Randy Newman Stages the Most Ambitious Production of His Career

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 10: Singer Randy Newman performs onstage during MusiCares Person of the Year honoring Tom Petty at the Los Angeles Convention Center on February 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

Randy Newman is a revered elder statesman in the world of American singer-songwriters and film composers alike, even if he makes fun of the designation at every opportunity. He’s in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame because his music is ubiquitous, even if many rock fans aren’t actually familiar with the mordant depths of his catalogue. Once, long before he became known among younger generations for scoring the lion’s share of Pixar movies, Newman was regarded by music fans and pundits as either the next true original in American songwriting or just an oddball, too-smart-for-his-own-good misanthrope.

At the beginning of his career in the late 1960s, he’d sell his songs to pop singers while still rejecting most tenets of their style in his own work, from drum sets to guitars to stream-of-consciousness lyricism. In the next two decades, rock royalty like The Eagles and Paul Simon would creep onto his records, though Newman’s cutting librettos seemed to work against everything their own music stood for. In the early ’80s, he mused on his own curious stardom by imagining a farcical world when Bruce Springsteen asked him “to be the Boss for a little while” on Trouble in Paradise‘s “My Life is Good.”

Newman still follows a twisted path today. Many of his friends and former contemporaries–Don Henley, James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne–release LPs that are often covers-studded and custom-made to satisfy their fanbase. But Newman lets film scoring be his day job: It’s been the family business for as long as he can remember, the stock and trade of both himself, two of his cousins (Thomas and David), and their fathers before him (the renowned and prolific Alfred and Lionel, and Emil). On his studio albums, when they come every near-decade, he allows himself to work through his darkest, strangest, and most penetrating ideas, musically and narratively. He puts on ghoulish masks, hisses insults, and excavates the brains of downtrodden and amoral patriarchs, bottom-feeders, and loners. He bends pre-British-Invasion musical styles to his often-perverse will, and pokes fun at his country and himself by association.

Newman spent the past couple of years writing the Toy Story 4 soundtrack and finishing up his new album Dark Matter, one of the most elaborate and caustic exertions of his career. From the sprawling mini-operetta of a first track, “The Great Debate,” it’s clear that Newman is mining musical and conceptual ground that is fresh to his catalogue. There are his trademark melodic snippets, hints of past standards like “Louisiana 1927” or “Real Emotional Girl,” a couple of songs that are old, like the expanded Monk theme “It’s a Jungle Out There” and forgotten TV-theme sketch ballad “She Chose Me.” Still, Dark Matter is unlike any other project he has ever undertaken, grounded by high-concept vignettes–on one song JFK and Bobby Kennedy debate the invasion of Cuba, on another the singer inhabits the mind of dead blues singer Sonny Boy Williamson.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=Gi5NLFMYukg

Dark Matter is a record that is both fit for its era and, as is Randy’s general working rule, rarely straightforwardly topical. When it is, the approach is as oblique as he can manage. Newman’s placement of new, politically-tinged songs in the New York Times and The Washington Post (Dark Matter‘s absurdist, two-year-old character sketch “Putin”) in recent years might make fans expect a more literalist approach from a post-Obama Newman album. But he prefers to inhabit misguided louts or near-sociopaths who almost fool the listener into believing their logic, not portray living cartoons that upend his audience’s normal concept of realism all by themselves. By his own admission, on-the-nose, political-cartoon-ish ideas usually end up on the cutting room floor. (A recent Vulture interview revealed that Newman had scrapped a psychosexual Trump analysis-in-song during the making of this album.)

A notorious Family Guy bit mocks Randy Newman for “singing about what he sees,” a light observation that’s about as far from the truth as you can get when characterizing Newman’s actual songwriting. He almost never writes from his own perspective, save on outliers like the anecdotal musings about his New Orleans upbringing on 1988’s Land of Dreams. Elsewhere, he removes his narrators by a few steps from the historical events upon which their stories might seem to reflect. In the midst of Nixon intrigue in the mid-’70s, he wrote from the mind of bigoted Depression-era Dixiecrat Huey Long on Good Old Boys’s “Kingfish.” In the late-Bush-era PSA-in-song “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” Newman ruminated on the careers of Caesar and King Leopold, making the song a more-evergreen, wide-scale meditation on American hawkishness, prejudice, and stubbornness.

On Dark Matter, there is no explicit Trump proxy, but the bitter partisanship and institutionalized zealotry that gained steam throughout Obama’s presidency is crucial. “The Great Debate” takes the listener into a fantastical North Carolina “scientific” conference full of evangelists, quacks, conspiracy theorists, and profiteers espousing their blanket solution to the world’s problems: redemption in the afterlife and revival meetings. (“I’ll take Jesus/I’ll take Jesus/I’ll take Jesus anytime,” the choir howls.) The moderator sleazily comes on to a female scientist, and interrupts her to babble, with a vaguely lewd emphasis, about giraffes. Ultimately, a shadowy figure in the audience approaches the mic to tell off Newman, the snobbish elite, in no uncertain terms, and force the buffoonish Tea-Party-type moderator–indeed, a stock type of Newman narrator–to meet his maker:

Sir, you’re an idiot–a straw man. You see the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman, self-described atheist and commonist, creates characters like you as objects of ridicule. He doesn’t believe anything you say, nor does he want us to believe anything that you say. Makes it easy for him to knock you down, thus a straw man. I myself believe in Jesus. I believe in evolution also.  I believe in global warming, and life everlasting. No one can knock me down.

This moment introduces a brand of metafiction that is new in Newman’s catalogue: an admission of his own particular thematic hang-ups and sociopolitical bias. After all, he was writing the song during a time when he was also forced to look back at the entirety of his career. A box set, Lonely at the Top: The Studio Albums 1968-77, was released this year, which revisited his formative, cult-favorite LPs from his debut to Little Criminals (the record which boasted his one true commercial success outside of the movie business: the enduring and divisive “Short People.”) Another recent collection packaged his four “songbook” LPs of the past ten years, which consist of solo-piano-and-vocal re-recordings of hits and personal favorites from throughout his career, into a sprawling tome. SPIN spoke to Newman from his home in Los Angeles about those experiences of looking back at his early work, why he feels like Dark Matter is a step forward for him musically, and how he creates a sense of “place” in music.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/3ECyzv2mucP3SjaiQQyLIv

It seems, from what I’m read, that you’re particularly proud of this record.

Yeah. It’s something to be suspicious of, because when you finish something… of course. But I think maybe this is one of my best records.

There are things in it, compositionally, that it seems like you’ve been working up over the past couple of records: multiple characters talking and multiple musical styles, or scenes, that you move through within the songs.

They just kind of felt organic to the song. They intruded on the straight first-person narrative style. They’re in character as I often tend to do. On the first one [“The Great Debate”], there’s the guy who’s MCing the debate, and then the debate has to happen, and I couldn’t think of another way to do it. I mean, it isn’t something that I would do consciously because it’s hard enough for me to be understood. You can’t necessarily listen to a lot of my stuff and eat potato chips or something. You gotta pay attention to get anything out of it. That may be asking a lot with this medium, but the dual voices is hard. It was just I felt I had to do it–that was part of the song, just like the orchestration.

Was there a specific moment that inspired that song?

It’s just sort of in the air now. It’s a bit artificial; that [scenario]’s not gonna actually happen. That kind of arena is not the forum for a scientific debate. I’m interested in dark matter. It’s interesting that there’s something that’s 75% of everything and they don’t know what it is. It’s kind of weird–fantastic. And I’ve seen a lot of fake preachers since I was a little boy. My father would watch those, just so he could hate them.

And ultimately a speculative God wins over speculative science.

God wins in my version. Faith wins because of the stuff they’ve got. Bach, Beethoven, and gospel music. Dorothy Love Coates. The other side: we’ve got nothing. They are no great “Come on there, men, let’s swing into a great agnostic hymn!”

Where did that character [in the song] who throws your whole career into question come from?

[laughs heartily] Yes, it is my whole career; it’s like I wanted to commit career suicide of some kind. I added him to make an effort to make it more scientific, more real. It’s bullshit-real, but I felt it was too easy that the narrator was so much one of my character types. Do you think that was a mistake?

No! What that moment made me think of, and I realize the timing is off in terms of when you wrote the song, was that feeling after the election that there was half of the country that you completely didn’t understand but kind of assumed you did. It was humbling, in a way–in a moment, it called one’s whole self-concept into question.

Yeah! It sure was a surprise to me. I had no idea that that was out there. I mean, I know there aren’t 40 million assholes in this country–he’s way worse than they are. But the people in my songs are worse than the audience.

One I keep returning to is “On the Beach.” It’s the most cryptic narrative on the album, and perhaps the most haunting. What’s the personal significance of that song for you?

Personal experience. I went to the beach every day for four years, and then I didn’t go. And most other people didn’t go. But there were people who stayed in that area, by the Santa Monica canyon. And in one case, forever he was there. The guy ended up living down there on the beach. It’s about the same thing [Dark Matter closer] “Wandering Boy” is about: falling out. I don’t think it’s an admirable–it’s not something you’d wish on someone you love, to live outside and not go on. And this guy was still into the same shit ten years later: beach volleyball, surfing–which was mainly horseshit. I have a lyric for it that went. “There we were/Junior high/Wood shop, print shop, metal shop, give em all a try/They wouldn’t give the girls a hammer/So they baked a pie/And we all came together at the beach.” I thought it detracted from the story, and messed with the tune. And I sort of regret it. Blake Mills and [producer] Mitchell Froom have a lot of value on that track.

The beach music there is so nice. With all the styles of American music you reference, and especially on this record, does that ever come from hearing an old record and thinking “It would be fun to try something like this”? Or is it something where you’re just trying to channel music you remember from your past?

It’s that. There are things that–I’ve never listened to a lot of music as a way of life. I’ve done other things like watch television or read for entertainment’s sake, because for me, it was always kinda work. I haven’t listened to as much as anyone I’ve ever met who does the same thing [as me]. But I always loved [swing bandleader] Fletcher Henderson, pre-1930. I love that shit, and I’ve done it lots of times, or tried to do it. And I do love Mahler, and my uncle Alfred. Shostakovich, Brahms. So there’s certainly some of that in there.

Speaking about your uncle, and thinking about your scoring work, do you have a clear couple of scores you look back on the most fondly?

I think [some] pictures I helped a lot were Awakenings and A Bug’s Life. They needed Bug’s Life to work, Pixar did, and I think the music helped it. It’s funny: I wish I’d done more non-animated pictures. Animation gives you a chance to do almost everything but romance. Buzz and Woody have yet to have a romance. But everything else–the West, space, every kind of picture that can be–is in there. A picture like Pleasantville: I think I wrote some nice music for it. It would be a picture like that–Avalon, Ragtime–that I think I’d be best at. But I haven’t done as much of it as I might have liked.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/track/7dcQzzksdBi9vJLwtvwMKT

Do you anticipate getting around to anything like that in the future?

No, I think I’ve had such bad things to say about the occupation of director that it probably hurt me. I regret saying it even though, you know, I thought it was right at the time. People want to be able to tell you what to do, and they do. I just did a picture with Noah Baumbach [The Meyerowitz Stories] and he told me what he wanted and I did it. And he’s a very good guy. But they don’t want any surprises, so you gotta demo everything. I don’t know–it’s not a great business right now. It’s a hell of a lot different than when Johnny Williams and Jerry Goldsmith were in there.

Your family was such a huge part of that tradition as well. How do feel against the current trends–the obsession with minimalism to create ambiguous moods and tension?

For the most part, I don’t like it. I saw an action movie the other day, and it needed to have a few times where you felt something, and there was nothing there. And the action stuff, it would have been a real hard job. But they don’t bother now. They just hang into [sings in a low, Gregorian-chant-like tone] ohhhh. I know as I’m saying this shit that I sound like an old crock, I really do. “Oh the old days!” But in this field–and directors are very intelligent usually–they somehow have come to the belief that, of all the components put into a motion picture, music is manipulative. Not like where they put the camera is manipulative, or sound effects, or what they have an actress wearing. But music!

There’s a true story about my uncle Alfred [Newman] doing Lifeboat, the Alfred Hitchcock picture, and there’s a cue in it–it’s just a lifeboat in the middle of the ocean–dialogue or something. Hitchcock came up to him and says, “But Alfred, they’re in the middle of the ocean; where does the music come from?” And [my uncle] said, “The same place your camera came from!” 

In the past two years, there’s been the box set of your first few albums and the compilation of your songbook albums. So you’ve been working on the new album and also looking back and taking stock. Was there anything in that process that you learned or reappreciated looking back?

Well, it was not my idea to do it. I don’t have much interest in looking back–almost none. The recording I got into, though. I noticed that it’s the same guy: The guy who wrote “Davy the Fat Boy” wrote “The Great Debate.” It’s not noticeably superior or inferior, but I mean, I can’t tell about that. But I think I was the same guy when I was 22 or 23, and have stayed that way and have written in a style that people don’t do or don’t choose to do.

I always thought that you’d think there’d be more people doing non-first-person type songwriting, eventually. But they maybe write for the medium. People like love songs. They like a direct expression to believe that the singer is the song. In my stuff too, you can tell a lot about me from characters I’ve created, as much as you can tell can a confessional songwriter. Experience tells me that.

But I was sort of gratified: I’d forgotten things that bothered me, things I’d written off. Even some that I didn’t [rerecord for the Songbook albums] like [Good Old Boys’] “Back on My Feet Again.” [laughs] I really liked it when I went back to it. It’s from-the-heart weird, not fake-weird, like people who imitate David Lynch and stuff like that. That song is really an odd story. “I’m not a Negro, I’m a millionaire.” What? [Read the lyrics to the song here.]

There are parts of Dark Matter with these really modernist, intricate orchestrations, and they made me think of your [1968] debut album–the really odd, adventurous way you were using the orchestra–more than anything you’ve done since.

Yeah. On the first album–besides sounding like we hadn’t heard the Rolling Stones–I was trying to make it so you could see it. Like in “Linda,” so you could see the pier. In “Davy the Fat Boy,” I totally changed the song so I could have that Italian carnival band. “Cowboy” I remember saying “I’m not gonna use the piano because it’s an indoor instrument.” So I used the harp and guitar–I mean, the harp isn’t really an “outdoor” instrument [laughs]. I did that [kind of thing] on both of these [albums]. There are usually a couple songs on every album where I’m trying to get the place right. It was much more conscious here and the very first record. I’m happy with it.

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