Michael Hann

His dark materials | 3 August 2017

The absurdist singer-songwriter talks to Michael Hann about taking religion seriously, the limitations of rock’n’roll and Trump

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.

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