizer at all. Horner sometimes has to demo, sometimes he doesn’t. But it won’t happen again.
Do you have to demo everything you do?
No. But sometimes, yeah. I have. But someone else will do it from the score. I don’t play synth well enough to do it myself. I can play it for them on piano, and sort of on synth. I can do that much. But that’ll never be the case for anyone starting out. So they better get good – they already are good – at ProTools and synths and Finale and all that stuff.
Do they ever use one of your own scores for a temp track?
They have. There was some of mine in this one. They’ll use it. James Newton Howard sometimes gets in there and participates a little in doing the temp. It will be his stuff. It will be stuff that he thinks will be right. Cause they can fall in love with a temp, and then it’s trouble.
You have a distinctive style in your film work. Are people coming to you for a Randy Newman sound?
They are coming to me for knock-down, knock-about comedy. Which is the least gratifying kind of work to do. The Pixar ones are different because there’s more depth to them – they’re sad, they’re happy, they’re everything. But this new one has the sound of the cars all the time going. Had it not been Pixar, I wouldn’t have done it.
Comedies are funny or they’re not funny. And yet they’re difficult to do. The movies that my cousin David gets offered to do, like Dr. Doolittle, and things like that, are the hardest movies to do. They’re action-comedies. Comedy’s tough, because you gotta keep it light, stay out of the way of stuff, and it’s difficult. And the action part is difficult, too.
It’s hard to write music that doesn’t get in the way of the humor?
Yeah, you can kill a joke. By the nature of the music, or being in the wrong place. You can help a joke a little bit, too. But I don’t know how much I helped Meet The Fokkers, or Meet The Parents be tremendously successful. You’d have to ask [the director] Jay Roach. I’m not sure. Except the opening song in Meet The Parents I always liked. The stuff that goes over the studio logos.
With Meet The Fokkers, did you have a completed movie to write to, or did it come in pieces?
It came in pieces. But they enabled me to have more time. And I think I started with the beginning. And I had themes from the last picture, too. And it wasn’t much music. It was 25 minutes, maybe.
Do you always conduct the orchestra yourself?
Yes. I do. But so much of it is click, that you could disappear – you could go out and get a drink of water, or a sandwich, and they wouldn’t notice you were gone. But they do. You get stuff out of them in rehearsal and stuff. But you sometimes feel like you’re waving your arms with the click. I don’t like it. But I was too lazy not to do it last time. Next time, maybe not.
Is that click set to a tempo you determine?
You determine the tempo by where you want the music to fall, and what you’ve written. And it will vary sometimes, and [the orchestra] will play to it. Most stuff’s done that way.
The tempo will vary?
Usually by a little. Sometimes by a lot. And if it’s by a lot, you sort of have to stop, so they can hear it. But, yeah, I would say if you go to a scoring session, odds are that they’re playing to a click track. Pretty much so.
Do you always use the same size orchestra?
No. Smaller one for smaller films. If it’s a big outdoor thing like Maverick, or an action picture where you need a big brass section, then you need a lot of strings to soak it up. 100, 108. Less on Meet The Fokkers. Cars is pretty big. It also has electric guitars, regular guitars, mandolin. And some bluegrass stuff that I recorded separately.
Yeah. [Jim] Keltner.
It was interesting to me that you said you didn’t want to go to the Hal Wilner tribute to your music because you didn’t want to hear people do your songs wrong.
It wasn’t exactly that. I just didn’t want to be like a gray cloud where I’m listening and it’s not what I want to hear. I’ve had that experience before where I can’t fake it too much if it’s my music. Maybe it was fine.
As a songwriter, don’t you want people to interpret your songs in different ways, or do you want them to stay exactly—
Not exactly. But I want it not to be embarrassing. Not to be enormously emotive, like versions I’ve heard of “I Think It’s Going To Rain,” and running the gamut of the emotions. Or getting things wrong, like happy “Sail Away”s. Or just really making it their own. What are you going to do? I generally had a specific intent. If someone sings their own notes… I mean, I heard a version of “Vincent” [by Don McClean] where a guy changed notes. And took liberties with it, and made it his own. That’s put together too good. To screw with a song like that, I hated it.
Video: Randy sings “Sail Away” in 1979.
Garfunkel was criticized for being too schmaltzy with your song “Old Man.”
I was too schmaltzy with it, too. I should have been colder. Even than it is, with the strings. I haven’t heard it for a while.
Did you like his version?
It didn’t bother me that much. I thought it worked. In my version, I should have just put a lid on the strings a little more than I did. But maybe not, I haven’t heard it in so long.
The song “The World Isn’t Fair” is such an amazing song.
I’m proud of that one. I had the idea first on that one. It came fairly easily for a while. And I wrestled around with the fact that it’s like one long verse. It doesn’t get to a tonic, or something. It never stops.
Yeah, but it’s such a good melody with those words, that it works.
I thought that “The Great Nations of Europe” would be one of the best songs I ever wrote. But for some reason, and I know what it is, I don’t think it is. It’s a little didactic. It’s a little like a guy pointing to a board, and it doesn’t have a character for a narrator. The guy in “The World Isn’t Fair” is interesting as a character. He’s glad. It’s me. I’m glad the world isn’t fair. I’m glad that Marx was wrong. In a way, you know. I’ve been very lucky. And yet, I’m not that happy about it. [Laughs]
So many people I know still feel that “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” is their favorite Randy Newman song.
It’s amazing. I was a baby when I wrote it. And they pick that, and they pick “Marie.” And those things are atypical of my work. You can’t win if you’re looking at numbers. If you’re looking at how much money you’re making, or how much money someone is making. I told my boys that people who think that way are never happy. The Buddhists are really right about material things. Absolutely for sure. And you can’t win if you go out listening to what people say about you – even when they praise you. They say, “God, I love ‘Think It’s Going To Rain,’ you can’t help thinking, “Geez, you like something I wrote when I was 21 – what about the last forty years?” [Laughs] Even Springsteen, people like that, if you let the nature of the compliments bother you, the quality of them, you get stung all the time. Paul [Simon] doesn’t want people saying, “God, I love ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water,’” with Artie singing the lead. [Laughs]
Yeah, it bothers him still.
Sure it does. And it’s like Salieri in Amadeus. I saw [Simon & Garfunkel] at Shea Stadium years ago, and Paul’s written everything, all this fancy music, great music, and the crowd’s reacting great. But Artie comes on and does “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the lid comes off! There’s this curly-headed handsome guy, and I just know Paul’s dying. But you can’t get into it.
When I interviewed Dylan, he singled you out as a great songwriter.
That’s very nice, coming from him.
Yeah, he’s pretty good.
Yeah, he is. Or was, or is, it’s hard to say.
He mentioned “Louisiana” as one of your greatest songs. And I heard you do it – and also Aaron Neville do it – at Katrina benefits. And it was more moving than any other song sung. Is it surprising to you at all when past songs apply so powerfully to modern times?
Yeah. It is surprising. That one, of course. It’s surprising how they’ve held up in a way. Same’s true with Donovan, however. If you listen to those old Donovan records [laughs], and I didn’t notice them then for being great records or anything, but they hold up.
Yeah, they’re good. But a handful of his songs, not all of them. Whereas you’ve never done a weak album.
No. Born Again is odd. But now weak, I don’t think. And that’s what I try to think of myself as hoping I can keep doing. If I ever think I’m getting appreciably worse, I won’t do it. But I haven’t felt it. And as I say in the song “I’m Dead,” you wouldn’t know, maybe. I think my early stuff earns more money in royalties every year than stuff of the Nineties, or even the Eighties, except for “I Love L.A.” But it’s that stuff, the stuff on Sail Away and Good Ol’ Boys and Little Criminals to some degree, that is what people know me for. So I mean, in a way, you could say that I had this window, like Neil Young from ’71 through ’75 where you write everything people love. He stayed good, but the bulk of his estate was written then. And mine, too, maybe.
Yet you’ve written so many great songs since then, like “The World Isn’t Fair” or “I Want You To Hurt Like I Do” –
Yeah, but they’re not comparable in what they generate. But, yeah, the new songs are improvements to me. “The World Isn’t Fair” is real good. But the reality is that they’re not as popular pop songs [laughs] as the early stuff.
You’ve often put yourself down, because you say you haven’t written many hits—
But it’s a fact. I sometimes wonder about Bacharach. My Uncle Lionel was a musician, and he said about Bacharach, “You know, all his tunes sound like third oboe parts.” [Laughter] But I went to this tribute to Bacharach, and those tunes are very impressive. I mean, he wanders all over the place, but when he gets to the hook, he knows that he’s there.
Bacharach has defined a sound in popular music. A Bacharach song is distinctive. And you have done that as well – not only musically, but lyrically, too. Is there some satisfaction in the fact that you’ve created something unique in popular song?
There’s some satisfaction, yeah. There is. And there’s some satisfaction that I’m still around. And functioning almost at the same level I was. Maybe 65%, 73%. I thought that the Bad Love stuff was as good a bunch of songs as I’ve written since Sail Away. So I was happy. Because if I think I’m getting appreciably worse, I wouldn’t do it.
You are so busy writing film scores, and I know a lot of the fans of your songwriting worry that it takes you away from songwriting. Does it, or does it inspire new songs?
It inspires them. I’m usually glad to get back to it. And harmonically it opens things for me, because you go places you wouldn’t go. And I take it very seriously, writing for the orchestra. So I don’t look at it as time taken away [from songwriting.] But certainly, when I’m gone what’ll be remembered for are the songs.
11 thoughts on “RANDY NEWMAN: The Bluerailroad Interview”
The Randy Newman I’m so fond of is someone wholly other than the guy in the tux up there on the stage. In fact, as his career has developed, his stature and success have consistently grown – as is befitting, because he’s a really talented guy, and he deserves it. I’m pretty sure that there’s almost no one else in the world who views his career like I do, in absolute inverse relation to his success. But I’d like to tell you about the Randy Newman I most admire.
Please do – tell us all about him! -hc
do you mind if I post from a music blog I like from time to time? I just discovered your excellent site, and feel like I’m reading in parallel sometimes.
I’m a huge Newman fan as well, but I must admit- the critique of ‘not being very vocally melodic’ is apt, at least a large part of the time. The song you posted right after that rebuttal (“Potholes”) I believe (IMHO) demonstrates this point fine. It’s funny also that you mention Sondheim, b/c the same critique/label gets thrown at him, and (again) I believe rightfully so.
While the orchestrations on Randy’s (and Sondheim’s) stuff are often not only beautiful, but complex and progressive, can’t we agree that songs like ‘Bridge over Troubled Water’ or ‘Can’t help falling in love with you’ have melodies that breathe and flex, that they’re both non-bombastic yet huge??
It just seems to me like a lot of Newman’s stuff falls into that Dylan-esque category, where it seems like the words take precedence over the melody, like it doesn’t seem that it (the melody) is written in granite.
I’m personally torn over the dichotomy, b/c oftentimes you’ll find that those ‘great’ melodies don’t come coupled with great words. For instance, the melodies of Andrew Lloyd Webber I would unequivocally put above Sondheim’s, though what those melodies are in service of is usually juvenile and insipid.
I think it just goes to show (in a good, reassuring way) that no one is lord over all these domains- that for all of Sondheim’s verbal dexterity and beautiful chords, you oftentimes don’t leave humming any tunes.
I appreciate your perspective, and thank you for writing. But I don’t agree even slightly that Randy’s brilliant music is like Sondheim’s. I am a Sondheim fan – he is an amazing songwriter and mind – but his melodies are too complex, generally, for people to retain. Randy’s music is not like that at all – some of his songs, Like “Korean Parents” or “The World Isn’t Fair” or certainly “Piece of the Pie” are complex and not overly melodic – but he has written COUNTLESS gorgeous, sumptuous melodies – how about Sail Away, Lousiana, Same Girl, Texas Girl at the Funeral of Her Father, In Germany Before The War, etc? I think he is one of the great melodists of our time. As for great melodies with great words, there are lots of places to look besides Webber – how about Elton John, Paul Simon, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello, David Bowie, Paul McCartney? I agree about Simon’s “Bridge” – but Sail Away is on that level, as are many – in my not so humble opinion. But I welcome your feelings – very much.
It’s always dangerous to say any one guy is our best this or our greatest that, but Randy Newman is certainly the Great American Composer in a way nobody has been in a very long time (thinking Bacharach or Mancini here). A wonderful read.
Fantastic interview, thank you. Thank you for putting the italics on the words that Mr. Newman accentuated. Sometimes it’s distracting. But, in this case, you can really hear him speaking and drawing out those words in his characteristic way. Wonderful read. I was fortunate enough to meet Randy in a hotel restaurant before one of his shows. He was funny, kind and gracious as a fan would home and imagine.