A LIFE IN SONG
After six decades in the industry, Randy Newman still finds no shortage of inspiration — humorous or otherwise — for his music, writes, Iain Shedden
Randy Newman takes his humour seriously. “Sometimes I’ll write a song and the last joke is in the middle of it,” says the 73-year-old singer and composer. “That’s not right.” Certainly there’s an abundance of humour — much of it satirical — on his latest work, the album Dark Matter, his first studio release since 2008’s Harps and Angels, which is released next Friday.
“It’s a funny thing,” he says with no hint of irony, “how much comedy I do. I’ve been thinking about that. When I was young the family would sit and watch comedy on television. My father liked it and my mother liked it and I liked it too. There’s nobody, apart from ‘ Weird Al’ Yankovic, who has more comedy in their stuff than I do. I don’t know if the medium is good for it, but I like it, so I do it.”
It’s hard not to smile at the lyrical thrust of Putin, for example, a song from Dark Matter he released just before the US presidential election last year, which, with Newman’s tongue firmly in cheek, extols the virtues of the Russian leader, shirtless and otherwise.
“He can drive his giant tractor / across the Trans-Siberian plain / he can power a nuclear reactor / with the left side of his brain / and when he takes his shirt off / he drives the ladies crazy / when he takes his shirt off / makes me wanna be a lady.”
On the song Sonny Boy, bluesman Sonny Boy Williamson bemoans, from heaven, his place being taken at a concert by an impersonator. Then there’s the nine-minute opening track, The Great Debate, in which Newman’s songwriting and film composer chops go head to head in a genre-hopping epic based around the perennial argument of science versus religion, with an assortment of characters voicing numerous points of view.
“That was really hard to do,” he says. “I wondered whether it was possible, whether it would be clear enough for it to be interesting to people and whether it would be interesting enough to justify its length.”
Newman, who across his six decades as a professional tunesmith has written music for film, television and musical theatre as well as pop music for himself and others, has earned the right to indulge himself. Humour is one aspect of what he does, yet to suggest that his schtick is merely to raise a laugh would do him a great disservice. Much of his craft as a songwriter has been in the guise of cultural observer, digging around in the underbelly of America’s political and social malaise and melding his thoughts, in rhyme, to exquisite melodies. He’s a romantic, too, as ballads such as She Chose Me and Wandering Boy from Dark Matter demonstrate.
The Los Angeles-based musician has been crafting hit songs since he was 17. One of his best-known ones, I Think It’s Going to Rain Today, which appeared on his 1968 self-titled debut album, has been recorded by at least 50
Randy Newman has won three Emmys and six Grammys