Not many people can boast a career as successful as Randy Newman’s. He has gathered more Academy Award nominations than Meryl Streep, written a song (“Short People”) that inspired the State of Maryland to legislate a radio ban against it, taken home four Grammy Awards, and even played a singing tree in The Three Amigos-a film that he also cowrote. Having concentrated much of his recent musical energy in the realm of film soundtracks (which have garnered him 16 Oscar nominations and wins in four different musical categories), Newman released his first solo album in nine years just last month. The recording, titled Harps and Angels, finds the native Californian at his satirical best. And while you might not hear the songs from Harps playing over the speakers at your best bud’s party any time soon, conversely, it won’t be James Taylor telling jokes at the intimate Lobero Theatre this Sunday night.
This past decade would seemingly have provided you with plenty of topical commentary, but Harps and Angels is your first record since 1999’s Bad Love, correct? Yeah. The material’s out there, it’s kind of shameful that I don’t do more with it actually. When I don’t have to do anything, I don’t.
So what finally spurred you into action? I recognized how long it had been! So I set some time aside, like I would with a picture, and sat down and wrote just like I do for like any other job.
How does your approach to writing differ between writing for your albums and writing for a film? Most obviously, the focus is all on me, the artist, when you’re writing lyrics and you’re not subordinate to anyone. With movie music, if you do it well, you should be helping the movie. Sure, it’s nice if you write something good because it will help the movie more, but the main thing is to make someone appear more beautiful, or make an emotional scene more dramatic or an action scene more exciting. With a song, well, it’s your movie.
Which do you find more challenging? Writing a really good song is maybe a little harder. But I’ve done more of it, so maybe I’m better at it. But a really good movie score is a very difficult thing to accomplish. The quality in motion picture music has declined every decade. That’s because that’s what directors want, I guess.
Harps and Angels draws from a pretty broad range of subjects : It is issue-oriented. There’s immigration, the economy, and political kinds of things. There’s that old saying that it’s a curse to live in interesting times-and these times have been interesting. This administration-and this isn’t going to go over well in Santa Barbara-but I don’t think we’ve ever had an administration this bad. I know we haven’t.
Given the times and the topics you explore on the album, do you think that art is an effective barometer for society? I don’t know. In pop music I don’t think it carries over much. There are movies that reflect a period, maybe. And there have been books written about German art before WWII and about Brecht and the type of movies they were making and the dark kind of Metropolis pictures. They do seem to reflect something in the German culture. But I don’t know if you just looked at the art in this country, if you could tell what’s going on-except in movies about specific events, like the [Vietnam or Iraq wars].
But people in the arts are certainly becoming socially and politically vocal : And it’s more so than ever before. I don’t like writing on-the-nose songs or writing about this administration specifically. It’s a little like doing weekly satire or something. It’s odd that there are all these songs about issues on this record, ’cause I’m usually more interested in character. But, when I can get them both into a song, I like that.
The album also covers a lot of emotional terrain. When you sit down at the piano to write, what dictates the result? Nothing. I wrote “Short People” because I needed another song and I was just playing and that’s what came out. The way I was feeling never meant anything as to what I would end up writing. I have written something funny and jolly when I felt rotten. I don’t know if the reverse is true, but I think so.
Your songs flow quite openly. Do you do much self-editing? If I think that I’m doing something that is mean or actually picking on someone, I don’t do it. I’ve got a line. Now “Korean Parents,” for instance, I’m not so sure that I didn’t know the line was there and stepped over it anyway. It’s essentially complimentary, but it is stereotyping a people. And, to me, it looks like a close call, as I don’t expect a lot of people to get that joke.
Satire is a huge part of your style. You write in character, and you’re the quintessential storyteller. In a world filled with sound bites and elevator music, how do you feel about your place in music and the way you’re perceived? Sometimes I feel like I’ve picked the wrong medium because people don’t just listen to music much, unless they’re going to a show. They’re cooking or reading or riding in a car. And if you don’t listen to my stuff, it’s no good to you. If you miss a few lines you don’t know where the hell you are-and I don’t have a beautiful voice. James Taylor’s a great songwriter, but he’s also got a great voice. You can put him on at a party and eat potato chips and drink cola and its fine. But me? I don’t know:
So a beautiful voice would solve all your problems? If I had a voice like his, I wouldn’t write the way do. I would write for the voice more, presumably love songs and songs with a more memorable vocal melody. I will often notice at the end of a song that I’ve been on two notes for the whole thing. But that’s just because that’s the kind of voice I have.
What about songs you have written for others? One of the best tunes I ever wrote was for Peter Gabriel for that second Babe movie. “That’ll Do” is the name of the song. But it’s not a song I can sing-I don’t think so. “Feels Like Home” is just about at the limit of a tune I can get by with.
Are you enjoying being out on the road again? I like it. I always have. You play a show, you leave the place where the battle took place, you go back and mess the hotel room up, and then you go to a different town. But I do get tired of myself a little bit. You know, hearing myself saying the same things.
Given the freedom of your writing style, how different is it to play for an audience? It’s a conservative kind of medium, where if something works, you keep it in. James Taylor’s been telling some of the same stories for 30 years-as have I-because people laugh. They expect them almost. But you know, you can’t keep changing your set list :
Randy Newman will play the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) this Sunday, October 19, at 7 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for details and ticket information.