Off the Cuff: Randy Newman, Award-Winning Songwriter

Randy Newman, musician and Oberlin parent, performed last Friday for a crowd of students and community members. He sat down with the Review to discuss his creative process and controversial lyrical subject matter.

Rosemary Boeglin, Editor in Chief

Tell me a little bit about your relationship to Oberlin? I know your daughter is a student here.

That’s essentially my relationship. I’ve worked with musicians who went here, my orchestrator now went to Oberlin, Jonathan Sacks, OC ’73 and he loved it. He’s a great orchestrator, I’ve learned a lot from him. And my daughter goes here, studying Environmental Studies.

You have a very musical family. Can you speak a little to your musical lineage and how it’s influenced your work?

[I have] three uncles and four cousins [who] are musicians. It must be some sort of genetic thing. … My uncle Alfred [Newman], who won nine Academy Awards, was the leading film scorer of his time, maybe of all time, in my opinion. I’d go on the stage when I was 5, 6 years old, and I’d see that, and it was impressive. And I had that sound in my ear of that orchestra, which was the great studio orchestra at that time. And I think it impressed me. And to my father [Irving Newman] he was sort of a god. My father was a doctor, but I think he thought — his brothers sort of raised him — and he really thought it was the greatest art form of the century. And probably I caught a little of that, too. So that’s what I thought I’d be when I grew up when I was 5, 6, 7. It looked possible because someone was doing it, but it looked impossible in that it looked so difficult, and it was. So that’s what I thought I’d do, so I was tremendously influenced. And his music has been a big influence on me, too. I knew his music like the kids here know … Jessica…  whoever they know very well nowadays.

As a young musician, did you envision the career that you have today, which is predicated largely on humorous songs?

Well, I don’t know if it’s necessarily predicated on that, but I like to make people laugh. And, to tell you the truth, most I like that. So it’s not far off. The songs people like best of mine aren’t the humorous ones, they’re songs like “Feels like Home” and “I Think It’s Gonna Rain Today.”  But I don’t like them best necessarily; I like songs like “The World Isn’t Fair” or “Davy the Fat Boy,” which I wrote a long time ago.  … I mean, I like the other songs, I don’t think people are stupid for liking them, but it interests me more when there’s a character in there like my song “Shame” or “Harps and Angels.” You know, more slightly deviant behavior, or, a little off.

You often write songs in, or as, a character.

When you write it, the vocabulary has to be within what the person would say. Often I’ll start, you get the syntax, the mood of what he knows, what he would say, and then you get it right, and then the song writes — it doesn’t write itself — [but] you have some parameters within which to write it. When you write there are words that clank and don’t fit. You ever write any fiction?

Very little, but yes, I know what you’re saying.

So you gotta get [the character]. People speak differently, it’s not the author — except in bad books — it’s not the author speaking through them.

It’s a funny route that I took, and I can’t think of many people in pop music who do that. It may have been shyness, or it may have been an artistic choice. I just got tired of “I love you, you don’t love me,” and “Why don’t you love me again? What’d I do?” I just was writing one day, and I… … and I just sort of couldn’t take it… … From then on I sort of wrote differently. That interested me more.

You write orchestral music in which you have more control over the piece, but you also have rock albums in which you work with a producer. Which do you prefer? Is it difficult or a relief to relinquish some control?

I’ve got the control in the studio, too. They don’t say, “Do this.”  I have less control in a way doing the pictures. But I have control over what I choose to write, whether it’s gonna be an oboe or a clarinet, but more and more directors are dictating what you can do because they got the technical means to put music in with an editor — they say I like this I like that — and they fall in love with it when they work on their picture. It’s getting to be difficult to do the right thing, in my opinion, cause they want what they want, and it’s often the wrong thing.

So you prefer scoring films or working on your own albums in which you’re, perhaps, able to be more creatively genuine?

There’s nothing I like better than the four days with an orchestra working on a picture. What I don’t like as much is going behind the glass and talking to the people telling me what to do. Even so, I love the orchestra so much that there’s enough good moments out there to make it truly worthwhile. When I’ve written a song that’s a big thing to me, that I think is good. It’s those two things. I don’t like the studio when I’m recording necessarily. As much as I’ve done it, I’m still not comfortable in there.

Is there any particular subject matter that you desire to tackle in your work that you haven’t yet? Or is that not really how you go about the creative process?

I have some ideas now, some of them I haven’t… tackled. I tried a while back to write a song about a woman whose family is gone, her husband’s died, and the kids have gone away, empty nest and what it’s like to be her — having to play the part of a woman. And it’s not bad. The idea is good, I just didn’t finish it.

I have an idea about writing a song called “When the Fire Goes Out” when you’re not in love with someone anymore, and it just doesn’t feel the same. Touching them, holding their hand, it’s just like skin. It’s like you feel it’s kind of bumpy or lump — just skin, and before, it’s just nothing, you don’t notice that it’s fantastic, until the fire goes out. And there’s plenty to say about that, I don’t think it’d be hard. It’s always a little hard.

A lot of your songs are controversial. How have you dealt with criticism? What is your relationship now with short people and other people you might’ve offended along the way?

Well, I go to the doctor’s office and some nurse will be glaring at me… It’s fine, [the song “Short People”] surprised me that there was such — of course, I was surprised that it was a hit — but, I was surprised that there was that kind of sensitivity. And maybe I shouldn’t have been, but I didn’t know. I really didn’t know. I never cared how tall anyone was. What difference does it make? But maybe it did. And I can see if you’re in junior high and people say, “Oh, they’re playing your song!” it would hurt. But I didn’t think of it. For the most part, I worry about some of the language that I use, saying some words. … But you don’t want political correctness to make you stupid. You don’t want to not recognize that he’s being a bad guy. It’s a dramatic device.