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Randy Newman Finds a New Audience, Again

The legendary songwriter and score composer talks about his new collaboration with Chance the Rapper, his involvement in the ‘Toy Story’ franchise, and advanced baseball stats

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Randy Newman has been writing songs since the early 1960s, but he’s still playing to young audiences: His 1983 song “Same Girl” was used on Euphoria earlier this month, and he’s featured on “5 Year Plan,” a new track from Chance the Rapper’s about-to-be no. 1 album, The Big Day. He also composed the score for Toy Story 4, the top-grossing non-Marvel movie of 2019 thus far.

After releasing several critically acclaimed albums as a singer-songwriter in the ’60s and ’70s, Newman began working on film scores roughly a third of the way into his almost 60-year career and received his first Academy Award nomination for Ragtime in 1982. Now 75, he’s been nominated for 20 Oscars and 16 Grammys (winning two and seven, respectively) and inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Newman, who was forced to cancel a European tour last year because of a severe knee condition, had knee-replacement surgery last month and says he’s back to “capering about.” We convinced him to sit still long enough to talk about his accomplished career, working with Chance, the Toy Story series, parodying politicians, podcasts, and baseball.


Can songwriting skill wear down over time the way knee cartilage can? And if so, is there any way to replenish that?

That’s a good question. It would seem that in pop music, post-1954, people tend to do their best work before they’re 35 or so, or maybe even younger than that. You can point to a lot of cases where that’s the case, and not many people like Paul Simon or Neil Young, who keep doing good work even in old age. [Laughs.] Relative old age.

Songwriters’ 30s and 40s and stuff, they get hot streaks. Sometimes they last, like Irving Berlin, for 50 years. But writing for other people, I think people maybe last longer, the way Bacharach did.

You could put yourself in that category, too.

Hope so. I watch carefully for signs of decay. I notice when—I always wondered about Ray Charles going into country ballads so exclusively for many years. He loved them, of course, but it’s certainly easier than what he did. He rocked so well, I wondered why he stopped.

And Stevie Wonder, too, one of the most talented people music’s ever produced, he sort of went into ballad-land there. And God knows he can rock like nobody. So, you get older. I think I’m writing more slow stuff myself.

Has getting older helped or hurt your ability to put yourself in the place of other people and write songs from their perspective?

I don’t know why I drifted into that third-person stuff. I’ve thought about it. Maybe it’s shyness. It just interested me more than the heroic or the romantic heroic, to write about and personify people who were a little worse than the audience, who were a little off in some way. Different people, not myself. They’re not all of them bad, but a lot of it is that way. And I don’t think I’m writing any worse now or any differently, particularly in terms of viewpoint and lyrics, than I did then.

Have you gotten more comfortable writing about yourself, as you did on Land of Dreams?

Yeah, but I haven’t done much of it since Land of Dreams, that I can recall. But I just wanted to see if I could do it at all. It’s an odd thing that I do. It isn’t like a bunch of people followed me out of the foxhole. I don’t know. It may not be right for the medium, even, but I can’t help what I do.

And when songs sometimes get misinterpreted, does that bother you? Or do you just think, “That’s on the audience for not following what I was saying?”

Sometimes I think, “Well, maybe I didn’t do it as clearly as I might have.” But no, it doesn’t much bother me. It certainly happens, and sometimes I’ll just let it go. I’ve got a song called “Real Emotional Girl,” and in my opinion, the narrator of the song is sort of a bad guy. ‘She’s a real emotional girl … she even cries in her sleep.’ The guy is saying things or telling things that he shouldn’t tell about a person who’s sensitive like that. But people do it as a straight ballad. Bobby Darin did “Sail Away” as a happy song. Changed “wog” to “one.” There’s nothing you can do.

Maybe one way to stay young is to work with younger artists. I was pleasantly surprised to hear you on the new Chance the Rapper record.

Yeah, I’ll bet. That is a surprise.

How did that come about?

He called and wanted to work with me, so I went down to the studio for two days and we sang back and forth and it was really fun. And it’s interesting, the way he makes records and writes stuff. It’s so much improvisation, it would appear. And they’re really good records. So I like him. I liked him ahead of time, but I was happy to do it.

Do you know how he became familiar with your work?

He said he’s been a fan of mine since he was like 13 or something. His father played him stuff. I’m not sure about that. But he said he was a fan, which is surprising and gratifying, very nice.

When did you record that?

It was a couple months ago, maybe. Maybe a little less than that.

Do you listen to a lot of rap in general? You wrote a rap song on Land of Dreams, “Masterman and Baby J.”

Yeah.

I don’t know whether that was an ode to rap or a parody of rap or whether it reflected your feelings about rap at the time.

Well, all the bragging surprised me. The surprise has sort of worn off. So that’s what I wrote about. And I wrote about something real. If you live in the neighborhood of the Coliseum and stuff, you see it. I could imagine kids playing around on Santa Barbara [Avenue], what is now Martin Luther King, and imagining them playing in the big place. So that’s what I did.

Did you write the lyrics to “5 Year Plan”?

Yeah, lyrics and music. I sound like Father Time coming in there, “Da da da,” whatever I’m doing. He’s all bright and bouncy, and I’m like a pall.

Did you come into the studio with those lines, or were you just bouncing off him?

No, nothing. I heard the song and just sang away. I’m not sure. I think maybe that’s how some of his stuff happens, and it’s fine with me. I certainly have written most of my songs by just having something on the piano, some kind of lick of some kind, and then singing over it, nonsense words and then eventually something.

And had you heard the finished product?

No, I never heard it until it came out. He made a good record of it.

At the end of the song, you say, ‘You can get over anything, almost. I’m telling you the truth. The one thing left to say is—’ and then it cuts off. What’s the one thing left to say? Did you say something?

I couldn’t think of anything when I said that! [Laughs.] I may have said something, but I don’t know what it was. I was running out.

I guess that’s one way out, if you write yourself into a corner: Just end the song.

And it’s straight. I’m saying straight ahead, it’s another person’s record. I’m not going to be like a character of some kind. But anyone who tells you, “Believe me, I’m telling you the truth” two times, you really can’t trust. [Laughs.]

Were you thinking of anything in particular when you sang, “Somebody hurt you really bad and you don’t know what to do”?

Yeah, I was. I remember a bad breakup and thinking that a billion people may have gone through this. And you wonder, they made it, how did they make it? The sky’s gray all the time, you think, and everything’s uphill. That’s what I was thinking of.

Nonesuch Records

Before The Big Day, your most recent release was the soundtrack to Toy Story 4. I know you’ve said that film composing is about trying to serve the picture, which almost puts you in a subordinate role. But you’re such a central figure in this franchise. Director Josh Cooley said your music is the voice of Toy Story—that it’s important as any of the main characters. Do you feel any greater ownership over this franchise than you do in most of your film work?

No, but I like him even better than I did. That’s nice of him to say that. No, I always treat them the same. It’s just that they’ve been so successful and I’ve done them all and it sounds like me, the music in there. I can’t help that. I just try and do what the picture dictates, just like always.

Cooley said there were three people he wanted to make sure were on board with the story: Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, and you. He said they went to your house to pitch it to you. Do you remember how they described it?

They told me the story. I’m trying to think whether anything changed or not. They told me the story and that there was a great deal of—they sort of think at Pixar, I think, that I’m a specialist in emotion, which actually is what music does, is the best thing it can do. So those scenes at the end, I think they wanted me particularly for those, when Woody makes a decision and people don’t know what’s going on and hugging each other and all that. Because I’m so full of warmth as a person, you know? [Laughs.]

That’s what I was going to ask! Are you pleased that something like “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” will be one of your best-remembered songs, given that it’s somewhat different from a lot of the work on your records?

Yeah, I’m grateful that this stuff drags me into the midstream, sort of, or close to it, because otherwise I’d never get there. When I’m writing for somebody I can do it, but for myself I just don’t seem to do it. I like what I write for myself best, in a way, but I’m really glad that people like “You’ve Got a Friend” to the extent that they do.

If that song were on one of your records, it would be about someone who’s really stabbing you in the back at the same time that he’s telling you he’s your friend.

Yeah, or a used-car salesman. [Laughs.]

Did that song come easily to you?

Yeah, it came easily. I always find out what they want. And they said, “Emphasize the friendship, the special friendship, between Woody and Andy.” And they mentioned that a bunch of times. And then I always ask for adjectives, like fast, slow, friendly. Just like that, non-musical ones, you know? And so I just said, “You’ve got a friend, you’ve got a friend, you’ve got a friend in me” and just shuffled along. And so it wasn’t very difficult.

When I have an assignment and people tell me what they want, “Do this,” or I can see what they want, I can do it pretty quickly. A song assignment. Writing for an orchestra is a little different.

But you feel like it still reflects a genuine emotion, even if you’re writing it on commission.

I’m almost proudest of what I’ve done to assignment. Almost proudest. You know, “When She Loved Me” from Toy Story 2, that song Jessie had. That was pretty good, and they animated to it.

So, I do feel that way, not mercenary so much as “This is what was needed. This worked and I’m glad.”

Do you do any kind of projection when someone comes to you with a film project? Do you try to figure out whether it will be a good film, whether it will matter in some way, whether you want to attach your name to it?

Whether it will matter in Europe. Because in the rest of the world, composers get paid by how well the picture does. There’s a royalty, a penny or something. I don’t know how much per million. But in this country there’s nothing like that. So, no, I don’t really think that. If I like the movie, I’ll do it, if I’ve got time. And if I don’t, usually I won’t.

Did you expect the Toy Story series to resonate the way that it has?

Oh, no, it was a surprise. And the second thing that I did, A Bug’s Life, that was almost more important to them than Toy Story, that it be somewhat successful, which it was. And it was good. And John Lasseter said something to me that I always remembered. He said, “Our characters are most often adults, and so their emotions are adult emotions and have to be taken seriously.” Not that you don’t take a child’s emotions seriously, but things come and go. So they’re real good. They’re the best pictures that I’ve done, probably. I’m happy to be part of them.

And because the series has played out over almost 25 years, you’ve got multiple generations watching them. People who saw Toy Story as kids are taking their kids to see Toy Story 4.

That’s right. They’re Andy’s age.

How do you decide whether to work on a record or to postpone one and take on film projects? I know you’re not someone who likes to just go into the studio and noodle around, and that making a record can be an arduous process. But you’ve also said that it’s the most important thing to you, and the way that you judge yourself.

I don’t know. The truth is, to be honest, since I started doing this for a publishing company when I was 15, I’ve always avoided writing when I could. I never developed good work habits until I did pictures, where you have to. There’s no choice. While you’re awake, you have to be working.

It’s usually an effort on someone’s part to get me to write songs for a record. I always hope I’ll get over it, and I’m better than I was, but I’m not quite over it. I don’t know why. I should be confident about my ability to do something. I’ve done it a lot of times. But I wouldn’t mind going into the studio and noodling about, as Chance does, as far as I can ascertain. It’s fun doing that. You just sing away, and you think of weird stuff, you put it in. I was never interested in producing much. I always had a producer. But I’d have fun doing that, I think. I might try it.

So when someone comes to you with a film project, you don’t think, “Oh, this will push back the sequel to Dark Matter?”

Yeah, what will the kids say that are waiting for the sequel? [Laughs.] No, there’s nothing now. They’d probably pay me not to put out a record, the record company. There’s nothing. I don’t know how much Dark Matter sold. Maybe it did a couple hundred thousand. Maybe? But nothing that’s going to pay for the utilities at Nonesuch.

But at this point, not that the financial side doesn’t matter, but hopefully you’ve had enough success in that area that you could do what you want to do.

I could. I love writing for orchestra. I really do. Those days with the orchestra are about the best days I have, when I’m recording. But it’s going to be songs that I’m going be remembered for, I think, along with maybe Toy Story also. But that’s what people think that I’ve been good at.

And has the film work made you a better songwriter on your own? Your songs often have an orchestral component, but are they two separate skills or does one enhance the other?

I think they’re separate skills, yeah. But doing the films has helped me harmonically because I’ll go places that I wouldn’t go ordinarily. Plenty of them, in a movie, that you wouldn’t necessarily go in a song. And some of that informs the songs I’ve written in the last 20 years or so—20, 30.

It’s unbelievable. I’ve made like three albums in 30 years or something. It’s just terrible.

Did you feel a pressure to sort of set off on your own and make a name for yourself as a songwriter before you carried on the family business of film composition?

Nope, no pressure. Until my dad would say, when I was 16, 17, 18—no, I was a little older—“When are you going to do a picture? When are you going to do a picture?” Because his brothers did that. His brothers were Alfred and Emil and Lionel Newman, and he thought it was the great art form of the 20th century. And they were good at it. So I think he was happy when I finally did something.

So what took so long for you to go that route and get around to Ragtime?

I hate that this [interview] is going to be informed by such fear, but I think I was sort of afraid to do anything, and I didn’t like anything I was offered until Ragtime.

The one compliment I got from a member of my family—other than my Uncle Al, who was very kind to me—I did The Natural and I gave my Uncle Lionel a record of it. A few days later I was working at Fox, running a thermofax machine. And so I went into his room at like five o’clock, when everybody quit writing and stuff. He was head of music at Fox. And Johnny Williams and he were in there. And he said, “Yeah, we’ve been listening to this album of yours. Pretty good. Good conducting, too.” And that was it. And that was big to me. I remembered it.

The Newmans are the most-nominated extended family in the history of the Academy Awards, so you’re adding to the family legacy. Is it important to you to be thought of as part of that lineage?

Yeah, sure. I like getting nominated because it’s from the musicians. It’s from musicians, composers. And presumably they know. So I always love getting nominated. I’ll tell you the truth. The nominations meant—well, no one’s going to believe that when I say it. But I would say that it sort of meant more than winning. Until I won, and then I realized that was pretty nice.

If “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” from Toy Story 4 gets you a 21st nomination, is that something that would still bring you pleasure?

Sure. It’s nice when people want to give you stuff. I got no complaint about that. I recognize it isn’t a sign of merit, necessarily. I’ve seen enough years of the Academy Awards to know that merit isn’t always rewarded. And so who knows? But I like getting recognized just fine.

You said you wrote a song about Donald Trump for Dark Matter, but you didn’t release it, in part because it felt too easy. Is this administration so self-parodic that you can’t parody them in the way that you could earlier historical figures?

No, they’re easy parody. I had a couple ideas for songs that you could do. One would be a “Dear Daddy” letter from Ivanka. “Dear Daddy,” and have her affection for him show. “Dear Daddy, I’m writing you this letter because I can’t say these things, blah blah. You’re such a great man, duh duh duh duh duh duh. I just wonder sometimes if you know what the truth is.” Some kind of question like that. She gets to it after a hell of a lot of slippery praise and stuff like that. But I didn’t do it. I’d just have her be a daughter, a dutiful daughter, who has some concern for his sanity.

Would it even be worth writing a direct address, the way you did with “Mr. President (Have Pity on the Working Man)”?

You mean an emotional appeal, like the IWW songs? That’s impossible. So many things that would have been shocking, people just say, “This is what he is.”

So does that make you less inclined to write about him?

No, nuh-uh. If I thought of something that I liked as well as the song I wrote called, “I’m Dreaming of a White President”—If I could write something that I liked that well, I’d do it. If I could think of something that would matter.

The last thing I want to ask you about is baseball. You listen to baseball podcasts. When did you start doing that?

A few years ago, I don’t know how many. But I loved baseball as a kid, and I loved statistics as a part of it. I’d read them even in the Almanac before they were anywhere else, I think. I always wondered why people didn’t value walks more. I could’ve been one of those—if I were better at math—one of those sabermetrics guys, like y’all are. But I played a little, till I was 13. And I like statistics and prospects.

My favorite player is Byron Buxton, so it’s been a rough few years. I was waiting for him to live up to what everyone said about him, and still am. And he sort of is. He’s getting all those doubles, unaccountably. Maybe it’s the stadium. He’s got a lot of doubles for the amount of at-bats he has. But what happened? What’s the matter with him? I know there’s all those injuries, but …

He’s such a good defensive player that I think he’s very valuable even as he is. But there’ve been times when it looked like he might be better than that.

Defensive stats are valued way more than they have been, than they were five years ago, even. Are they legit? It’s not range factors anymore, is it?

No, it’s more advanced versions of that. It’s based on people recording where the player was and where the ball was hit and dividing the field into various zones and saying that so and so caught this many balls in his zone and the average is this much, and so he’s better than that.

Yeah.

There’s more uncertainty around them than there is about offensive statistics. But they are more precise and more valued than they used to be.

And valued to the point where you could earn a couple of WAR if you’re a great shortstop.

Yes, definitely.

Wow. Well, that changes how I look at things.

You’ve written about baseball from time to time. In your song “Potholes,” you recount how you once walked 14 kids in a row.

Yeah. [Laughs] That I did. There’s autobiographical stuff, that one.

Is that representative of your athletic career?

No. I really could put the ball wherever I wanted. I couldn’t throw real hard, but I really could. I could go high, go low, go anywhere, and I had to. But this one day I, like I say, I threw a football around the day before and something was wrong with me. It just threw off something.

I like “Potholes” very much, but I haven’t felt compelled to write many baseball songs. Why, I don’t know.

Are you a Dodgers fan?

Yeah. I am a Dodgers fan. They’re an easy team to love with the guys they got. They appear to be good guys, likable guys. I’m really a Mike Trout fan, so I watch his at-bats before anything else. And I like the Angels. I like that hunk of lineup, Trout, [Shohei] Ohtani, and then [Justin] Upton. It’s great. And [Andrelton] Simmons, the best defensive shortstop, maybe. They’re good to watch.

What podcasts do you listen to?

I listen to Science Friday, sometimes Pod Save America, FiveThirtyEight, Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, Baseball Tonight, your show [Effectively Wild]. I’ve spent most of my life trying to entertain myself, I think. That’s a good subject for something, entertaining myself, with TV and books and stuff. It’s probably to block out guilt of not working.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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