Randy Newman on his soundtrack work: "Those songs are essentially benign."
It's safe to say that no one else has had the kind of musical career that Randy Newman has. He began as a behind-the-scenes songwriter, penning hits for singers such as Jerry Butler and Irma Thomas. Despite unassuming looks, a froggy, drawling delivery and a penchant for featuring reprehensible characters in his songs, Newman found success in the '70s and '80s as a singer-songwriter. But in the past twenty years, his work as a soundtrack composer has brought him a different kind of exposure, acclaim and audience, as endeavors such as the Toy Story franchise introduced him to a broader, pint-sized audience.
But Newman's Hollywood success hasn't sidetracked his own songwriting, which retains the satire, sarcasm and button-pushing misanthropy of his most well-known work. In 2003, he released The Randy Newman Songbook Vol. 1, which featured modern recordings of old and new favorites (Vol. 2 came in 2011). And 2008's Harps and Angels was a welcome return to form.
In the midst of a trio of Colorado shows -- Wednesday in Lone Tree, Thursday in Beaver Creek and Saturday in Aspen -- we're revisiting a conversation that Christian Schaeffer, of Westword sister paper the Riverfront Times, had with Newman on the eve of Vol. 2's release.
Westword: You're obviously the first call for these Pixar films and a lot of the Disney ones. Are they giving you a lot of freedom, or is there much back-and-forth as you're writing these songs?
Randy Newman: There's pretty good back-and-forth. I take as much information as I can from them -- non-musical sorts of terms. Any adjectives that describe it: happy, sad -- very basic stuff. What they are trying to get across is pretty clear, but they'll put it down. For "You've Got a Friend" [from Toy Story], they said they wanted to emphasize the special kind of relationship, the friendship they have. So I just said, "You've got a friend, you've got a friend, you've got a friend in me" three times. And it happens like that.
The most important thing, I think, to Pixar and to the music people I deal with at Disney, is that they feel something. It's most important to them when they put the picture together. The jokes, all that stuff -- they worry less about that than they do if there's some kind of feeling behind things. If there's heart in it, is what they say.
I can't think of another songwriter that has such a sharp divide between what you write for yourself and what you write for other people, what you write for movies.
That's probably true. No one ever tells me what to do when I write for myself. On very rare occasions, yeah, but no one's ever told me anything. But in a movie, you have the assignment. You can't write "Rednecks" for a Disney movie. You wouldn't want to. I'm grateful for the opportunity to get yanked into what passes as the middle of the road for me. Those songs are essentially benign. There's some range to them -- The Princess and the Frog, James and the Giant Peach, stuff for Meet the Parents. It's what I feel most confident about that I can do -- a song assignment.
It certainly hasn't softened your edge with your own stuff.
No, whoever I am, that's crystallized, and there it is.
Are there songs at this point that you've set aside and that you never revisit?
It's always a question whether to do "Rednecks" or not nowadays. Without some explanation, it's hard to drop it on people. You can't just assume that they all know who I am. People sound like they're surprised at "Political Science," which I always do. Kind of an indication that maybe they haven't seen me before or haven't heard me much.