Culture

A Conversation with Randy Newman

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June 5, Randy Newman will take the stage at the Nelsonville Music Festival as this year’s headliner. Given that the man’s discography has earned him a whopping six Grammys, three Emmys and two Academy Awards (on top of inductions into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a PEN New England Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence award, among other accolades) it only makes sense that he’s the biggest name on this year’s bill.

A few weeks before his journey to Southeast Ohio, Newman spoke with WOUB’s Emily Votaw about his new album, science squaring off against fundamentalism in modern America, Donald Trump’s rise to potential Republican presidential candidacy, and, of course, Kanye West.

WOUB: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, I really appreciate it!

Randy Newman: It’s a pleasure.

WOUB: Thanks! I suppose I’ll just dive right in then, I’m calling specifically about the Nelsonville Music Festival — but what else do you have going on in 2016?

RN: I’m making a record right now, I have the songs written and the basic tracks down, I’m just arranging it. Then I’m doing music for Cars 3 and Toy Story 4. First the album and then those.

WOUB: Could you tell me a little about the new album?

RN: There’s a song about Putin… there’s a song based on an Irish song called “Where’s My Wandering Boy Tonight,” there’s a song that’s about the argument between science and fundamentalism in this country. I’m trying.

WOUB: That’s great. On a similar note, I’d love to hear your thoughts on Trump.

RN: I think he’ll be the Republican nominee. I’m surprised, you know, I’m surprised, but I guess today — with the Republican party the way that it is and with talk radio being so rabidly conservative, and with television — it figures that a reality star might have success politically. But I don’t think he’ll have success in the general election. I don’t have a clue what he’d do as President. None.

WOUB: Yeah, it doesn’t seem like he’s saying much, either.

RN: No, he hasn’t said anything but “the polls,” “the polls say this,” and that’s it.

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WOUB: Yeah, I guess I am jumping around a bit, but I did really want to ask you about working on the music for Toy Story 4. That’s just such a beloved franchise.

RN: Well I don’t know anything about it, I just know that I’m doing the music for it. And presumably the plot is a secret. I’ll be working with John Lasseter again, whom I worked with on Toy Story, Toy Story II, Bug’s Life and Cars. I’m looking forward to it. I did the other three Toy Story movies, and it is a beloved franchise, no doubt.

WOUB: I was wondering: as someone who has done so much film music and so much pop music — what is the approach that you take when you’re crafting music for a kid’s movie? It’s just something that you’ve done so prolifically throughout your career.

RN: I really have, and my songs are totally un-kid like, mostly, the stuff I write. But, they (the producers of the movies) said that they take the emotions of their characters seriously — their characters are almost always adults. They have adult emotions, very much so. And they take them very seriously. There’s a scene in Toy Story 2 where Jessie, the cowgirl, is telling about her life — and they wanted to do it through a song. So I did, and I asked them, ‘Are kids going to sit still; are five-year-olds going to sit still for two and half, three minutes of song?’ And they said, ‘If it’s good enough, they will.’ And I saw Toy Story 2 in the theater with five to eight-year-olds, and it wasn’t even the sound of the music so much as it was the fact that kids are really good at following plots in movies. Sometimes they only laugh in movies when somebody falls down, which makes you nervous when you first encounter it — but they’re very good at following stories, tremendously so. We may not be great at algebra in this country, but we’re great at that.

WOUB: (laughs) That’s true! Sort of on the same note, I’m 24 and I know that my generation as a whole has been portrayed — and perhaps rightfully so — as being largely oversensitive by the media. Since so much of your work is coming from a satirical place — do you find younger people ‘not getting it?’

RN: No, they’re better at it. Things like The Simpsons introduced irony into humor to a wide audience and to a wide variety of people, and that has really helped me. I think that your generation is better at ‘getting it.’ At understanding that words don’t always mean the same thing in all situations, in all contexts. And if I were to write a song like “Short People” now, people would know it was a joke, obviously — nobody is as crazy as the guy in that song, if you listen to it. It’s clear, I would have thought, no one’s this nuts, and if I were that nuts I wouldn’t broadcast it. But it surprised me a bit, the reaction to that song. Mainly because it became a hit, so it went places that my music hadn’t been before — uncharted territory. It reached people who didn’t know what I did, so it was misunderstood — slightly. Not a big deal, most people got it, really.

I think that your generation is better at ‘getting it.’ At understanding that words don’t always mean the same thing in all situations, in all contexts. And if I were to write a song like “Short People” now, people would know it was a joke, obviously — nobody is as crazy as the guy in that song, if you listen to it.

WOUB: Yeah, because I know there was a push to try and make it illegal to broadcast for a while.

RN: Yeah (laughs). It was taken off the air as soon as they could take it off. It was a top record and as fast as they got the complaints, they got rid of it. Because who needs that? They didn’t any controversy in that regard.

WOUB: Absolutely, I suppose so. Jumping around again, but, I was really curious as to what you’re listening to currently?

RN: I listen to everything Kanye West does, everything Beyoncé does, Paul Simon, let’s see — I always listen to The Eagles because I know them well and I like hearing them. Let’s see, what else is there… you know Peter Gabriel, when he does something I listen to it, Elvis Costello. There are people I listen to, people I miss. You hear Lady Gaga, people like that, you can’t avoid it — so I listen to the hits too. So I listen a lot, but not as much as I should.

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WOUB: I know that we don’t have a lot of time, but I would love to hear your take on Kanye West’s sort of over-the-top public persona. Some people take a lot of offense at that, or just think that he’s a real dummy. What’s your take on that?

RN: I can separate it from his work. I think that it gets in his way as a creator, slightly. But he knows enough to laugh at himself — he’s not being serious on a record like Yeezus. He’s not totally devoid of some self knowledge and the ability to laugh at his own bragging. If he loses that, then his lifestyle becomes a problem. But I can separate whatever he does from his work. I’ll tell you one thing though. I saw the movie about Amy Winehouse (Amy). And I had never taken her seriously because of the publicity around her, because of the talk. I never listened to her stuff particularly closely, and I didn’t realize how good she was and how different she was. Those truncated kind of lyrics, very short sentences that really worked. Like how Neil Young works. I was really just embarrassed that I hadn’t noticed how good she was. I wish I could have told her.

WOUB: Absolutely. I feel a little silly, I know that we’re almost out of time, but I was wondering if there is anything else that you would like to say about coming to the Nelsonville Music Festival? Or about coming to southeast Ohio?

RN: No, my daughter went to school at Oberlin, so I was in Ohio a lot. And you’re Southeast — so you’re near Cincinnati?

WOUB: Yeah, we’re maybe a few hours away from Cincinnati. Ohio University is the main big college in the area. But Oberlin isn’t too far.

RN: Oh yeah, Oberlin is outside of Cleveland, and you’re south of Kenyon and schools like that. Yeah, when my daughter went to Ohio, she said ‘People here are so polite,’ and I said ‘Really? Like it’s noticeable, everywhere?’ and she said ‘Yeah, even in the city, in Cleveland.’ And she never changed her view of that. She said that people would ask you how you’re doing and really listen for the answer. So, I like it there.

For more information on Randy Newman, visit www.randynewman.com.