Randy Newman is already struggling to keep up with himself. His dazzling new album, Dark Matter, was written before the changes of the last year, and no matter how pointed and current some of it is, there’s something missing. ‘There was a newspaper article that said Donald Trump is like a character in a Randy Newman song,’ he says. ‘I didn’t think there were any real people like the guy in “Political Science” or “My Life Is Good”. But he’s close.’
He’s had a bash at something for the Potus. ‘I just had an idea for a Trump song,’ he says, sounding rather like Yogi Bear’s rather smarter brother. ‘But then I didn’t do anything about it. It’s a girl song, a Dear Daddy song, in the character of Ivanka Trump: “Dear Daddy, I’m writing you this letter ’cause there’s things I can’t say.” That might not be a big enough idea, but that would interest me, to do that for a girl singer.’ Since we met, I read that he’s had another idea: a song about the presidential penis. But it ‘felt too easy,’ he told Vulture magazine. ‘I just didn’t want to add to the problem of how ugly the conversation we’re all having is.’
Randy Newman has now spent 50 years perfecting his absurdist but unyielding storytelling, on songs owing more to vaudeville and the writers of the pre-rock pop repertory than to Elvis or the Beatles or the Stones. His stories were often somewhere between the pointed and the poisonous, as on ‘Rednecks’, from 1974 — which uses the N-word eight times — in which both north and south are excoriated.
‘There are certain songs that clearly are difficult, that make me uncomfortable to write and to do. But I had to do what I did in “Rednecks” to get it right, and in “Christmas in Cape Town”.’
Yes, but why did you have to do it?
‘I don’t mean I had to get some idea across; I just had to serve the song once it was out there. Once the guy was talking, I had to have him say’ — a faint pause — ‘what he might say, because that’s what I’m sensitive to.’
He says that once he starts a song he’ll finish it, ‘if it’s good enough. Sometimes, and maybe more so now, you have a word in there that blows things out. You don’t want to blow out the meaning for a half-mile on either side of the word. In “Rednecks” it just kept going. Whether I’d do that now, I don’t know.’
What matters, he says, is that when you write about sensitive subjects you need to do it well. He mentions a song called ‘Jesus in the Summertime’, which was not released until rarities were needed for a box set. ‘The bass player walked out on it. I didn’t care about that so much. It was that it was not good enough. It was about easy spirituality and it didn’t do a fairly good subject well enough. They made that movie, Mississippi Burning, and it was too big a subject to do as badly as they did.’
Dark Matter opens with ‘The Great Debate’, an eight-minute, multi-character, multi-genre piece of music theatre about creationism’s appeal to unreason, which is substantially less like Alice Cooper than that description makes it sound. ‘The idea of there being a debate about science versus faith is ludicrous. But they’re serious on the faith side, and while I don’t have any faith, I’ve always taken it seriously and I’ve always recognised it as a giant popular force. And it’s ultimately too powerful for reason.’
It’s one of two songs that casts music, or what music can inspire, in a poor light. In ‘Brothers’, the Kennedys drink whiskey in the White House, while Jack decides to launch the Bay of Pigs invasion, mainly to rescue the Cuban singer Celia Cruz. In ‘The Great Debate’, he invokes the power of gospel music as a weapon against liberals :‘Gospel music is a phenomenal thing, you can’t compete with it,’ he says.
He’s unsentimental about music — not least about the rock’n’roll he enjoyed in his teens. ‘It diminished the vocabulary of songwriting, and the harmonic vocabulary, of course. All the chords the arrangers knew, the band guys, the orchestra guys, all the chords they knew went out the window in a few months in ’54. That’s why they hated it so much.’
I mention the Beach Boys, and how I love them (‘yeah, they’re great’), but that Brian Wilson’s arrangements sound meek next to Nelson Riddle’s. ‘Absolutely. Those guys were really sophisticated. Gordon Jenkins, Billy May. The Beach Boys was baby stuff.’ The one pop writer he gives unqualified praise to is Carole King. He recalls going up into the hills above LA with his teenage friend Lenny Waronker — the son of a music executive, who grew up to be one himself — so they could listen to a hip Chicago radio station. ‘He’d say, “Oh, that’s a Carole King song.” And it was better, her stuff. I could hear it. And a lot of the reason it was better is that she knew the old song repertory.’
He’s clear-eyed about the whole recording industry, actually, without being cynical. Newman made what name he has — respected, admired, without ever reaching the terminal velocity of stardom — recording for Warner Bros in the 1970s, an age that is much mythologised as when the heads ran the labels and the art really mattered. Newman says he’s not sure he’d be allowed to keep making records nowadays with his sales, and if it wasn’t selling he’s not sure he’d be allowed to get away with some of his more troubling songs. (‘It’s a sad possibility that things are less liberal than they used to be — in the non-political sense — and that there’s been a going backwards.’) Those old execs loved music, though it’s ‘bullshit’ to pretend they were not equally happy with money sloshing around the industry back then.
Newman is 73 now, and he makes ‘Randy Newman’ albums rarely — Dark Matter is just his second of the century. But over the past 20 years or so, he’s gained a new audience of people who perhaps don’t know about the scabrous, sarcastic songwriter, and who think of him as being as cuddly as his voice suggests he should be. They’re the people who grew up with his scores for Disney/Pixar films, beginning with Toy Story in 1995, which gave the world the perennial ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, probably his best known song, ahead of ‘Mama Told Me Not To Come’ and ‘You Can Leave Your Hat On’.
He’s grateful that someone thought to ask him to do those soundtracks, where he gets to write songs that ‘go right down the middle’. Do the songs mean as much to him as the ones he writes for himself? ‘You know, they do,’ he’s says in a slightly quizzical tone, as if surprised. ‘The lyrics don’t interest me as much. But I find it satisfying to get out of my own head and do something for someone else. And also, it never felt like I was demeaning myself. Any time I get to write with an orchestra is a big thing for me, what with the family I’ve had and how much the orchestra means to me.’
Newman rarely listens to music for pleasure, maybe some Bartok, Beethoven. Perhaps Ray Charles. He prefers to watch TV. The composer of 11 albums and 24 film soundtracks doesn’t regret his musical choices so much as the role of music itself in his life, though it has defined that life. ‘I always wished that music were more part of my life, but it just isn’t there.’ He sighs, gently. ‘I like people talking.’
Dark Matter is out now on Warner/Nonesuch Records.