Randy Newman: 'I do my best work for Disney'
Ahead of his Dublin shows, Randy Newman tells why at 71, he can't stop touring and why he writes better songs when he writes for the movies
Published 24/10/2015 | 02:30
Randy Newman is convinced we have met before and I am equally convinced we have not. But the Toy Story tunesmith, notoriously acerbic on record, is so sweet and genial I don't have it in me to contradict him. He's chatting as though we are old friends - it seems cannier to play along rather than stamp my foot and make it clear that, actually, we're strangers.
Newman is especially ebullient on the subject of Toy Story, which came out 20 years ago, when Newman was in his early fifties, and immediately and everlastingly changed the singer's life.
A respected Hollywood songwriter for hire, he was asked by up and coming animation studio Pixar to pen a spry meditation on comradeship inspired by the love/hate relationship between cowboy Woody and obnoxious space ranger Buzz Lightyear. Newman fairly knocked it out of the park.
"I don't think I would ever have written You've Got A Friend In Me for myself," he says. "I would have felt like a used-car salesmen. With an assignment for a picture, I can do it very easily. It's funny - I'm usually quite removed from the mainstream in my music. The only time I get close is when I have a commission. I think that might be my greatest talent. If you asked me to write a song about an Albanian boulder I could probably do that. I don't consider it hackwork. It's being professional."
He expected that Toy Story would be a medium-sized hit. It was a charming movie, imaginative and quirky. That it would utterly recalibrate children's entertainment and transform Pixar into a cinema colossus never crossed his mind. Two decades later, deep in the songwriting process for Toy Story 4 , he still seems faintly shocked at the way things have worked out. To become an icon thanks to a quirky cartoon was never in the script.
"It was a huge surprise Toy Story was such a success. I really liked it. Pixar have gone on to create some of the best pictures ever. I never thought things would get this big. Nowadays, my music is all over Disneyland - that is really weird. It's the most straight forward place in the world - and I'm not straight forward at all."
Newman has been writing for the screen since the 1970s, his music gracing projects as diverse as The Natural, Ragtime and Meet The Parents. He even won an Oscar for his work on Monsters Inc (beating Sting and Paul McCartney). In his youth, musicians were afforded a degree of reverence in the movie industry, he reports. Rest assured that is no longer the case.
"They'll tell you they're a big fan of everything you've done - then ask you to go and re-do that seven-minute chase scene you've scored. Often they're wrong - but, actually, they're not because it's their movie. The music guys aren't always right either - but they're going to be right more often than the director. There's much less respect for the experts."
Newman's life story would make a good movie in itself. He was born in Los Angeles in 1943 and spent much of his childhood in New Orleans. On his father's side, several uncles were noted film composers and Newman turned pro aged 17, having dropped out of high school.
His early breakthroughs were as a composer for hire. He penned hits for Gene Pitney, Petula Clark and Dusty Springfield while his ballad I've Been Wrong Before was a significant UK smash for Cilla Black. By the late 1960s, he was esteemed in LA music circles as a composer of rare lyrical insight and melodic talent. He's never had a hit outside the movies yet is one of the most highly regarded practitioners of confessional pop.
"The strange thing is, I think my writing has remained of a consistent quality as I've got older," he says. "Received wisdom tells you that people are at their best in this art form between the ages of 20 and 30. I think my lyrics have gotten a little better. Otherwise the quality has stayed the same. I don't know why that is exactly. The movie writing may be a factor. It kept me sharp because I find it so goddamn difficult."
Aged 71, he maintains a trojan touring schedule - his gigs at Vicar Street this month come in the middle of an exhausting European jaunt and follow an extensive performance schedule across the United States. Given all he has achieved - and the fortune he has surely earned from Toy Story - he could surely afford to put his feet up.
"I need to do it to make a living," he insists. "Also, I like it better than anything else I do. People are applauding. Nobody is applauding me at home. And it's easier than writing. You do it and people applaud and then, the next night, you're onto to another place. It's not hard - I have a muscle memory of how to do it.
"I really like my audience too. Some artists - they don't like their audiences. That's hard for me to understand. They are the people I liked the best - because they like me. The hostility some artists have towards their fanbase, I don't get it. It's a hell of a lot easier to be nice than to be nasty."
Face to face, Newman is a surprise. As noted already, he does not live up to the caricature of harrumphing truth-speaker. He is quietly spoken and thoughtful - not at all the spittle-dripping ranter.
"The characters in my songs tend to have some sort of defect. Usually they don't know themselves particularly well. I give the audience credit for being smart enough to see that these individuals are terribly wrapped up in themselves and that I'm not that person. The things they say are not necessarily things I myself believe or would advocate. It's a subtle distinction maybe. Audiences are smart. You don't have to talk down to them. They'll get it."
Randy Newman plays Vicar Street, Dublin October 27, 28