Singer-songwriter Randy Newman

Oscar-, Emmy- and Grammy-winning composer-songwriter explains why he doesn’t like writing.

Songwriting icon Randy Newman is known for his satirical lyrics and diverse songbook. He's won an Academy Award, two Emmys, five Grammys and the Recording Academy's Governor's Award and composed numerous film scores, including his work on six Disney-Pixar films. This year, he received his 20th Oscar nod for Toy Story 3 (in the Best Original Song category). Born into a renowned musical family, Newman lived much of his early childhood in New Orleans and, by age 17, was a working songwriter. He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in '02.


Tavis: Pleased to welcome Randy Newman to this program. The legendary singer-songwriter is a 20 – I said it – 20-time Oscar nominee who’s once again up for Best Original Song this year for “We Belong Together” from “Toy Story 3.”
It was just announced that Randy Newman will also be performing the song during the Oscar telecast later this month. The film itself is nominated for Best Picture. Randy Newman, once again, congratulations and glad to have you on the program.
Randy Newman: Thank you very much. Great pleasure to be here. I’m a big fan.
Tavis: 20 times, man. How’s that feel?
Newman: It’s a lot.
Tavis: Yeah [laugh].
Newman: It’s a sign of deterioration perhaps for the movie music. But, no, it’s a great honor. Every time it’s no less than a real kick to have it happen.
Tavis: You mean that?
Newman: Yes, I do.
Tavis: Because I can only imagine – I mean, it is the Oscar.
Newman: It’s never nothing. Even if you think it’s not a big deal, you don’t take it seriously as a measurement of what’s good and what isn’t. It sucks you in. You know, people are so interested in it for a day and a half [laugh] that I get into it myself.
Tavis: Yeah. What’s it feel like, though, to be perennially nominated? It’s like every time you do a soundtrack, you get nominated for it.
Newman: Well, the pictures have been so successful. A lot of times, a really good picture will take you a long way and people get nominated for it and I’ve been maybe the beneficiary of it. Hopefully, I’m part of making the pictures good.
You know, “Toy Story 3,” they recognize it however they can. It probably won’t win Best Picture because – not that it isn’t the best picture, but they don’t do that yet.
Tavis: You think they will do that one day in this town, given that animation continues to grow?
Newman: Someday, you know, they’ll realize that sometimes it is the best picture, but I think it’ll be quite a while. I mean, there’s such – a comedy will have a tough time winning, I think, most of the time.
Tavis: To the best of your ability, can you put in layman’s terms for me, for the audience, what your process is? Obviously, you got this thing down. You can do it in your sleep with you getting all these nominations. But what’s the process for you when you are approached about doing a soundtrack?
Newman: For the score –
Tavis: – a score, rather, yeah.
Newman: We talk about it and we decide mutually with the director where the music is gonna be and then I just try and do it. As well as they can in nonmusical terms, they tell me basically what they want it to feel like.
With a song, they tell me specifically. You know, with “You Got a Friend,” they wanted to emphasize the friendship between Andy and Woody, so I wrote, “You got a friend, you got a friend” three times. Then it said something else, then back to “You got a friend.” It was clear.
I mean, if they point me in the right – there’s this character who’s supposed to be me and they’re in paradise for some reason and I’m there and I’m describing, “There’s a tree over there, here comes a boy.” He’s climbing the tree, all this literal stuff, and they leave paradise because I’m there on the show. That’s how most people know me, unbelievably enough.
But there’s some truth in it where movies are concerned. I mean, “We Belong Together,” this last song for “Toy Story 3,” they wanted to say that everyone stuck together, or maybe “belong,” I said, so it fit. You know what I mean? It doesn’t write itself, but if they give me enough adjectives, it almost does.
Tavis: To your point, there are a lot of folks who do know you from that television series you referenced a moment ago.
Newman: Yeah.
Tavis: But there are a lot of folk in this town – I’m curious as to that you’re okay with this – there are a whole lot of folk in this town who know you from a singular song that we hear all the time in this town. So it’s like half the town knows you from your Oscar nominations, depending on what circle they run in, those 20 nominations. The other half of this town knows you for that one song, “I Love L.A.” You okay with that?
Newman: Yeah, fine. Any kind of thing like that. You know, baseball fans sometimes know me from “The Natural.” The Texas Rangers play it with every homerun and they went a long way. There was $210 for me every time or whatever it amounted to, so I was kind of a Texas fan there [laugh]. No, any of that stuff is all right. I don’t mind it, but I find it odd.
Tavis: Odd in what way?
Newman: Well, I didn’t think I was that kind of writer where I’m so literal that I bore the crap out of people and they leave paradise because I’m there. I mean, it’s hardly an endorsement, you know. But even that, you know, all of it’s okay.
Tavis: Yeah. That’s flattery, though.
Newman: Yeah, it’s sort of flattery, yeah. I mean, I guess it is. And the thing is, it’s such a funny show. It’s one of the smartest shows that’s ever been on television.
Tavis: If all of a sudden, whether you win these things or not – if you get nominated 20 times, you ain’t gonna win 20 times – so whether you win these things or not, if you stop being nominated as perennially as you have been, would you feel some sort of way?
Tavis: No. I really wouldn’t. It much depends on what you’re doing. If I do more for Pixar, the likelihood that I might be nominated – I understand how it works. I saw my uncle Alfred who was nominated maybe 45 times, I think, and he won nine, which is a far better batting average than I have. I’m like one for 10 and he was like nine for 200. But it wouldn’t bother me.
You know, if I don’t work anymore, if I have to wait for the next animated picture to come around, that might bother me a little bit. Songwriting, for myself, is important to me, so I don’t mind doing that.
Tavis: To your Uncle Alfred, is this the family business?
Newman: Well, it looks like it. There were three uncles who did it; Emil who did the Sonja Henie pictures, Danny Kaye pictures; Lionel who did a bunch of musicals at Fox, “Dr. Dolittle” – Dr. Do Nothing, as he called it – and “Hello Dolly” and other ones that I’m forgetting that are better than those; and Alfred did, you know, “All About Eve,” “How Green Was My Valley,” “How The West Was Won,” “Gunfighter,” a bunch of them.
Tavis: So did you have any choice or this was your calling before you even knew it?
Newman: My father – they were his brothers and he loved them. It’s where his heart was, I think. I think he thought it was a great life, you know, being in that business. I think he wanted me to do that and I had some talent for it.
Tavis: When did you know, to your point now, that you were talented enough to do it and to do it well in this business?
Newman: I haven’t learned that yet [laugh].
Tavis: I knew you were gonna say that. I felt that coming, yeah [laugh].
Newman: You must talk to enough people. It’s the damnedest thing. A lot of people, they wouldn’t believe you that one tends to beat themselves up and say, “Oh, I can’t do this. What am I gonna do? What am I gonna do?” But everyone does. Johnny Williams, when he starts a picture, he doesn’t know what to do. I mean, he does, but he doesn’t think he knows what to do.
Tavis: That would be John Williams.
Newman: Yeah, John Williams.
Tavis: Johnny Williams to you; John Williams, the maestro, yeah.
Newman: Yeah. I don’t know. I guess I knew at 16 or 17 that I could write songs that people would listen to without walking out, without leaving paradise [laugh]. I mean, I was trying to be like Carole King. She would get all the follow-ups to hits.
You know, Bobby Vee and Gene McDaniels would have a hit and I would try and write something that I would think was right down the center of the street, middle of the road, there’s a hook, there’s everything. But they would just kind of shake their heads and say, “No, no, no, this isn’t quite human yet.” Then she would get them.
Tavis: I assume – I could be wrong, given how gifted you are – I assume, though, that even Randy Newman gets what we call writer’s block every now and again.
Newman: Or thinks that. I mean, I don’t like writing. I never have, particularly. You don’t want to tell writers that or I hope it hasn’t affected my kids in any way, but what the hell [laugh]. I’ve never, you know, exactly gone in there and looked forward to it except when I was really hot, when I thought, well, that was pretty good. I’ll quit and then I’ll go back to it.
Tavis: So what keeps pulling you back then? I mean, I know what you’re saying. I do a number of different things. I’ve written a bunch of books. But the thing that I just hate the most is – the hardest thing for me to do to write a book. I’ve done 15 or 16 of them, but it’s so hard to write.
Newman: Hard for everybody.
Tavis: I’d rather do this all day long, this TV, radio. I hate writing, so what keeps pulling you back into the booth or at the desk?
Newman: I just think that it’s probably what I do best all in all.
Tavis: Even though you don’t like doing it.
Newman: No, I don’t like doing it. Music is hard, as is writing, obviously, and you hope to get better at it. I mean, I still could get better about a lot of things. You can’t do that unless you show up, unless you work at it.
Tavis: So what part of it – let me ask the other side of it then – what part of the process do you really like? The part you look forward to?
Newman: I like performing and conducting the orchestra when you’re done. Sometimes it’s kind of a thrill. It’s not a thrill like you’re leading them and telling them what to do. It’s like you’re making music with these tremendous musicians. If I had a clarinet in my hand, I couldn’t be up there. But with a stick, I can go, you know, like that. That’s what I think I like best about it.
And when you do get an idea and you do run on and see to the end of something – sometimes right at the beginning, you know, you get an idea and you see to the end of it right when you get the first idea, and that’s great, and I’m waiting for that to happen again [laugh]. You got to go in there and try.
Tavis: I want to close where I began our conversation because – I didn’t realize this until your song in fact, “I Love L.A.,” helped me to kind of understand this. But whether it’s Frank Sinatra with “Chicago,” whether it’s Frank Sinatra again with “New York, New York,” it’s Randy Newman with “I Love L.A.,” the entire identity of a city. Cities just glam on to a song that becomes the identity for that city.
So for all that you’ve done, I mean, how do you process, how do you feel about the fact that this city in so many ways is brought together on a variety of occasions because of a song that you –
Newman: – I feel good about. You know, it’s not like it’s when I leave the county and go to Riverside County, it’s not there anymore [laugh]. It doesn’t travel well. But, I mean, as long as I’m around here, you know, south of Ventura, it’s pretty good.
Tavis: I like this guy. Randy Newman, now with 20 – that’s high cotton, as we say in my neighborhood – 20 Academy Award nominations, and we will see what happens on the big show this year.
Newman: Yeah, who knows?
Tavis: Who knows? Good to have you on, though, and congratulations, sir.
Newman: Very good to be here. Great pleasure.
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Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm