Randy Newman is one of the great songwriters of the 20th century, a storyteller and showman with a wicked sense of irony, a short story writer's eye for detail, and a taste for romantic string arrangements. While many know him because of his work with Pixar and various movie soundtracks, or via certain popular parodies, his solo compositions—often from the perspective of the most venal, delusional kinds of people—are the ones that his fans would place up there against the best of popular music, alongside the compositions of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits and Joni Mitchell.
In his music, he is a clear-eyed surveyor of the foibles of men and women, be they domestic or political; he's eager to grapple with the darkest of emotions (and the most loaded language) with levity and humor. His first album in nine years is the masterful Dark Matter, which touches on all his favorite tropes: there's the epic struggle between science and religion in "The Great Debate," the heartbreaking piano balladry of "Wandering Boy," the political propaganda of "Putin," and the absurdity of "Sonny Boy," a story that is too wild and weird to be true (except it is).
We got the chance to sit down with Newman at the gorgeous Steinway Hall showroom in midtown Manhattan on the eve of the album's release to talk about his unique approach to songwriting; the new tricks and perspectives he tried out on the album; his initial reaction to seeing Star Wars; and why Donald Trump is too grotesque for even him to write a song about.
So you've written a lot of songs about terrible, delusional, selfish people. Pretty bad, yeah.
How does Trump compare to those characters? He's worse, I think. Some aspect of him could be the guy in "My Life Is Good." The guy in the first song on this record, "The Great Debate," that would be a benign moment [for Trump]. The guy's cheating, but he's not that bad. The "Short People" guy, he's got his manias. But there was an article in some paper that said that Donald Trump was like a character in Randy Newman's songs. I don't know what paper it was in... but he is. I always think that regular people, the audience for instance, is better than the people in my songs that I'm laying out. But he's not.
He's somebody who can never lose an argument. Never, and has never admitted they're wrong. Boy, it's hard to live with that trait in people.
It's weird looking back at this, but I remember when Bush the second was running, a lot of people said in his defense, "Well, he's the kind of guy you want to get a beer with." And I can't imagine voters feeling the same way about Trump. No. I feel that same way, that I can't imagine liking him in that way. Do you think any of them would want him as a friend? A guy who cheats at golf and constantly you have to praise him—he's the greatest, he's the greatest? Imagine him being on a bowling team or having him over to play cards? It's gruesome. He's fine doing president stuff, they think. He's not, but his approval rating is down to, what, 33 percent?
Something like that. I mean, there aren't that many assholes in this country. There aren't 40 million assholes. There just aren't. They are not that bad. They've got weaknesses. All people do. Racism is a problem in this country that maybe you can't forgive in a person, but it's sort of like benign neglect. With a lot of people, they don't know they're racist. They just think somehow that there are a hundred thousand white men who could do the job of president better than Obama could. It's just this sickness we have, like the Civil War didn't end. It's not just the South, it's people everywhere.
It's pervasive. The "other" still works. I was reading this new book, a Hitler biography [Hitler: Ascent, 1889-1939], by Volker Ullrich. Boy it's good. But [Hitler's] opening speeches when he was playing clubs—he'd play the clubs, then bigger rooms, then outdoors—when he started, he was playing to 40, 50 people and they said in his speeches he would attack the Jews right off. He said, "I'm going to clean out the pig sty," and he kept saying that things were worse than they were. In 1923, it was hard to do, but whenever he got out of jail and stuff, he was still doing the same thing. And those tenets to attack the other, blame everything on them— immigrants in Trump's case—it's the same pattern. I just wonder if Bannon as a school boy theorized that it could be effective.
Do you see Trump as the answer to the plea by the character from "I'm Dreaming," the song you put out during Obama's second campaign? Even he might be wise to the ineptitude, but yes, that would be exactly the guy he was looking for. Someone who was just the whitest guy possible.
It seems as though much of Trump's impetus is rolling back Obama's legacy, and I don't understand why he has such an obsession with it. Because everything he does, it's like it's designed to really piss off liberals in New York City. Cutting the money for teenage sex education and Planned Parenthood and stuff, it's entirely reactive, I think. It's generated by his hate for the people who maybe didn't accept him. Or he just hates. I heard him say he hated documentaries. Well, that's because... there it is! They're, reportedly at least, the truth.
Certainly there's a lack of curiosity across the spectrum with him. Yeah, it really seems so. What he would do well is maybe be a television critic, I don't know. But you would think that he'd seen too much television to have put on that show with his cabinet praising him. That was the most unbelievable thing so far. That was really weird, those men and women jumping through hoops.
Thinking about what you're saying regarding the cyclical nature of these attacks on the "other," we have similar types of personalities that come up in recorded history that utilize this kind of parallel rhetoric. You mean like Mussolini?
Yes. And another major figure who comes to mind along these lines is Putin. You must have written the new song about him over a year ago? Two and a half. Further. It was around when those [shirtless] pictures of him came out. It was very odd to me why he would want that too—why he would want stardom, to be a superhero—but he did. He does. He's got everything else.
You released the song last October in the middle of the presidential campaign, and you said at the time in an interview that one of the reasons you put it out so early was because, "I think that people will lose interest after this surfeit of political talk and attention after the election." Can you believe, 10 months later, we are still talking about all this? Yeah, you know the saying—I don't know whether it was [John] Hobson who said it, but that was the name of his book anyway—"interesting times." It's a curse to live in interesting times.
And it is. It's too much. It's tremendously interesting and everything, but your mind does get taken away by the fact that, like just over the weekend, they cut $200 million dollars for Head Start-like things. And that's the big stuff. It's hard to know who to root for with the Attorney General thing, because he's probably good at his job. We want that? I don't think so? Not with what they want to do.
With songs like "Putin," how much of it is you tapping into those cyclical patterns of history? Is it a similar process with songs like "I'm Dreaming" or "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country"? Yeah, ["A Few Words"] that's back. I can play that now again, with even more conviction.
I think that my best self is represented by what I write. I'm less articulate here, even when I have room, even when I have the time to answer a question, than I am when I hammer away for hours and get something. I think that's the best I do in life. But I don't know. It's happened with a lot of things. It happened with money. I sound like Trump there. "I was right!" No, I wrote two songs about money. I mean, money's always been a big deal, but then in the '90s and stuff, people noticed that it was really big, heh.
You mean, "It's Money That I Love" and "It's Money That Matters"? Yeah.
I feel like there should be a third song. There needs to be a completion to the trilogy. There should be one more.
Maybe..."it's money I believe in." [Starts singing "Money (That's What I Want)"]
You've written a lot of different types of songs—you have satirical songs, music you write for film and children's movies, and the more autobiographical tunes that seem to pop up here and there, whether or not you intended them to. Yeah, that's true.
One of the things that I've always loved about your music is you seemed, from when your debut album was released onwards, to have an allergic reaction to the singer/songwriter trend that flourished in the '70s. That you were always more interested in storytelling and characters. And I still am. That's what interests me. I write myself out of them, at best, like a writer would. The fact that more people don't do that is a testament to the fact that people don't like it. I mean, not really. I think they want a direct expression and an open belief that when Elton John sings "Candle in the Wind," he's feeling it and it isn't just, "Let's write a song about Marilyn Monroe."
I had this music teacher once, and I said, "[Joseph] Haydn, I think maybe is the greatest composer ever." And he said, "I think he's the best professional composer ever." I don't know quite what that means. That he was writing to assignment? Because he lived with the Esterhazys for 40, 50 years and they'd say, "Write us a trio, write us a quartet," and he did? I don't know what it meant. I'm a professional songwriter, and if I have to write a song about a camel, an animated camel, I can do it should I choose to. And I've always been proud of that. My family were musicians, and I was brought up to believe it's a high calling from my father— who wasn't a musician, but he loved his prose. When they ask me what my occupation is, I put musician. I'm proud to be able to.
You're touching on this idea that people don't appreciate craft, or they dismiss craft as mere product. Well, you shouldn't notice it. You don't want people to notice that you're working hard, you've done what you did, at all. Even people within the business can be dismissive at times—like a band like Toto, who I used as much as I could because they were the best players at the time. They'll say, "Oh, that's studio stuff." All right. What do you mean? Sometimes those are the best guys, so I use them.
One of the things on your new album that's really fascinating is that there are several songs that have multiple voices, multiple narrators. That's something I don't feel like I've heard in a lot of your music previously. Yeah, I never did it before.
Was this an experiment where you said, "I want to try to do this," or did it just come out with these particular characters? Well, it came out in the first one ["The Great Debate"], where I reached the point where someone else had to speak. It was a necessity. So I did. Then I somehow felt the need to undercut myself by showing the trick. You know, the Randy Newman thing ["You see, the author of this little vignette, Mr. Newman, self-described atheist and communist, creates characters, like you, as objects of ridicule!"].
I would never do that, but I thought in that song, of course I'm going to be on that side. It was too easy and facile, though it worked for five minutes until we got to this guy, and I just felt it needed more bogus credibility, as if I'm really being true with you now. And it's bullshit straight on, but it's the truth that I'll take a character and he will say things that I don't mean and that I don't want you to believe either. Absolutely. It's like maybe I didn't want to work anymore and I thought this was a good suicide by saying that.
Why have there been so few great or memorable songs about atheism? It isn't there. Because it's sort of arid. I think a lot of atheists and agnostics would like to receive the spirit. So I said, "I'm going to believe for a second in an afterlife." I said, "Jesus. It's so relaxing. Who gives a shit about anything?" Because I believe I'm going to heaven. It would be great!
And of course, the best part of the song, musically-speaking, is the "I'll take Jesus every time" refrain. That's the part that brings you back up every time. Yeah. And that's what faith has. It's a tremendous hit, Christianity. You know the music—Beethoven and Wagner and Haydn, Stravinski—they've all written for it. And then gospel music is tremendous, irresistible when it's good. I don't know whether it has anything to do with faith, maybe it's informed by faith, you know, the feeling you can feel. I don't think so, but it's big and it's successful. Judaism was never going to make it. Judaism's too hard. There's no forgiveness. Confession is a tremendous invention. "I did this, and I did this, Hail Mary."
Also the entire concept of an afterlife, in and of itself. Something that Jews know nothing about. The greatest idea in history.
Does music fill the place in your life where faith might be? No. I think I have television and reading there, I'm afraid. That song of mine, "My Country," is really autobiographical. That's how I grew up. It was television every night, with everybody there, bouncing words off the screen. My father saying, "Oh, this is going to happen. That's going to happen." Even then, they were saying, "That's a horrible thing, this new thing that's happened." But it's a hell of a lot closer than everything since. At least we were in the same room. Then it drifted into watching the same show in different rooms, which is a good idea. Same show, different rooms or something. That's "My Country." These are my people, this is the world I understood. And that's what's there for me.
Music has always been work for me. Sometimes I'll love it, I'll hear something I love. But I don't go there for fun. And even when I go to sleep, I have voices. My wife isn't crazy about that because there's...what the hell is the name of the guy on Baseball Tonight...Buster Olney in bed. I'm thinking about the Red Sox, she's trying to go to sleep.
Do you get melodies in your head? Sometimes. More often when I'm working with pictures. But I often have music in my head that's of no consequence, it's just three, one, six, seven, one [hums melody]. It'll just be going on like that. I don't know what good it does, but it's in my head.
In terms of the actual writing of new songs, do you find that by the time you're ready to start composing, the song comes fully fleshed out or does it take awhile to work on it and piece the music together? It varies, but this time, I didn't get one concentrated rush through it. I'd have two minutes where I'd have a verse and maybe a bridge, but I didn't get those breaks like you get more when you're younger. Those ones where it just goes—you could see to the end of it right at the beginning. In some way, "Brothers" ran like that, oddly enough, it's so disjointed. But no, writing a song is a different thing from the arranging most of the time.
"Brothers" actually is my favorite song on the album. Oh, thank you.
I wouldn't use the word disjointed. I was going to say that... it's a journey.
You can't know what it's about [when it begins].
And it has a very Kennedy-esque conclusion. The Bay Of Pigs was actually all about a woman. [giggles] So small.
When I first heard it, I thought it could have come right off of Good Old Boys, in terms of the string arrangement and where your voice is sitting. And the conversation between Jack and Bobby Kennedy keeps me enraptured every time. I've made my girlfriend listen to the song with me on car trips, and I'm like, "Now Jack's talking, now Bobby's perking up..." You think that has to happen? I worry about those songs. Maybe it's too hard for the medium, but I kept them saying the name, they usually say the other's name when they switch over.
And Bobby is sort of a peppy young guy compared to Jack. I'm not up to acting the one line, I tried it a thousand times, the one about, "So no one will be at the beach, right?" Bobby says they're going to land at night. I see him doing it. They're going to land at night so no one will be at the beach. Taking the Mickey out of his brother—but like I said, I wasn't up to [acting it out], but I did my best to make it clear. All those voices, I don't know whether I'd do that again.
"Lost Without You," I think, is comprehensible too when the kids are talking about the father. That personally happened to me and my brother. I don't know why I felt compelled to do it, but it felt like it was a step in some direction. It was harder to do, and I think it worked out, but we'll see.
A few of these songs have been floating around in recent years—"It's A Jungle Out There" was the theme to Monk originally, "Wandering Boy" came out last year with your Songbook box set, and "Putin" was released nearly a year ago now. Yeah, but they were always intended to be on the record together.
I don't know whether I had "Wandering Boy" satisfactorily until a year ago or so. I know I didn't have "Putin" when I wrote it. And "Brothers," I didn't have anything. It may be sort of too little [material], certainly for nine years it's ludicrous.
I had other songs that I wrote, but they didn't want to happen. This writing process was sort of intense. It was like a picture, where you roll around on the floor with it. A lot of them didn't come easy. But they have the sound as if they came easy.
On that point about craftsmanship, there is a popular image of you, because of certain parodies, that you literally write about whatever you see in front of you. I don't know where that came from. That's not like me.
But I think, as reductive as it is, it speaks to what you're talking about—that you're so good at it, people don't realize how much work and effort went into the songs. I'm not one of those meadow fellows. That's why I like "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" a little less. It sounds like a sophomore wrote it—and I was! I was 20, 21 maybe. But that's not my style in the slightest. It's not. I'm interested in how people act. And I've been a good listener all my life, maybe less so in the last few years. As I get older I'm talking more.
That's not a bad thing, necessarily. Don't learn much.
Maybe you learn about yourself. Yeah. Maybe.
Whether or not that is something you specifically want, that would be, I suppose, something else. That's a good question. I've done it with "Lost Without You." My brother said, "I don't know how you could do it." He wasn't mad at me, but [that song] talks about when we went to see our father, who was taking care of our mother. He was a doctor, she was at home but he had his own problems with this medication. He was taking too much of it and he was falling around. He'd fall down and stuff.
And my brother and I went to see our mother, and he said, "I'm sorry that he's let you down like this, that he's not coming through." And she said, "He's been wonderful through all of this. Don't you dare say anything." And I'm telling you, never in 50 years had she expressed that kind of feeling about [my father]. Never. I never saw it. But she got mad at us, and so I put it in.
What was the origin behind "She Chose Me"? Was that a personal song like "I Miss You"? No. As per your theory, I wrote that for Cop Rock.
Oh, the TV show! Yes, that sort of ridiculous TV show. There was a guy who was a lawyer and he was not a good looking guy and his wife really was. The sentiment was expressed by the writer and it's a big idea, where you feel like you got lucky. There's never any songs about being sensitive about how you look. No one writes about that kind of insecurity. Maybe Springsteen did. There might be a song there.
That's interesting, because one of my absolute favorite songs of yours, "The World Isn't Fair," I think touches on this a bit. Yeah, that's it. That's right, it does.
It really is a radically concise summation of capitalism. One of my close friends and I, we sing this song to each other whenever we're feeling down and out. It's true. That's what it looked like. I went to the school and I'd see these mommies there with little cigar butt guys. You know about that when you're 15 years old. It just worked out in the song very well, I think. That's one of my favorites, too.
It's quite wonderful. I suppose Trump, in his own way, is somebody who has benefited for these similar reasons as well. More than most people. Absolutely. And I think he may know that he's not good at anything. He may know that he's not good at golf. He may know that he's not really the king of the deal. He may think, "Oh, help me. I'm a fake." Because he is a fake. He's consumed with himself, but I feel, deep down, he certainly thinks people are out to get him. But he thinks he doesn't have much to offer.
Is he too grotesque to write a song about? I think so.
You've said in some recent interviews that you had a song or two with him in mind... Well, it was about Ivanka. With her writing a "Dear Daddy" letter.
"Dear Daddy, I'm blah, blah, blah. You're the greatest. Praise, praise, praise. The country loves you. Everyone loves you." And I would think about how you had to talk to him. What kind of words to use—you know, like those cabinet guys. That thing. Geez. That's operatic.
There you go—you can write an opera about a Trump cabinet meeting. I wouldn't have believed that could happen. In The Simpsons, maybe, for laughs.
Mr. Burns would love that. You'd think he'd be aware of that. You'd think he's seen too much television. That's one thing he's done.
I wanted to ask a couple quick questions before you have to go. Some might be silly. Are we ever going to get "The Girls In My Life (Part 2)"?[laughs] I thought of it. I have one that I was going to call that on this record. I can't remember what I did with it, but I had one. I'll see if I can find it somewhere.
You said you had some leftover songs from this album—are you planning another one already? Nine years is too long between records. I hope so. I mean I hope that I do, because I may not have that long. But it's probably what I should be doing.
I like the film music and working with the orchestra. In fact, I love it. But whatever I do in the songwriting, I feel, is sort of unique. It's not like there are a lot of people doing it. Film music, I mean, I think I'm good, but there's other people too. It's not a matter of quality of the songwriting. It's just a matter that it's different.
Are there any contemporary songwriters that you enjoy? Lately I haven't been listening enough to be able to say with any authority at all. I don't know Kendrick Lamar's stuff. But Kanye West at his best was the best stuff I've heard. It was the best orchestra stuff and all that stuff in the background. It's surprising to find talent in both areas, but I don't know that he isn't...I don't think you can work like that and also make your life a work of art. My life is really goddamn drab. It's no bold spirited adventure going out there, like I'm going to climb the mountain.
So you're not going off to Wyoming to record your next album in the middle of nowhere? Ooh, it's a good thought. I don't have that in me where music is concerned. It's just a B flat is a B flat. I'm a little too much so. I know that. Too strict. I hear myself saying things my father said that I hated, making an assessment. "What do you think of this, Randy?" "Too loud." My opinion of Dunkirk: too loud.
Isn't that [Christopher Nolan & Hans Zimmer's] thing? Pumping up the soundtrack a little too high in the mix... It wasn't just the music, it was the sound effects. But that was my review of Star Wars the first time I saw it. Someone asked me what I thought of it and I said I thought it was too loud. How stupid can you get for someone who's in the business? Anyway.
Have you ever listened to Joanna Newsom? She collaborated with Van Dyke Parks. Yeah, sure. I met her. She came to see me up north where she lives. She's really good, very good. I'll have to listen to it some more, but I've heard some of it. Now, she could do that Ivanka song.
Yeah, that's who you should write it for. She'll give it a very interesting harp arrangement. If she did it. I don't know whether things are going to last with this stuff.
Do you think there's any chance he won't make it through the four years? I always thought he'd quit because it's too hard. Howard Stern said early on, "He shouldn't take this job. He wants people to like him, love him." He's desperate to have people love him. The people who wrote him off, he hates them.
At this point, Randy asked me about my passions in life, and we ended up talking for a bit about my own music, which led to this final exchange...
Do you ever write it for anyone else, or is it...
I've always wanted to write for a female voice. I've always liked that idea. I've done imaginary things. I wrote a song for Prince once, just to get out of the rut I was in.
What song was that? He never did it. I finished it, though. It just wasn't any good, really. But it wouldn't have been. It wasn't usable by me, but it wouldn't have been out of the realm of possibility for him. It was pretty good, not as good as his best stuff, but it wasn't ridiculous. Try that. Try writing some for Joanna Newsom or someone who just ... See if you could write a Katy Perry song. I wouldn't mind trying to do that.
I do think those exercises are really good. Yeah, they're great.
You learn new things about what you can do or the sort of voices you can conjure up. Yeah, even harmonically, you'll go places they go. They may not be places you thought of, but there's real craft in those big monster things.