Randy Newman
Setting a Standard for Pop Songwriting

Story and photos by David Gans
MIX Magazine, May 1983


Everybody's got his own definition of paradise, and every paradise has its troubles. Randy Newman's new album, Trouble in Paradise, takes this notion and examines it from an assortment of perspectives. In "Mikey's,"along-time regular at a neighborhood watering hole grumbles to the bartender as the modern world crashes in around him, ethnic music and all; in "Take Me Back," a spoiled and myopic suburban fuckup whines about his problems in often-unrhymed verses -- form and content illustrating that he's never seen anything through to completion including his adolescence; in "My Life Is Good," a wealthy and arrogant LA father browbeats a private-school teacher who dares to darken his day by telling him his son is a bully; in "I Love LA," paradise is nothing more than a sunny day, a convertible, a radio that plays the Beach Boys, a "big nasty redhead," and a nice wide street.

Newman's songs are as fully developed as short stories, set to music that combines state-of-the-art sounds and rhythms with some sophisticated American harmonic and melodic flavors -- an entire century's worth of musical influences -- and sung in a somewhat crimped nasal rasp that's surprisingly powerful and expressive considering that Newman sounds as though he's got a terminal cold most of the time.

Lenny Waronker, Newman's producer and also his best friend since childhood (and since last October, the president of his label, Warner Bros.), explains that Newman's importance to the music industry transcends commercial viability. "He may say that he wants commercial success -- and he does -- but what's more important to Randy is that the music is good.

"He's had healthy sales growth so it's not just Warners being good guys," Waronker adds. But sales figures aside, "Randy's standards as a songwriter are so high that it's important that he make records."

The roster of artists on Trouble in Paradise includes, in addition to top-flight studio players including synthesist Michael Boddicker and three members of Toto, such superstars as Paul Simon (in a duet with Newman on the current single, "The Blues"), Don Henley, Linda Ronstadt, Bob Seger, Rickie Lee Jones, Lindsey Buckingham, Christine McVie, and others. "People who are really curious about what's going on in this business want to be around Randy," says Waronker. "They want to know what he's up to, and they want to be part of it."

"Conditions are too tough out there to be hip any more," says Newman in a typically flippant explanation of his decision to help promote Trouble in Paradise by touring, doing interviews and starring in a hilariously graphic video of "I Love LA." We met in the Beverly Hills office of his manager a few days before Newman left for the European leg of his solo tour.

Photo ©2000 by David Gans

 

Mix: Is it safe to assume that in your writing you're not overly concerned with what's going to sell?

Newman: It would be nice to make money, but I can't change what I do. I've got to do what the songs call for when I write them, and that's not affected by what sells -- at least consciously. Maybe there are commercial considerations weighing on me -- maybe I want to write standards or ballads like the '40s. Maybe that's deep inside me; I don't know.

 

Mix: The songs on your earlier albums were eminently coverable, for the most part --

Newman: Not any more -- they're too weird.

 

Mix: Now your songs are more unique to you. When did you make that change?

Newman: I didn't consciously do it. The business changed -- people don't want to get into these bad-guy suits any more. Nobody could do "My Life Is Good." But I think somebody could do "I Love LA" or "Miami" . . .

To me, the best of my stuff is not what's going to get recorded the most. "Davy the Fat Boy," which I wrote a very long me ago, was one of the best songs I ever wrote, without a doubt. It hasn't earned four cents in its life -- unlike "I'll Be Home," which is of virtually no interest to me. It's made thousands and thousands of dollars all over the world from people doing it. But I never make any conscious decisions about writing -- I just go in there, and whatever comes out comes out.

 

Mix: Have you written songs for specific artists?

Newman: That was all I used to do -- never successfully, but it's how I used to get stuff written. I wrote "Lonely at the Top" for Frank Sinatra, but he didn't want to do it. Barbra Streisand didn't want to do it, either, because she thought people would think she meant it -- and she may have been right. But it would have really hipped Frank Sinatra up, you know?

I'd like to be able to do it -- to write something for, say, Foreigner. I've given myself [an assignment] occasionally, just to see if I could still do it. It'll ruin me if I can't write seriously within the form any more, and I didn't for a long time. But it's tough for me to like the music sometimes. I sort of wrote myself into a dead end [on Born Again] by taking nothing seriously.

 

Mix: Are all your songs finished before you go into the studio?

Newman: Yeah. They're always done.

"Real Emotional Girl" moved around on me a bit. I have "she comes real quick, it's like a hurricane" -but I didn't want to hear that over and over. I sanitized it ["she turns on easy, it's like a hurricane"] - it sounds better, more literate.

 

Mix: I don't think anybody would accuse you of gratuitous obscenity.

Newman: You never know. I have sort of a streak of vulgarity that I have to watch.

 

Mix: But generally speaking, it's appropriate.

Newman: [Laughs] I'll only do a nude scene if it's called for in the story. I'll only say "fuck" if I have to.

 

Mix: I read in an interview that you feel guilty about the fact that your music takes priority over the rest of your life.

Newman: The only time it takes priority is when I'm writing, and I'm not writing all the time. But if someone said, "You can continue to write well, but you can't see your kids any more" -- [he laughs self-consciously] it would be tough. I can't help it -- that's what I'm supposed to do, and it's really important for me to come out of [a writing session] still thinking I'm all right.

 

Mix: Are you in the pit that deeply every time?

Newman: Yeah. I'm getting a little better -- it wasn't as bad this last time. I managed to stay saner, more liveable. I was able to do other stuff, like going to dinner and things. I get a little remote when things aren't going so well; I don't feel so good.

 

Mix: Are those the times when you write 24 hours a day?

Newman: I never write 24 hours a day. I can't do that. I never get an idea when I'm not sitting down to work -- never. I'm so doctrinaire about it that I probably exclude them. I don't like thinking about it when I'm not working. I work from 9:00 in the morning until about 1:00, tops, and I try not to think about it the rest of the day. It doesn't do me any good.

I think that's why so many writers and composers are drunks: to turn it off. I don't keep a pad by my bed the way Paul Simon and Stevie Nicks do -- I work at the piano, and that's it.

 

Mix: So when you're having a hard time writing, you spend your four hours at the piano and you're in a funk the rest of the time?

Newman: Yes. Aptly put [laughs]. I'm not mean or anything -- I'm just not interested. I'm just waiting to go in again.

 

Photo ©2000 by David Gans

 

Mix: I understand you've written a musical.

Newman: I've finished one draft of it. I have to look at it again and see if I can stand it. I don't know when I'd do it, but I ought to take a shot at something like that. It would be exciting -- scary -- but I'd do it.

 

Mix: It's based on Faust, right?

Newman: Yeah, it is -- loosely. Well, not so loosely, really. That's what it is.

 

Mix: There have been several versions of that story --

Newman: Yeah. Marlowe did one, and so did Brian dePalma -- Phantom of the Paradise. Mine is from Goethe; luckily he's not alive to see what I did to it.

In the show The Bandwagon they made fun of attempting a musical version of Faust. It's sort of a theatrical joke to try doing it, so I may be letting myself in for trouble. But I like it -- it's got angels and heaven and all that stuff.

 

Mix: What's your fixation with angels?

Newman: I like them. I like movies that have heaven in them, angels with wings and God speaking in colloquial tongues. I can see a terrible movie, and if it has stuff in heaven . . . There was a Jack Benny movie, The Horn Blows at Midnight; it was really a bad picture but I still liked the heaven stuff. He played in the orchestra -- he was like 148th violinist [laughs]. Green Pastures was great; you never see it any more, because I guess it's offensive, but it was a great picture -- particularly the heaven parts. The stuff on earth isn't as good. I guess it never is [laughter].

We'll see whether I do [the Faust musical] or not. Someone may see it and say, "Go back to songwriting," and convince me.

 

Mix: Are you that easily intimidated?

Newman: Yeah. I don't accept anyone's opinion on what's funny, but if someone said, "This won't work structurally -- you can't do this on stage," I'd probably . . . But I enjoyed doing it so much that I'd do it again.

 

Mix: You seem to sell your skills short.

Newman: Not about what I know I can do. I know I'm a good songwriter. I take myself very seriously, but I don't have all the confidence you'd guess someone who is relatively successful would have. But a lot of other people don't, either -- it's endemic to the business. After I write a song that I consider completed I'm all right, but between songs I wonder about writing another song.

 

Mix: I think all creative people go through that.

Newman: Yeah, that's all it is. I just whine about it more.